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Noah Feldman And The Fear Of Being Different


Ayatollahs in business suits is what Noah Feldman would have the world believe we all are. If the Orthodox were going to leave him out of his alma mater’s reunion picture just because he married out, then Noah Feldman was going to out the Orthodox.

His tell-all expose painted a picture, as he saw it, of the inherent primitiveness and backwardness of Orthodoxy. We may look modern, but scratch the surface, and we all harbor beliefs that are inconsistent with the more enlightened values of Harvard Square.

In his New York Times Magazine article, Feldman made a point of highlighting practices and attitudes toward non-Jews that he bargained would – or should – make us uncomfortable. We have always preferred to keep them under wraps, not always quite sure how to explain them to others, or even to ourselves, but quite sure that if others found out about them, they would hold them against us.

In making us face up to them Noah Feldman may have done us a favor. We have dealt with “problematic” texts in roughly the same way for the better part of a millennium. The old way will not work any longer, and the sooner we realize and react appropriately, the better.

The medieval church did a good job – often aided and abetted by Jewish apostates – in ferreting out what they saw as anti-gentile and anti-Christian nastiness in the Gemara. Modern anti-Semitic groups have revived the practice, and there are no shortage of websites that will gladly direct you to the exact places in the Talmud that prove we detest all non-Jews, and actively promote their demise.

(I am not saying, God forbid, that Noah Feldman is an anti-Semite.)

One of the prosecution witnesses in the Beilis blood libel was a Fr. Justinas Pranaitis, possibly hired because of his 1892 work “Talmud Unmasked,” still used by Jew-haters today. Most Jews are unaware of the literally thousands of hate sites on the Internet because we simply don’t run into the untermenschen who hang out on such sites. The New York Times Magazine, however, is harder to run from.

Our first line of defense was part of the shah-shtil mentality: we ran for cover. We tried to hide these passages, and if that failed, we reacted with surgically applied apologetics. Someone was always prepared to offer an explanation that seemed somewhat reasonable, and if presented by someone who looked sage and rabbinic enough, the non-Jews could be placated.

This approach will no longer work, because the nature of communications today insures that there are no longer any secrets, period. Almost anything you have ever said or written to anyone can come back to haunt you. An apologetic interpretation of a Talmudic passage – even if entirely correct and authoritative – is often not the only one on the Jewish street. For every politically correct explanation, there is a very non-PC one that can be dredged up in moments through the right search engine There will be many people, perhaps entire communities, who take a different approach. Their little secret will surface to haunt the rest of the Orthodox world.

There is no longer any option other than to own up to difficult sources and uncomfortable attitudes, and to deal openly with them. If we don’t, others will do the talking for us, which we can ill afford. We must learn where these passages are, acknowledge them, and learn to deal with them without hesitation. We will find more understanding and acceptance than we might think.

The first step is to weed out the misquotes and the misunderstood sources. Nine times out of ten, the proof-texts cited by critics are goofy errors. We must learn what the errors are, and be quick to demonstrate the fallacies.

The remaining ten percent can still do much damage. But they don’t have to – and won’t for most decent people – for several reasons.

First of all, many of them are a product of their times. Certain references to early Christians are a case in point. Can you discuss these passages with a believing Catholic without upping your life insurance? Of course you can. The person who taught me how was a Catholic priest and scholar with whom I once shared a platform at Loyola Law School.

A question arose about John Chrysostom, the fourth century Church Father who put the charge of deicide on the map. His vitriol against Jews was surpassed by none and was embraced for centuries thereafter, including by the Nazis.

Chrysostom remains a saint in the Church, and many Jews get unhinged by the mention of his name. The priest, however, was completely unfazed by the question, and calmly related that in the fourth century the Church was fighting for survival and felt very pressured by Judaism. Besides which, it was characteristic of the times for people to use the most extreme and abusive language in dealing with opponents. Contemporary Christians simply reject the entire package. Essentially he said, “That’s the way we once behaved, regrettably. We’ve moved on since then.”

What’s good for the goose is good for the gandz. Mutatis mutandis, some disparaging remarks in the Talmud against early Christians should be understandable to today’s Christians, if only as an exercise in parity. We ought not – and should not – expect them to be pleased by the language. But we have an argument in equity that they should be able to tolerate their existence, in the same way that similar (or much worse) passages regarding the Jews appear in their literature.

The passages in the Talmud that deal with Jesus himself (if they in fact do – the Rishonim, our great medieval commentators, were split on this), in far less than complimentary fashion, can be dealt with similarly.

