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.


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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7 thoughts on “Shalom in the Orthodox Home

  1. Orthodox Judaism is halachic and will not recognize a mixed marriage if the Mother is not Jewish. I support The Maimonidies school in not recognizing Noah Feldman’s marriage. Mr Feldman had the benefit of 12 years solid Jewish education and was brought up in a observant home.The fact that his wife did not convert is that he turned his back on Orthodox Judaism. The school has every right to ostracize him. He used the nine days to attack Orthodox Judaism. He is so anti Orthodox that he used his position at NYU Law school to provide free legal service to the town of Tenfly New Jersey which was against the Eruv! Shame on Noah Feldman!
    Thank you Maimonidies school

  2. Great links! I know both Noah Feldman and Shmuley Boteach, and have had quite a few things to say about these wonderful articles (giving credit to IFF for making me aware of them!) over on my blog (miriyab.blogspot.com) and in the comments section of the Boteach piece linked to above.

    May all of our community come to be more accepting, welcoming, and open through what these two have written and all that you at IFF do!

    Ken y’hi ratzon: so may it be the divine will — on this Tisha B’Av as we recall that the Second Temple was said to have been destroyed because of sinat chinam, causeless hatred, among the Jewish people, and as we move toward the visions of comfort, reconciliation, and a redeemed global community of love and peace that dominate the afternoon of this fast day and the weeks that follow.

  3. Rabbi Boteach is wrong Orthodox judaism will never recognize mixed marriages.We are halachic. conservative reform and reconsructionist and renewal and humaistic judaism’s are not halachic therefore they can sanction interrmarriage!
    Mr feldman’s article attacking Orthodox judaism was wrong and evoking the same Mantra of Baruch goldstein. He used the nine days to attack Orthodeox judaism!
    NOT ALL INTERMMARRIAGE IS GREAT AS THIS WEB SITE STATES AND THERE HAVE BEEN MANY DISATEROUS OUTCOMES!
    I commend the Maimonidies School on their courageous actions and their fortitude!
    Orthodox Judaism does not have to bens with the times

  4. most american jews would feel more comfortable with their children intermmarrying from different faith then marrying Orthodox Jews!
    Orthodox will not accept intermmariage and we don’t have to bend to the latest fads.!
    SAHME ON RABBI BOTEACH AND NOAH FELDMAN!
    Why does noah feldman attack orthodoxy durring the 9 days. It is his baseless hatered!

  5. David:

    Nothing you have written above, and nothing Noah Feldman wrote in his article, indicates to me that Feldman is “anti-Orthodox” — and nothing in Rabbi Boteach’s article suggests to me that he finds Feldman in any way anti-Orthodox either.

    The question is not whether the Maimonides School or Orthodox Judaism “recognizes” Feldman’s marriage — it’s what it does in reaction to the fact of that marriage. Not listing his simchas is one thing; taking him AND his then-fiancee out of a group photo, and pretending neither one of them exists, is quite another.

    Not to mention that it’s incredibly chutzapadik and lacking in derekh eretz (respect for other people) to presume that
    1) because the woman with him is Korean-American, she’s not Jewish (I know Asian-American Jews of all sorts: raised Jewish by Jewish parents who are of mixed ethnic descent; raised Jewish after being adopted by Jews; Jews by Choice;
    2) his children, when he announces their birth or milestones, are not Jewish — even if it’s known that their mother is not (some families choose to convert their children at birth if they are not halakhically Jewish; whether or not the mother converts is not immediately germane, as long as she is supportive of the creation of a Jewish household and raising her children as Jews: see JOI’s The Mothers Circle for more information and support for non-Jewish women who make this wonderful choice!).

    Presumably the marriage depicted in his article is, like the marriage of my Jewish mother to my non-Jewish father, not kiddushin, and not a marriage within the Jewish legal structure. But I am not convinced that therefore the relationship has NO standing in Jewish law, since there are means of acquiring a spouse other than via kiddushin (e.g., through cohabitation, etc.): if he wanted to marry a Jewish wife, I think that halakha and not just the laws of the land would demand that he divorce his current one — and if that’s the case, then it’s being “recognized” as a marriage for at least some purposes. A non-permitted relationship may be prohibited, but it still exists!

