Noah Feldman's Orthodox Paradox

In the NYTimes today is a strangely fascinating yet incomplete personal essay. And it is definitely the most memorable I've read in a long time.

He starts off with a idyllic scene gone horribly wrong:

A number of years ago, I went to my 10th high-school reunion, in the backyard of the one classmate whose parents had a pool. Lots of my classmates were there. Almost all were married, and many already had kids. This was not as unusual as it might seem, since I went to a yeshiva day school, and nearly everyone remained Orthodox. I brought my girlfriend. At the end, we all crowded into a big group photo, shot by the school photographer, who had taken our pictures from first grade through graduation. When the alumni newsletter came around a few months later, I happened to notice the photo. I looked, then looked again. My girlfriend and I were nowhere to be found.
It seemed his girlfriend's plainly Asian features gave her away as a clear non-Jew. Yes, that's right, the school airbrushed them out of existence. He goes on to explain how every update of his life and successes (the author -- according to the blurb at the bottom -- is a law professor at Harvard University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations), including his marriage and the births of his children, -- everything he sent to the alumni newsletter was not published.

He compares this to the Talmudic and Biblical (and just in general quite Bronze-age) practice of casting out, or excommunication (something Brian knows a little about and I hope he will comment on this). He then goes on to muse about the contradictions and difficulties of being an orthodox Jew in the modern world.

But the strangest thing of all? He never comes even close to condemning this orthodox community which cast him out. In fact, he is still actively struggling to work his way back into their acceptance (this very essay perhaps being a further attempt at that). This is strange, because, by any objective measure, he describes a group of people who he should have no respect nor time for at all. Because of this the essay feels incomplete to me, as though he is building an argument whose inevitable conclusion he refuses to state.

But he loves his Judaism. He loves it -- hm, how 'bout that -- strangely as one might love Eliot or Cervantes or Shakespeare... or Homer:

In our literature classes we would glimpse Homer’s wine-dark sea, then move to a different classroom and dive headlong into the sea of the Talmud. Here the pleasure of legal-intellectual argument had no stopping place, no end. A problem in Talmud study is never answered, it is only deepened.
(This is an off-point aside, but it just deepens my conviction that the love of religion is really a love of the humanities misplaced and mystified.)

As an example of the wonderful complexities of Talmudic law, he describes this incident from his school days:

One time at [his posh Hebrew prep school,] a local physician — a well-known figure in the community who later died tragically young — addressed a school assembly on the topic of the challenges that a modern Orthodox professional may face. The doctor addressed the Talmudic dictum that the saving of a life trumps the Sabbath. He explained that in its purest form, this principle applies only to the life of a Jew. The rabbis of the Talmud, however, were unprepared to allow the life of a non-Jew to be extinguished because of the no-work commandment, and so they ruled that the Sabbath could be violated to save the life of a non-Jew out of concern for maintaining peaceful relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.
If this very discussion doesn't turn your stomach, you have lost touch with your humanity. If your religion demands you entertain this question, your religion is actively sapping you of your humanity. Just thought you should know that.

He goes on:

This appealing sentiment did not go unchallenged. One of my teachers rose to suggest that the doctor’s attitude was putting him in danger of violating the Torah. The teacher reported that he had himself heard from his own rabbi, a leading modern-Orthodox Talmudist associated with Yeshiva University, that in violating the Sabbath to treat a non-Jew, intention was absolutely crucial. If you intended to save the patient’s life so as to facilitate good relations between Jews and non-Jews, your actions were permissible. But if, to the contrary, you intended to save the patient out of universal morality, then you were in fact guilty of violating the Sabbath, because the motive for acting was not the motive on the basis of which the rabbis allowed the Sabbath violation to occur.
Ah, so if you have the group-centric and group-selfish objective of saving the life of the filthy worthless gentile to promote the general well-being of you and yours, go "work" and save him. But if you just care and want to save his life out of human compassion, you're "violating the Torah," or "violating the Sabbath." Again, you should be aware, if you can even entertain this argument...

He goes on to give us more examples of life in this community:

We were periodically admonished that boys and girls must not touch one another, even accidentally. Several of the most attractive girls were singled out for uncomfortable closed-door sessions in which they were instructed that their manner of dress, which already met the school’s standards for modesty, must be made more modest still so as not to distract the males around them.
Hm. How do you say "fuck you" in Hebrew?

In the course of the essay he discusses creationism (and his sympathy for evangelical activists), politics, and the orthodox assassin of Yitzhak Rabin (who of course had Talmudic blessing to murder). He writes much that is outside the mode I'm wont to quote (I'm sticking to the anecdotal stuff) -- and it's all interesting. I unreservedly recommend reading this in whole.

So go read it, and when you read it, keep an eye out for the phrase "actively nonobservant" and ask yourself, really now, what on earth could that possibly mean?

And how does the mind work that means it?






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