Not Without My Wife

Professor Noah Feldman's article might encourage Orthodoxy to recognize the gap between the texts to which it is ostensibly obligated and its actual rulings.

A class picture has touched off a storm in the American Jewish community, especially among the Orthodox. It was taken at a reunion of the graduating class of Professor Noah Feldman, a lecturer at Harvard Law School. Feldman, 37, is a graduate of the Maimonides Jewish day school in Boston, which was founded by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the famed leader of modern Orthodox Jewry in the U.S. in the 20th century. To this day, the school is one of the community's flagships.

In 1998, Feldman was invited to a 10-year class reunion at the home of one of the graduates. Feldman was happy to take part, accompanied by his fiancee (now his wife), Dr. Jeannie Suk, whose name and appearance reveal her Korean roots.

At the end of the reunion, the participants got together for a group picture. A few months later Feldman received the alumni publication covering the reunion. According to Feldman, he was surprised to see that he and his partner were missing from the group photo. Later, at Yom Kippur services, he ran into the photographer, Leonard Eisenberg. Even before Feldman asked him anything, Eisenberg quickly apologized: "It's not my fault," he said.

Updates Feldman has sent to the alumni newsletter over the years about his marriage and the birth of his two children went unpublished. To Feldman, the reason was clear: Someone was trying to wipe him off the school's collective memory because of his wife.

Someone else might have moved on and forgotten about it, or made do with complaining to his friends. But Feldman is not someone else. He is a rising star of the American justice system, a graduate of Harvard Law, Yale and Oxford, a former clerk to a U.S. Supreme Court justice, the recipient of prestigious legal awards, and an expert in the sensitive and stormy area of the relations between religion and state.

About four years ago, Feldman, who is also an expert in Islamic law and speaks English, Hebrew, Arabic and French, was invited to serve as a special consultant to the U.S. Administration on formulating a new constitution for Iraq. Two years ago, at age 35, he was invited to join the faculty of the most illustrious law school of them all - Harvard. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine. The New Yorker deemed him one of the five most influential thinkers in the U.S.

In short, a man like Feldman would not be one to silently swallow the insult. And so, about three weeks ago, nine years after he received the newsletter with the picture from which he had been excluded, he published a huge article in The New York Times, entitled "The Orthodox Paradox." In it, he harshly settled the score with modern American Orthodoxy, with its many internal contradictions.

If an old private insult was the starting point for this settling of accounts, his article raises much more cardinal points. In it, Feldman brought up the question of mixed marriage as an internal contradiction in Modern Orthodoxy, between the limitations of Halakha (Jewish law) and the openness required by modern life. He also mentions a painful anecdote from his days at Maimonides: a rabbi who told his students that a Jew was prohibited from desecrating the Sabbath to save the life of a non-Jew, and that such an action was permissible only if its purpose was to maintain intercommunity relations.

Feldman also reminded readers of the Modern Orthodox background of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Arabs at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and of Yigal Amir, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassin. But he was careful to note that the same school that produced Goldstein also produced two Nobel Prize laureates. He emphasized the internal contradiction in Modern Orthodoxy, which can create Nobel Prize winners and a murderer like Goldstein.

Feldman's article stepped on many toes, and the responses were not long in coming. Jewish Web sites were flooded with surfers' responses, many of whom attacked Feldman. Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of Jewish Week, one of the two most prominent Jewish weeklies in the U.S., told Haaretz this week that his publication has so far received 75 letters responding to Feldman's article. It was an unusually large number, Rosenblatt said, considering that their most noteworthy subjects usually generate 15 such letters.

Prominent individuals also reacted to the article, the most outstanding of whom was Rabbi Norman Lamm, former president of Yeshiva University, the bastion of Modern Orthodoxy. Lamm published an "open letter" to Feldman, in which he pointed out what he considers an internal contradiction in Feldman's own approach: "You violated a major principle of Judaism and yet object when we, your fellow Jews, express our heartache in one of the only ways open to us." Lamm added that Feldman simply wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.

The Feldman case was also grist for the mill in many private conversations among Jews. The most common opinion voiced was that even if Feldman had raised a number of real questions, he had gone too far in the unfair style of his criticism, which smacked of settling private accounts. This feeling was reinforced by the fact that the personal experience with which he opened the article had occurred nine years before; that Feldman had decided to publish his piece in The New York Times and not in a Jewish paper; and that a few years ago Feldman had volunteered to represent, pro bono, the Tenefly, New Jersey Borough Council, which had refused a request by the Jewish community to install an eruv (a line around the community, within which Jews are permitted to carry personal articles on the Sabbath). Feldman, by the way, won at the initial trial but lost on appeal.

Feldman agreed to be interviewed for this article by e-mail only. He ignored the question as to why he chose to publish his article nine years after the experience, but explained that he published it in The New York Times because he was a regular contributor to that paper, and because "the article is of universal interest, as the broad response I have received indicates." He explained that he had volunteered to represent Tenefly on the question of the eruv not because he was opposed to the eruv ("Indeed, my father helped created the eruv for Cambridge Massachusetts, where I live"), but because as a constitutional lawyer, he liked to represent all kinds of cases of principle. "The town had a neutral law, dating to 1954, barring hanging objects from poles or trees, and initially the Borough Council - which was majority Jewish - voted not to change that neutral law to accommodate the eruv."

Feldman argues that his article was intended to painfully point out the internal contradictions with which Modern Orthodoxy lives, but not to attack it. "I express love and respect for Modern Orthodoxy. The anger in the wake of the piece comes from some within that world, never from me."

Meanwhile, Feldman's article engendered a scuffle over journalistic ethics as well, after Jewish Week spoke to the photographer, who claimed that Feldman and his fiancee were not included in the photo simply because there were too many people in the picture and they were too far to one side to be in the frame. According to the photographer, Feldman and The New York Times were aware of this fact before the article was published. In response, the Orthodox Union demanded an apology from The Times, and that Feldman be barred from writing in the paper. They even compared the incident to the affair of Jayson Blair , The New York Times' reporter who was found to have been fabricating stories.

The New York Times responded that Feldman never purported to have been excluded from the photo on purpose, but rather said his photo had not been published, and in any case, the article was not fabricated and there was no need for an apology. Feldman himself told Haaretz: "The photographer took seven photos. My girlfriend (now wife) and I appeared in six of them. The school published the one where we did not appear."

A more significant outcome of the Feldman controversy is the fact that the issues he raised in his article have once again become subjects of discussion in the Jewish community. In a major article in his magazine, Rosenblatt, himself Modern Orthodox, wrote that even a person who rejects the style of Feldman's article must not ignore the questions it raises. After Friedman's article was published, Jewish Week pointed out that a gap existed between the declared positions of Orthodoxy and its stands in practice. In real life, the magazine said, no Orthodox physician would refuse to save the life of a non-Jew on the Sabbath. No Orthodox physician would justify saving a non-Jew's life by saying it was to maintain community relations, but by the need to save the life of any individual. There are also many Orthodox people who accept Jews married to non-Jews in their immediate environment (like the actor Kirk Douglas, a guest of honor at the Aish Hatorah yeshiva banquet), despite their rejection in principle of the phenomenon.

This might be the most important part of the controversy. As in the aftermath of the publication in Israel of Sefi Rachlevsky's book "The Messiah's Donkey," Feldman's article might encourage Orthodoxy to recognize the gap between the texts to which it is ostensibly obligated and its actual rulings. And it may make Orthodoxy more humble in its criticism of other Jewish sectors that take similar stands.