Obfuscation & Apologetics?

Gilah Kletenik is the Beren campus editor of Kol Hamevaser.

I sat there masticating each piece of lettuce with an unnecessary, if anxious amount of concentration, as two congressmen from New York between their forkfuls of pork and shrimp, questioned me about the intricacies of my faith. They wondered why men were prohibited from touching menstruating women and asked about military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox in Israel.

I was a bit taken aback by their queries and not quite sure how to respond. It’s not as if the details of these halachot had suddenly escaped me; I am quite familiar with the minutia of both of these issues. Rather, I was engaged in a tumultuous inner-conflict: should I be as blunt as possible in answering their questions, spare no details, and risk making myself and all my brethren seem ever more peculiar? Or should I play that classic game of obfuscation and apologetics these practiced politicians know all too well?

As my discomfort that evening intensified, I couldn’t help but think of Noah Feldman’s recent article in the NYT magazine. While I had been mulling over his reflections all week trying to harmonize my instinctual sympathy for his sentiments with my intellectual aversion to intermarriage, it all suddenly began to make sense. Almost everyone I had discussed the article with, and nearly all the responses I had read, criticized Feldman for his inability to appreciate the crucial role that marriage plays in the continuity of the Jewish people. However, by focusing our efforts on lampooning Feldman’s judgment or critiquing his misunderstanding of the subtle nuances that comprise our Halachik system, we are only further justifying his representation of modern Orthodoxy as an insular and close-minded cult. As I struggled to defend my ostensibly outdated lifestyle to two less than receptive congressmen, I suddenly realized that Feldman’s experiences were far from foreign to me or to any other modern Orthodox Jew and that what we ought to be doing instead of criticizing Feldman, is some serious introspection. At that moment I concluded that its time we confront head-on that which stands at the crux of Feldman’s commentary; the inescapable reality of the clash of cultures.

While we in the modern Orthodox community pride ourselves on the ability to raise halachikly committed yet career-oriented and civically minded adults, we have little to say of, let alone instruct, about the intense interplay between these two worlds. Too often we are compelled to endure a dual existence not unlike Feldman’s description of Maimonides as a school striving “to be at once a Lithuanian yeshiva and a New England prep school.” To say the very least, as evidenced by Feldman’s account, this approach to education is confusing, at best. Our ubiquitous mantra of Torah U’Madda is suddenly rendered inadequate in addressing the needs of an ever evolving discord.

Modern Orthodox day schools, while espousing a Torah U’Madda way of life, often fail to demonstrate to their students, who live in a secular world, precisely how to embody this principal. It’s only once we abandon the protective dalet amot of the Yeshiva classroom that we realize how ill prepared we are to confront the secular world around us. Ready we may be to rattle off proofs from Maimonides in support of studying the sciences or such blanket Talmudic statements as “chochma bagoyim ta’amin,” we are often left without the tools to effectively interact with non-Orthodox Jews, let alone non-Jews. No doubt this stems from the fact that we have our own schools, camps and youth groups, as such, there is seldom an opportunity for profound interaction with anyone outside of our closed community. This is a show of our intense insularity, which stems from our innate insecurity – an unhealthy, if well-founded sense of insecurity, justified not the least by decisions such as Feldman’s to intermarry.

This insularity, however, beyond breeding within us a deep disdain towards any outsider, is the very root of our existential troubles as alluded to by Feldman. While we may read newspapers, buy designer clothes, and casually cooperate with non-Jewish co-workers, we really are not a part of the society that surrounds us. We live in our own neighborhoods and socialize almost exclusively with each other (in fact, within our communities we have our own culture, subculture and even counterculture). It’s this cohesiveness which threatens our very existence and sets our emerging adults up for failure. Because the boundaries are so defined and the divisions so pronounced, there is no room for a middle meeting place. Never are we taught to truly become a part of the world around us. Instead, we live sheltered lives and shudder at the very thought of ever leaving our tight-knit communities.

Feldman chose to marry a non-Jewish woman. However, he did not choose to leave the modern Orthodox community, instead, his actions made this choice for him. It was an almost choiceless choice – the circumstances and unspoken rules governing our community made it such, that, whether he liked it or not, he would henceforth be an outsider. This incident exemplifies the very threat to our existence, and I don’t mean Feldman’s choice to intermarry, which does so in a most literal sense, but rather our community’s choice to approach reality with the perfunctory sophistication of an adolescent. It’s our community’s us-and-them, black-and-white attitude that lies at the root of our woes.

The only way to save ourselves from this crisis is by developing the confidence to engage ourselves in the world around us, while at the same time remaining halachikly observant Jews. The confidence to live this way can only be the product of a rigorous, comprehensive and advanced Jewish education. Only once one appreciates, and knows for him or herself, the nuances of Halacha, might he or she be fully prepared for a foray into that godforsaken secular society. A person with such knowledge will be enabled to benefit from society without ever compromising his or her halachik observance. Furthermore, this person will have the self-belief and self-assurance to explain our practices to an outsider without hesitation or even shame. He or she will understand that a little grey is ok, and that not everything is always crystal clear.

The likelihood, however, of this ever happening is slim to none. The entire modus operandi of our community rests on our reliance on the knowledge and judgment of a select elite; it’s seldom that we are even taught to think for ourselves, let alone to question. It’s this reliance on the erudition and opinions of others that has transformed our community into the insecure and vulnerable group that it is today. Our only hope, then, is to provide our youth not only with expansive Torah knowledge, but also with independence. We ought to teach them to question and to challenge. They should own their beliefs. Only once our youth have developed a sincere confidence in their beliefs will they be able to engage in the secular world with confidence.

Looking back at that night I realize that my initial hesitation to be as honest and forthright in answering their questions stemmed from a fear of being branded bizarre. However, I was privileged enough to have sufficient confidence to overcome those pangs of insecurity and be as direct and candid as possible. Fortunately, the more I explained the underpinnings of our complex halachik system to these congressmen, the more they accepted and appreciated me for who I am. What I learned over dinner was that I am, in fact, capable of integrating into the world around me without compromising my own halachik observance and beliefs. I think the more we understand this, the more capable we will be of addressing our shortcomings as expressed by Feldman in his compelling, and now controversial article.