    Marriage with someone who is not Jewish has always been a fact of Jewish community life and history –look at the marriages in Tanakh/the Hebrew Bible for countless examples, both positive (Tamar, Asenath, Zipporah) and negative (the “son of an Israelite woman” in Exodus, who abuses the name of God in a fight with another Israelite; he’s understood to be the son of a non-Israelite, otherwise why say “son of an Israelite woman”?).

    It doesn’t sound to me as though Noah Feldman turned his back on Orthodox Judaism. The Orthodox Judaism of that particular community, and his school (or at least its administration), seems to have turned its back on him. I think that’s a shame — but I also want to invite him and his wife to come with us and find a home in a Judaism that opens its arms to them instead. (Hi guys–remember me and my husband Mike W. from Oxford?) My Jew-by-choice husband and I are part of traditional egalitarian Conservative communities — in fact, I was raised in one here in the DC area by my Jewish mother and non-Jewish father, and never felt ostracized or strange — where they would be very welcome. I have friends in the Reform and Reconstructionist and Renewal movements (several of whom are rabbis) as well, and know that there too they should find a warm welcome and the encouragement to be involved in any way they choose!

  6. Becca
    1.You are wrong I read his article in the New York Times Magazine 5 times and became angrier the more I read. My daughter and wife read the article and consider him a spoiled brat who did not get his way! The school would not have to bow to him!
    Nowhere inthe Article did he say that his wife conveted or was of Jewish ancestory! Had she conveted according to halacha and the school did not accept their marriage I would have condemed the School’s ostracizing of Noah Feldman and his family! She did not convet!

    Mr Feldman is anti orthodox he is wrong inhis anylisis of Jewish Law. He uses the mantra of Baruch Goldstein to attack Judaism. Can you tell me wy he gave free legal service as an NYU Professor of Law to fight the Eruv at Tenelfly New Jersey.The Mayor at that time opposed the Eruv because she did not want Orthodox Jews to come and live in Tenefly. Despite the efforts of The Rabbi from Engelwood New Jersey to settle the issue of the Eruv in a fair manner. The mayor told the Rabbi she was afraid that Orthodox Jews would take over the town. The mayor felt that by opposing the eruv she would prevent be able to lessen the amount of Orthodox Jews who would move there. Mr Feldman said that the Orthodox Jews forced the Eruv down on the town. He was pefidious in his arguments. Infact the Reform Religous action center supported the Eruv and actually helped in their legal problems. Many of the Reform Jews in Tenefly were angry with their own movement. SHAME ON MR FELDMAN!

    3.Conservative and Orthodox Judaism only recognize martalineal descent anf their rabbis caanot participate in a Mixed ceremony.
    Yes Reform reconstructionist,renewal,humanistic judaism only need one parent for the children to be Jewish!
    Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal from the Conservative Movement has said without Halacha Judaism degenrates into anrachy! What the other Jewish movements have done has cuased anrachy in Judaism a loose collection of coustoms and fokelore!
    4. Mr Feldman has turned his back on Orthodox judaism and has said that he is not part it. If Mr Feldman was raised in a nominal home and did not have or had a minimal Jewish education I would not be angry at him! Yet he had 12 solid years of Jewish education he even studied with Rabbi Boteach at Oxford. It is because he interrmaried and she did not convert is why I am angry!his school being Orthodox is not required to acknowlege his children or Marriage. THE GOLDEN BOY OR VALDECTORIAN FROM MAIMONIDIES DID NOT GET HIS WAY AND CRIED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES mAGAZINE!

  7. Thanks for letting us know about Rabbi Boteach’s response to Noah Feldman’s piece. I thought Feldman’s piece was terrific — thoughtful, interesting, smart, quite poignant in places — and I’m glad to know that there’s someone in the Orthodox world who is responding so graciously and with so much rachmones (compassion)…even if it’s someone who isn’t widely-respected in that corner of the Jewish community.

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