Rabbi Avi Shafran: Invitation To Intermarriage


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editorial3.jpgOne can’t help but feel sad for Noah Feldman. In spite of his considerable professional accomplishments – a law professorship at Harvard, three books, a slew of well-received essays and a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations, to name a few – the young Jew is clearly stewing. A bubble of his own imagining has burst in his face.

What he imagined was that, in its embrace of both Judaism and elements of contemporary culture, the “Modern Orthodoxy” of his youth granted Jews license to abandon as much of Jewish religious observance as they deem appropriate.  Expressing his anger – coolly, to be sure, but the hurt seeps thickly through the poised prose – in a recent New York Times Magazine piece, “Orthodox Paradox,” Professor Feldman describes how the Boston Jewish school he attended as a child and teenager went so far as to crop a class reunion photograph to omit him and his non-Jewish Korean-American fiancée , whom he later married.

But the Photoshopped portrait is only the professor’s anecdotal hook.  What he really resents is that his erstwhile school, along with some of his mentors and friends, spurn him for his decision to marry outside his faith.

No one, he admits, is rude to him.  None of his former teachers or friends, he writes, would refuse to shake his hand.  But he knows that they deride him for the life-path he has chosen.  And that offends and perplexes him.

Does not “Modern Orthodoxy,” after all, embrace the “reconcil[iation of] Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere”?  Should it not, therefore, regard his intermarriage as an expression, if somewhat extreme, of his effort at such reconciliation?  Were he and his classmates not taught to see themselves as “reasonable, modern people, not fanatics or cult members”?

Leaving aside whether un-“Modern” Orthodox Jews are in fact disengaged from the public sphere (a visit to any of a number of financial firms, law offices and hi-tech retail businesses in New York or other places with large “ultra-Orthodox” populations might yield evidence to the contrary), much less whether they are fanatical or cultist, Professor Feldman’s umbrage is misplaced.  There is a reason why, to Orthodox Jews (and many non-Orthodox no less), no matter how embracing they may be of the larger world, intermarriage represents a deep betrayal.  It is more than a violation of halacha.  It is an abandonment of the Jewish past and an undermining of the Jewish future.

Because marriage, arguably the most important choice in a Jewish life, is not a partnership but rather a fusing – “and they shall be as one flesh,” in Braishis’ words.  Since a spouse is part of oneself, the personal consequences of intermarriage are profound.  As, in Professor Feldman’s case, are the communal ones; his children are not Jewish.

Judaism views the Jewish People as a special and hallowed entity.  Members of the nation are to care for all – “we are to support the poor of the nations along with the Jewish poor,” as the Gemara directs.  And the righteous among the other nations, the Gemara goes on to teach, will receive their eternal reward.  But the Torah is clear about the ultimate redemption of the world: It is dependent on Klal Yisroel’s remaining a nation apart in fundamental ways.  One way is in our basic beliefs – for instance, that Hashem gave our ancestors His Torah, and never subsequently changed it.  Another is in our commitment to the integrity of Klal Yisroel qua Klal Yisroel.  Our commitment, in other words, to marry other Jews.

A celebrated Orthodox television personality and pundit reacted to Professor Feldman’s article in a Jerusalem Post opinion piece with words of welcome.  While he considers intermarriage “a direct threat to the very continuity of the Jewish people,” he nevertheless considers Professor Feldman “a prince of the Jewish nation”; and suggests that intermarrieds be treated no differently from the in-married, that they be offered our “love and respect.”

His suggestion stems from his Jewish heart but his Jewish head should have been more carefully consulted.

Yes, there is ample reason to feel sympathy for Jews who intermarry.  Transgressions performed from desire, Jewish tradition teaches, do not reach the level of those intended to be transgressive.  And on a personal level, there are reasons to not cut off connections to intermarried friends or relatives.  (It is not unheard of for non-Jews married to Jews to actually guide their spouses back to Torah lives and to themselves be megayer; precisely such a couple is the subject of “Migrant Soul,” a biography I was privileged to write.)

