osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Responding to Noah Feldman

Well, about a dozen people (including my mother) decided to send me this piece by fellow Maimonides alum and classmate of my younger brother Noah Feldman.

Briefly, Noah is anoyed that us Modern Orthodox Jews -- particularly those of us that went to Maimo, choose to ignore the fact that he married out and, in fact, would rather politely ignore his existence altogether. He has therefore wrtten the above linked-to piece for the NYT (which seems to have some minimum number of anti-religious Jewish pieces it needs to run per quarter). He is particularly annoyed that Maimonides does not print the news of his intermarraige or the news of his children born of this intermarraige, as he rather thinks they should. Indeed, he thinks it is shameful that a school dedicated to the principles of traditional Judaism should publish with a positive imprimatur something utterly abhoerent to those principles.

Noah's piece provides a good springboard for some of my usual rants. Included below the cut. It is unapologetically non-pluralistic and traditional in orientation. Thos offended by such antiquated sentiments who would prefer to think better of me should skip.

Noah and I have, I suppose, a fair amount in common. We both attended Maimonides, subsequently went to Ivy League schools, became lawyers. He certainly did better than me on clerkships (he clerked for the Supremes I believe, I merely rose as high as the DC Court of Appeals), and is now a law professor at Harvard and a former fellow with my good buddies the New America Foundation (with whom I do work on wireless). Noah achieved some noteriety as the guy selected by the administration to draft the new Iraqi constitution. After a year, he got sent back and is now doing his academic/think tank thing.

I, OTOH, am much more enamored of policy. Having been told one too many times that I would not be welcome in academia because my written articles are too practical and not sufficiently theoretical, I've put the teaching aspect of things on hold. Still, as regular readers will know, I think I do reasonably well in the "engaging the secular world" department and -- false modesty aside -- I have established myself as someone quite thoroughly at home and competent in Washington telecom policy circles.

So I am somewhat surprised at how completely and utterly divergent my view is from Noah's on what we did at Maimonides and what we were supposed to get out of it. Noah appears to regard Modern Orthodoxy as a game of dress up or an effort to transform traditional Judaism into something else. I learned just the opposite. Traditional Judaism is the core of being, the modern world is the medium through which I move. I am a solid (carting around several gallons of liquid and a bunch of gas), yet a move through the air (a gas) around me. All aspects of the physical impinge on my being without transforming me from a solid to a liquid or gas. Indeed, all aspects of the physical world are essential to my being and keep me alive. But my need to breath does not make me a gas, and my need to drink does not make me a liquid.

Similarly, for me at least, there is no contradiction between traditional beliefs and modernity. I exist in the here and now, living in accordance with my core beliefs grounded in the covenant between myself and God that binds me to my fellow Jew as well as to my religious duty.

Noah apparently never got that. Apparently, the fact that we had a double curriculum convinced him that his secular studies and religious studies were somehow meant to be separate things. For myself, this is absurd (and doubly so for a man who had Rabbi Stein for both physics and Talmud).

But then again, I am not surprised. For Noah's rather lengthy discourse on Maimonides as he chooses to remember it is not so different from that echoed by millions of his fellow Americans who want the religion of their choice to correspond to their own life choices. One can hear this same complaint in Catholics who want the Pope to discard millenia of tradition and start ordaining women and pronouncing homosexuality as acceptable to God as heterosexual sex, and facilitating said heterosexual sex by removing an prohibition on birth control. One can see it in madrasas where certain problematic passages of the Koran are simply not discussed and Moslem's seeking to blend with their fellow Americans wish were never written.

Mind you, it is a different complaint from those who abandon a religion because they cannot reconcile their deep beliefs with the perception of religion. It is one thing to reject Judaism because it is insufficeintly universal. It is one thing to reject Catholocism because a true religion could not impose such controls on the human body. It is one thing to reject religion entirely because one thinks the whole concept unnecessary and irrational.

But that's not Noah's problem. As Noah writes in the opening introduction, he doesn't think that there is anything wrong with what he's doing. "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."

To which I can only say "bully for you." It is, after all, a free country. If you chose to believe that by marrying someone not Jewish and deciding what laws you will keep and which you will not you are staying true to our traditions, who am I to tell you no?

But of course, my polite silence is not enough for Noah. He cannot respect my right to have my own opinion of our tradition and whether or not he abandoned it. No, that is simply wrong headed of me and all others like me. We must be made to acknowledge that Noah's interpretation is just as good and just as valid as the rest of ours -- especially when it comes to boinking your prefered bedmate. I will confess that I found it puzzling that, chief among his grievances, Noah apparently finds it wrong that he was subjected to the traditional Jewish view that not only do we not "know" one another before marraige, but that we even have rules in existence to prevent all manner of hooking up.

