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Intermarriage, Sex Education, and Modern Orthodox Rebalancing - A Reaction to Noah Feldman

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Dec 1, 2007


An essay published by Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman in the New York Times Sunday magazine section in August 2007, in which he virulently attacks Modern Orthodox Judaism, has sparked much heated response and discussion. In his essay, Feldman excoriates his alma mater, the Maimonides School in Boston, for declining to announce, in its alumni newsletter, his marriage to a non-Jewish woman and the birth of his children with her.

We shall address three issues of vital importance that can be gleaned from the essay and the ensuing discussions. We do not seek to provide guidance regarding what to say to Feldman or those of his ilk in response to such charges. Rather, we shall focus on three vital lessons the Orthodox community should take away from this unfortunate episode.

Modern Orthodoxy's "Zero Tolerance" of Intermarriage

Feldman is incensed by the fact that he and his soon-to-be wife were removed from a photograph taken at an alumni reunion and published in the Maimonides newsletter. He regards this stance as a contemporary method of excommunication. It is imperative to state unabashedly that the Maimonides School's approach reflects the thinking of two pillars of Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who urge adopting a "zero tolerance" approach to intermarriage. Indeed, there essentially is no difference between the Chareidi and Modern Orthodox responses to intermarriage.

Rav Weinberg - An Intermarried Jew Cannot be Counted to a Minyan

Rav Weinberg (Teshuvot Seridei Eish 2:6 in the original edition) was asked in 1932 whether it is permissible to count an intermarried Jew towards a Minyan. He responded first by citing the Shulchan Aruch's (O.C. 55:10-12) statement that we may count a sinner to a Minyan provided he has not been excommunicated. Rav Weinberg proceeds to cite the Pri Megadim, who limits this leniency to one who sins due to succumbing to his passions. If, however, he sins in order to provoke Hashem, he cannot be counted towards a Minyan even if he has not been formally excommunicated.

Rav Weinberg considers the possibility of classifying intermarriage as a sin of passion. However, he rejects this possibility based on a Teshuvah from Teshuvot Zichron Yehudah (number 48). This responsum states that the requirement of excommunication to disqualify one from a Minyan does not apply at a time when government laws forbid excommunication. In such circumstances, anyone who violates a sin worthy of excommunication is regarded as having been excommunicated in regards to counting him towards a Minyan.

Therefore, one who has married a non-Jewish woman, whom we certainly (emphasis added), according to Halacha, are obligated to excommunicate to discourage such behavior, has the status of one who has been excommunicated, and it is forbidden to count him towards a Minyan.

Rav Weinberg concludes: We should note that Rav Weinberg's outlook does not in any way stem from a racist attitude towards non-Jews. In fact, Rav Weinberg's responsum (Teshuvot Seridei Eish 2:90) permitting teaching Torah to non-Jews in an academic setting indicates quite the contrary. Moreover, in his Teshuvot and in letters printed in the seventh volume of the Torah U'Madda Journal (1997), he passionately advocates adopting a moral attitude and proper behavior towards non-Jews. His uncompromising opposition to intermarriage stems from the fact that intermarriage is nothing less than religious and cultural suicide. A rational and objective observer does not find offensive the staunch negative attitude of Greek Orthodox Christians towards their children marrying outside of their faith. Social sanctions are a necessary component of religious and cultural self-preservation.

Rav Lichtenstein Opposes Maintaining Family Relationships with the Intermarried

In a lecture at Yeshiva University in 1988, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein unequivocally stated his opposition to retaining ties with a family member who has intermarried. He explained that a Jew who has chosen to intermarry has "crossed a Rubicon" and has turned his back on the Jewish people, whose survival depends on Jews marrying Jews and raising Jewish children who will continue the heritage of our ancestors.

We stress again that Rav Lichtenstein's approach does not at all stem from an intolerant attitude towards those who are not members of our people. Rav Lichtestein stresses, in his Shiurim and writings (for example, his By His Light chapter 1 entitled "The Universal Duties of Mankind" and chapter six "Being Frum and Being Good: On the Relationship between Religion and Morality"), kindness and consideration to all of humanity.

In terms of Sefer Bereishit, intermarriage is the equivalent of crossing the Jordan River. Members of the Avraham Avinu's family who decided to live east of the Jordan thereby declared their non-allegiance to the mission and nation of Avraham and Sarah. Lot, Eisav, and the children of Keturah all move east of the Jordan. Even Yishmael, who moves south of Eretz Yisrael, names one of his children Keidmah, meaning eastward, signifying his permanent break with the Jewish people. By intermarrying, one chooses to "cross the Jordan" and break with his own family and the Jewish people.

Yaakov Avinu adopts a very delicate balance when he confronts Eisav, as recorded in Parashat VaYishlach (Bereishit 32:4-21 and 33:1-16). On one hand, he makes overtures to pacify Eisav so that he will not annihilate Yaakov's family. Nonetheless, when Eisav wishes to reunite and once again function as a brother, Yaakov diplomatically declines this offer. Eisav abandoned the faith and vision of Avraham Avinu when he left Eretz Yisrael in favor of Sei'ir, and Yaakov no longer could act as his brother.

