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Noah Feldman and other "at risk" youth

Yes, I'm a bit late on this. I wrote a post on July 22, the day that the article ("Orthodox Paradox") appeared, but I never finished it, and it has languished among my other unfinished posts for the past month. This week, I read a post by mama o' the matrices that I really liked, so I was inspired to link to that and share some of my month-old reactions, some of which feel quite out-of-date at this point.

A brief preface: I don't know Noah Feldman but I did go to the same elementary, high school, and college that he did, I think about eight years after him. I don't know him, but I do know his father (who was active in the only Orthodox minyan [prayer community] in college town I lived in for five years) and brother (with whom I worked on the literary magazine in high school). Both of them are lovely people. Because I share these communities with Dr. Feldman, some of the sort of nit-picky, private issues he had with his high school are things that also bother me.

However, overall, I have difficulty with his main problem, which seems to be that Modern Orthodoxy is particularistic rather than universalistic. That's what religions are: particularistic. If you have a problem with that, then you can opt out of the religion entirely or out of the more particularistic manifestations of it, which Noah Feldman did by marrying a non-Jewish woman who chose not to convert.

Some initial reactions:
  1. I didn't like how the art depicted only men, although I doubt that was Noah Feldman's decision or at all under his control. It was a co-ed school, with male and female students and teachers. That changes perception of the article.

  2. Regardless of what else one may think of the article, what he did was not very nice. Sometimes, it's okay to do "not nice" things if there is a greater good, but I have a hard time seeing the greater good here. As a friend of mine said, "Why does a famous, well-regarded professor of law still have a bone to pick with his high school?" The New York Times is not an appropriate forum, in my opinion, for airing concerns about the relationship one has with one's small, private, parochial day school. He wasn't alleging systemic abuse--he was alleging that they were not willing to accept him as one of theirs after he married a woman who was not Jewish. They happened to have signified their non-acceptance in some pretty terrible ways [this was before I knew that the photo was not actually cropped]. Yes, that's true. But that's the story, for the most part.

  3. The Baruch Goldstein thing was particularly ridiculous--I doubt Baruch Goldstein would have accepted the "Modern Orthodox" label for himself when he committed his atrocious act or even for years before that.

  4. I do think that Maimo could learn to respect people even when it doesn't respect their decisions. The way they treat people who don't fit the mold of what they expect is problematic at the very least, and has been for at least 20 years. (I hope that it has improved in the past ten.)

  5. Another improvement that Maimo could make is a better balance between pushing academic achievement and giving spiritual and intellectual life to Judaism and to halacha in particular.

  6. The idea that Noah Feldman would be surprised that Maimo would fail to accept his intermarriage is ridiculous. He was not surprised, and it was disingenuous to pretend that he was in the article.
Other good posts about this topic have been over at Chayyei Sarah's blog. You may see my comments there.

* * * * *

One of the more interesting things that the article pushed me to think about is the two kinds of "at risk" groups in the Orthodox community. There is a lot of talk, especially in New York and in both Modern Orthodox and hareidi circles, about the "at risk" youth who fall prey to drugs, sex, and rock 'n roll. (I never heard about such problems in Boston 10-15 years ago, when I was in high school which may be because I had a particularly academically-oriented class in high school, there are fewer such problems in Boston, or people talk about it less. Or maybe the world has just gone to hell in a hand basket since I graduated high school ten years ago.) These kinds of "at risk" youth are the ones that NCSY is designed to corral and contain ("For more than four decades, NCSY (grades 9 - 12) and Junior NCSY (grades 6 - 8) have been reaching out to at-risk youth by offering them social, recreational and educational outlets in a safe and nurturing environment.") in the Modern Orthodox community and that the Agudah's Project Y.E.S., among many other organizations, is supposed to corral and contain in the hareidi community.