I will confess, I am always suspicious of revelation and rebellion that flows from one's loins rather than from reason alone. Indeed, one might feel a bit more sympathy for Noah's position if it were grounded in some lofty ideal rather than being so "results oriented." Still, I am not yet so old that I cannot recall Noah's frustration and desire to, ahem, "integrate" better with the world. Lord knows when I was a young 'un in fandom and the SCA I wouldn't have minded a little hooking up. While I was fortunate enough to have met the woman I love in jr high, both fannish and SCA culture provided plenty of opportunity (especially during the 1980s) to indulge all manner of consensual appetites in a culture that looked on jealousy as a vice. Heck, even in college, some of my friends enjoyed the indulgence of a "home town honey" simultaneously with a girlfriend/boyfriend in college. Sometimes this was done with full knowledge of all involved, sometimes not.

My own feeling was, and still is, captured quite well by one of Leslie Fish's inimitable lyrics. "It's no concrn to me how other people chose to fuck/but if you do it in the road you'll get hit by a truck/so bounce your buns with anything for which you have the hots/as long as all are willing and they all have had their shots." Nevertheless, I was never tempted to ask Becky what we thought about "open relationships" and what not. Even had she been willing to go along with such a thing (and I am rather certain on this point that the answer would be a resounding "no"), I would not have been willing to do it because my religious upbringing is quite clear on the matter. I see nothing wrong with being raised to such a choice and following through on it. But Noah is unwilling to extend to me the same courtesy of polite silence I extend to him and his decision to follow the inclinations of his heart and points lower in the anatomy.

Indeed, Noah cannot imagine that any of us like-placed Maimonides alumni could act from religious feeling. Falling into the comfortable mode of the armchair psychologist, Noah rationalizes that the failure of the rest of us to embrace him comes from our pathetic need to set boundaries to the modern world. This, Noah thinks, s intolerable. That a religious community should place boundaries -- especially boundaries that exclude him, the wife he has chosen, and the family they have created together -- is particularly intolerable. Indeed, not merely intolerable, but downright dangerous. After all, Baruch Goldstein -- who killed 29 Palestinians in Chevron -- and Yigal amir -- who assasinated Yitzchak Rabin -- came from Modern Orthodox backgrounds. You can't be too careful, Noah warns us. Still, despite the risk, Noah wants us to know he's big enough to forgive us our foibles. "In synagogue on Purim with my children reading the Book of Esther, the beloved ancient phrases give me a sense of joy that not even Baruch Goldstein can completely take away."

No doubt Noah would take pride in explaining why he thinks I am offended by this sentence and why he forgives me. Actually, the far more interesting question is why Noah bothers to try to enlighten me at all. One would think that someone as enlightened about the blending of two worlds would move on beyond us unenlightened types. Curiously, however, Noah feels compelled to demand my acceptance of his superior wisdom. Failing to attain this, he acts like a petulant teenager and choses to offend, then explain that the fault lies with me for being offended.

For myself, I worry much less about ending up like Baruch Goldstein than I do like Jack Abramoff -- forgetting my religious compass and falling prey to the self-rationalizations and temptations that lie at the center of power. Indeed, it is perhaps instructive as to whom Noah and I consider our respective boogeymen. Noah fears that tradition somehow sets boundaries to the modern world that prevent him from fully integrating with it. I fear that I will lose my boundaries and give way to the rationalizations that make amorality possible while maintaining a surface veneer of religion.

So I find myself meeting with FCC Chairman Kevin Martin on a critical issue on Tisha B'Av and asking my Rabbi how to manage the halachic questions of shaving and and bathing. Because in the attention to detail and rigorous observance of tradition, I maintain my moral compass. I meet with the Chairman of the FCC and employ my talents in a thoroughly modern way, while my embrace of tradition keep me centered and tied to my tradition. Unlike Noah, I do not see this as a contradiction but as an essential condition of being alive. The modern world does not demand I compromise my tradition anymore than my tradition compromises my life in the modern world. As I learned in my aikido class, I move from center maintaining balance, and thus extend ki and blend with the energy around me.

Noah is entitled to his own life, and I to mine. But as someone as enmeshed in the modern world as he is, I can say that he remains the same arrogant git he was growing up. That, at least, remains unchanged.

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