The Emerging Consensus

Shmuel Rosner, Ha’aretz‘s intrepid American correspondent, has started an ambitious series on American Judaism. The first article, Reaching Out to Interfaith Families, focuses on intermarriage through the microcosm of Boston. It’s an appropriate starting point. We are based just outside Boston, in Newton, and the 2005 demographic study of Jewish Boston released last year showed that 60% of interfaith couples were raising their children Jewish. More recently, Noah Feldman, a Harvard law professor, rankled traditional Jews everywhere with his critique of Modern Orthodox attitudes toward intermarriage, The Orthodox Paradox.

While in Boston, Ed Case and I met with Rosner and we had a very interesting debate. Rosner argues that there is an “emerging consensus” on intermarriage in the American Jewish community. While many leaders remain uncomfortable with intermarriage, there is a widespread acceptance that “intermarriage must be accepted and interfaith couples embraced,” according to Rosner. Ed didn’t completely agree. I argued that the statement should be amended: in non-Orthodox Jewish communities (synagogues, JCCs, etc.), there is a near-unanimous acceptance and embrace of interfaith families, but the leadership is much more ambivalent. That ambivalence can be measured by the paltry sums given to outreach to interfaith families.

I think Rosner’s new series is particularly significant for non-American, particularly Israeli, readers. Israelis often are willfully ignorant about the contours of the American Jewish community. They have a triumphalist attitude about the prevalence of assimilation and intermarriage in the States–without acknowledging their own privileged position as the only majority-Jewish country in the world. Other international Jewish communities, such as Britain and France, are way behind the United States in being welcoming to interfaith families. The British Jewish community especially is dominated by the minority of traditional Jews, who set a standard for religious involvement that few abide by. Everyone could learn from what Rosner refers to as “the great experiment” taking place in America.

Interfaith, Interracial, International

In a continuation of its series on religion in black America, NPR interviewed Dara and Oded Pinchas, a black-Jewish couple who are expecting twins. Dara is an African-American Baptist while Oded is an Israeli Jew affiliated with the Secular Humanistic Movement.

They avoided the officiation issue by getting married on a beach in Hawaii. Dara says her family embraced Oded, while for his family, “It’s been a growing process… over time we’ve come to accept each other.” His parents, basing their definition of Jewishness on the widely accepted Israeli standard of Jewish maternity, are concerned that his children won’t be Jewish.
Continue reading

Noah More!

As I was reading the latest batch of think-pieces on Noah Feldman’s essay on intermarriage and Modern Orthodoxy in the New York Times, I couldn’t help but think of a book I’m reading, Rabbi Arthur Blecher’s The New American Judaism, which will be published by St. Martin’s Press in October.

Blecher’s central premise is that modern mainstream American Judaism relies on a set of myths and misguided motives to justify its current form. One of the myths is that intermarriage is decreasing the size of the American Jewish population. One of the misguided motives is that the most important reason to be Jewish is so that Judaism continues to survive. The former, Blecher argues, is factually incorrect; the latter is simply uninspiring, playing on Jews’ fears rather than their hopes.
Continue reading

Does Noah Feldman Feed the Anti-Semites?

Norman Lamm, the highly respected former president of Yeshiva University–the flagship of the Modern Orthodox movement–stoops to a surprising low in his critique of Noah Feldman’s essay on intermarriage and Modern Orthodoxy, on the Forward‘s website. He says that Feldman “succeeded in supplying via the New York Times article enough anti-Jewish material to last a few good years.” It’s the oldest trick in the book, and it’s been used to quell honest criticism of Israeli policies for years: don’t air our dirty laundry because it just gives the anti-Semites fodder for their hate.

But this argument rests on a false and cowardly premise. The “dirty laundry” argument assumes, ridiculously, that if only there weren’t negative information about Jews, Judaism or Israel, anti-Semites would realize that Jews really aren’t so bad. It also assumes that authentic critiques of Judaism are any more valuable to anti-Semites than the stuff they make up, like the Jewish blood libel and the Elders of Zion. But worse, crying anti-Semitism prioritizes the prejudices of idiots over the value of honest dialogue between intelligent Jews. And effectively, it doesn’t really matter. Anti-Semites are some of the most active and savviest users of the Internet. Don’t you think, Rabbi Lamm, that they can find all the anti-Jewish material they need (whether from Jews or non-Jews) on the World Wide Web?

To blame Noah Feldman for the fact that non-Jews are asking Orthodox Jews critical questions about their faith is a cheap shot. And, due to their substantial Jewish education, aren’t Orthodox Jews the best-equipped to respond to these questions in an intelligent and informed way? Indeed, one of the premises of Modern Orthodoxy is that one can be Orthodox and involved in the secular world; inevitably, this means responding to non-Jews’ ignorance about the faith. Feldman’s essay didn’t start this phenomenon any more than Michael Lerner gave birth to anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semites hate Jews, regardless of the facts. Non-Jews who encounter Modern Orthodox Jews know little about Judaism, and will continue to do so. Rabbi Lamm should rethink who we should spend more time educating.

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.

Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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.

Shalom in the Orthodox Home

shmuleyboteach239.jpg

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 fiancĂ©e 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.

Continue reading

Cassandra vs. Nero?

Jewcy is making a quite a name for itself with its readiness to wrestle sacred cows. It helps when the staff is made up of some of the most talented, eloquent, innovative young Jews around.

This week, Senior Editor Joey Kurtzman goes toe to toe with Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school. Wertheimer has written extensively about the unwelcome demise of ethnocentric Judaism, a Judaism that is focused on Israel, internal socialization and helping other Jews, while Kurtzman, the product of intermarriage, is a proud defender of a catholic perspective that sees the suffering of Africans in Darfur as no less a tragedy than the suffering of Jews. And the notion of socializing with, or dating, only Jews? Both impractical and nearly “laughable,” he says.

Kurtzman launches the opening salvo by arguing that “American life has annihilated Jewish peoplehood.”:

Modern American life is the most corrosive acid ever to hit the ghetto walls. Young American Jews are whoring after Moab so fervently that the boundaries between Israel and Moab are being washed away. We‘re not merely influenced by the non-Jewish world—we‘re inseparable from it. Judaism and Jewishness have never had so limited a claim on the identity of young Jews.

Continue reading

Intermarriage in Less Religious Countries

It’s widely known that the United States is the most religious of the major industrialized countries. Weekly church attendance may be as high as 40% and the great majority of people believe in God. Even the most liberal of politicians feel obligated to affirm their faith on the campaign trail.

I’m not quite sure what the connection between intermarriage and our high level of religiosity is, but it’s interesting to notice the contrasts between the U.S. and other industrialized countries. Great Britain and Canada have significantly lower levels of church attendance and yet in both, the Jewish community is much more cohesive and insular–leading to much lower rates of intermarriage than in the U.S.

Diane Flacks, author of Bear With Me, writes in the (Toronto) Globe and Mail about raising children in her intermarriage. She’s Jewish, her partner is not. “Is there a more polarizing issue than the place of religion in parenting?” she asks. I would bet no American writer would ask that question. In the U.S., it’s a given that religion will take a significant role in parenting.
Continue reading