The Feldman Flare-Up

At the 1998 reunion of Noah Feldman's Maimonides yeshiva class, no one could possibly have imagined that a few group photographs–all wide Jewy smiles and shapeless sorta-Orthodox outfits–would spark a seat-ripping public debate almost a decade later, and a messy … Read More

By / August 9, 2007

At the 1998 reunion of Noah Feldman's Maimonides yeshiva class, no one could possibly have imagined that a few group photographs–all wide Jewy smiles and shapeless sorta-Orthodox outfits–would spark a seat-ripping public debate almost a decade later, and a messy media scandal a month after that. But here we are, with everyone all hot and bothered by the innocuous-looking pics that played so central a narrative role in Noah Feldman's "Orthodox Paradox."

Orthodox Paradox was a journalistic Molotov Cocktail delivered to the Jewish community in the July 23rd issue of the New York Times Magazine. Was the article a poignant critique of Modern Orthodoxy, or an infantile rant against the obvious consequences of Feldman's life choices? A sensitive exploration of the contradictions within Modern Orthodoxy, or vulgar mudslinging? For two weeks, the debate raged.

On August 3, the debate gave way to a scandal. "A class picture has touched off a storm in the American Jewish community," says Ha'aretz. At the center of the storm is one question: Did Noah Feldman and the New York Times intentionally mislead readers to believe that Maimonides published a photo from which Feldman and his non-Jewish wife, Jeannie Suk, had been removed? But other than one woefully inadequate thumbnail at Jewish Week, no one has bothered to publish the f'shtinking pictures. That's just nuts. So yesterday, Noah Feldman did Jewcy a good turn and sent us the pics.

Feldman tells us: "6 out of 7 included our picture; one did not; that one was published. No one I know really thinks the selection was random, and of course neither does Maimo deny it if you read closely." Meanwhile, the Orthodox Union says Feldman should be fired as contributing editor to the Times for falsely asserting that he and his then-fiancee Jeannie Suk had been "deliberately cropped out" of the photo. The NY Times responds that both the Orthodox Union and Jewish Week have fudged the truth by denouncing Feldman for claims he never made. Who screwed up here?




EXPERT ANALYSIS: One August 3, photographer Larry Eisenberg says that Feldman and Suk simply "happened not to be" in the published photo. Suddenly, people ceased lecturing pro-Feldmanites on the sacred imperative to defend communal principles, and commenced huffing about the challenges of group photography and the slander that Modern Orthodox Jews preferred the photo because they disapprove of intermarriage. The "it just happened" explanation sounds preposterous. But after seeing the pics, we've got to admit that, yes, the photo without Feldman and Suk also happens to be by far the best one.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT: Of course Maimonides noticed that there was only one pic without Suk and Feldman, and of course they would favor a picture without them. So it's downright Providential that that picture was also the aesthetic stand-out. A noisy public debate in which we stand on principle and defend a decision that insults and confuses both secular Jews and the general U.S. population? No thanks! You can see for yourself that that picture just looked better!

None of this tells us, though, whether Feldman or the New York Times made false accusations in Orthodox Paradox. If the article never asserted that Maimonides altered a photo to remove Feldman and Suk, why do so many readers believe it did? Why has the Orthodox Union demanded he be fired for assertions that the New York Times flatly states were never made. Who's the victim here? And who's the evildoer to whom we should address our own indignant op-ed?

We're going to figure it out. As we do so, we're going to bang out a Feldman Flare-Up timeline below. The timeline, and this page in general, will remain a work in progress as we sort all this out.


The Feldman Flare-Up Timeline

July 22 (morning): The NY Times website publishes "Orthodox Paradox," in which Feldman describes attending the Maimonides reunion with Jeannie Suk, with whom he "crowded into a big group photo." Then, “[w]hen the alumni newsletter came around a few months later, I happened to notice the photo. I looked, then looked again. My girlfriend and I were nowhere to be found."

EXPERT ANALYSIS: Feldman says "I happened to notice THE photo." New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross went apeshit whenever a writer used the in reference to something mentioned for the first time in the story. The tells the reader you're referring back to something previously discussed. Ross's obsession with the definite article probably never improved a single story–only a born editor could expend such time and energy torturing writers to no gain for the reader–but Orthodox Paradox is the story that needed him. "What do you mean you 'happened to notice THE photo' in the Maimonides newsletter?? It can only be 'THE photo' if you're damn certain they published the very same photo you mentioned earlier. Otherwise, it's merely 'A photo.' Which is it?" One ill-advised the is where all the confusion started.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT: The editors of the New York Times Magazine are to blame for the fateful the. We preemptively dismiss arguments that Noah is such an unbelievable Yiddische koppe that he couldn't possibly have chosen the wrong word. He may be brilliant, but on the phone he sounded like the super-inquisitive, brain-always-racing kind of brilliant guy. And those guys make mistakes. Bottom line is that this is the sort of thing that an editor is supposed to identify and resolve.