At the same time, though, there is simply no way – not in the real world – to warmly welcome intermarrieds without welcoming intermarriage.  No way to make Professor Feldmans feel accepted for who they are without making potential Professor Feldmans view intermarriage as innocuous.  No way to “devalue” the gravity of intermarriage without dulling the truth that every Jew is an invaluable link in the Jewish chain of generations.

If one begins with the premise that intermarriage is dangerous to the Jewish people and the Jewish mission, the intermarried cannot enjoy our acceptance.  There may be quibbles about the means by which we express our rejection of their choice.  But the absence of any communal expression of reproach is nothing less than an invitation to intermarriage.

To my lights, it doesn’t seem extreme in the least for a Jewish school to make clear to an intermarried alumnus that, despite his secular accomplishments, it feels no pride in him for his choice to intermarry.   I wouldn’t expect an American Cancer Society gathering to smile politely at a chain smoking attendee either.

It is painful, no doubt, to be spurned by one’s community.  It is painful, too, for a community to feel compelled to express its censure.  Sometimes, though, in personal and communal life no less than in weightlifting, only pain can offer – in the larger, longer picture – hope of gain.


[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America]


  1. Stop wasting one more moment talking about this man.

    If he was a real estate broker or an insurance salesman would he be news?

    This is an arrogant man who is used to getting everything in life, and now, in the height of his arrogance, wants the vindication of his peers for his abandonment of his people.

    Bottom line- he chose to marry outside of his faith and he is no longer a member of our community.

    Modern Orthodoxy attempts to synthesize the modern world ( chochma ) with Torah. We can boost innumerable scientists, physicians and other intellectuals who are able to integrate Torah and Mada.

    Modern orthodoxy has seen a diminishment of our numbers as many of our youth adopt a more yeshive lifestyle. Much rather have our youth become yeshivish, and marry within the faith, than dealing with the likes of this arrogant ” Professor “

  2. Like Rabbi Shafran, I too felt inclined to comment on Feldman’s piece in the Times. Unlike modern orthodox, however, I felt it was worthy of comment and discussion because it was a well-written, if misguided, article.

    Stripped to its bare essentials,the article expresses Feldman’s pain at being rejected, albeit politely, by his former classmates as a result of his marriage to a non-Jewish woman. From there, Feldman takes a few cheap shots at Yiddishkeit, both modern and not so modern.

    What is noteworthy about Feldman’s article is that he should express surprise at his rejection! Come on! Doesn’t every Jew who contemplates marrying outside the faith realize that the price he or she will have to pay for going through with such a plan is exclusion from Klal Yisroel? As Rabbi Shafran observes, you lose your credentials as a supporter of the American Cancer Society if you light up a cigarette at one of their meetings. You can’t expect to retain your place in a group if you publicly trample all over the group’s core values. And that is exactly what marrying out constitutes.

  3. modern orthodox

    i dont claim to be an expert at all in modern orthodoxy, so feel free to set me straight.

    but from my observations it seems clear that modern orthodoxy does not have as it’s primary aim to:

    *synthesize the modern world with Torah*
    to become “scientists, physicians and other intellectuals”

    there are plenty bearded black hatted Yiddin who are scientists, physicians, and other intellectuals.

    i do not criticize those who are “modern orthodox”
    but i hope they would at least be honest in stating their aim.

    it seems suggestive to me that their aim in wearing clothes of the nations, participating in their entertainments (movies, tv, radio newspapers, restaurants, kosher of course) concerts, sports, other “cultural activities, (and being proud of their Jewishness, just like every other ethnic group is proud of its) that their goal is not to: “synthesize the modern world with Torah”
    but rather to synthesize the goyish world with the Torah.
    of course that doesnt sound too good.

