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Noah Feldman And The Fear Of Being Different

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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.)

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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