But there is another group of "at risk" youth who fail to be challenged sufficiently by Judaism when they are adolescents and find more and better intellectual things to grapple with when they get to college. In high school, they may have questions about things like balancing universalistic and particularistic values, or about (ahem...not that I would know anything about this) gender roles, feminism, and Judaism. Maybe they have trouble accepting that the the Five Books of Moses were given, verbatim, from an incorporeal God to a corporeal man named Moses on a hill in the desert. Maybe they can't accept that any God that they could believe in would essentially forbid hugging your brother despite its not technically being forbidden (see Maimonides, Hilchot Issurei Biah, 21:6: "ו המחבק אחת מן העריות שאין ליבו של אדם נוקפו עליהן, או שנישק אחת מהן--כגון אחותו הגדולה, ואחות אימו, וכיוצא בהן--אף על פי שאין שם תאווה ולא הנאה כלל, הרי זה מגונה ביותר. ודבר זה אסור הוא, ומעשה טיפשים הוא--שאין קרבין לערווה כלל, בין גדולה בין קטנה: חוץ מהאם לבנה, והאב לבתו."). (This particular halacha was one of the stupider things that was taught to me, and a direct reason why I stopped learning Jewish stuff for several years in college.) Maybe they find being told that, "Yes, one can believe in evolution, but God buried the dinosaur bones," to be an insult their intellects. The solution for stemming the tide of this latter kind of "at risk" youth is not NCSY or Project Y.E.S. It's not telling you that "Hashem loves you" or offering thin theologically-questionable answers to complicated, profound questions.

The focus in the Orthodox community seems to be on the former kind of "at risk" youth, because they are clearly in greater physical danger, and perhaps because the solutions are more obvious. I don't disagree that we should be helping kids who are in crisis and who have gotten into sex and drugs for all the wrong reasons. (Let's leave the rock 'n rollers alone, though.) I don't want to minimize the importance of providing social services to families ripped apart by abuse and mental illness. I don't want anyone to think that this isn't a growing and important problem in the Orthodox world, or that these kinds of problems--substance abuse, physical abuse, mental illness--don't plague all sectors of society. We ignore these issues at our own peril.

But when we ignore the latter kind of "at risk" youth, we make Orthodoxy into something that it is impossible for smart, critical, questioning people to believe in and adhere to, and the problem only intensifies. This latter group of "at risk" youth may abandon Orthodoxy in favor of more intellectually-open branches of Judaism, if any exist. (Do they? I have yet to be convinced that Reform or Conservative Judaism have fewer problems than Orthodox Judaism. Post-denominationalism may be the answer.) They may limit their thinking selves to the secular, academic world, and be non-thinking in their lives as Jews. Or, if they are lucky, they may succeed in finding like-minded, open, intellectual peers, friends, teachers, and mentors, from across the Jewish political spectrum, with whom they can be thinking, critical, open-minded, observant Jews. I have so many smart friends who either stopped being at all observant (one told me in college, "Religion is for stupid people") or stopped thinking sometime during high school or college.

I am not interested in keeping these at risk youth frum or Orthodox, per se. I am interested in helping all of us find ways to be authentically Jewish without giving up our critical, thinking, questioning minds. If that means being Jewish in a non-Orthodox way, yasher koach! (Just please let me know the secret.) I just don't believe that Judaism, in all of its multi-faceted complicated multi-colored hues, is too weak to satisfy our deepest, most basic, intellectual and spiritual needs. It makes me sad when smart people give up on Judaism entirely, at least in part because it makes it easier for me to contemplate doing so.

* * * * *

Mama o' the matrices linked to this recent post over at DovBear, which is, indeed, sort of related to this discussion. Only sort of, though. Day schools' inability to relate to children as individuals with different learning styles is a whole other kettle of fish and deserves its own post. The "at risk" youth that I'm writing about here can handle going to school from 8 am to 6 pm every night, and staying focused in class, or they find ways to compensate when their attention wanders. They excel in the high-pressured academic Modern Orthodox day schools that they attend. They just have no interest in being frum afterwards. I'm not 100% sure what to do about that. I sort of had to find my own way on this issue, and I don't know how to help other people find their own way.


The Orthodox communities certainly have a challenge - I think the "classic modern orthodox" folks frame it well, as "how do we live meaningfully in the modern world?" Unfortunately, many on the right have fallen into the "how can we make Judaism harder?" category, while the left keeps spending all of its intellectual capital and time on re-examining issues of women's participation in the prayer service. I understand why that's an issue, but it gets an inordinate amount of attention and time, especially when measured against the actual practical decisions which result.

