Lonely Man of Cake

July 22, 2007

Noah Feldman: Today’s Bar-Kamtza?

Filed under: America,Diaspora,Education,Faith,General,Judaism,Orthodoxy,Religion — lonelymanofcake @ 8:14 pm

I read Noah Feldman’s thought-provoking essay which appeared in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, and knew immediately that the article would draw a firestorm of criticism from members of the modern-Orthodox community, both because of what some might consider the inflammatory nature of some of the author’s comments, but more importantly, because of the timing of the article’s publication: during the nine days preceding the commemoration of the destruction of the Second Temple.

Although material discussing the destruction of the temple in rabbinic literature is scant, one returning theme is that the temple was destroyed because of the baseless hatred of Jews toward each other. Indeed, from the firsthand account of the events preserved by the historian Josephus, we may corroborate this as fact. By the time Titus arrived in Jerusalem, ready to purge the city of its rebels, no fewer than four groups of Jewish extremists fought for control of the city. The infighting verged on the outbreak of all out civil war in Jerusalem and even led to the burning of the precious food stores in the besieged city. The rebels in Jerusalem found themselves at odds with each other and also with the Pharisees and most other Jews in the country, who capitulated to the Romans without offering resistance.

The Talmud perpetuates the interpersonal hatred responsible for bringing down the temple with the story of “Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza”: A fellow is said to have planned a party, and asked his servant to invite his good friend Kamtza. The servant, perhaps out of confusion, invited one Bar-Kamtza instead, who just so happened to be the arch enemy of the host. Bar-Kamtza attended the party, perhaps seeing the invitation as an act of reconciliation on the part of the host. But the host would have no part of it and wished to eject Bar-Kamtza from the party, even after the latter offered to pay for his plate, for half of the cost of the party, and even the full cost of the party. The host grabbed Bar-Kamtza, and physically threw him out of the party. The insulted Bar-Kamtza was made to feel even worse by the fact that the rabbis sitting at the party did not intervene on his behalf. Bar-Kamtza is said to have then engaged in an act of subterfuge which angered the king and brought the destruction of the temple.

Noah Feldman is a 21st century Bar-Kamtza. He’s not perfect, but he has good intentions. He reaches out to the very institutions which leave him feeling embittered. To take the cropped photo as a metaphor, he attended the party, as did Bar-Kamtza, but was forcibly removed, with no explanations or protestations offered by his host, or by the rabbis who sat idly without intervening.

The unfortunate result reminds us of the subterfuge of the original Bar-Kamtza, who, wishing to avenge the silent rabbis, is said to have sabotaged a sacrifice offered by the king, inflicting a wound that the emperor would not have taken notice of but which would matter a great deal to the Jews, as it would invalidate the animal for sacrifice. Feldman did just that. The wound inflicted by his article should be apparent to the very community that rejected him. While people who are not close to the modern-Orthodox community may not fully appreciate the intricacies of Feldman’s criticism, the general repercussion, nonetheless, is the sullying of what had been the perceived pristine image of the modern-Orthodox movement in the eyes of the world.



  1. In a famous speech, my teacher Rav Soloveitchik zt’l (the founder of the Maimonides School) observed that most Jews will not understand that we too have red lines. There are places we cannot go, conduct we cannot abide and allowances we cannot make. Those who cannot understand the need for our principled positions, based upon a concept of absolute truth that has been suicidally abandoned by a post-modern self-indulgent world, will heap epithets upon us. There is, however, no need to apologize for our Tradition. It is the height of hypocrisy to ask others, in the name of respect, to give up their principles in order to assuage the conscience of an individual who flagrantly flouted them. If that is the Modern Orthodoxy that Feldman, is supporters and the New York Times seek- then better it not exist. Such an monster does not deserve the name ‘Orthodox’ or to presume to represent the Jewish chain of Tradition.

    Comment by Jeffrey R. Woolf — July 23, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

  2. Thanks for your comment, Professor Woolf.

    Unfortunately, the leadership of the Orthodox community, with their zeal for the punctilious observance of the halakha, have absolved themselves of the need, indeed requirement, to treat one’s fellow man as oneself, viz., with respect and dignity. They have forgotten that the commandment against maltreating the proselyte is the most oft-repeated injunction in the Torah.

    To paraphrase a sardonic comment I once heard: If ואהבת לרעך כמוך was not a verse in the Torah, but rather a stringency in the Mishna Berurah, perhaps then people would care to observe it. It is a shame that the Orthodox community so excels in book banning and heresy-hunting but has forgotten the exhortation to embrace those who have gone astray.

    Comment by lonelymanofcake — July 23, 2007 @ 4:02 pm

  3. “They have forgotten that the commandment against maltreating the proselyte is the most oft-repeated injunction in the Torah.”

    That is all good and well, however, at least the proselyte accepts the commandments, unlike Prof. Feldman who seeks to change orthodoxy to fit his interpretation and self-centeredness.

    Comment by ed — July 23, 2007 @ 5:26 pm

  4. Ed: This article probably would never have seen publication if Feldman was not afforded the exclusionary treatment he ultimately received. Call it petty, call it hindsight, but we should have learned from Bar-Kamtza that the backlash from even the smallest offenses can have far reaching consequences.

    Orthodoxy needs a change for the better when it comes to setting aside self-righteousness surrounding the observing of the exactitudes of halakha and opening channels of dialog with those who see things a bit differently.

    Comment by lonelymanofcake — July 23, 2007 @ 5:34 pm

  5. Do you not agree that every religion must have at least some bright line rules and by crossing them you leave the fold. That is not to say one should not engage them, but one need not celebrate them. For instance, would/should the alumni mag publish a mazal tov note that Prof. Feldman has fathered an non-jewish child? Is that something the school should be proud of and celebrate? They warmly welcomed him to the reunion wo they did not shun him. It is he who shunned them.

