Orthodox Paradox: A Debate on Jewish Values

The big Jewish story of Summer 2007 was Professor Noah Feldman’s now infamous New York Times Magazine article “Orthodox Paradox” (July 22, 2007) in which Feldman critiques Modern Orthodoxy as being inherently and irrevocably inconsistent. The specific “paradox” to which Feldman points is that on one hand Modern Orthodoxy claims to embrace the secular world, yet simultaneously maintains a religious prejudice against it. Feldman cites examples of Jewish particularism in the Talmudic law that Jews do not desecrate the Shabbat to save the life of a non-Jew and through the personal ignominy he faced at his high school reunion having been ostracized due to his intermarriage.

Feldman’s article generated some of the most vociferous discussion among the Jewish intelligentsia and throughout the J-Blogosphere, with Feldman being vilified for betraying the Jewish people either for intermarrying or through voicing his critiques in a public forum.1 While the frenzy has died down since the summer, Feldman exposed a nerve in the Jewish community which still rightfully still agitates many. To address some of those issues and the subsequent reaction, on Thursday October 18th NYU hosted a symposium entitled, “Orthodox Paradox: A Debate on Jewish Values” featuring the eclectic trio of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, philanthropist Michael Steinhart, and the aforementioned Professor Noah Feldman.

Despite the event’s classification as a “debate”, there was little collective coherency among the three panelists. Instead of addressing one area of “Jewish values” each panelist discussed his own approach to the question based on his own individual set of values.

R. Shmuley Boteach – The Value Of Media
R. Boteach advocates what I can only describe as Jewish evangelism through mass media. From the introductory remarks, it was Boteach who organized this event under his Jewish Values Network a vehicle for which Boteach promotes his vision.

For Boteach, too many “Jewish” values have been “co-opted” by other religions and cultures such that they are no longer identifiably Jewish. Boteach counters that we should actively promote our values as being specifically Jews and to bring them to the non-Jewish world. Boteach argued that we’ve done this in the past by being on the forefront of some of the major social movements in Jewish history.2

In terms of which values we should be promoting, Boteach formulates the marketable acronym DREAMS, the elaboration of which provides convenient chapters of a book. Due to time constraints, Boteach only explained DRMS:

  • D = Destiny, that what we do in this world determines and leads to and mankind’s perfection3
  • R = Redemption, communal redemption is not dependant on personal salvation as a prerequisite.
  • M = Marriage
  • S = Struggle

Naturally certain values would need to be reinterpreted for a wider audience. Regarding not saving the life of a non-Jew on Shabbat, Boteach reiterated his interpretation from his JPost article that the law was made in the historical context of violent oppression and would not have been enacted today.4 But this does not mean that the values need to be diluted. Rather, Boteach stresses that the practice of rituals are a system to ensure the permanence of those values. For example, the value of “Shalom” is expressed through Shabbat, and charity is given regardless if someone feels like it.” For Boteach, it is essential to bring these messages out to the mainstream.

The obvious prerequisite of this strategy would be to define “Jewish values,” which one would think would have been the focus of this forum. But this essential discussion was almost an afterthought for R. Boteach, who preferred to sell the contents of his book. It may seem odd to have blatant marketing in a public intellectual debate until we realize that the important definition in R. Boteach’s system is not what is being promoted, but rather who is doing the promoting.

The mass media is not interested in arguments or truth, but in personalities and egos.5 In order to bring the message to the masses there needs to be a messenger to the media, preferably someone who is not only media savvy but visually identifiable as an authority.6 As long as the individual can look and act the part, the message is almost irrelevant.

The real consequence of R. Boteach’s position is not the dilution of Judaism, but the celebritization of its personalities. In R. Boteach’s high-tech application of Weber’s charismatic authority, authenticity is not determined by knowledge of Torah, but by whomever has the highest Q rating and most effective self-promotion.7

The pop-culture denomination of Judaism has so far been monopolized by Kabbalah.8 I am sure R. Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is up for the challenge.

