Cracking the Paradox

The “Orthodox Paradox” continues to provide fodder for bloggers and Jewish thinkers.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has written another insightful column on the issue, in response to the vociferous criticism he received for his first stab at defending Noah Feldman. The central problem, says Boteach, is that Jews must distinguish between “an immoral sin and an irreligious act”:

Does driving on Shabbat make you a bad person, or a nonobservant one? Does failure to attend synagogue make you into an irreligious Jew or a flawed human being?…

The greatness of the Lubavitcher Rebbe was his genius in distinguishing between religious and moral sin. Before the Rebbe those who ate non-kosher were treated as though they themselves were unkosher.

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The Orthodox vs. “Orthodox Paradox”

Noah Feldman’s “Orthodox Paradox” may be influencing people, but it’s not making him many friends.

In today’s issue of The (New York) Jewish Week, Editor and Publisher Gary Rosenblatt, probably the most respected Jewish journalist in America, picks apart Feldman’s essay with his typical mix of respectfulness and incisive logic. One of the things that I’ve found fascinating in Modern Orthodox readers’ response to his essay is how much “pain” they see in his essay, which to me, seems a fairly rational, dispassionate look into some problematic aspects of the Modern Orthodox approach to the world. A Modern Orthodox person I work with said it was full of “pain,” while Rosenblatt calls it “a long and bitter complaint.”

Rosenblatt goes on to call Feldman’s essay “intellectually dishonest” and calls Feldman “unfair” for “expecting to be lauded by a community whose values he has rejected.” It’s interesting that Rosenblatt reads into Feldman’s essay a desire to be lauded; at no point does Feldman ask to be lauded, nor does he gloat over his truly impressive personal achievements. All he appears to be asking for is acknowledgment of the existence of his marriage and children. Getting a one-sentence mention in an alumni newsletter is a far cry from expecting community plaudits.
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Pork Rinds vs. Life Partners

The “Orthodox Paradox,” Noah Feldman’s thoughtful discussion of his intermarriage and the Modern Orthodox community’s response to it, has clearly struck a nerve among Jewish bloggers, Orthodox and non-. Joey Kurtzman, the whip-smart senior editor of Jewcy, conducted a Q&A with Feldman, which, unsurprisingly, generated a flood of comments. (There’s a broad cultural stereotype that Orthodox Jews are Luddites, but judging from their activity on blogs and discussion boards, that couldn’t be further from the truth.)

Kurtzman’s Q&A only briefly touches on intermarriage and gets more into the whole debate over Orthodoxy vs. modernity. But there is a nice line from Feldman. Kurtzman asks:

You were surprised when Maimonides—the yeshiva from which you graduated—airbrushed out you and your (non-Jewish) wife from a photo published in the alumni newsletter. Your surprise struck many readers as rather strange, since the community makes no secret of its rejection of intermarriage. It’s a bit like you’d pulled out a bag of pork rinds, devoured them with relish throughout the evening, and then expressed bewilderment when someone asked you if you’d set them aside until later. What are your critics missing here?

To which Feldman replies:

What is troubling about the view you describe—which I never sensed from my classmates—is its implication that somehow modern Orthodox people should be protected from my living my life as I choose. As if choice of life partner were as trivial as a snack… People who are comfortable with their own life choices don’t get “offended” when others choose differently.

Feldman’s response reminds me of something Rabbi Steven Greenberg, the only openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the world, once said in a speech I saw. Orthodox Jews often liken homosexuality to eating a cheeseburger–it’s obviously prohibited by the Torah, so how could gays expect Orthodox Jewry to accept them? But, said Greenberg, nobody ever cried when their cheeseburger left them–or moved across the country to be with their cheeseburger.

Obituary for Sherwin Wine

JTA published a story today on the death of Sherwin Wine, the founder of Humanistic Judaism.

In many ways, Wine injected an honesty into the practice of Judaism that had been missing prior to his arrival. While many Jews don’t believe in God (certainly more than believe in the Torah as the word of God), the vast majority of affiliated Jews worship at synagogue services infused with God-language. Wine, a Reform rabbi by training and an atheist by inclination, felt reciting such prayers was intellectually dishonest. So he founded an entire movement of Judaism, one that celebrates Jewish traditions but removes mention of a deity.

Despite its growing popularity in Israel, it has never caught on in the States, one of the few countries in the developed world where not practicing a religion is more of a social stigma than practicing one. The funny thing is, even the most Orthodox of the Orthodox will tell you that believing in God is incidental to being Jewish; either you’re born Jewish or convert under the proper auspices, or you’re not Jewish. It doesn’t matter what you believe in.
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Rabbi Sherwin Wine, 1928-2007

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We just found out that Rabbi Sherwin Wine, founder of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, died on Saturday in a car accident while on vacation in Morocco. Secular Humanistic Judaism has consistently been an extraordinarily friendly place for interfaith families to explore Judaism.

Our sincerest condolences to his family and loved ones.

Shalom in the Orthodox Home

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Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard and graduate of a modern Orthodox day school in Massachusetts, wrote a remarkable article for the New York Times magazine about his day school’s response to his marriage to a Korean-American woman. It’s all the more remarkable for the response it has elicited: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the best-known Orthodox rabbi in America via his TLC show “Shalom in the Home,” has written a column powerfully and truthfully titled, “Stop Ostracizing Those Who Marry Out.”

