Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Another note or three about "Orthodox Paradox"

Regarding Noah Feldman's "Orthodox Paradox" article, which I addressed in my last post:

a) I'm sorry I called him an a**hole. That is an ad hominem attack, completely useless and peurile. I didn't receive any complaints about it, but I myself feel that it was beneath my dignity to use that particular word.

b) I have been quite disturbed by much of the response in the blog world (more specifically, in the comments to blogs), in which Jews across the Orthodox spectrum have basically proven that Feldman is correct: we ARE a bunch a racist, close-minded jerks. People! Argue his piece on its merits!

c) Case in point: vulgar arguments to the effect that Feldman was so overcome by sexual desire for a "shiksa" that he couldn't control his impulse to leave Orthodoxy behind, is sick. First of all, it ignores the fact that Feldman's wife is not only beautiful, she is also incredibly intelligent and accomplished in her own right. She's a person. And the word "shiksa" is a really nasty way to refer to a being who was created b'tzelem elokim, just as we were. It's one thing to note that in marrying out of the faith, Feldman has performed the supreme no-no of Orthodox Judaism, and therefore can't expect much pride from the school. It's another to make personal attacks about his wife and children, who have done nothing wrong themselves.

d) I haven't seen it noted elsewhere, so I guess I have to be the one to say it. Regarding the story about the rabbi who said that one should only break Shabbat to save the life of a non-Jew if doing so will avoid harmful relations between Jews and non-Jews (that is, not because the life of a non-Jew is inherently as valuable as the life of a Jew):

Feldman himself notes that we are a community in which actions are more important than belief, and that we don't go around asking each other what we truly believe, because we might not want to know the true answers to that question. In practice, there is probably not a single Jewish doctor alive, anywhere, who wouldn't, in practice, gladly break Shabbat to save the life of a non-Jew. Any non-Jew. In Israel, there are religious doctors who regularly break Shabbat to save the lives of Palestinians.

But let's talk about beliefs. The passages in the Talmud to which Feldman refers suggest that the life of a Jew is inherently more valuable than that of a non-Jew. Now, certainly, we all can agree that, though some things have stayed the same, much has changed since the Talmud was written. A lot has changed. The very way that people relate to God has changed. The freedoms with which Jews live in the Western world has changed dramatically, though we hold our breath for that to change again. We all can understand why, in a world in which Jews were a persecuted minority, in which the non-Jews around them did not assign any inherent value to Jewish lives, that the Jewish leaders would declare that the lives of the persecuting majority are important only insofar as they help maintain some peace and quiet for the Jews.

Does it matter that things are no longer quite that way? One of the hallmarks of Orthodoxy is that, in most areas, we don't think that any sort of change really matters: Torah is Torah, Judaism is Judaism, halacha is halacha, and everything else can change all it wants, but we still won't light fires on Saturday or eat a cheeseburger.

But a matter such as under what circumstances one can break Shabbat to save a life is not discussed in a vaccuum. The fact that many, if not most, rabbis today do encourage doctors to save lives -- any lives -- on Shabbat is indicative of where this discussion has moved in the last couple thousand years.

However, there is still practice, and belief. And so I ask you to take a moment to think: do you, in your heart of hearts, believe that the life of a Jew is inherently more worthy of saving than the life of a non-Jew?

If your answer is "no," if deep down you believe that, for all that our religion and history and mandate is special, Jews have no more inherent value in the eyes of God than anyone else, then please be honest to yourself and admit that, much as you may respect this particular Talmudic teaching, you have chosen, in your heart, to dismiss it as out of touch with reality - that you think it is wrong.

And if your answer is "yes," if you think that Jews are, by definition, born with a different spiritual makeup that makes our lives inherently more precious, regardless of how warm and just and tolerant and connected to God the non-Jew in question may be, then please be honest with yourself and acknowledge that you are racist. If you want to justify your racism with Talmudic discussions, or with the realities of Jewish history, or whatever, go ahead. But be honest: if the only reason you'd save a non-Jewish life on Shabbat is to help the Jewish community, then you might be a good doctor, and you might be treating everyone equally in practice, but in your heart you are racist. Just be honest about that.

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