July 22: I sent Noah Feldman two e-mails with 15 questions. In one of the questions I asked why Feldman was surprised that he and his wife were "removed from" the reunion photo, given that the Modern Orthodox community makes no secret of its aversion to intermarriage. After receiving Feldman's answers, I edited the interview text for concision, and also changed what I thought was needlessly imprecise language to more concrete language–including changing "removed from" to "airbrushed," which I understood to be the case based on my reading of the article and its illustration. I showed the edited interview text to Feldman, and asked if he was happy with the edits. He left me a phone message saying that he was happy with some edits, but would like to revert others. I had cut sentences in which he restated points already made, and I assumed he wanted one or more of these restored. I left a message asking that he indicate which edits I should revert, and also e-mailed him questions from observant Jews who wanted more information about Feldman's own practice of Judaism. He replied via e-mail "Sorry, I'm out," to which I replied that I would proceed with the Q&A as I had it.  

ANALYSIS:  I was incorrect in concluding that the photo had been airbrushed. But did I read the article incorrectly, or was I (along with Jewish Week, the Orthodox Union, and the others) just following the plain reading when I believed Feldman was claiming the photo had been manipulated? I'm still not sure. He never explicitly states that the photo had been manipulated, but so many concluded he had that this interpretation was at least a reasonable one. And the art above the article–which showed the silhouette of a figure apparently erased from the photograph–didn't help. But "airbrushed" is my error.

SUMMARY JUDGMENT: If I'm looking for someone to blame for this whole fiasco, I'll start in the mirror. I asserted that Feldman believed the photo had been airbrushed, when he hadn't stated this explicitly, and the edit of my own wording from "removed from" to "airbrushed" was vastly more significant than I knew. If I had clarified the issue with Noah, then we could have resolved the confusion around the photo much earlier, and the later Jewish Week expose of August 3 would not have been necessary. But it was my error, and I contributed to the confusion surrounding the issue. And I erred again by not addressing this earlier.  

July 24: Noah Feldman’s answers to the questions published here. The Q&A was a bit disappointing. [explain wildly different responses to Feldman interview of observant and secular]

July 23-August 3: Much kerfuffle.

August 2: Norman Lamm confuses himself with Michael Lerner again, tries to resolve morally ambiguous issue by declaring: "There must be no discrimination whatsoever. Every human being is created in the Image of God and has a right to life and health. The Lord is good to all and His tender mercies are over all His works." Youch. Tikkun olam to you to, my brother, tikkum olam to you too.

August 3: Jewish Week publishes article claiming that Feldman had “admitted” that he was not “intentionally cropped” out of the photograph. Rather, the article says, the newsletter simply used a different photo, one in which Feldman and others were outside the field of view of the photographer. Jewish Week says that in Orthodox Paradox Feldman “asserts that he was erased” from the photo, and that “Feldman and his wife allegedly being stricken from the photo” is central to the article.

August 3: The Orthodox Union writes a letter to the New York Times expressing its “outrage” at the “slanderous essay” and that Feldman’s “assertion” that he was “deliberately cropped out of a photograph” is “false.” It further laments that the Times ought to apologize because it had “determined Feldman’s assertion was false and then made an editorial decision not to publish the photo!" “Such editorial conduct is outrageous,” claims the OU.

They also ask that Feldman be fired from his position as contributing editor for “knowingly writing articles with false information.” August 4(?): The Times responds that the Jewish and OU do “not accurately describe” Feldman’s statements in Orthodox Paradox. He never writes that he was “erased” or “stricken from the photo” or “deliberately cropped out.” They say that fact Maimonides' publication of a “photo that does not include Mr. Feldman and his wife” is perfectly consistent with Feldman's characterization in the article.

August 8: The editorial board of The Jewish Press publishes "Feldman Fallout." The second paragraph is a doozy:

It will be recalled that Prof. Feldman, claiming he and his non-Jewish fiancée were intentionally cropped out of a photograph taken at a reunion of his Modern Orthodox high school for an alumni newsletter, launched an attack on Orthodoxy and offered his spin on various aspects of Jewish tradition and law, in the process giving voice to many of the calumnies perpetrated by anti-Semites through the ages. (This while asserting his fealty to authentic Judaism.)

That's art. Do you like saying things that aren't true, but dislike issuing retractions? Simple pile all your dodgy assertions into a single sentence, and then kick off the whole monstrosity with "It will be recalled…". So no, Feldman did nothing so silly as "assert his fealty to authentic Judaism," nor did he claim to have been "intentionally cropped out" of a photograph, nor did he "give voice" to "calumnies perpetrated by anti-Semites."

How the photos were described prior to the August 3 Jewish Week article

"literally…erased from the picture" — The website Rationally Speaking, blog post by Professor Massimo Pigliucci of SUNY Stony Brook, on July 22

"cut [Feldman] out of a class reunion photograph" — Shmuley Boteach, an Op-Ed in the Jerusalem Post, July 22

"literally cropped out of a reunion picture" — New York Jewish Week, column by Gary Rosenblatt, July 27

"He alleges that they cropped him and his wife out of pictures" –, column by Rabbi Levi Brackman, August 4



Tagged with: