Noah Feldman was a brilliant, Orthodox Jewish Rhodes scholar who arrived in Oxford in 1992 in my fourth year as rabbi at the university. He and I quickly hit it off. For one thing, there was scarcely a subject — Jewish or secular — upon which Noah did not have some profound knowledge.
We studied Talmud together several times a week and I made Noah a kind of secondary rabbi at our L’Chaim Society, such was the range of his Jewish erudition and his phenomenal capacity for teaching.
His résumé easily made him one of the most accomplished young students in the entire Western world. He was valedictorian of Harvard, a Rhodes and Truman scholar, and completed his Oxford doctorate in about 18 months, which may or may not be a university record.
It was a source of great pride for me that Noah was observant and wore a yarmulke. A student that gifted was a natural leader to others and was looked up to by so many of the other students.
After graduating from Oxford, Noah went to Yale where his observance began to wane. I heard from some of his classmates that he was dating a non-Jewish girl. Hearing that he was quite serious about her, when his girlfriend came in turn to Oxford as a Marshall scholar, I made a point of reaching out to her and inviting her to our Shabbat dinner.
My thinking was that Noah was far too precious to me and to the Jewish people to lose. If he was dating a woman whom he wished to marry, then it was our duty to try and expose her to the friendliness of the Jewish community with a view toward her exploring whether a serious commitment to our tradition was something that would suit her.
Sadly, however, others took a far different view. A mutual friend of ours, a rabbi also in Noah’s life, essentially told him that if he married outside the faith he would have to sever their relationship. Apparently, many of Noah’s Orthodox friends made the same decision. The net result was that one of the brightest young Jews in the entire world was made to feel that the Jewish community was only his family if he made choices with which we agreed.
I took a different view. Of course I wanted Noah to marry Jewish, and I took pride in the fact that I had helped to sustain his observance in his two years at Oxford. But the choice of whom he would marry was not mine to make.
Before he got married I wrote him a note that said, in essence, that we are friends and that my affection for him would never change. I told him that he was a prince of the Jewish nation, that his obligations to his people were eternal and unchanging, that whether or not his wife, or indeed his children were Jewish would never change his own personal status as a Jew and that, as a scholar of world standing, I knew he would do great things with his life and that he would always put the needs of the Jewish people first.
‘Til today we remain good friends. I admire and respect Noah and my wish is that perhaps, some day, his brilliant wife might see, of her own volition, the beauties of our tradition and how family life is enhanced by husband and wife being of the same faith, and practicing the same religious rituals.
True to my prediction, Noah went on, in his 30s, to become one of the youngest-ever tenured law professors, first at NYU and then at Harvard, and was chosen by the U.S. government to serve as the consultant for the Iraqi Provisional Government in drawing up their constitution. Today he ranks, arguably, as the youngest academic superstar in the United States.
How tragic, therefore, that his article in the New York Times magazine is a lengthy detailing of the alienation he has experienced from his former Orthodox Jewish day school and friends, who even cut him out of a class reunion photograph in which he participated.
For more than two centuries Jews have been debating how to deal with those who marry outside the community. The conventional response has been to treat them as traitors to the Jewish cause. We are all familiar with the old practice of sitting shiva on a child who marries out, as if he or she were dead, made famous by Fiddler on the Roof.
The extreme practice of ostracization was justified by the belief that only by completely cutting off those who married out would we be making a sufficiently strong statement as to the extent of their betrayal, thereby dissuading those who might follow suit.
There is one problem with this practice. Aside from the ethical and humanitarian considerations, it does not work. We have been practicing this alienation for decades and yet intermarriage has grown to approximately 50 percent of the Jewish population!
Worse, the practice is a lie, insofar as it propagates the false notion that our Jewishness is measured only in terms of our being a link in a higher chain of existence, and that our Jewish identities have meaning only through our children. This absurd notion would deny the idea of Jewish individualism and how we are Jews in our own right.
I am well aware of the fact that intermarriage is a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people. But that does not change the fact that those who have chosen to marry out are still Jewish, should still be encouraged to go to synagogue, should still be encouraged to put on tefillin and keep Shabbat, should still have mezzuzot on their doors, and should still be encouraged to devote their lives and resources to the welfare of the Jewish people and the security of the state of Israel.
And as far as their non-Jewish spouses are concerned, do we really believe that by showing the most unfriendly behavior we are living up to our Biblically mandated role of serving as a light unto the nations? Would a non-Jew married to a Jew look favorably at the possibility of becoming halachically Jewish if they witness Orthodox Jews treating their husband or wife as pariahs?
I am proud to call Noah my friend. I do my best to reiterate to him the message that, amid marrying out, we are proud of his achievements and need his participation in Jewish organizational life, especially given the immense clout he carries in academic circles.
It is my fervent hope that, given the love and respect we show him, he will choose to show his wife and two children the glories of the tradition he knows so well with a view toward impressing upon them a desire to have them join in our eternal faith.