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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

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Jews Must Stop Disowning their Brightest and their Best

Posted: 08/08/07 04:38 PM ET

When I grew up, two great political systems rivaled each other for control of the world. The United States promised its citizens rewards for their entrepreneurship and granted them the liberties of a free democracy. The Soviet Union, by contrast, insisted on controlling its citizens and intimidated them with the KGB. It seems incredible now but back then, in the seventies, we really didn't know which system would eventually win out. We feared Soviet expansion but for no good reason. History has shown that every system that is based on intimidation and fear eventually falls and crumbles. It cannot motivate but only suppress its citizenry. The system atrophies by virtue of its own inability to inspire and uplift.

We who have, over the past few weeks, debated the Noah Feldman issue and how those who have intermarried ought to be treated by the Jewish community have really debated the same thing: How should the Jewish community treat its constituents, especially those who have left the tradition? Should we intimidate them with fear, or should we bring them closer with love?

You will forgive me for returning to this issue yet again, but it is simply too important a debate to leave as is.

Committed Jewish leaders like Avi Shafran, whose only motive is the welfare of the Jewish people, believe that we have no choice but to ostracize those who have married out. They must be shown that what they did was unacceptable.

But since when do fear and censure have the power to motivate? On the contrary, I maintain that ostracization sends the false message that Jewishness is a state of practice rather than a state of being.

Had these people been criminals then there would be no choice but to punish them. But far from being villains, they are our Jewish brothers and sisters and our foremost purpose must be to bring them, as well as their non-Jewish spouses, closer to the Jewish tradition.

Albert Einstein is the most celebrated Jewish personality of the twentieth century. He was a proud Jew who never denied his identity and even renounced his proudly-held pacifism as soon as he saw the threat that Hitler posed to his people. In a stunning reversal of his opposition to murderous weapons, he penned a now-famous letter to President Roosevelt calling on the United States to build an atomic weapon before the Germans could do the same. Yet, his first wife, with whom he had his children, was not Jewish. And yet he contributed enormously to the welfare of his people. In an age where many high-profile Jews condemned Zionism out of fear of being accused of dual loyalties, Einstein not only supported it, but toured the United States with Chaim Weizmann to raise money for the Zionist cause. He lent his incalculable prestige to the establishment of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was there for its inauguration. Would my critics, who believe that those who marry out ought to be shunned, have cut off Einstein and told him that his assistance was not welcome? Would we have cut him off from the community because he married out?

The same applies to luminaries such as Henry Kissinger who have likewise married non-Jewish wives. Are we silly enough to cast off some of the most accomplished living Jews over single choices that they made? I have no relationship with Kissinger, but if I did I would tell him that he is a man of singular influence, that the State of Israel requires his voice to help the world understand the magnitude of threat the Jewish state faces and how its survival is essential to all Western democracy. What I would not do is tell him that since he has married outside the faith we will have nothing further to do with him. Indeed, there are many Jewish organizations that have paid Kissinger large speaker fees to lecture at their events, even though Kissinger took a middle-of-the-road approach when Israel most needed him during the darkest days of the Yom Kippur war. Prof. Feldman's article in the New York Times was positively harmless by comparison.

The sad history of the Jewish people is that our best and our brightest are often lost to our people. Our job is to bring them back by making them know that the Jewish community is their home and there is no escaping it.

As I have written in previous articles, Prof. Feldman has been my close friend from the time he was a young Rhodes scholar at Oxford, a fact of which I am justly proud. Had he asked me, I would have advised him not to write the article in the New York Times. I would have told him that surely a world-class scholar of his caliber understood that his emotions were too raw, his pain too acute, to truly be objective in his assessment of modern orthodoxy. But having said this, I know why he wrote it, and this is something that my critics refuse to acknowledge. His article stemmed from a sense of woundedness. He could not bear the pain of rejection by a community he loves and calls home. He never believed that marrying a non-Jewish woman would mean that his own people would disown him. And in this sense, he is right and the community is wrong.

Yes, Jews should marry Jews. It is only by marrying within the faith that the continuity of our nation can be assured. On that point there can be no debate. But that has nothing to do with the fact that Prof. Feldman is our Jewish brother whom we must love and cherish and that his wife, by virtue of marrying a member of our people, is now connected to us in the most profound way. And by showing him and her the kindliness that our patriarch Abraham would have exuded, we likewise demonstrate to all people everywhere that Judaism is profound, warm, and joyous.

In the darkest days of the Hitlerian nightmare, Sigmund Freud saw it fit to publish his screed against Judaism, Moses and Monotheism, which maintained that Moses was not a Jew but an Egyptian prince. This was the last thing that the Jewish community needed from the second most famous Jew alive. Had I been around, I would not have excommunicated Freud and I would not have published public condemnations of him. Rather, with the most scholarly arguments available to me, I would have refuted his thesis and I would have told him that whatever he said and whatever he did, he was still a Prince of his people and a beloved member of the his community. And we need his participation now more than ever.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's book on the Jewish faith is called 'Judaism for Everyone.' (Basic Books) He is currently filming his new TV show in Alaska. www.shmuley.com.

 
 
 

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