In Feldman’s article, titled “Orthodox Paradox,” he relates how he and his then-girlfriend took part in an alumni group photo at his day school’s 10-year reunion. But when the alumni newsletter came out, he and his girlfriend were nowhere to be found. He says:

So I called my oldest school friend, who appeared in the photo, and asked for her explanation. “You’re kidding, right?” she said. My fiancée was Korean-American. Her presence implied the prospect of something that from the standpoint of Orthodox Jewish law could not be recognized: marriage to someone who was not Jewish. That hint was reason enough to keep us out.

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The Rising Tide on Officiation

Not to toot our own horn, but we appear to have tapped into something with the hiring of Rabbi Lev Baesh as the director of our Rabbinic Circle and rabbinic officiation referral service. Julie Wiener of The Jewish Week has written her most recent “In the Mix” column on the growing interest in officiation at intermarriages. At last year’s convention of Reform rabbis, Rabbi Jerome Davidson, of Temple Beth El in Long Island, advocated for the Reform rabbis’ association to change its position on officiation; currently its official line says that intermarriage “should be discouraged,” but leaves the decision on officiating to the discretion of individual rabbis.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Erica Greenbaum, a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical seminary, recently completed her senior thesis on rabbinic officiation at intermarriage.

Rabbi Greenbaum, who is director of Jewish life at the Jewish Community Project Downtown in Lower Manhattan, says the research for her thesis was heartening overall.

“There continues to be a perception in some parts of the non-Reform community that any rabbi officiating at intermarriages is a shady character just doing it for the money,” she [says]. “That’s not a fair characterization. Certainly there are those people, but lots of rabbis on both sides are doing what they’re doing with a lot of integrity.”

Further, we’re aware of two studies in different stages that look at the impact of rabbinic officiation on Jewish involvement.

To all this, we say “Mazel tov!” We’ve long been of the opinion that the Jewish community is missing a golden opportunity to attract interfaith couples to Judaism through officiation at intermarriages. Nobody yet knows whether a rabbi’s involvement in an interfaith wedding makes it more likely for an interfaith couple to engage with Judaism, but it certainly can’t hurt. A rabbi’s involvement in an interfaith wedding gives a couple a personal, emotional connection to the Jewish community that they might otherwise not have. We have received numerous thank you notes from couples who we’ve helped find a Jewish officiant.

In the coming months, I suspect we will hear even more about this issue.

Critical Mass?

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A week and a half ago, the Pope issued a decree authorizing Catholic clergy to conduct the old Latin Mass without permission of the Church. This bit of liturgical news wouldn’t seem to be of much interest to anyone other than Catholics, but nothing involving the Catholic Church is ever just about Catholics. The Good Friday edition of the old Latin Mass includes a prayer for Jews to convert to Christianity. The potential revival of this prayer was not received very positively in the Jewish world; Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League and self-appointed spokesman for the Jewish community, called the news “disturbing.”

I have a variety of responses to this news: as a Jew, as a secular observer of the Catholic Church and as someone interested in the cause of inclusiveness for those in interfaith relationships.

As a Jew, I find the news disappointing but not disturbing. It’s not clear that the Pope’s decree will lead to a widespread revival of the conversion prayer. Even if it does come into more common use, it doesn’t turn back the clock on years of reforms in the Church since Vatican II; this is not going to lead to a restoration of the charge of deicide against the Jews. In the U.S., it will have little to no impact on American Catholics. I highly doubt many priests will decide the way to restore their dwindling congregations is by conducting a Mass with their backs turned to their congregation and speaking in a language that none of his congregants understand. It’s certainly possible that the Latin Mass may be adopted in those parts of the world where Orthodox Catholicism has a strong hold–specifically South America–but there are latent anti-Semitic attitudes there that the introduction of a prayer once a year will not change for good or bad. And, it’s not like calling for the conversion of non-believers is an uncommon practice in Christian churches; one of the most Zionist groups in the world, evangelical churches, make it a point of both calling for the conversion of non-believers and actively missionizing to them. The only difference is that the Southern Baptist Convention never led an Inquisition.
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Making a Half- Whole

A good counterpoint to Sue Fishkoff’s article on half-Jews is Deborah Sussman Susser’s op-ed in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix on her Jewish identity. It begins: “I didn’t think of myself as half Jewish until I’d been told I wasn’t [Jewish] at all.”

This is the other side of the coin of those who define themselves as half-Jews while the Jewish community insists on defining them as Jews or non-Jews. Susser considers herself Jewish, while society in general considers her half-Jewish and the traditional parts of the Jewish community consider her not Jewish at all.

I knew I was Jewish enough that the other kids at school made jokes about picking up pennies and told me I was going to hell, Jewish enough that my first “boyfriend” at summer camp had broken up with me when I told him my religion. “I hate Jews,” he’d said simply.

This sense of being both on the inside and outside of the Jewish community made affiliation difficult for her. In college, she worried that she would be “outed” at Hillel events. At synagogue, she cried. When she got engaged to a Jewish man, her Reform rabbi told them theirs was a mixed marriage. The amazing thing is, despite her bad experiences, she still identifies strongly as a Jew, lighting Shabbat candles and sending her daughter to Hebrew school.

A Symposium on “Doing Both”

At InterfaithFamily.com, a fundamental point of our mission is arguing that interfaith families should make a religious choice for their children. But it is interesting to hear the perspectives of those who advocate for the opposite view, that it’s OK to raise children in a dual-faith household.

Interfaith Community is one of the handful of organizations nationwide that have this opposing view, alongside the Interfaith Families Project in Maryland, the Family School and Jewish-Catholic Couples Dialogue Group in Chicago, Ill., and Dovetail Institute. These organizations exist on the fringes of the established religious community as nearly all religious educators and leaders stress the impossibility of adopting two religions simultaneously.
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