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Feldman Article Raises Questions Of Journalistic Standards


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Initially, Professor Noah Feldman’s “Orthodox Paradox,” an article appearing in the July 22 issue of The New York Times Magazine, may seem entertaining. But on further reading, a very disturbing message emerges – a message that calls into serious question the intent of the author and the judgment of The New York Times in publishing the piece.

If you remove the personal interest story and the extensive background, the thesis of the essay is quite damning: Feldman argues that the Modern Orthodox community has drawn inappropriate and even dangerous lines in matters of life and love:

 

            For many of us, the consilience of faith and modernity that sometimes appears within the reach of modern Orthodoxy is a tantalizing prospect. But it can be undermined by the fragile fault lines between the moral substructures of the two worldviews, which can widen into deep ruptures on important matters of life and love.

 

Concerning the latter, he refers to his own marriage to a non-Jew. But as if to give his thesis greater solemnity and to universalize the message, he insinuates that Modern Orthodox exclusivity is, in fact, a danger to the wider (i.e., non-Jewish) community.

Is that too strong? Well, then why – having just insisted that Modern Orthodoxy is playing with fire in matters of life – does he launch into a halachic discourse on the laws of Shabbat pertaining to doctors? Orthodox Jewish doctors, he implies through this discussion, are taught to not treat non-Jews on Shabbat.

This is a serious and inflammatory charge, particularly coming from one who claims knowledge of halachic practice. I know of no Modern Orthodox leader or Modern Orthodox physician who has ever argued that a doctor need not treat a non-Jewish patient or a Modern Orthodox doctor who has practiced in such a manner.

My Modern Orthodox synagogue is filled every Shabbat with doctors, and I routinely hear their beepers go off for patients who are, in most cases, non-Jews.

Feldman knows very well that not even the teacher he cites would even think a physician should deny treatment to non-Jews. It is, however, entirely natural in the halachic process to explore the underlying rationale, to debate these fine issues of law even when we know – on the basis of secular law, morals and religious obligations – that a Modern Orthodox physician must treat all patients in need – on Shabbat or even on Yom Kippur.

To give the halachic arguments without this context is to leave the impression with readers that Orthodox Jewish doctors are not to be trusted.

Let’s examine Feldman’s second and even more damning charge: Modern Orthodoxy spawns murderous hatred of others. He writes, “modern Orthodoxy’s line-drawing has been implicated in some truly horrifying events [my emphasis]” and then launches into a discussion of Baruch Goldstein, dissecting his thought process as though Goldstein’s decision to attack Muslims represented a natural outcome of Modern Orthodox teaching.

There are two serious journalistic standards breached in the section:

1. First, the factual errors: Feldman makes a serious – and, I believe, intentional – error that could mislead a reader. He writes, “according to one newspaper account, when he was serving in the Israeli military, [Goldstein] refused to treat non-Jewish patients.” The charge, made in some news reports right after the attack but definitively disproved in the Shamgar Commission report, neatly confirms his earlier argument: Modern Orthodox doctors are a threat to the non-Jewish community because, as Goldstein shows, they will fail to give proper treatment to non Jews.

Feldman also argues that “[Goldstein’s] actions were not met by universal condemnation: his gravestone describes him as a saint and a martyr of the Jewish people, ‘Clean of hands and pure of heart [my emphasis].’”

The gravestone, of course, was not erected by the Modern Orthodox community but by his family; Goldstein’s actions were met by condemnation from across the entire gamut of the Modern Orthodox community. Feldman acknowledges this with his quote regarding the tears of the patriarchs, and yet his assertion remains.

Both these errors should be corrected by the Times.

2. Second, a more insidious problem: what is the relevance of the story in his essay? Does Feldman argue that Goldstein’s deranged action reflected his Modern Orthodox upbringing, particularly the challenges in setting appropriate lines? That Modern Orthodoxy preaches such hatred for non-Jews as to pose a threat of massacre? He doesn’t exactly say that; yet, if not, then why is the story presented? Did his New York Times Magazine editors ever ask this question? If the story is relevant, then we, the Modern Orthodox community, in drawing a line between ourselves and the non-Jewish community, are directly responsible for Goldstein’s actions.

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About the Author: Ralph Lieberman is a management consultant specializing in market strategy for technology companies. He and his wife, Nancy (Kolodny) Lieberman, live in Newton, Massachusetts and are members of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah. They have three children attending various day schools in the Boston area.


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Initially, Professor Noah Feldman’s “Orthodox Paradox,” an article appearing in the July 22 issue of The New York Times Magazine, may seem entertaining. But on further reading, a very disturbing message emerges – a message that calls into serious question the intent of the author and the judgment of The New York Times in publishing the piece.

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