Last week the New York Times published a long essay by a Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman. While once affiliated with Modern orthodoxy, Feldman is not religious today and is married to someone who is not Jewish. Dr. Feldman felt that because he had made a life choice his former religious community did not agree with, his previous Modern Orthodox High School, treated him differently than the rest of the alumni.
He alleges that they cropped him and his wife out of pictures (something the school denies) and did not place his life cycle announcement in the regular alumni bulletins alongside all the others. All this of course caused Dr. Feldman pain which he expressed at length in his New York Times article.
Although Dr. Feldman’s’ complaints have cause much controversy and criticism of Modern Orthodoxy, it must be noted that this type of behavior is not confined solely to Modern Orthodox communities. I know of some Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Temples that have policies which treat non-Jewish spouses differently than they treat the Jewish partner.
The perceived needs by communal institutions to, in some way, differentiate between those who have married in and those who have intermarried is not just an Orthodox issue. Clearly Dr. Feldman will find the same concern, on different levels, in virtually every religious denomination within Judaism.
Notwithstanding this, Feldman has done all of us a favor, albeit in a backhanded manner. His rant against his former community has forced many of us to think about the way we treat those Jews who, for one reason or another, have married outside of the faith. The following story illustrates why we need to change our mindset in this regard. About seven years ago as a fresh young rabbi of a congregation in London, it came to my attention that our volunteer Cantor, Torah Chanter and Warden was married to a non-Jewish woman.
Like any new professional I asked my superiors within the Modern Orthodox organization I worked how to handle the issue. I was referred all the way up to the office of the President who himself consulted with the major rabbinic authorities of the organization and a course of action was laid out.
It was decided that this individual could no longer serve in any official capacity within the synagogue, neither as Cantor nor as Torah reader, and in fact he would only be allowed to be called up to the Torah once a year on the anniversary of his father’s passing. In addition, he would be stripped of his position of warden.
I felt that this decision was rather harsh and asked for consideration of this man’s previous service to the synagogue and the effect this decision would have on him. However, I was told that someone who marries outside of the Jewish faith has made his decision to cut himself or herself off from the Jewish community and they therefore have to deal with the consequences.
Needless to say, when the fellow was informed of this decision he was devastated. He was not to be seen in the synagogue again besides once a year. Sadly our behavior towards this man completely alienated him from the Jewish community he loved so much. This story changed my entire perception of how one must deal with those who have married outside of the Jewish faith. The strategy of spurning intermarried people and treating them like an outsider has not worked—it only serves to alienate.
Assimilation and marrying out is as rampant as ever despite the fact that many Jewish communities shun those who make that choice. The method that may have worked in the shtetl (small Jewish enclave communities of yesteryear) simply does not work in 21st century Europe or America.
The dilemma many have is that if the Jewish community is too accepting of those who marry outside the faith then it may encourage a trend that is an existential threat to the Jewish people. While this is a legitimate concern, my response to that is that we are now at a stage of damage control. We need to save the next generation of Jews who are themselves products of mixed marriages. By continuing to shun the intermarried we run the risk of losing a colossal amount of additional Jewish children born into those mixed marriages.
The problem, However, is that most Jewish denominations do not differentiate between the person and the life they lead and here, unfortunately, prejudice also plays a part. Just because I do not approve of the way a person leads their life or their choice of marriage partner does not mean that they are bad or not deserving of respect and humanity. Every Jew is special and deserves the full love of the Jewish community no matter what.
According to the Kabbalah the entire Jewish community is like a body—if one part is missing the body cannot function properly. Each Jew is of vital importance and not one Jew is expendable. If we had this attitude, no matter how a Jew acts, we would think many times before we did anything that may alienate them from the Jewish community.
Although Dr. Feldman overstated his case and I disagree with his life choices he is still my brother. He needs to know that as a Jew he still has a special place within the Jewish community and no matter how people may act towards him he will always be one of us. I would welcome him and his family into my community any time they may come knocking.