Book Review | Noah Feldman Explains Us To Ourselves

By | Jul 07, 2024
Book Review, Featured, Summer 2024
The cover of Noah Feldman 's 'To Be a Jew Today'

To Be a Jew Today: A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People
By Noah Feldman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pp.

Noah Feldman’s To Be A Jew Today is an ambitious undertaking accomplished with a deep appreciation of Jewish thought and scripture, a willingness to be provocative, and no small amount of wit. Feldman is a Harvard Law School professor, a multilingual polymath whose CV reads like a sketch for a comic-book action hero: Super Jew. Raised in an Orthodox household by Harvard faculty parents, he attended the Maimonides School, a Jewish day school billed as the beacon of Modern Orthodox education in New England, and went from there to its older, secular fellow beacon, Harvard, where he graduated summa cum laude. Throw in a Rhodes Scholarship, Yale Law School (where he was an editor of the law review), a Supreme Court clerkship and you have a scholar who is conversant with the works of both Maimonides and James Madison, a Jewish public intellectual capable of leaping tall ideas in a single bound.

To Be A Jew Today is subtitled A New Guide to God, Israel, and the Jewish People. It is a book designed to explain us, I suppose to others, but primarily to ourselves. No easy task, that. It entails classifying Jews, not by the names of their movement affiliations but by the ideas and beliefs that undergird those affiliations or, alternatively, by their flight from both affiliation and belief, in the manner of godless “bagel-and-lox Jews.” Along the way we also meet, among others: “Traditionalist” Jews who study Torah all day in pursuit of spiritual elevation, and other Traditionalists who study all day just for the sake of studying; Zionists who see citizenship in a modern Israel displacing religion as the definition of Jewish identity, and other Zionists for whom Israel promises to be a base of operations for a Messiah King’s dominion; Reconstructionist Jews for whom worship and congregational life represent a Jewish civilization in which God is a function of their own choice to believe or not; and Reform and Conservative Jews who have found in their Judaism an expression of social justice and human rights that their forebears sought and found in America and that their European cousins saw stripped from them along with their culture, their property and their lives.

I cannot do justice to the breadth of Feldman’s guide. Suffice it to say that it is well worth the read, offering readers from many branches of the Jewish family tree a glimpse of other boughs and limbs and what their close and distant cousins in Jewishness make of life in the family. For Feldman, this is a work beyond the boundaries of his usual turf. His field is constitutional law.

His scholarship has included medieval Islam’s reaction to Aristotelian thought. He helped write the first draft of Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution. His perspective is that of an observant Jew who recalls his Modern Orthodox upbringing and education as intellectually and spiritually nurturing. His comfort with the Jewish life he was born into was challenged when he married a (non-Jewish) Korean-American woman, an act he has claimed (not in this book but in a New York Times Magazine article some years ago) led to his erasure from his beloved high school’s alumni pictures and documents. A former president of Yeshiva University commented in print at the time accusing him of wanting to have his cake and eat it too: marrying out (“violating a fundamental law”) and being spared the social consequences. From this encounter, one might expect Feldman’s survey of Jewishness to reveal a bitter side. To the contrary, he is remarkably generous.

He writes of the warm family life of Haredim who choose communal living under rabbinical leadership. In his treatment of Reform Judaism, he observes Reform’s theological insistence on a covenant with God freely arrived at, not at risk of divine retribution, despite such a threat appearing in the Torah. These groups represent radically different interpretations of what it means to be a Jew, and Feldman’s stance is to explore and explain, not to excoriate.

This Jewish public intellectual is capable of leaping tall ideas in a single bound.

Among his many observations and claims, the one that I find sticking with me most strongly is his diagnosis of the state of progressive (mostly Reform and Conservative) Jewish theology and the dilemma it faces in a time of challenge to Israel and to the fluid relationship of American Jewish identity and Israeli identity.

As Feldman sees it, progressive Jews have adopted two new pillars of contemporary theology since the second half of the last century: Israel and the Holocaust. “To Progressives,” he writes, “the word of God as passed to Moses and the elders and the rabbis”—that is, the chain of custody that justifies traditionalists’ deference to Orthodox rabbinic leadership—”is in need of editing and renewal in the light of morality as we are given to realize and apprehend it over time.”