Mr. Michael Steinhart – The Value of Relevancy
Whereas Boteach promotes a strategy for promoting Jewish values Mr. Steinhart focuses on identifying what makes Jews special or unique such that we have been able to endure for so many centuries. Steinhart offered four suggestions: 1. because we are in fact “the chosen people.” 2. strength as a result of surviving social Darwinism, 3. superior genetics,9 and 4. Jewish Values. For Steinhart, “Jewish Values” are not necessarily religious, and not necessarily unique to Jews. Rather, they are particular to Jews such that we have them in greater concentration and because of that concentration we have our own identity.

Steinhart has his own list, though no catchy acronym, which due to time constraints he needed to abbreviate:

  1. Education / Commitment to learning
  2. Tzeddakah – the obligation to help the needy.
  3. Living in the here and now, as opposed to focusing on the “next life.”
  4. Care for our own kind.
  5. Adopting the values of being outsiders in other cultures.
  6. Individual meritocracy.

For Steinhart, Torah and most of its mitzvot are anachronisms, and the evidence for its irrelevance can be found in the 12 million non-Orthodox or unaffiliated Jews. Simply put, Torah the idea that Torah is central to the hearts and minds of the unaffiliated is an “illusion” and he is astonished that Rabbis are still thinking as if it is still the late 16th century. Rather, we first need to evaluate what is important to the people in order to preserve our Jewish culture and civilization. The problem is not relying on spirituality, but for Mr. Steinhart we need a Judaism which did not lose it in the first place, presumably being the Torah-centric model.

This attitude should not be surprising coming from a self described atheist who wants a “Judaism without God” and as such a rebuttal from religious grounds would be pointless.10 The most astute response came from Prof. Feldman himself so let’s continue.

Professor Noah Feldman – The Value of Honest Debate
Ever the law professor, Feldman encourages open debate on the most fundamental questions. If the goal is for people to affiliate, then we need to provide a compelling reason for them to do so, beyond species preservation. The issue is not in promoting Mr. Steinhart’s values, but to first determine what makes them “Jewish” and second to explain why they are necessarily “good” and of themselves. And in response to Steinhart’s values, Feldman asks that if these values appear in other cultures, then what makes them “Jewish.” For example, WASPS built most of this country’s institutions of higher learning and eventually opened the doors of opportunity to people with other backgrounds. If there is something “Jewish” about education, it must be defined defended based on its merits.

Regarding Boteach’s universalism, Prof. Feldman notes that for all of Judaism’s co-opted universal ideas, it was not Judaism which made those ideas universal.11 To this end, Prof. Feldman does not require a media campaign, but rather a substantive discourse on the values but in public. Given the proliferation of written and audio content via the internet, we can no longer assume that we live in an insulated world or a “just us” mentality. Furthermore, if we truly believe our practices are correct but hide them we are acting “in bad faith.” Rather, we should defend our ideas and defend publicly.

Of the three presenters I agree with Prof. Feldman’s position that we do in fact need more debate and accountability for our theological and halakhic statements. For one recent example, the Orthodox community was in a greater rush to condemn the Conservatives for their teshuva on Homosexuality than they were in presenting logical reasons why they were incorrect.

I believe this problem is endemic to and reinforced by our educational system. From my experience in Yeshiva education, most Rabbis do not feel obligated to defend their positions based on the merits, but rather rely on verbal or social coercion to quash dissent. As such it becomes “disrespectful” to question Rabbis, even when they misread texts or ramble incoherently, let alone challenge fundamental tenets of faith. Those who dare demand logical explanations are often ostracized and pushed “Off the Derech.”12
But should all arguments be held publicly? There is precedent for Prof. Feldman’s argument that we should not hide our own inconvenient truths. The variant traditions of Sifrei 344, Y. Bava Kamma 4:3 4b, and B. Bava Kamma 38a all recount Rabban Gamliel teaching to Roman soldiers laws which discriminate against non-Jews to varying degrees.13 However, there is also a Talmudic concern for disseminating halakha irresponsibly, as illustrated in their use of “halakha v’ein morin kein” – this is the law, but we do not teach it. I gave shiur on this last shavuot and will hopefully write it up in more detail at some point. In the meantime, this issue is not that simple and depending on the sensitivity of the issue, would require appropriate discretion.

