Religion & Beliefs

Understanding Exile OR Orthodox Paradox: Electric Boogaloo OR Noah Feldman Is Hot Let’s Not Excommunicate Him

Tonight is the beginning of a major fast in commemoration of the destruction of the first and second temples (plus a bunch of other bad things). First the Jews were kicked out by the Assyrians and shipped off to Babylonia. … Read More

By / July 23, 2007
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Tonight is the beginning of a major fast in commemoration of the destruction of the first and second temples (plus a bunch of other bad things). First the Jews were kicked out by the Assyrians and shipped off to Babylonia. Then, after seventy years Jews were allowed back in Israel to rebuild the Temple, only to have it destroyed again by the Romans. Living in exile is a notoriously difficult experience for Jews. (Over Shabbat I learned of a custom of removing all the knives from the table before saying birkat hamazon, because when we read the part about our exile we might be tempted to stab ourselves). On the one hand, we’re supposed to feel incomplete and forlorn without Zion, on the other hand, we’ve gotten pretty good at this whole galut thing (and, frankly, pretty bad at this whole having our own state thing). It can be hard for me to sympathize with a tradition that thinks I might want to stab myself just because I don’t live in Israel. I simply don’t connect with a sense of national/ethnic exile. This was put into profound relief this weekend as I read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which was great, but felt ideologically distant to me. On the other hand, the article in the New York Times Magazine this weekend about intermarriage and the unnecessary alienation that it causes seemed very relevant and relatable. If you haven’t read the article yet (though chances are you have–it’s currently number two on the ‘Most E-Mailed’ list) I highly suggest you give it a once-over. The gist is that a graduate of the Maimonides School of Brookline, a man to whom Jewish life is obviously very important, has been effectively ignored and even erased from alumni photos because he’s married to a non-Jew. Noah Feldman, the article’s author, has struggled with his Modern Orthodox upbringing because it seems unprepared to deal with his own choices. He writes with a consistently positive tone about Judaism and Jewish life, and yet he feels as if he’s been pushed away from it, as if his there is a gulf between himself and the community he clearly loves. His article is one of the most potent descriptions of exile I’ve ever read. Partially as a result of Feldman’s article, I spent much of my Shabbat meals discussing intermarriage with friends, and heard yet again the damn doomsday prediction about the future of the Jewish people. We can’t intermarry, because then who will have the Jewish babies? If that is really the argument, if all we really need is Jewish babies, then I guess it’s no problem for me to inter-date. I don’t want kids, so it shouldn’t matter whom I end up with, right? No. Of course not. I should date Jews because I spend all day being Jewish. I lay tefillin in the morning, and say kriat shma before I close my eyes at night, and in between I learn text, give tzedakah, read Torah and try to build an inspiring and exciting Jewish community for myself and my friends. I want to share all those things with someone I love. And frankly, if that person can’t read Hebrew, or thinks the Torah is stupid and outdated, I’d having trouble imagining myself with him in the long term anyway. Last night I read Shmuley Boteach’s fantastic response to Feldman’s article. Boteach gave his editorial the simple title, Stop Ostracizing the Intermarried, and it contains one of the most sensible and mature responses to intermarriage that I’ve ever seen:

Of course I had wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance during his two years at Oxford. 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 my affection for him would never change.

I told him that he was a prince of the Jewish nation, that his obligations to his people were eternal and unchanging, that whether or not his wife, or indeed his children, were Jewish, he would never change his own personal status as a Jew. I added that I knew he would do great things with his life as a scholar of world standing, and that he would always put the needs of the Jewish people first.

In this response Boteach seems to be exhibiting Ahavat Israel, the practice of loving and respecting fellow Jews. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook is famous for saying that the second temple was destroyed as a result of gratuitous hatred, and the third will be constructed as a result of ahavat Israel. So maybe I don’t connect with national exile. It turns out the personal exile that I see and feel deeply in the Jewish community stipulates that my response be the same as the person stabbing himself with the challah knife during birkat hamazon. Tonight, maybe you’ll sit in a dark room with other Jews, reading the book of Lamentations, and crying for the loss of Zion. I hope that in those moments of grief you’ll remember the grief of members of our own community, and you’ll join me in committing to practicing more ahavat Israel every day.