NYU must have a massive Modern Orthodox population. The huge auditorium at Cooper Union was filled with college-age women in long-enough skirts and guys in kipot. It was the same crowd, at least in terms of visible demographics, as at the Netanyahu talk at the beginning of last year. Young women who, for ethnic and regional reasons, look quite a bit like me, filled half the room, making me think I might in fact be in 1860 Poland (Israel, of course, being far too diverse to be a point of comparison). The speakers all referred, indirectly, to an assumption that they were speaking to a Jewish audience. For the most part, but not entirely, they were. I expressed to Jo my slight concern that an event like this would be blown up. I am happy to report that this did not happen.
For most of the evening, everyone including The Noah Feldman talked around The Article, in particular the part in which he expresses his anguish over the fact that he and his non-Jewish wife were cropped out of a yeshiva alumni newsletter photograph… that they were not actually cropped out of. But for a topic treated as the elephant in the room, it’s a bit odd that the event was promoted as follows, from the NYU Bronfman Center website: “The panel will discuss Noah Feldman’s article ‘Orthodox Paradox’ which appeared in the New York Times Magazine and questions related to intermarriage and mainstreaming Jewish culture.” The panelists acted as though anyone who wanted to discuss this was veering off-topic and, perhaps, maligning Feldman, who should be known and looked up to for so much more than this one controversial article. But Feldman himself, when asked a completely unrelated question, switched to mentioning his article from the summer, acknowledging that this was what had brought the crowd.
But back to the panel. Shmuley Boteach is, and I do not exaggerate, an evangelical Protestant minister with a beard and hand gestures. I probably share this with many atheists of all backgrounds that I am put off by preaching (thus the ease of preaching to the converted) and so found Boteach cringe-inducing, all the more so when he insisted upon speaking well past his allotted time, thus preventing anyone from asking the panelists the tough questions (i.e., most esteemed Mr. Feldman, why did you say you were cropped out of photos when this was not the case?). But for all his visual cues of Orthodoxy and thus particularism, when Boteach offers platitudes against homophobia, when he declares that if Judaism were racist he would cease to be a Jew (as though any faith holds up to modern-day tenets of political correctness), offering the beyond-tired information that some of his best friends are black, when he speaks of spirituality and values, when he mentions that he is a “marriage counselor,” he seems above all American, a generic religious leader in the unspecified Judeo-Christian tradition, albeit one with endearingly Jewish mannerisms. I would sooner be preached to by Woody Allen himself.
Onto our friend Noah, or as Boteach calls him, Noach. Feldman looks in person exactly how I imagine Charles Swann. I say this not to be pretentious, but because it was distracting, and I kept imagining him running off after the panel to chase after Odette. As for his argument, his equation of Jewish particularism with parochialism is hardly original, but is not, despite what I’d like to see, passé. He referred derisively first to “parochial pride,” then to “very parochial pride,” when discussing the emotional connection some Jews feel to the impact Old Testament ideas have had on the Western world. When asked if he was raising his children as Jews, information glaringly absent from his article condemning those who would judge him on the basis of his intermarriage, he answered, in an oh-so-sincere tone, that of course he is raising them as Jews. After going on like this for a bit, he added, and of course he’s also raising them in the various traditions of their non-Jewish mother. Uh, what? And I’m someone who thinks raising a child with two traditions is the only way to go if the child’s two parents come from two different backgrounds–even conversion does not give a person memories of a Jewish childhood she did not have–but this was complete nonsense. Why? Because Feldman wants it both ways. He wants to be considered a good Jewish boy, but wants to mock the closed-mindedness of those who live their lives as such. But this was a question he had claimed (for hypocritical reasons) he would not answer, and he did, so good for him.
Boteach laps it up. His love for Feldman is, he notes all preacher-esque, “unconditional.” Rather than accepting that a controversial article will, uh, spark controversy, he goes on about how it was a “shanda” that Feldman was not treated with the due respect a man with such impressive a career path (?!) should merit. A Rhodes trumps a Gentile wife, and as such we are to say to Feldman, and I quote, “you are indeed a prince of our people.” He pointed out that Einstein had a non-Jewish wife, but don’t we still want to claim him as a Jew? Meh.
Ultimately, Steinhardt came off the least irritating and most sensible. His concern is for the Jewish people, as an ethnic/national/historical entity, not the Jewish faith. He advocates less involved conversions, which might imply concern for quantity over quality, but given the mess in Israel today regarding dual standards for converts and born-ins, he has a point. But he sure cares about numbers, and to some extent blood, when he speaks again and again of the 12 million born Jews worldwide who are likely to become “lost,” whether or not this is a concern to these 12 million people. He notes that Jews are the religious group with the lowest rates of congregational affiliation, which misses that Jews, unlike Catholics or Protestants, are defined ethnically, so anyone born to a Jewish parent is considered a temple truant.
It turns out Steinhardt, and not just Taglit leader Momo, is behind Birthright Israel’s “Jewish babies” theme, and here is where I have to agree with Feldman. What’s the point of making more Jews just for the sake of making them? I agreed with Steinhardt’s suggestion that Diaspora Jews take note more officially of Israel’s independence, but this idea, like Birthright itself, is part of a careful line he draws between Zionism and encouragement of Diaspora Judaism. One is to come out of the Steinhardt program pro-Israel from afar. Meh.
Oh, and as a point of Jewish pride, he pointed out that half of Russia’s oligarchs are Jewish, despite there being so few Jews in Russia today overall, remarking that “the Jews have become the dominant economic force in Russia.” Way to inspire conspiracy theorists getting bored with reading about the SY’s. And interestingly, he referred to America as a “Christian country,” something Feldman made clear to state he himself believes to be true only in demographic terms. Another point for Steinhardt, but a win by process of elimination is just that.
As I was worried would happen, I left the event and headed straight for the nearest baptismal pool. OK, not quite, but it did not give me any great confidence in Diaspora Jewry. The three speakers represented pop Orthodoxy, secular Jewish natalism, and smug universalism, respectively, none of which make the whole thing seem all that appealing. Learning Hebrew, studying Jewish history, moving to Israel, retreating into academia and not giving a damn about anything overtly political, these are things that make sense to me. Nothing the panelists said made me more inclined to get involved with 21st century American Jewish life.