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A torrent of criticism greeted my column last week on the subject of Noah Feldman and my argument that we should not ostracize those who have intermarried. I was taken aback by the level of hatred shown to Prof. Feldman, and by the number of people who are personally offended by his action in marrying a non-Jew. Some went so far as to suggest that Feldman deserved the fate of Zimri in the book of Numbers who was gored to death for having relations with a non-Jew.
I will ignore such embarrassing idiocy in this column and respond instead to my intelligent critics who believe that, first, those who marry out are traitors to Judaism, and second, that going soft on those who marry out will open the floodgates of intermarriage.
The first mistake they make is to totally misunderstand intermarriage. For the overwhelming majority of Jews who marry non-Jews, there was no conscious effort to betray a tradition. They simply fell in love.
My critics fail to distinguish between an immoral sin and an irreligious act. To steal, to lie, to murder is deeply immoral. But would we say the same of someone who desecrates the Sabbath? Does driving on Shabbat make you a bad person, or a nonobservant one? Does failure to attend synagogue make you into an irreligious Jew or a flawed human being? To be sure, if you practice no religious ritual you could hardly call yourself religious. But are you wicked?
THE SAME applies to those who marry outside the community. What immoral or evil act have they perpetrated that we should treat them with such venom? Whom did they murder? You will say that their action spells death to Jewish continuity. I will respond that our ostracization does far worse. It consciously cuts off from our community those who are still and forever Jews.
The greatness of the Lubavitcher Rebbe was his genius in distinguishing between religious and moral sin. Before the Rebbe those who ate non-kosher were treated as though they themselves were unkosher.
The Rebbe understood that these were not bad people. They were simply irreligious people. And they had to be shown love and respect. Not just in order to bring them back to the fold, but because it was righteous and Jewish to do so. Why should those who marry out be treated any differently?
I spent the past Shabbat in Anchorage as guest speaker of Rabbi and Mrs. Yoske Greenberg, a heroic Chabad couple who have brought Judaism to the wilds of Alaska for the past 16 years. There is no sign on their door that bars those who have married outside the community, and indeed in most Chabad outposts around the world a significant percentage of those attending have married out. Thanks to the Rebbe, they have somewhere to go that is warm and inviting and reconnects them with their people.
YET I DETECT a growing trend in observant Jewish circles to dismiss and condemn those whose lifestyles contradict Torah living. Foremost on this list are gays and intermarrieds, both groups being treated as pariahs and abominations. But which orthodox Rabbi would have the nerve to ever tell a gay man or an intermarried man that he should not come to synagogue, that he should no longer keep kosher, that he should stop putting on tefillin, and that he should take the mezuza off his door? If there is such a rabbi, let him come forward now.
Unlike Christianity, which is based on a single precept - faith in Christ - Judaism is based on 613 separate and autonomous commandments. Our umbilical cord with God consists of these 613 strands. To be sure, the more we keep, the stronger the connection. But the key is to remain connected with even a single strand, even a single mitzva, and that is the power of the Chabad mitzva campaign: to give even the most distant Jews a single chord of connection.
It is disgraceful that men and women who marry out are not encouraged to keep the rest of the Torah's commandments. It is disgraceful that they are treated as if they consciously rebelled against the Jewish tradition when, in their minds, they simply followed the dictates of the heart.
The Jewish community's policy should be precisely the opposite. We should tell all Jews, in no uncertain terms, that the Jewish community is always their home. That just because they make choices that are profoundly injurious to Jewish continuity does not mean we do not love and cherish them. We are not only a religion, but a people. Not only a faith, but a family. And a family's members are forever.
MANY HAVE written to me that Prof. Feldman's circumstances are different, seeing that he was raised in an Orthodox home and went to an Orthodox Jewish day school. He should have known better.
I know something of this matter. The award I was honored to receive last year from the American Jewish Press Association for Excellence in Commentary came from an article I wrote which designated Jewish day school education as the single greatest bulwark against assimilation and intermarriage. But that does not mean it is foolproof. And not just for the Prof. Feldmans of this world, but for all of us.
How many who have written to me critical of Feldman are themselves guilty of lapses in Jewish observance? I know scores of Orthodox Jewish businessmen who take their yarmulkes off at their Wall Street and legal offices, even though they are stalwartly Orthodox in all other practices. But they still feel a need to make an accommodation with the world. And do they really want to be dismissed as goyim because they do so, or do they want their communities to be just a little bit understanding of the challenges they face?
In the final analysis, God's Torah in its entirety is what should be practiced. There are no excuses for our failures, save the fact that we are all human and try our best to navigate the vicissitudes of life. But how we respond to those who lapse will dictate the kind of community we become.
We can employ the iron rod and show that Judaism is a religious of fear and intimidation. Or we can employ the outstretched hand of love and demonstrate that Judaism is a religion of understanding and inspiration.
The writer is currently filming his new television program 'Shalom on the Road' in Alaska. His most recent book is Shalom in the Home (www.shmuley.com).