We should note, however, that some Rabbanim suggest that one family member retain a connection to the intermarried relative so as to leave open the possibility of return. One should consult his Rav for specific guidance as to how to manage a relationship with a family member who has committed this cardinal sin.

Sex Education

Despite his reckless and irresponsible choice to publicly air his grievances in the New York Times against the Maimonides School and Modern Orthodoxy, we may derive a few lessons from Feldman's polemic. While relating his memories of a day of sex education he experienced while in seventh grade at Maimonides, he recalls the school presenting a blanket prohibition on the activities to which they were introduced. He recalls being taught that "after marriage some rather limited subset of them might become permissible," but only for two weeks of the month.

Essentially, Feldman recalls a rather unappealing presentation of the sexual component of Orthodox life. Without criticizing the rabbis at Maimonides school (who knows if Feldman's recollection is accurate?), we should note that Feldman's report does call attention to the question of sex education in our community. Traditionally, we reserve discussion of sexuality for a private conversation prior to marriage (see, for example, Chagigah 11b). However, in light of the bombardment of sexuality in today's society to which members of our community unfortunately are exposed, some rabbis believe that it is crucial to present not only what is prohibited, but also what is permitted, nay, required.

For example, Rav Moshe Taragin, in addressing my students at the Torah Academy of Bergen County, pointed out the Torah's prohibition for a boy and girl to hold hands (see Rambam Hilchot Issurei Biah 21:1) is only one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is a Mitzvah to hold one's wife's hand at the right time. Instead of unbridled contact between the sexes, which serves only to cheapen sexuality, the Torah tells us to wait until marriage, thereby elevating contact between husband and wife into something extraordinary.

Some Rabbanim feel that it is necessary in our times to tell our students (male teachers to male students and female teachers to female students) of the beauty experienced by those who have observed the Torah's restrictions on premarital contact with the opposite sex when holding one's spouse's hand for the first time after marriage. It seems appropriate for teachers to reveal to students, in a decent manner, what married Orthodox Jews know - that the Torah's vision of sexuality works incredibly well. The fact that the divorce rate among Orthodox couples is a fraction of the divorce rate among non-observant Jews serves as compelling evidence to the positive impact of the premarital and Niddah restrictions. When discouraging students from entering into intense relationships with members of the opposite sex not for the purpose of marriage, it is critical to point out not only Rav Moshe Feinstein's Teshuvah (E.H. 4:60) prohibiting such relationships, but also the fact that these relationships do not serve the students' best interest. In short, highlighting that adherence to the Torah approach to male-female relationships leads to a far happier life than following Western, permissive standards motivates young Jews to lead their lives in harmony with Torah values. Indeed, Moshe Rabbeinu stresses repeatedly in Sefer Devarim (see, inter alia, 10:13) that the Torah's laws are "LeTov Lach," very much in our interest. Educators and parents certainly should echo Moshe Rabbeinu's point, especially in regards to relationships with members of the opposite sex.

Modern Orthodox Reflection and Rebalancing

Non-Jewish historian Paul Johnson, in his work A History of the Jews, notes that the secret of the survival of the Jew is his ability to follow Avraham Avinu's path of being a "stranger and a resident" (Bereishit 23:4) among his non-Jewish neighbors, a point also highlighted by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in his celebrated essay Confrontation. A Jew must balance his participation in non-Jewish society and his remaining distinct from it. Every Jew must reflect honestly on his success in achieving this balance. Feldman's article indirectly points to the problem that too many in the Modern Orthodox community are imbalanced towards the "resident" side of this equation. A community can succeed in transmitting its culture to the next generation only by doing its best to adhere consistently to its standards.

Feldman's impression of a successful Modern Orthodox Jew is one who is "willing to accept a bit of both worlds." However, the Modern Orthodoxy of Rav Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein requires a Jew to be rooted steadfastly and fully in the world of Torah while maintaining an open but critical attitude towards limited positive facets of non-Jewish society. We welcome aspects of the surrounding society only if they are in harmony with our core value - the Torah. If we, in the words of Eliyahu HaNavi, "vacillate between two poles" (Melachim 1:18:21), we run the risk of raising children who do not understand that they cannot consider themselves members in good standing of our community if they marry outside the faith.


We must not engage in moral ambiguity and refer to Feldman as "a prince among the Jews," as one writer put it. We must acknowledge and deal with intermarriage for what it truly is - religious and cultural suicide. Yet we must also learn, even from the words of a tenacious critic such as Feldman, how to chart a crucial "course correction" in our community that is essential to our spiritual integrity and survival.




This article is taken with permission from Kol Torah, a publication of the Torah Academy of Bergen County

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