The Feldman Affair, by which I mean both the New York Times Magazine article and its aftermath, is a significant event in the development of American Orthodoxy, encompassing important issues about Modern Orthodoxy that have not been sufficiently explored, intra-Orthodox divisions, and our approach to intermarriage.
The episode is likely to be cited for years to come and I imagine that, in due course, Professor Feldman will have more to say about his encounter with Judaism, if only because one of the inescapable messages in the article is his strong desire to remain part of the Jewish people, irrespective of his marrying out. He is young, gifted and blessed with much cachet, even star quality.
The controversy that erupted immediately after publication merits reflection. Doubtlessly, the Times venue added immeasurably to the attention the article received, adding as well to the view in certain Jewish quarters that the newspaper we like to read and like to hate is too willing to play loose with Jewish sensibilities, as is frequently evident in reportage from Israel.
The Modern Orthodox who especially have been critical of the Times now have additional ammunition because of the nasty and gratuitous association of Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir with their camp.
Their reaction inadvertently discloses a fault-line in American Orthodoxy. While the Moderns cried foul, with the exception of a small number the affair has not been an important story within the yeshiva world and certainly not in chassidic circles. Neither Hamodia nor Yated Ne’eman, the two English language weeklies that serve these sectors, has given the story much attention. Perhaps it is because haredim do not read the Times as much as the other Orthodox do or, alternatively, they find nothing new in the newspaper’s anti-religious slant.
I suspect that also at work is the familiar and lamentable tendency of many haredim not to care about the concerns of the Moderns whose lifestyle and attitudes are often out of sync with theirs. It is as if haredim believe the Moderns inhabit a different Jewish universe.
More curious, perhaps, is the anger of the Moderns, including those of a Centrist Orthodox orientation. These are religious Jews who are not often given to communal histrionics, except with regard to Israel. Likely, a key factor in their fierce reaction was that Feldman’s target was Maimonides, the Boston day school established by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and intimately identified with him for decades.
Although there has long been an intra-Orthodox dispute over whether the Rav can be labeled as Modern Orthodox, it is incontrovertible that the Moderns regard him as such and venerate him as a transcendent figure in Jewish life. Had Feldman attended another day school and written in the same vein, I believe the response would have been considerably muted.
The article did not break new ground in its depiction of Orthodoxy, yet the Moderns reacted as if their world was under siege. Media and scholarly attacks against Orthodox Jews are routine and routinely they include ample doses of nastiness. In fact, the genre is a mini-cottage industry in both Israel and North America, with sociologists – real and imposters – using religious Jews as punching bags. Haaretz apparently feels that it hasn’t done its journalistic duty if more than one issue goes by without an article or two that vilifies the Orthodox, especially the haredim.
The following is from a recent Haaretz book review: “Haredi society contains reactionary, conservative, extremist and violent elements. Corruption, parasitism and an abundance of other disorders also plague the society.” The parasitism charge is classical anti-Semitism and it was utilized by Communists and Nazis in their anti-Jewish campaigns.
The Moderns have no reaction to the drumbeat of media and scholarly attacks against yeshiva-world and chassidic Jews. The Orthodox Union issued a sharp statement critical of the Times and the Feldman piece. It is silent when haredim are denigrated and demonized. There is no anger when Professor Samuel Heilman vilely compares Orthodox yeshivas with Islamic seminaries that have trained suicide bombers. In fact, Heilman is a star on the Modern Orthodox speaking circuit. He was prominently featured at conferences of Edah, the unlamented ultra-Modern Orthodox organization that is no more, probably because its rhetoric was never matched by a sufficient religious sensibility.