Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Thursday, August 09, 2007

My thoughts on "Orthodox Paradox"

I'm way behind the pack on this one, but sometimes a late opinion is better than none at all. Below is a copy of my latest column, from the Aug. 9 issue of The Jewish Chronicle.

Feldman story focuses new light on intermarriage

Three weeks after the fact, it seems that every Jewish thinker and pundit has reacted to “Orthodox Paradox,” an essay by Noah Feldman, which appeared in the New York Times Magazine on July 22. For those who missed it, Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University, describes at length his hurt feelings at being snubbed by the alumni newsletter of his Modern Orthodox day school because his wife is not Jewish. He then goes on to criticize what he considers contradictions in Modern Orthodox belief and practice with regard to engagement with the non-Jewish world.

Other writers have already disputed many of Feldman’s claims and criticized him for being bitter, intellectually inconsistent and generally callous with the facts. I agree with many of these assessments, and do not feel it is necessary to repeat them.

Instead, I would like to focus on Mr. Feldman’s feelings as an intermarried person. Despite degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale, not to mention a long list of other distinguished accomplishments, Feldman seems unduly obsessed with being rejected by his high school and, by extension, the religious community in which he was raised, even though he writes fondly of his former classmates, with whom he remains friendly.

Whatever his arguments, it is hard to believe that an intelligent man who graduated from an Orthodox day school would be surprised when that school was disappointed in his marriage to a non-Jewish woman. Of course, emotions are seldom logical, and it seems that Feldman is pained that he can’t be both a paradigm of secular success and a source of naches to his rabbis.

As Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The Jewish Week in New York, points out in a July 27 column, Feldman has raised “some important issues, less about his old yeshiva and Modern Orthodoxy per se than about dealing with Jews who do not see marrying out as leaving the fold.”

Intermarriage used to be viewed as a one-way ticket out of Jewish life. When the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990 reported a 52 percent intermarriage rate (which has since been adjusted to a slightly lower number), there was widespread alarm in the organized Jewish community about how to stem this tide. But just a decade and a half later, it seems that much of the Jewish community seems to have given up fighting intermarriage and accepted it as inevitable. These days, it is almost politically incorrect to say that Jews should marry only other Jews.

That is unfortunate. While it is important to be cognizant of the modern realities of the Jewish community, and crucial that we be welcoming to all Jews, whatever choices they have made in life, it is equally important for us to stand behind what we believe to be core values of our tradition. History has shown us that the best way for our cultural and religious heritage to be maintained from generation to generation is through the inculcation of strong Jewish households in which both parents are Jewish.

There are certainly exceptions to the rule – interfaith families that are raising deeply committed Jewish families – but we know from formal studies and informal interactions that children of intermarriage are less likely to be Jewishly educated and connected than children of in-married families.

The challenge faced by the Modern Orthodox community, and really the Jewish community as a whole, is figuring out a way to welcome Jews who are intermarried without endorsing interfaith relationships themselves. Feldman asks too much when he expects his alma mater to celebrate his interfaith marriage as a success, but, if he genuinely wants to reconnect to his heritage – and not just slander his former school in The New York Times – Feldman should not be turned away.

Intermarriage does not have to be a ticket out of Jewish life, but we cannot and should not say that marrying outside the fold is just as good as marrying within it.


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  • At August 28, 2007 at 8:25 AM, Blogger Esther Kustanowitz said…

    Granted, I agree with you, Susan. It's just that what I gathered from Feldman's piece was an alienation that extended back to before he got married. I found myself wondering how a dayschool graduate manages to intermarry and seem oblivious of the consequences, and the only thing I can come up with is that there was alienation there, perhaps always, and in great strength. As a dayschool grad myself, I know that the potential for alienation is absolutely there, but for some reason I don't feel like it's ok, or gives me what I want in my family life, to marry "out." Maybe my opinion will change if I stay single forever...

    I guess we'll never know until he publishes his autobiography, which I won't be surprised to see published in the next year.

  • At August 29, 2007 at 8:18 PM, Blogger Susan said…

    Esther, I agree that Noah obviously became alienated somewhere along the way, long before his marriage, and I think that his school failed him in the sense that his teachers were not tuned into him enough to realize that he was conflicted about or disaffected with their lessons. Obviously, something went very wrong. Still, I think it is disingenous of him to say that he was surprised that his marriage was not acceptable to his school.


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