I read Feldman's article, and he sounded remarkably snarky, and entirely unlike anyone I'd ever want to get to know. There is a modern conceit, which is that of "validation" - if I don't have complete approval for whatever action I perform or contemplate, I am not being validated, and therefore am being oppressed. Because Feldman didn't feel validated by his high school, he decided that all of Orthodox Judaism needed a smackdown. That's Kamtza/Bar Kamtza logic, there, but the unfortunate effect I've seen is that his article is cited all over the blogosphere by non-Orthodox Jews as proof of how unpleasant Orthodoxy is. Grr. We've got plenty of flaws without manufacturing any more...
Did you see Rabbi Shalom Carmy's response, where after taking Feldman to task, he also takes to task the teacher who felt the need to participate in the M.D.'s lecture? Sometimes, less really is more.

Speaking from my own personal experience - not to mention having known you in NCSY - we were offered some pretty good opportunities to discuss the heavier intellectual issues. It wasn't perfect, and it wasn't always possible to sequester the "smart kids" with the "smart advisors" for hours and hours, but the opportunities were there to have some pretty serious discussions with some pretty good minds if we wanted to, which we did.

I don't doubt that the high school vignettes he recounts bothered him at the time, but sourcing his departure from Orthodoxy to them smacks of rationalization and anachronism. I think Feldman would have been as upset as we are if someone else had written something like this about Maimonides when he was in high school.

It seems to me that there is substantive help for neither category of at risk youth once they leave high school.

Both the secular and religious elements of American Jewish society value academics so highly that sadly, sending a child to a vocational school with a Jewish framework, to learn a productive and profitable trade, is unthinkable. Have you ever had to pay an electrician or plumber? The taboo simply cannot be about the money - or the hours - both of which can be far more favorable than many professions seen as more prestigious.

Intellectual young adults confront an academia that reacts to religion with disdain or simply wink-and-a-smile dismissal. Secular scientific thought, which also permeates the liberal arts, does not easily tolerate the unprovable and experiential complexities of a person's personal relationship with G-d.

We imagine that secular academia holds a monopoly on the methods with which to seek answers, and what constitutes and defines an acceptable answer. When we perceive an absence of acceptable answers from Judaism (or, more likely, from Jews) by these standards, many of us let our divine relationship fall to the side, a nostalgic memento from our childhood at best.

Few role-models or institutions exist, if any, that can nourish and sustain BOTH sides of the coin as we engage in the lifelong process of reconciling secular and religious, utilitarian and existential, Adam I and Adam II.

With or without such institutions and exemplars, it will always ultimately come down to us - each of us individually, lonely people of faith - to remain inquisitive, mindful people, and not settle for the trite and the dogmatic. To revel in the exploration of the unresolved and unreconciled, to make the contours of this universal struggle uniquely our own, to keep the questions sharp and the thirst for knowledge unslaked.
Just wanted to let you know that I think this paragraph from your post - "I am not interested in keeping these at risk youth frum or Orthodox, per se. I am interested in helping all of us find ways to be authentically Jewish without giving up our critical, thinking, questioning minds. If that means being Jewish in a non-Orthodox way, yasher koach! (Just please let me know the secret.) I just don't believe that Judaism, in all of its multi-faceted complicated multi-colored hues, is too weak to satisfy our deepest, most basic, intellectual and spiritual needs. It makes me sad when smart people give up on Judaism entirely, at least in part because it makes it easier for me to contemplate doing so." - is absolutely wonderful.
Thanks for all of your comments! I feel the need to respond to some parts of them (and thank you, Kate, for the simple compliment--it means a lot to me), but I may try to make that a separate post.
I send Kate's response.

I'd also like to point out that in my M.O. education nobody ever tried to teach anything re:evolution/geology except that scientific facts are scientific facts, and that rabbanim and parshanim had been reading bereshit non-literally for many centuries before darwin.
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