  4. as usual – this was very well written. clear and to the point.

    question to everyone:
    would you attend an intermarriage of a relative(this includes those who “convert” not according to halacha and therefore are not Jewish)? would it make a difference to you if it was a purely secular ceremony?

    b/t/w not seeking halachic guidance on the board we all have our Local Orthodox Rabbi for that.

    Have a wonderful and pleasant Shabbos to all my friends out there.

  5. mdlevine – As I understand the accepted psak and practice in all communities, both Modern Orthodox and Charedi, is that one does not go to an intermarriage ceremony no matter who and where.

  6. Feivel-

    This is beyond the scope of this conversation.

    If you want to wrap yourself up in black clothing and exclude yourself from this wonderful world and all that Hashem created, Kol Hakovod.

    Modern Orthodoxy attempts to make some cohesion with the ” real ” world around us.

    May all of us strive to continue to serve Hashem and improve our “Avodas Hashem” in what ever way possible.

    A good Shabbos Nachamu to you and to all Jews.

  7. A Jew whether he is Orthodox or Modern Orthodox knows that intermarriage is suicidal to Judaism. I would just like to add that anyone who follows the sedras in Sefer Devorim during these Shabbosim will understand that we are constantly being exhorted against intermarriage and assimilation. It is a theme that keeps recurring, and people like Feldman must be made to understand that. We must draw the line very sharply on this point.

  8. yes i defenitely wish to exclude myself from much of the world and all that Hashem created.

    the hellenists, the maskilim, and all the assimilationists throughout our history, did not want to. they wanted to take full advantage of the pleasures of the goyish “real” world, while, in many cases, maintaining a proud Jewish identity as well.
    this is a tayvah, it is something to be worked on.
    if it becomes an institution, a “branch” of Judaism, it is another sign of the darkness of the times before Moshiach.

  9. modern world
    real world
    wide wonderful world
    intellectual world
    world of pleasures
    world of entertainment
    world of freedom
    world of scientists and intellectuals
    world of literature
    world of culture

    all EUPHEMISMS for the world of Esav, the world of Edom, the world of Yafes.

  10. Feivel I am with you on what you are writing. Yasher Koach. And if I may add what does the modern have to do with torah. That they go mixed swimming r”l has to do with the torah? That the women don’t dress with tznius has to do with the torah? A rebbe in one of the modern schools told me that over the weekend there were at least 10 pairs of tefillin left in the shelves (Now you can say that all those ten boys wore their father’s tefillin on Sunday but I wouldn’t put down any money on that) what does that have to do with the torah. Just wondering?

  11. 4.

    Doche be’yemin umekarev b’smol.

    I would categorically not attend an intermarriage, nor would I do anything whatever to recognize, encourage, or legitimize the union. For example, I would never address the couple as Mr. and Mrs.; if they came to my house I would not allow them to sleep over in one room (if they chose to go to a hotel, that’s their decision).

    On the other hand, I would not shut out the Jewish partner. I would do everything I could (in a menshliche way) to bring about the dissolution of that union.

    There is a story told (was it another one of Rabbi Shafran’s pieces?) along that line about a woman who intermarried. Her mother never stopped expressing her love for her daughter. The daughter frequently visited her mother’s home, and eventually, due to the maternal love which was never withheld, “divorced” her “husband” and returned to her roots.

    Good Shabbos and nechamah to all.

  12. Modern Orthodox said it all in his/her 10:11 post: Noah Feldman wanted something that observant Jews of any stripe do not allow themselves. In an open society, he is free to marry whom he wishes; now he presumably wishes for our approbation. Sorry, Noah — no can do.

  13. For those following the daf;
    A women who marries a d’rabonon/rabbinical forbidden marriage, loses most/close to all her rights. More so, her livestock can not eat Terumah, even if she is married to a Kohen. Why? to try to break the marriage!! and have her realize her husband is USING her!!
    I will let this gemora speak for itself.