YUTOPIA’s Response to Jewish Values: The Value of Shomer Torah
Following Prof. Feldman’s lead of questioning and public discourse, I will challenge the very notion of “Jewish values.” By which I mean, I will argue that for Shomrei Torah “Jewish values” do not exist and as such is not the appropriate framework for approaching Torah. My basis for this argument is simply that to my knowledge there is no word in Biblical or Rabbinic Hebrew which means “values” or “ethics” as used in the post-enlightenment vernacular.14 There are “middot” measures or character traits, but these are not values. The Torah certainly contains “ethical” statements, but “virtues” such as kindness and charity are not “values” as much as they are divine mandates for action.

The main problem with defining Judaism as “values” is that the inherent rampant subjectivity renders the religion meaningless. Even assuming we could isolate and agree core Jewish “values,” there is far too much variation in how we actualize them. For example, what actions constitute kindness or charity? As Rambam writes in Moreh Nevuchim II, given the effort anything can be perceived as either “good” or “bad” depending on one’s perspective. Prof. Feldman touched on this tautology saying that if anything is a Jewish value, then in reality nothing is.

Finally, the Torah does command being “yashar” or “straight” but what is “yashar” must only be defined by God (Sh’mot 15:26), not by us (Devarim 12:8). There was a period in Jewish history where people did “what was right in their own eyes” and it was not one of our proudest moments.

Some other random observations:

  • If someone could please explain why an engineering school’s auditorium has that many obstructive pillars, I’d be greatly appreciative.
  • The two people behind me noticed that the printed biographies mentioned the participant’s families except Prof. Feldman. Irony or conspiracy?
  • Old friend R. Yehuda Sarna was impressive in his moderation, keeping the egos in check with gentle humor. Nicely done.

1. This blog was one notable exception in its lack of coverage. I had intended on writing my own response, but simply did not have the time to write intelligently on the matter. The topic was oversaturated as it is, and I felt that adding one more voice the cacophany would have been redundant, and more importantly, irrelevant. Hopefully I can redeem my earlier delinquency.
2. Curiously he also included Communism as a positive contribution.
3. Demonstrating at least some remaining ties to Habad.
4. Boteach’s point seems to be in line with Meiri on B. Bava Kama 37b. However, I do find this read to be apologetic in nature based not only on the peshat of the words, but also in light of B. Avoda Zara 26a. For more on the subject see Menachem Mendel’s and Gil Student’s respective writings.
5. I’m remembering someone on opinionjournal making the observation that the degree of ego inherent in a book is proportional to the size of the author’s photograph on the front cover. The next time you purchase a self-help book consider if you are buying the contents or the persona.
6. Note that this applies to other media savvy Rabbis as well. For example R. Irwin Kula and R. Avi Weiss both wear the tallit in public media settings not because of the mitzvah but to convey the visual image of being a religious leader.
7. For a parallel theme, see Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
8. See Madonna dubbing herself an “ambassador for Judaism.”
9. I’m not sure if anyone picked up on the ramifications of this statement, or if they cared.
10. Though a better question would be what price Orthodox Jews place on their integrity such that they freely partake of his largesse despite his explicit and overt disdain for Torah.
11. Feldman also made the point that there are also Eastern religions which evolved independent of Judaism. Though this was a one-liner, I share his frustration in its exclusion from the popular mythic narratives of religious development.
12. Even the Modern Orthodox are not immune given their own restrictions as to what is considered acceptable discourse. Note that even the more academic Orthodox Forum is affected considering the limited range of contributors and the appalling treatment of Dr. Tamar Ross.
13. Sifrei 344 (ironically “shmad” in Hebrew) has the law being that it is forbidden to steal from a Jew, but permitted to steal from a non-Jew. Y. Bava Kamma 4:3 4b adds that Rabban Gamliel immediately enacted a Rabbinic prohibition against stealing from non-Jews. However, the sugya also includes M. Bava Kamma 4:3 – that a Jew’s ox which gores a non-Jew’s ox is not liable as well as the law from B. Avoda Zara 26a mentioned in note 4. B. Bava Kamma 38a only mentioned the law from M. BK 4:3. It would seem that these sugyot would contradict R. Boteach’s revisionist apologetics.
14. If anyone has suggestions, I’m open to listening.


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