Interesting Times: Inward and outward

Noah Feldman failed his teachers, but they failed him too.

August 2, 2007 14:04
4 minute read.


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Wunderkind Harvard law professor Noah Feldman left almost no stone unturned in his biting indictment of modern Orthodoxy in The New York Times magazine. The article, ostensibly pondering the "paradox" that a movement calling itself modern would have a problem with his marriage to a non-Jew, is obviously Feldman's parting shot at the Brooklyn day school culture that spawned him. Ticked off after the school airbrushed him and his fiancee out of a class reunion photo, Feldman proceeded to catalog everything about Orthodoxy that struck him as equally immodern, such as laying tefillin, the laws of kashrut, and even the twisted attempts at Jewish reasoning by murderers such as Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein. Yet the greatest indictment of Feldman's 12 years of Orthodox schooling was none of the things that he managed to dish out in print, but Feldman himself. How could such an intense Jewish education leave a star student essentially ignorant of what Judaism is supposed to be? I do not know the school that Feldman attended, and it is virtually certain that Feldman deemphasized elements of his education that did not fit the image of primitivity he decided to paint. And just as Feldman was grossly unfair in judging a school or tradition based on some psychopath who happened to pass through it, we must be careful in drawing broad conclusions regarding modern Orthodoxy based on one product of it. Despite this, the image of Judaism that Feldman's Jewish education left him with is telling. "Food restrictions are tight," he writes. "A committed modern Orthodox observer would not drink wine with non-Jews and would have trouble finding anything to eat in a nonkosher restaurant other than undressed cold greens (assuming, of course, that the salad was prepared with a kosher knife)." Given this distasteful description of kashrut, it is not surprising that Feldman would interpret the system solely as "designed to differentiate and distance the observant person from the rest of the world... The category of unkosher comes unconsciously to apply not only to foods... but also to the people who eat that food - which is to say, almost everyone in the world, whether Jewish or not." It is likely that Feldman was taught the laws and sources behind kashrut without being introduced to any ethical basis for the system that might resonate with the modern mind. One wonders whether any of his teachers attempted to integrate kashrut into the broader concept of holiness, which attempts to transform the basic elements of human existence that we share with all living things - such as place, time, sustenance, procreation, etc. - and elevate them through particularity and restrictions. THE CONCEPT of holiness is, by definition, an attempt to distinguish and separate. Calling a place holy means setting it apart from other places, a concept familiar to all religions and common in the ancient world. Judaism expanded the concept of holiness greatly, applying it to time by carving out the holy day of Shabbat, and to sustenance, by ruling that, unlike animals, people should not eat everything they might want. What Feldman sneeringly describes as "every bite requiring categorization into permitted and prohibited" is exactly the point - that's how you make something holy, by making distinctions and drawing lines. Moreover, there is strong argument that the line-drawing of kashrut is not arbitrary, but ethical - and not because kosher food is more healthy, as many Jews believe. A careful look at the lines reveals a separation between life and death, represented by milk and meat. Even within the category of meat, all kosher animals are themselves vegetarians. The law requires a method of slaughter for animals that are kosher that minimizes suffering, and their blood - again symbolizing life - must not be eaten. Finally, Jewish tradition associates vegetarianism with both ends of history: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the messianic age. Thus, the entire system is designed to minimize, contain and regulate what was taken as an unavoidable and temporary infringement on other living things. Civilization is nothing but an attempt to elevate human existence by making distinctions: between good and evil, polite and impolite, life and death, holy and profane. Modernity is at war with many of these distinctions, not realizing that the civilization it deifies would not exist and is unsustainable without them. Feldman seems to recognize this: "For many of us, the consilience of faith and modernity that sometimes appears within the reach of modern Orthodoxy is a tantalizing prospect." But evidently it is a prospect that he sees no hope for, since there is nothing constructive in his critique. WHILE FELDMAN must be held responsible for this, so must the education that produced him. It is fine for Orthodoxy to teach that a Jew must obey the laws because they are divine mandates, and therefore any attribution of rationales to the law, ethical or otherwise, is secondary. What does not work is to discourage attempts to put the law into an ethical framework, and ignore the modern and Jewish imperatives to apply Jewish particularism toward universalistic goals. Judaism will falter if particularism becomes a end, not a means. The Orthodox tendency is to increase insularity in response to pressure from modernity. This is a mistake. The challenge of modern Orthodoxy is not to compromise its particularism, but to show the power of this particularism, ironically, to affect the world. Feldman is wrong: It is possible to be Orthodox and a good global citizen. More than that, Feldman's rabbis should have taught him that being Orthodox is designed to make him a better such citizen, and that, ultimately, is the goal of Judaism and the Jewish people. Orthodoxy's challenge is to turn inward and outward at the same time, and for a unified purpose.

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