I feel sorry for Noah Feldman, but not for the reason he wants us to feel sorry for him.
Feldman is important: a Harvard law professor who helped shape the Iraqi Constitution. Nevertheless, the Orthodox community in which he was raised treats him as if he doesn’t exist. He recently wrote in the New York Times Magazine about how his high school yeshiva airbrushed him and his non-Jewish fiance out of a photo in their newsletter.
I don’t know if his school ever reached out to him, but some in the Orthodox community did, such as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach who “ministered” to Feldman in Oxford.
Feldman’s problem is not just that he is intermarried. It is that he is so internally torn with his decision (though he probably would not admit it) that he needs the full acceptance of the community he has rejected to make him feel OK. Lacking that acceptance angers him so much that he skewered his alma mater, and the entire Orthodox movement, in the New York Times Magazine. NY Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt thinks Feldman is the one being unfair. I think we should feel sorry for Feldman, not because he was wronged, but because his “righteous indignation” will bring neither the healing nor the relationship he so desperately craves.
It is theoretically possible to live a deeply Jewish life with a non-Jewish spouse. One of my newest intermarried families left their Reform Jewish congregation because the non-Jewish spouse wanted a more authentic religious experience for their children. They come every Sabbath.
There is a place for non-Jews within our community. Our Talmudic sages spoke about the ger toshav, a resident alien who has cast his or her lot with the Jewish people, and shabbatoi, a Sabbath observer who has not (yet) undergone conversion. My people appreciate how these ideas grant them a legitimate place in our community even as they retain distinctions about who is a Jew and who is not (yet). It is a two-way relationship: my congregation accepts and integrates them socially, educationally, even pastorally. They accept that certain liturgical and leadership roles are reserved for those who have made a commitment to the Jewish faith–something they are not yet (and maybe will never be) ready to do.
This is the crux of the matter: It is not a question of the ambivalence rabbis feel when we regretfully tell a couple we cannot, in good conscience, officiate at their intermarriage, (because, by definition, a Jewish wedding is between two Jews) as Rabbi Waxman discusses. Rather, it is a question of whether the couple is willing to accept the fact that unconditional love is not the same thing as unlimited rights and privileges. I am not saying it is easy for these couples, but who ever said marriage and family–or personal growth–was supposed to be easy?
I don’t know Feldman, but I would like to know what he does with all his Jewish education. Trying to save the world is only one of 613 mitzvot. Does he make kiddush with his family Friday night? If not, why not? To blame his school is a cop out. He is welcome in my shul and, I am sure, in the many shuls in easy reach of Harvard.
I, and many of my colleagues, promise to be warm and loving to every individual, Jew or non-Jew, who comes through my doors. In return, I would like to challenge Feldman and other intermarried families to leave their attitude and defensiveness at the mezuzah, take responsibility for the ambiguity of the decisions they have made, and give the rest of the Jewish community a try.