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Does Shutting Out 'the Other' Make Us Better as a People?

August 16, 2007 By:
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
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Noah Feldman was a brilliant, Orthodox Jewish Rhodes scholar who arrived in Oxford in my fourth year as rabbi there in 1992.

We quickly hit it off. For one thing, there was scarcely a subject -- Jewish or secular -- upon which Noah did not have some profound knowledge. We studied Talmud together several times a week.

Noah was one of the most accomplished young students I had ever met. He was valedictorian of Harvard, a Rhodes and Truman scholar, and completed his Oxford doctorate in about 18 months, which may or may not be a university record. It was a source of great pride for me that he was observant and wore a kipah.

After graduating from Oxford, Noah went to Yale, where his observance began to wane. I heard from some of his classmates that he was dating a non-Jewish girl. Hearing that he was quite serious about her, when his girlfriend in turn came to Oxford as a Marshall scholar, I made a point of reaching out to her and inviting her to our Shabbat dinner.

Sadly, others took a far different view. A mutual friend of ours who was a rabbi in Noah's life essentially told him that if he married outside the faith, he would have to sever his relationship with him. Apparently, many of Noah's Orthodox friends made the same decision. The net result was that one of the brightest young Jews in the entire world was made to feel that the Jewish community was his family only if he made choices with which we agreed.

Of course, I had wanted Noah to marry Jewish. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make. Before his wedding, I wrote him a note that said, in essence, that we were friends, and that my affection for him would never change.

We remain good friends until today. Noah went on, in his 30s, to become one of the youngest-ever tenured law professors, first at New York University and then at Harvard. Today, he ranks, arguably, as the one of the youngest academic superstars in the United States.

How tragic, therefore, that Noah wrote an article in The New York Times Magazine on July 22 that is a lengthy detailing of the alienation he has experienced from his former Orthodox Jewish day school and friends, who even cut him out of a class-reunion photograph in which he participated.

For more than two centuries now, since the Emancipation, Jews have been debating how to deal with those who marry outside the community. The conventional response has been to treat them as traitors to the Jewish cause. The extreme practice of ostracization was justified by the belief that only by completely cutting off those who married out would we be making a sufficiently strong statement as to the extent of their betrayal, thereby dissuading those who might follow suit.

There is one problem with this practice. Aside from the ethical and humanitarian considerations, it does not work. We have been practicing this alienation for decades, and yet intermarriage has grown to approximately 50 percent of the Jewish population!

I am well aware of the fact that intermarriage is a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people. But that does not change the fact that those who have chosen to marry out are still Jewish, should still be encouraged to go to synagogue, and should still be encouraged to devote their lives and resources to the welfare of the Jewish people and the security of the State of Israel.

And as far as their non-Jewish spouses are concerned, do we really believe that by showing the most unfriendly behavior, we are living up to our biblically mandated role of serving as a light unto the nations? Is there any possibility that a non-Jew married to a Jew will look favorably at the possibility of becoming halachically Jewish if he or she witnesses Orthodox Jews treating their husbands or wives as pariahs?

I am proud today to call Noah my friend. I do my best to reiterate to him the message that even with his marrying out, we are proud of his achievements and need his participation in Jewish organizational life. And it is my fervent hope that given the love and respect we show him, he will choose to show his wife and two children the glories of the tradition he knows so well with a view toward impressing upon them a desire to have them join in our eternal faith.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is an author and the host of a cable-television program.

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