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yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


Denial is not just where Moses got the frogs

26 July 2007

Several folks on my LJ friends list have mentioned this charming piece, in which Noah Feldman, a Maimonides School alumnus, reflects on his school experience and the “Modern Orthodox” community surrounding it. I put scare quotes around “Modern Orthodox” because while he attributes certain attitudes to people he calls “Modern Orthodox”, and perhaps those people would call themselves “Modern Orthodox”, he does not mention the long string of Jewish thinkers, starting with Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch זצ״ל, who defined Modern Orthodox Judaism. Feldman refers to Senator Joe Lieberman; he refers to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein זצ״ל; he refers to Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein. But he never cites the life or works of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik זצ״ל, the pre-eminent Modern Orthodox philosopher of the 20th century, who founded of the Maimonides School and who was still alive while Feldman was a student there. That should tell you something about the lens through which Feldman sees the Orthodox world.

Feldman seems to believe that the most authentic expressions of Judaism are the most illiberal ones. Now, if I believed that, I would either join the charedi world, or I would never set foot in a synagogue again. But Feldman is married to a non-Jewish woman and takes his children to hear the Book of Esther read on Purim. “Isn’t everyone’s life a mass of contradictions?” he says.

The “Modern Orthodox” community offends Feldman because instead of letting us all bask in postmodern “I am large, I contain multitudes” playfulness, it tries to resolve the contradictions. At Maimonides, learning the theory of evolution is OK, but marrying a non-Jew is not OK. The Maimonides approach is certainly open to critique. Different schools of Jewish thought (charedi Orthodox, classical Reform, etc.) can argue for different approaches to being a Jew in the 21st century. But Feldman does not have a school of thought; he has emotions that he treats as entitlements. It is not enough for him to marry a non-Jew and continue to feel connected with his Jewish upbringing; he wants his Orthodox alma mater to endorse his marriage. And so he does not argue; he insinuates that there is something false about Modern Orthodoxy, that instead of teaching Jews a way of engaging with the modern world, it teaches Jews to disguise themselves for the sake of getting along in that world.


It’s bad enough that the most reactionary elements of the Jewish world have appointed themselves the final arbiters of my religion and have declared that my own community’s practice is, at best, Frumkeit Lite. But why do people with no interest in accepting “the yoke of the commandments” give the reactionaries the same license?