Monday, August 20, 2007

Thou Protesteth Too Much

I’ve gotten quite a kick out of the recent spate of articles relative to the intermarriage of Noah Feldman. What I find fascinating in particular is the reaction of Orthodox Jews to his personal choice and their objection to his critique of classical Orthodox Judaism to the non Jewish world.

Orthodox Judaism has always claimed that they possess the truth; after all they have described themselves with lofty adjectives such as Torah True Jews, Torah Jews, Authentic Judaism and the like. So if they are so sure of whom they are and what they stand for why is their reaction to Noah Feldman’s choice and his defense of that choice so shrill? If they hold the keys to the kingdom why do they care what the Noah Feldman’s of the world do? The old, but trusted Shakespearian reaction “Thou Protesteth Too Much” rings true in this particular instance. Based upon the reaction of the Orthodox community one would think that Feldman’s choice for a spouse is a palpable threat to the future of the Jewish people and a rejection of normative Judaism.

Then there are those like Yitzchak Adelstein who took objection with Feldman’s comments which impugned upon the tolerance of classical Orthodox Judaism in Rabbinic literature. Adestein has tried to wiggle out of Feldman’s charge by underscoring the subtle difference between a gentile and an idolater. He tries to discredit Feldman by claiming that the orthodox are good folks even though they may be idiosyncratic, claiming that Feldman tried to embarrass the Orthodox community. I don’t believe that Feldman was trying to embarrass the Orthodox Jewish community. He was merely expressing a point of view shared by many other Jews.

Adelstein claims that we are a “legal community”, thus there are safeguards to intolerance. But intolerance has been one of the hallmarks within classical Orthodox Judaism. One only needs to review some of the texts to get an idea of how profound our intolerance is. Without boring you with all the details I will direct your attention to the Mechilta D’nezikin, parasha 4 which deals in great detail over whether a Jew who kills a gentile with intent is to be put to death as he would be if he were to have killed a Jew. Regarding a Ger Toshav who killed a Jew unintentionally, he is put to death according to Makot, mishna 3. The Rambam happens to agree. There is a lengthy discussion in Sefer Hamitzvot (R’ David Hakochabi) as to whether killing a gentile constitutes murder or not. While it is prohibited to kill a gentile, the question is whether or not it is considered murder. The point is that within our texts we see distinctions made between Jew and Gentile a disparity that ought not exist, but for intolerance. There are also different standards regarding the saving of a Jewish/Gentile life on Shabbat. Refer to Talmud Yoma 85a regarding the discussion if a building collapses on a person and it is not known whether or not the person is Jewish or Gentile. Here too we see a manifestation of intolerance, uncomfortable as it may be.

Whether we like it or not there is a history of intolerance as evidenced in our texts. For those who are committed to the text and who study our texts religiously, it isn’t surprising that there might be a trickle down effect, however innocuous the intolerance towards others who do not subscribe to our belief system. On an intellectual level that sort of discrimination is relatively harmless. After all, Jews really haven’t exercised political power on a national scale for thousands of years. So any discrimination that we may harbor towards our neighbors while immoral is really harmless.

But what happens when we are in the position of power and our subconscious attitudes towards gentiles effects the way we behave? It is no longer the harmless, innocuous intolerance of others, but can be damaging, with far reaching negative effects that impacts the ethical matrix of our culture. Not too long ago in a Kol Koreh was issued in Benei Brak instructing its adherents not to sell real estate to Arabs or Non Jews. This Kol Koreh had been signed by several “Geonim” such as R’ Steinman and R’ Shmuel Wosner. I addressed the Kol Koreh in an essay A Discriminating Kol Koreh. In another essay Indian Giver I commented on the rogue Chief Rabbinate which had the temerity to revoke the conversion of Rivkah Lubitch because her level of shemirat mitzvoth wasn’t suitable for those holy rollers. There are countless daily instances of intolerance by the halachic establishment against those Jews who prefer Reform or Conservative Judaism as they chosen practice and affiliation in Israel.

There are those who would argue that these aren’t issues of discrimination, but a matter of halacha. No matter how one defines the issue it is discrimination. While for ages we cried discrimination seeking relief from liberal governments, when it is our turn to govern we are no better than those governments in the past who refused us our liberties. We have a history of intolerance as seen in our texts and brought to the public forum by Feldman. We sin daily against our Jewish brothers as well as Gentiles. We would do well to heed the advice of Adelstein and Co., who exhorts us to exhibit compassion and love for our neighbors. Who knows, maybe the Orthodox community will finally see the light.