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.
Since then, Feldman has sent news about his marriage and children to the alumni director for inclusion in the newsletter. “None of my reports made it into print,” says Feldman.
The strange thing is that no one from the school publicly shuns him. “As best I know, no one, not even the rabbis at my old school who disapprove of my most important life decisions, would go so far as to refuse to shake my hand,” he says. Rather, the modern Orthodox community of which the school is a vital part uses a more subtle, but no less effective technique to remind Feldman of the error in his ways: they pretend his intermarriage doesn’t exist. And in a community defined in so many ways by marriage, it is very difficult for him to feel part of the modern Orthodox family.
But, at least in this piece, Feldman doesn’t seem angry so much as sad, and curious. He finds his own experience with polite ostracization a telling instance of the way that modern Orthodoxy struggles to respond to the secular world.
Ultra-Orthodox Judaism addresses the boundary problem with methods like exclusionary group living and deciding business disputes through privately constituted Jewish-law tribunals. For modern Orthodox Jews, who embrace citizenship and participate in the larger political community, the relationship to the liberal state is more ambivalent. The solution adopted has been to insist on the coherence of the religious community as a social community, not a political community. It is defined not so much by what people believe or say they believe (it is much safer not to ask) as by what they do…. marriage becomes the sine qua non of social membership in the modern Orthodox community.
For Rabbi Boteach to defend Feldman is both remarkable–and completely in character for Boteach. It is remarkable because it so rare for any public Orthodox person to denounce the community’s response to intermarriage; it is in character because Boteach is profoundly interested in selling the values of Judaism to the widest possible audience.
Unfortunately, for all of Boteach’s traditional practice, he is not held in high esteem in the Orthodox community. He was raised modern Orthodox but joined Chabad as a young man. However, Chabad’s leadership rejected him as his mainstream acceptance grew (and especially when he invited Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of the Oslo accords, to speak in New York). Now he might best be considered a Hasidic man with modern Orthodox inclinations using Chabad techniques to reach a largely non-Jewish audience.
Nonetheless, it is no less powerful when he says about Feldman, who he became friendly with when they were both at Oxford:
Of course I wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance in his two years at Oxford. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make. Before he got married I wrote him a note that said, in essence, that we are friends and that my affection for him would never change. I told him that he was a prince of the Jewish nation, that his obligations to his people were eternal and unchanging, that whether or not his wife, or indeed his children were Jewish would never change his own personal status as a Jew and that, as a scholar of world standing, I knew he would do great things with his life and that he would should always put the needs of the Jewish people first.
There is an important distinction here, one that in its way, is even more progressive than the typical Reform response to intermarriage. He is saying that the Jewish community should not only be kind and welcoming to intermarried couples, it should do so whether or not the couple decides to raise their children Jewish. Boteach is saying that one can still live a Jewish life and identify as a Jew even if the rest of one’s family is not. Our concern should not only be with their children, but with the intermarried Jews themselves, and their value as people. That’s an important point that even those of us immersed in outreach often forget. The Jewish present is just as important as the Jewish future.
My guess is that as eloquent as both of their pieces are, they will have little impact on any part of the Orthodox community. As progressive as the modern Orthodox community is relative to the ultra-Orthodox, they are still highly orthodox (small o) when it comes to defining their boundaries. Feldman is already discredited because of his intermarriage, while Boteach is discounted by virtue of his combination of secular popularity, his desire to universalize Judaism (always a no-no among the Orthodox) and his perceived lack of seriousness–he’s a host of a TV show, for goodness sake.
But from the progressive Jewish community, or at least from InterfaithFamily.com, I say “Shalom!” to both Feldman and Boteach. They’re welcome in our home anytime.
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