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.
While at first I was a bit skeptical of Blecher’s argument, it gains persuasive force as he marshalls more evidence for his theory. Indeed, the American Jewish community’s obsession with survival for survival’s sake becomes almost comical when seen through Blecher’s eyes. Among the more absurd manifestations of the American obsession with survival is the romanticization of the shtetl as an Old World Eden of Jewish learning, community and identity–a delusion that ignores the fact that millions of Jews willingly left those communities to come to the United States.
Blecher’s slightly bemused take on American Jewry’s fear-inspired survivalism allowed me to laugh when reading Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis’ take on Feldman’s essay–rather than cringe at her typically folksy, intolerant vitriol, characterized by statements like “intermarriage was even more devastating to the Jewish people than a physical Holocaust.”
It’s interesting to see the central place that Jewish self-preservation plays in Orthodox Rabbi Levi Brackman’s arguments on why Jews should be more welcoming to the intermarried. Brackman agrees that intermarriage “is an existential threat to the Jewish people,” but says “we are now at a stage of damage control.” As much theological distaste he may have for welcoming the intermarried, it’s only practical–otherwise, he argues, “we run the risk of losing colossal amount of additional Jewish children born into those mixed marriages.”
Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News, sees Feldman’s essay as part of a larger debate over Jewish particularism vs. universalism. Silow-Caroll wisely sees both sides of the coin, how exalting Judaism as philosophy at the expense of Judaism as community risks communal dissolution, while trumpeting community at the expense of philosophy risks moral and theological bankruptcy. His most sensible suggestion is that the Jewish community needs both.
Intriguingly, “Between a Hug and a Snub,” the Forward‘s article about the Jewish community’s response to the intermarried, doesn’t set up a dichotomy between the “we-don’t-want-to-encourage-it” argument and the “damage control” thesis. Reporter Adam Marks quotes Rabbi Hirschi Zarchi of the Harvard University Chabad, who says he would welcome Noah Feldman regardless of its practical implications:
“Look,” said Rabbi Zarchi, “why do you love your brother or your child? Is it only because of what they do? There is a level of love that is beyond ‘because.’ When a child rejects his home, but the parents continue to show love to that child, that love might bring the child home. But that’s not why a parent loves. A mother or father loves because we can’t help ourselves. But that love doesn’t diminish the pain we feel or the beliefs we have.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach seems to be cut from the same cloth as Rabbi Blecher, asking “Since when do fear and censure have the power to motivate?” In his latest column on Feldman’s essay, he argues that the Jewish community needs to be more welcoming to its “best and brightest” since so many of them, like Feldman, are intermarried.
Bringing things back to Noah Feldman himself, two recent articles point out some valid criticisms of his essay. The first, and most serious, is that it turns out that Feldman and his girlfriend were not cropped out of the alumni newsletter photo because Feldman was interdating. Along with several other couples, they were cropped out simply because there was no room to show everyone. Worse, Feldman knew this fact before the New York Times essay went to print. His defense is bogus: “It’s not as if [the photo] was an outlying event,” he tells The (New York) Jewish Week. “It fit right in with the other things. It was a memoir of my experience.” The Jewish Week also subtly points out a hypocritical fact about Feldman: while he used his personal experience as the grounds to open a critique of Modern Orthodoxy, he refuses to share details about the rest of his personal life, like what his Jewish practice is at home, whether he is raising his children Jewish and what his wife’s current relationship to Judaism is.
In The Forward, Allan Nadler castigates Feldman less for his hypocrisy than for his lack of spine, his desire to be accepted by the very community he criticizes. Nadler bristles at Feldman’s comparison of himself to Baruch Spinoza, the most famous dissident in modern Jewish history:
There was a time when heretics were strong and brave men and women who nobly accepted the arrows and wounds of their Orthodox tormenters, even wearing them as a badge of anguished honor. When Jews began in the 18th century to break in significant numbers with Orthodoxy, they advocated a variety of new paths, ranging from developing secular Jewish identities and more liberal denominations of the faith, to cultural assimilation, even conversion to Christianity. The one thing these dissidents shared was the absence of any claim, or apparent desire, to be honored by the very religious institutions and authorities they had willfully defied. These rebels understood that it would both cheapen the importance of their dissent from the tradition, and at the same time undermine the integrity of that tradition’s norms, were their break to carry no agonizing consequences.
…Spinoza’s anguished break with Judaism was the result of weighty struggle with ideas, whereas Feldman’s is — by his own account — a fight for personal acceptance.
Indeed, this is the very problem: Today’s “non-conformists” exhibit an insatiable need for personal approval by the communities they have betrayed — the surest sign that they have not engaged in any serious intellectual or theological struggle with the tradition. Their “breaks” are motivated not by the search for transcendent truth, but one for practical comfort in their lifestyle.
As off-putting as Nadler’s tough-mindedness may seem, I can’t argue with its logical consistency. Perhaps he and Blecher should talk.
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