    Listen, at the end of the day, this article was nothing more than a long-winded kvetch of someone who is used to being coddled and wooed.

    Comment by ed — July 23, 2007 @ 5:43 pm

  6. Ed, please refresh my memory as to where in the Torah it says that a Jewish male cannot marry a gentile female. Ruth was a Moabite (!) and is nonetheless unabashedly advertised as the progenitor of King David. (Take a look at the relevant chapter in “The Beginnings of Jewishness” by Prof. Shaye Cohen, a YU grad now teaching at Harvard.)

    The Torah preserves accounts of countless episodes embarrassing to our most beloved figures. When Judah slept with, and impregnated his daughter-in-law, Tamar, does the Torah omit the fact that Tamar gave birth to twin sons from this relationship? Does the Torah omit their names? Are our precious shul-bulletins holier than the Torah?

    The red lines, exclusivity, and elitism that everyone is looking for are the very characteristics that give rise to disgruntlement on the fringe.

    Comment by lonelymanofcake — July 23, 2007 @ 5:58 pm

  7. Please. WE ALL KNOW that marrying a non-Jew is not permitted, and bringing in Dovid HaMelekh doesn’t prove anything. There are commentaries that note that Ruth actually went through garushin (conversion) as a minor, and then had Kabolas HaMitzvos (acceptance of the mitzvos) when she went to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). Feldman wants it both ways – he wants to have his intermarriage, and then just can’t understand why these archaic, medieval Jews can’t accept his wife. I’m sure she’s a wonderful person, but advertising intermarriage is just not the responsibility of the Maimonides school. And as far as Yehudah and Tamar, the laws forbidding father-in-law to daughter-in-law relations were not in force (it being pre-Sinai), and in fact Yehudah says “tzadkah mimeni” – “She is more correct than me” – praising Tamar for not embarrassing him, but just asking whose belt it was. This case has nothing to do with red lines, or embarrassment, or elitism, or anything else like that. Its a question of Jewish law – Feldman’s children are not Jewish, and if he was a Kohen (priest), he would not be able to serve in the Temple. Go back over the past 2000 years of Jewish law and see if it says ANYWHERE that it is permissible in normal circumstances to marry a non-Jew. I’m waiting.

    Comment by annoyed — July 23, 2007 @ 7:51 pm

  8. WE ALL KNOW that marrying a non-Jew is not permitted
    True. it is about as non-permitted as eating shellfish. much less non-permitted than eating hadash (all American Orthodox Jews do that) or untithed produce of Palestine, and much, much, more desirable than marrying a Jew and not observing the laws of menstrual purity.
    Are our “red lines” halakha, or are they simply statistical pride?

    Comment by biqoret — July 23, 2007 @ 9:06 pm

  9. The cool part is that American Orthodox Jews are so up-in-arms about this, its crazy.

    Comment by biqoret — July 23, 2007 @ 9:13 pm

  10. Annoyed: The Tanakh speaks for itself as a source. Without resorting to apologist commentators writing one millenium later retrojecting their rabbinic worldview onto Scripture, the Tanakh, as our most sacred source, can and should be used to guide more tolerant behavior toward those who have intermarried. This is NOT to say that I sanction intermarriage. But we need not look far for healthy precedents for tolerance, and, in the case of Miriam, stiff penalties for intolerance.

    If you wish to introduce the variable of a distinction between pre- and post-Sinaitic law as an apologetic device for explaining away the misdeeds of the patriarchs, then you find yourself at odds with Hazal who are of the opinion that the patriarchs were observant of the halakha.

    But again, as I stated in the above comments, we would likely not be having this discussion had Feldman been treated with the dignity to which he is entitled by virtue of the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself.

    Comment by lonelymanofcake — July 23, 2007 @ 9:21 pm

  11. Biqoret: We’ll talk about this, at length, next time we bump into one another. For your reference and reading pleasure, I suggest that you read the relevant portions (if you haven’t already) of Shaye Cohen’s “The Beginnings of Jewishness.”

    Comment by lonelymanofcake — July 23, 2007 @ 9:23 pm

  12. I remember Noah Feldman as a bowtie-wearing, conservative, intellectual wonk (and this was in 10th grade, mind you) who wore athletic goggles on the basketball court. I agree that his excision from the photo was wrong and with the stuff about reaching out to his family, inviting them for Shabbat, etc., since, he, after all, is a Jew no matter what. But specifically concerning his exclusion from “Mazel Tovs” in his alumni newsletter, I have to scratch my head at how dumb this brilliant man has to be to think that his transgression is going to earn him a clap on the back. He attended the reunion, his friends were happy to see him, and even his rabbis and teachers profess their love for him. That’s going to have to be enough. Maybe the “modern” Orthodox have moved away from sitting shiva for this, but we’re still not going to award trophies for marrying a gentile and producing gentile children. I’m sure the alumni publications at Harvard, Oxford, and Yale Law will be happy to publicize Feldman’s family news.

    Comment by Maimonides Graduate — July 25, 2007 @ 3:34 pm

  13. Maimo Grad: A quote from one of my responses to an earlier comment:
    “The Torah preserves accounts of countless episodes embarrassing to our most beloved figures. When Judah slept with, and impregnated his daughter-in-law, Tamar, does the Torah omit the fact that Tamar gave birth to twin sons from this relationship? Does the Torah omit their names? Are our precious shul-bulletins holier than the Torah?”

    Comment by lonelymanofcake — July 25, 2007 @ 4:25 pm

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