The progressives’ early indifference, if not opposition, to Zionism, he writes, gave way to devotion to the cause after the wars of 1967 and 1973. The first war exhibited Jewish rebirth and recovery from the annihilation of European Jewry; the second revived fears of the potential annihilation of Jews in their Middle Eastern refuge. In the 1980s, Feldman writes, there emerged

a new distinctly Progressive American Jewish synthesis of the centrality of the Holocaust and the redemptive narrative of the creation of Israel…. At the level of theological narrative, it made some partial sense out of the deaths of the six million by depicting Israel as the redemptive solution to the problem of genocidal antisemitism.

As a measure of the centrality of this sequence of catastrophe and redemption to progressive Judaism, Feldman offers a thought experiment. What if a rabbi told her congregation that on some days she thought that we “should just get over the Holocaust and move on”? Or that on some days “I find I believe the State of Israel should not exist”? He assumes she would soon be out of a job, unlike rabbis who have admitted to “on some days” doubting that God exists or that the exodus from Egypt is historical fact. This narrative of Holocaust and Israel is more serious, not a modern-day Purim story with its plot of genocidal menace followed by a surprise happy ending but a pair of solemn attachments that elevate worldly experiences in our times to the stuff of theology. At the same time, the progressive insistence on tikkun olam, repairing the world, expands the righteous battle cry of “Never Again” from a nationalist slogan to a universal value.

I am sure that many progressives would resist what they might see as Feldman’s unfair reduction of their Judaism. Personally, I am intrigued by it. Since the rise of neo-Kahanism in Israel from the fringe to the Cabinet, I have wondered about the Israeli flag that stands beside the bimah in my synagogue. Reform Jews’ embrace of Israel once entailed admiration for the leaders who created the state and the virtues of its pioneers. Would a government led by an Itamar Ben-Gvir, or a Bezalel Smotrich, lead to the mothballing of Israeli flags? And the new salience in Israel’s government of Jewish nationalists who oppose any Palestinian state with messianic zeal is not the only problem with adopting Israel’s survival as a theological pillar. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been an unconscionable violation of human rights. Israel’s need for Russian cooperation in Syria and its ties to Jewish communities in both Ukraine and Russia have led it to adopt a stance toward Russia’s war in Ukraine that is more nuanced than many progressive Jews feel comfortable with.

I point this out to question, not the logic of Israel’s policy, but rather the theological reliability of a state that will necessarily have its own specific, sometimes narrow geopolitical and diplomatic interests. Feldman was still writing when the war in Gaza got underway. He does not speculate on what effect it may have on ties between progressive Jews and Israelis, but he does observe that Israel’s credibility as a democratic state mindful of social justice is a requisite for the state’s standing as an example of progressive tikkun olam.

In fact, I think we are beginning to see variants of Feldman’s thought experiments about progressive rabbis playing out in real life. Two students at the small but influential Reconstructionist movement’s rabbinical college dropped out and wrote about what they claimed was harassment for their pro-Israeli views. In fact, so many students from the college have been active in anti-Israel protests that the seminary’s president felt obliged to say that the school has no litmus test on Israel or Zionism, meaning that neither support nor criticism of Israel is required. We’ll see if the two who quit, or their activist classmates, find congregations.

And the Holocaust? The writer Dara Horn is neither a rabbi nor a theologian, but she has argued, in her book People Love Dead Jews and her reporting for The Atlantic, that a Jewish and non-Jewish preoccupation with universalizing the Holocaust in museums and school curricula has led people to equate Jewishness not just with victimhood but specifically with a form of victimhood that’s in the past, somewhere else, ignoring both contemporary antisemitism and the vitality of contemporary Judaism. The message of such universalizing, according to Horn, is that we are really all the same and should be treated as such. This, she believes, not only sells short the distinctive nature of Jewish civilization, community and worship; as we have seen in the anti-Israel protests of the past several months, it does not even guarantee Jews admission to the ranks of today’s self-styled victims. Horn is not saying “Let’s move on” from the Holocaust, but she has raised questions about spreading Holocaust education that were not discussed 20 or 30 years ago.

To Be a Jew Today is not a user’s manual. It describes how Jews today use the instructions for living contained in Hebrew scripture. The one constant that Feldman finds in the great variety of Jewish religious experience is the notion of Jews struggling with God. Jacob’s punishing night of wrestling with God (or, depending on the interpretation, with an angel) is a conversion experience—Jacob emerges renamed “Israel”—that establishes a people determined to embrace and wrestle with God for eternity. The struggle may entail observing dietary laws, studying Torah or fighting for social justice. It is, Feldman writes, “a covenant and a conflict and a concord all at the same time.” One thing is for sure: To be a Jew is a complicated matter.

Robert Siegel is Moment’s special literary correspondent.

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