Noah Feldman is an accomplished lawyer and Rhodes Scholar, having graduated from Oxford and Yale. He teaches at Harvard University’s Law School and is a fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. And yet the yeshiva day school he went to while growing up refuses to acknowledge any of his accomplishments. While he attends his school reunions and reconnects with the other “kids” he went to school with, keeping the alumni office informed of his professional accomplishments, they never make mention of him in any of their publications. Why? Because Noah Feldman fell in love with a woman from a different ethnic and religious background.
Due to his choice of life partner, the Jewish community with which he tries to stay in constant contact has chosen to disregard him, to push him away. Rather than accepting defeat and retreating, Noah Feldman told his story publicly in the recent issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, hoping that by sharing his rejection, the Jewish community might learn from its mistakes. We at JOI certainly hope so. Marrying someone who is not Jewish is not necessarily a rejection of one’s Jewish identity. Here is what Feldman writes:
Despite my intimate understanding of the mind-set that requires such careful attention to who is in and who is out, I am still somehow taken by surprise each time I am confronted with my old school’s inability to treat me like any other graduate. I have tried in my own imperfect way to live up to values that the school taught me, expressing my respect and love for the wisdom of the tradition while trying to reconcile Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere. As a result, I have not felt myself to have rejected my upbringing, even when some others imagine me to have done so by virtue of my marriage.
He caught the attention of Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, someone with whom I don’t often agree. Rabbi Boteach penned an op/ed in support of Feldman aptly titled “Stop Ostracizing the Intermarried” in a recent issue of The Jerusalem Post. Boteach was close to Feldman whom he knew from their days together at Oxford. He even called him the “second rabbi” at the L’chaim Society which Boteach shaped there. Boteach sums up the issue this way:
…it was our duty to try and expose her [Feldman’s then girlfriend] to the friendliness of the Jewish community with a view toward her exploring whether a serious commitment to our tradition was something that would suit her.
SADLY, OTHERS took a far different view. A mutual friend of ours who was a rabbi in Noah’s life essentially told him that if he married outside the faith he would have to sever his relationship with him. Apparently, many of Noah’s Orthodox friends made the same decision. The net result was that one of the brightest young Jews in the entire world was made to feel that the Jewish community was his family only if he made choices with which we agreed.
…The extreme practice of ostracization was justified by the belief that only by completely cutting off those who married out would we be making a sufficiently strong statement as to the extent of their betrayal, thereby dissuading those who might follow suit.
There is one problem with this practice. Aside from the ethical and humanitarian considerations, it does not work. We have been practicing this alienation for decades, and yet intermarriage has grown to approximately 50 percent of the Jewish population! Worse, the practice is a lie insofar as it propagates the false notion that our Jewishness is measured only in terms of our being a link in a higher chain of existence, and that our Jewish identities have meaning only through our children. This absurd notion would deny the idea of Jewish individualism and how we are Jews in our own right.
Gary Rosenblatt also got into the conversation, in his editorial of the New York Jewish Week Newspaper—and unlike Boteach chooses to challenge Feldman, claiming that the reaction of Feldman’s yeshiva was appropriate because Feldman chose to discard the very foundational values of the yeshiva and Orthodox Judaism. Rosenblatt reads the Feldman piece as an attack on Orthodoxy in general.
This flare-up reinforces what we at JOI have been saying: Interfaith marriage is the most pressing issue facing the North American Jewish community and the way we respond to it will determine the future landscape of the Jewish community for generations to come. Now that you know Noah Feldman’s story—and the stories of hundreds of thousands of others—how will you indeed respond?