  14. I know I’m wasting time even commenting, but MO said it well. This is an arrogant man who wants it all…on HIS terms.

    I would just add that Feldman’s conception of Judaism, the Judaism from which he does not want to be shut out, is essentially nothing.
    He wants to be invited to the events, made to feel welcome, in other words, be part of the coffee klatsch.

    He does not want any of the reality of Judaism, the Torah, Mitzvos, CVonnection to Hashem, he wants the social part. If he’d want the real Judaism, we’d welcome him.

    IOW, it’s all about foolishness. If we were to offer him a place on the Mizrach, on condition that he walk to shul every Shabbos and refrain from Melacha, he wouldn’t want that. He wants to be a goy…with Jewish pals.

    Sorry pal, that’s not Judaism.

  15. One consideration to all of us as parents. It has been reported that Noah feldman parents chose to live in Cambraidge MA and favor “intelectual” environment for their kids, rather than live in Brookline MA where they would be in a frum environment. They fulfilled their Shabbos minyan obligation by davening with the Hillel of Harvard. Those kids did not grow seeing a Kedusha of Shabbos on a weekly basis. Modern orthodoxy has many members, some of which are very non compromising Yerei Shamaim. It has though other members who would construct their life like the Feldmans’ and justify it by the cliche “integrating the outside world with Jewish life”.

  16. modern orthodoxy encourages movies/tv/ and other non jewish entertainment.

    When we daven and say Vacharei Eineichem, we are being told not to let our eyes see treife things.
    We are Kedoshim. We are separate from the other nations. We don’t dress the way that they do. We don’t eat the way they do. And we certainly don’t subject our holy Neshomos to their entertainment. Just because we may desire it, that doesn’t make it kosher.

    So please don’t call it Modern Orthodoxy.
    Call it giving into your desires and copping out.
    How much better is that then the reform and conservative?

  17. Modern orthodox, There is no “real world” out there. This world is an Olam Hasheker veHadimyon. (One needs to study much Mussar and Chassidus to fully understand this concept). The only real world is the world of Torah. Anything that is not %100 al pi Torah is not part of the real world, and therefore not part of our world.

  18. I was really disgusted by Feldman’s article. So typical of an overly intelligent Jew who goes & does something – he has to go write & tell the world. For example when someone decides to no longer live in Eretz Yisrael – they go & write an op-ed piece about how dissapointed they are in Israel etc. You want to leave? leave. no need to share your whole experience with the world. Just shut the door after yourself.

    And we see it with frum folks who leave the Torah – very often in Israel in the media. they talk about their family, the “process” of becoming secular etc. Everything must be shared publicly – which always makes me suspicious about the whole thing.

    I had a counselor when i was younger. He went off the D. He told me privately some of his reasons….but he never wrote an article. He never said anything in public. He was quiet….married in a frum ceremony etc.

    Feldman makes me sick. He writes to share his poor, wounded self with the world – at the same time making the Torah & observant Jews look bad. Hey buddy – you left the Torah. don’t turn around & bash us for sticking to our mission statement.

    He brings his pathology to the pages of the NY TImes. He will soon be a desired speaker for Jewish federations….

  19. Another thing….this has nothing to do with modern Orthodoxy in my opinion. his “modern orthodox” school is the place that cut he & non-Jewish wife out of picture!

    It is legit. to have complaints on Modern Orthodoxy – but I think it is mistaken to somehow pin Feldman’s ridiculous & self serving opinions on a world which actually rejects his actions!

    His high school rejects his action. I am 1000% sure there is not one person at YU who would come near even a subtle defense of Feldman.

    IF you want to complain about modern orthodoxy…the schools, the hashkafa….go right ahead, but I think it is very misguided and not truthful to somehow blame mod. orthodoxy for a misguided person who went to an MO high school. Just as we would not blame a yeshiva for the people who went there but then live in ways the yeshiva doesn’t approve of.

    Let’s get it straight: modern orthodox institutions and leaders do NOT accept intermarriage in any way.