There are yet other passages that are extremely dismissive of categories of non-Jews. Many of them, in fact, were aimed not at all non-Jews but at the idolatrous near-savages known to Chazal. To be sure, there are disputes going back to the Rishonim as to which passages refer to which groups. But many Jews are unaware as to how many mainstream decisors restricted the application of certain Gemaros to idolators, explicitly excluding the civilized folks among whom we live today.

It is also more than probable that part of the reason that this distinction is not embraced more widely is connected to the horrific experience Eastern European Jews in particular had with their non-Jewish neighbors for hundreds of years. It is frustrating to many of us that some people have not sufficiently appreciated the difference between the NKVD and the IRS. Even in this regard, my experience is that non-Jews of good will (and there are huge numbers of them in this great country) understand that habits born of eight hundred years of experience can take a while to extinguish, and are far less demanding and hostile than we might think.

There are other Talmudic sections that are not products of special conditions, and still spell out favorable treatment of Jews relative to non-Jews. These, too, are a cause for consternation for many Jews. They should not be. Almost every religious group we know of makes some claim to specialness, usually both theoretically and practically. These groups celebrate difference, and readily accept that other communities are entitled to extend privileges to the inner group as well. We Jews do not stand out in this regard so much as fit into the general trend.

Resorting to cheap innuendo, Feldman creates images and identities aimed at conveying to his reader the notion that Orthodox Jews do not, in fact, fit into the modern world. (This is not surprising. Feldman provided legal help pro bono to the city of Tenafly, New Jersey, when it sought to bar the construction of an eruv.)

         Tefillin he pairs with the painful cilice of the priest-zealot of The Da Vinci Code; the silly little “fringed prayer shawl” that Jews wear under their shirts he pairs with the holy undergarment of Mormons, asking aloud why it is that Joe Lieberman was not perceived the way some see the Mormonism of Mitt Romney – as something “weird.”

Feldman, I believe, is blind here as well to the truth. Whether he wins the presidency or not, the vast majority of Americans will not reject Mitt Romney because they see Mormon belief and practice as beyond the pale.

I will put it simply: Why don’t I worry about the unusualness of Mormon belief? Mostly because I have never met a Mormon I didn’t like. (I’m sure that I could be introduced to a few, and there is also the irritating issue of posthumous baptism of Jews that many – especially Holocaust survivors – are upset about, particularly the glacial progress toward a definitive solution.)

My point is that for most Americans, actions are far more important than theology. They really don’t care what other people believe, as long as they act appropriately. If they are good, caring citizens, their beliefs – and claims of specialness in the eyes of the Lord – are just not so important.

Jews should listen up. Be a good neighbor, and you can sing a three-part harmonic ode to R. Yehuda Halevi’s special Jewish soul and most non-Jews will not hold it against you. Parts of certain chassidic communities are hardly the leaders of the pack in pushing for intergroup connection and acceptance, but tens of thousands of New Yorkers will remember them as the group that set up tables on 9/11 to provide drinks for the dazed and thirsty who fled across the bridge to Brooklyn.

There is one final argument. Part of what goes through our heads every time we encounter a Gemara that emphasizes some Jewish-gentile difference is that non-Jews will sense a slippery slope, at the base of which wait crusading Jews ready to behead all of them and impale their remains on sharpened Magen Davids.

We must confidently know ourselves – and convey to others – an overarching reality about traditional Jews: We are a legal community. Hostile attitudes can go only so far without hitting a firm halachic roadblock. No matter what animus some Jews might have for outsiders, they don’t murder, rape or maim. They cannot steal, lie or deceive without running afoul of clear-cut halachot.

Putting it all together, we have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide. Putting aside those who have it in for us no matter what we do, the good folks of America will not find our life-style off-putting. I have been challenged several times by Jews who have rejected tradition. “Aren’t you ashamed to be part of system that says X, Y and Z about non-Jews? What if they find out?” They react with incredulity when I tell them that I discuss X, Y and Z openly with non-Jewish friends without embarrassment and without ill effect. But it is the truth.

Noah Feldman makes the mistake of so many others who believe that it is dangerous and unacceptable for Jews to act or believe differently from their fellow citizens. He is part of that large group of Jews who have felicitously been described as “proud to be ashamed Jews.”

It is a malady common to people who have little confidence in their own belief system. It has little to do with vast swaths of America, inhabited by people who are proud of their own beliefs and sympathetic to the strongly-held beliefs of others. If we remember that, we needn’t be silenced or embarrassed by the charges of the Noah Feldmans of our times.

About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Sydney M Irmas adjunct chair, Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School.


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