Cracking the Paradox


The “Orthodox Paradox” continues to provide fodder for bloggers and Jewish thinkers.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has written another insightful column on the issue, in response to the vociferous criticism he received for his first stab at defending Noah Feldman. The central problem, says Boteach, is that Jews must distinguish between “an immoral sin and an irreligious act”:

Does driving on Shabbat make you a bad person, or a nonobservant one? Does failure to attend synagogue make you into an irreligious Jew or a flawed human being?…

The greatness of the Lubavitcher Rebbe was his genius in distinguishing between religious and moral sin. Before the Rebbe those who ate non-kosher were treated as though they themselves were unkosher.

The Rebbe understood that these were not bad people. They were simply irreligious people. And they had to be shown love and respect. Not just in order to bring them back to the fold, but because it was righteous and Jewish to do so. Why should those who marry out be treated any differently?

Further, Boteach argues:

Unlike Christianity, which is based on a single precept – faith in Christ – Judaism is based on 613 separate and autonomous commandments. Our umbilical cord with God consists of these 613 strands. To be sure, the more we keep, the stronger the connection. But the key is to remain connected with even a single strand, even a single mitzva…

It is disgraceful that men and women who marry out are not encouraged to keep the rest of the Torah’s commandments. It is disgraceful that they are treated as if they consciously rebelled against the Jewish tradition when, in their minds, they simply followed the dictates of the heart.

Violating the taboo against intermarriage is violating one of those commandments–but then again, welcoming the stranger is another one of those commandments. Jew who reject people who violate the first commandment are themselves violating another commandment.

Esther Kustanowitz, who blogs and writes about Jewish single life from a fairly traditional perspective, raises another interesting point: where does Modern Orthodoxy’s rejection of taboo lifestyles end?

One instinct clearly is to cut “problem children” like Feldman out of the picture. But as time goes on, other day-school graduates may emerge with different approaches to living Jewishly — whether that means becoming radical environmentalists, secular Zionists, gay rabbis, actors and comedians, or staying single into your 30s. Who knows? Anything outside the ordinary and it’s a problem.

Which raises the question: at what point do the once-clear distinctions between Modern Orthodoxy and haredi Orthodoxy blur and become meaningless? If Modern Orthodoxy becomes more conservative in its response to break-away factions, when does it lose the qualifier “Modern”?

Simon Jacobson, an Orthodox writer at, writes that nobody has come up with a worthwhile response to Feldman’s dilemma. Either they reject Feldman entirely, reject Judaism entirely or are fuzzy-head reconcilers.

Meanwhile, on the critical end of the spectrum, Ralph M. Lieberman wrote an essay for the American Thinker that argues unconvincingly that the New York Times’ publication of Feldman’s essay showed a lapse in journalistic standards. It’s a first-person essay in the New York Times magazine and is never billed as a piece of impartial journalism. How does that violate any recognized journalistic standards?

A much more reasonable critique comes from Rabbi Avi Shafran, the eloquent director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. I don’t agree with a word he says–“intermarraige represents a deep betrayal” is one choice quote–but I wouldn’t expect anything different. He is a deeply committed traditional Jew, speaking for an organization that doesn’t even attempt to call itself “Modern Orthodox.” Ultra-Orthodox Jews do not argue that Jews should reconcile modernity and Torah; in their eyes, modernity is only acceptable when it does not intrude on Torah. It would be absurd to engage in a debate with people who rely on this fundamental principle why they should make a compromise with modern reality.

One thought on “Cracking the Paradox”

  • shmiley Boteach was thrown out of chabad he is a publicity hound. Noah’s screed was abominable and an attack on Orthodox judaism. The school was right in their actions and Orthodox judaism will not bend to the rules! Halcha rules not some hazy liberalism. Noah feldman analysis is vituperative and is a winny spoiled brat!
    Noah Feldman has left Orthodox Judaism and must admit so. I agree with Rabbi Shafran’s view point
    Modern orthodox judaism will not accept intermarriage! it is halachicn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *