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Noah Feldman And The Fear Of Being Different


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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.

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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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