Despite a string of unparalleled scholarly and professional successes, Noah Feldman has been ostracized by his former yeshiva. He decided to pair off with a non-Jewish woman (specified as Korean-American, as if race, not faith, were the issue, and Annie Hall would have been just fine) and the school’s official alumni newsletter cropped his fiancÃ©e out of a group photograph. He still has friends from his yeshiva days, but does not have the school’s blessing.
Considering that I wrote an article advocating an end to the war on intermarriage in the United States, you might expect that I would be appalled by the yeshiva’s actions. The weirdness of photo-cropping aside, I cannot say that I am. Orthodox Judaism has its interpretations of Jewish law, and no one ever claimed that they were fun to obey. Feldman’s complaint that the Orthodox establishment hasn’t welcomed his fiancÃ©e, petty matter of religion aside, is akin to someone choosing to attend a school with a core curriculum, then decrying the injustice of being forced to take certain classes. The difference, of course, is that Feldman was born into this community, and thus never chose to enter it. But while it is reasonable for Feldman to ask for his family’s acceptance, and perhaps that of his close friends, he’d be better off cutting his losses and being glad that the country in which he is thriving is not one run by Orthodox Jews. The problem is when Jewish organizations or individuals order other Jews not to intermarry, as though this in itself is all that matters, as though ethnically or halachically ‘Jewish babies’ are the end in themselves. There is nothing wrong with Orthodox Judaism making this demand in the context of so many others, so long as there are options for those who choose to disobey, as there are in contemporary America.
As Gary Rosenblatt points out on the JTA website, there’s something missing from Feldman’s tale of woe. “For all of Feldman’s candor in the essay, he has nothing to say about where he fits into the community, if at all; whether he wanted his wife to convert; whether they are raising their children as Jews or not; or his feelings about all this. He only owes us such information if he wants our understanding and empathy, which clearly he does.” This is key. Feldman never mentions how he came to having a non-Jewish fiancÃ©e in the first place. Was he open to the idea all along, or was this just the woman for him? Does he feel that in intermarrying he is doing something immoral, and if not, would he go as far as to suggest that Orthodox Judaism sanction it in all cases, not just those of law professors who’ve done their yeshiva proud?
One aspect of Feldman’s essay was predictable. Discussions of intermarriage are inevitably about non-Jewish women marrying (or ‘taking’) Jewish men. From “Knocked Up” to “Meet the Parents” to “Seinfeld,” the notion that Jewish men lust after ‘shiksas’ has outlived the finer creative days of Philip Roth and Woody Allen. Yet there is not much of a difference in America today in the number of Jewish women and Jewish men marrying out. According to a United Jewish Communities survey from 2000-2001:
Overall the intermarriage rate among men (33%) is slightly higher than among women (29%), but the gender composition of intermarriage fluctuates with age. Men above the age of 55 are more likely to be intermarried than women. In the 35-54 year age group, equal proportions of men and women are intermarried. The gender gap in intermarriage has widened among those under the age of 35, with men again more likely than women to be intermarried.
The shocking truth is that Jewish women are not all at home with our collective cat, pining over the ‘successful, professional’ Jewish men we are not gentile enough to attract. I have several ideas as to why the Jewish man and non-Jewish woman pairing appears the far more common than vice versa, but this post is too long as it is, so for another time.