Sunday, August 05, 2007

A Defense of Noah Feldman

Noah Feldman (Photo: Harvard Law School)

Harvard law Prof. Noah Feldman has come under fire for an essay he published in the New York Times Magazine. Feldman, an authority on international law and relations and a regular Times contributor, wrote an emotional account of his Modern Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Brookline Mass., where he attended Maimonides School, a yeshiva day school. The essay, "Orthodox Paradox," seemed more of a cathartic exercise for Prof. Feldman, who was deeply and understandably wounded by his schoolmates' and teachers' outright rejection after Feldman married a Korean-American, than a pointed analysis of the dilemma that modernity poses to the observance of traditional Jewish law. Now, the Orthodox Union, an American umbrella organization, is calling for the NYT to fire Feldman for a breach of journalistic ethics, calling him the "Jewish Jayson Blair," a reference to the serial fabricator who once worked at the newspaper! The controversy? Feldman begins his essay with an anecdote. After a high school reunion photograph is taken, he discovers that he and his then fiancée are missing from the final print. This exclusion is the jumping off point for Feldman's entire reflection. Unfortunately, it's also the most problematic bit of the essay. It appears that even before the article was printed Feldman had good reason to believe that the photographer did not manually remove him and his girlfriend from the photo. Feldman told The Jewish Week:
“When I first wrote it I was doing it from memory. When [the photographer] turned up the contact sheet there was no contradiction at all, as far as I could tell. They had several photos to choose from and they chose one that I wasn’t in. There’s no question that one could offer other explanations for what happened,” other than that it was intentional. “It’s not as if [the photo] was an outlying event. It fit right in with the other things [refusing to print his lifecycle notices]. This was a memoir of my experience.”
At a glance, the text of the article accords just fine with Feldman's explanation. There isn't any outright accusation of an early- to mid-nineties PhotoShop job, just the melancholy implication that the man was wronged. When Feldman confronts the photographer, nothing substantive is said, only a very muted of admission guilt. But guilt of what? Of excluding Feldman or of cropping him and Jeannie Suk out of the picture? It seems to me that Feldman's got a good case. But then again, I am the son of a law professor.


Amos said...

I wasn't sure how strong the response to Feldman's piece would be, but the "centrist" modern orthodox world (Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University, etc.) is obviously taking this very seriously.

You might say, along with Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University, that Feldman is giving ammunition to antisemites (the stuff about doctors, treating gentiles on Shabbat). He probably is. But he is also making these "centrists" confront a very serious problem. In the past 3 decades, we've seen a veritable growth of "fundamentalist" attitudes in institutions like YU. There are some people who seem to think that tolerance means being able to hold on to contempt for non-Jews and their religions. According to their twisted logic, everyone should be allowed to hold on to hateful aspects of their traditions. No wonder those who come out of this world are confused, as the letter from a "recent YU graduate" cited by Norman Lamm demonstrates. Check his piece in the Forward and the responses to it.

On the other hand, let's make sure that this does not grant license to the usual gang of antisemites and haters of Judaism to mount their attacks. The problem is neither with Judaism nor with the large majority of Jews (including modern orthodox ones).

Redel said...

I'm not too familiar with this issue in particular, so I'm sorry if there is some aspect of it I'm missing, but attacking something on the grounds it is "ammunition to antisemites" sounds a lot like attacking things on the basis they are "aid and comfort to the enemy".

People have to learn that criticising a group should not automatically lump you with the enemy, life is not about with us or against us, there are other options. Furthermore I've heard many antisemites claim that jews refer to any criticism as antisemitism, so the response to this article may be better ammunition for them than the article itself.

Amos said...

My last sentence was a bit vague. I think I was just concerned about one or two responses to the Lamm piece in the Forward. You're definitely right, Redel. I wasn't attacking Feldman. I was thinking more of people who already have certain stereotypes or prejudices ("Judaism is inherently chauvinistic/racist/xenophobic")and who then want to present this kind of article as proof. Does that make sense?

Redel said...

Sorry, I was a bit vague there too, I was refering to Lamm's attack. Your last sentence was good, I think it makes almost the same point, it is not right to artificially group people and then judge by their worst element. That type of rhetoric is used too often these days.