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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Professor Noah Feldman and Cognitive Dissonance

We need to be grateful that Noah Feldman

has not taken the path of others in his position. Usually, when one’s life-choices are dissonant with one’s religious inculcation, the transgressor rationalizes his decisions by vilifying his religion. This is a natural form of denial, and is common to many instances of cognitive dissonance. Professor Feldman, happily, has been able to create a psychic niche, a safe harbor, for his self-esteem, without wholesale derogation of his religious education. Apparently, he is by nature a good soul, a man of deep and abiding honesty, and he is unwilling to fall prey to the bitterness so common to people in his position. His chiddush, his novelty, is to limit his patronizing bemusement to his hidebound or religiously constrained teachers and erstwhile society, while re-imagining what Judaism would be if it were more truly understood and fairer to people like, for example, him.

Having said this, it is interesting to point out what fools our hearts make of us. I am not interested in discussing whether his article skews to the disingenuous or to the subversive. But Professor Feldman is a bona fide illui, and even rarer, a disciplined illui with a solid and encyclopedic education. It is therefore instructive, indeed amazing, to see how knowing misrepresentations and failures of thought and imagination are pressed into the service of his need for validation.

Phylacteries. Do they have anything to do with instruments of torment? Is it the fact that both are made of leather? Assuming that the comparison was intended as a bit of humor, anyone with some respect for Jewish tradition would have to agree that it is in extremely poor taste. Mashal le’mah hadavar domeh: on that basis, burning chametz before Pesach is very much like Suttee. How remarkable that we share so much with the Hindus!

Professor Feldman’s remarks that our kashrut constraints mandate that we avoid eating with non-Jews, just as we avoid eating with Jews that do not adhere to the Kosher laws. He finds this to be divisive and dehumanizing. He does not mention that we are not constrained in any way from eating with anyone we want to at our own homes and in our own restaurants. There are a few minor restrictions that do pertain even to eating kosher food that was prepared by non-kosher-food-eaters. Ironically, one of the reasons for those proscriptions is to lessen the possibility of intermarriage.

Professor Feldman mentions that we are only allowed to desecrate the Sabbath on behalf of non-Jews in order to maintain cordial relations with the society we live in. This is an example of a half truth that a man with his intellect, if he had given it some thought, should have realized is utterly false and misleading. First of all, we cannot desecrate the Sabbath to save Jews either. The only reason that in practical Halacha we do so, is because one can desecrate the Sabbath in defense of the Sabbath. We desecrate the Sabbath to save the lives of those who themselves keep the Sabbath– not because of the primacy of the Jewish life, but because of the primacy of the Sabbath. Furthermore, his dialectic of universalism/particularism creates a false universe of options. What he calls ‘particularism’ is just another way of describing secular humanism, or selfish altruism. We desecrate the Sabbath in order to create a society in which human life is paramount, both for us and for the gentile world.

Rav Moshe Feinstein is accused of a failure of romantic imagination. Why? Because Rav Moshe recognized the inevitable metamorphosis of innocent friendship into sexual infatuation and its concomitant proscribed behavior. Having blithely disparaged Rav Moshe's warnings, Feldman demonstrates the honesty and truth of those warnings by reading into the Rambam-- the supreme rationalist to whom sexual relations were no more than an unfortunate, though necessary, nuisance-- the most absurd double entendre. His reaction to the Rambam, indeed his life choices, give resonance and credence to Rabbi Feinstein’s teshuva.

A massive intellect like Professor Feldman in entitled to look with derision upon the weak-kneed rationalizations of the evidence of an ancient world which were presented by his teachers. But he should not have stopped there. To a mind like his, informed by Einstein’s perspective of the connection between time and matter, would it have been that difficult to realize that, that the story of Genesis involved a bilateral temporal creation, the creation of a true past which, nunc pro tunc, actually occurred, along with a present and a future, all of which creation occurred at one specific moment in subjective time?

Professor Feldman refers to the Amalek commandment as explicitly genocidal. How convenient it is for a twenty-first century man to look back and misunderstand. It is also lazy. It wouldn’t take much effort to realize that in the ancient world, any survivor of a war would be duty and honor-bound to take revenge for the killing of his relatives, whether the war was justified by self-defense or not. Leaving an Amalekite alive was the equivalent of sending baby Hitler to an orphanage. And despite this imperative, Feldman’s beloved Rambam states that even an Amalekite who accepts the Jewish moral code is spared. To me, that is the surprising element in the commandment.

It takes very little sleuthing to prise out the sensual drives that hide behind and motivate the Professor’s allegedly thoughtful and reasoned j’accuse. Although I would, if there was a need for categorization, be placed with the ultra-orthodox, I am relatively cognizant of secular literature. Professor Feldman calls to mind Ishmael, in Moby Dick, as he skinned and rendered the whale. The two of them wear the same habiliment. The difference is that Ishmael didn’t decide that his hat had earned him a pulpit. Quite the contrary; in that position, it is more honestly said to "have no conscience."

I don’t know what the future holds for Professor Feldman. He is practically sui generis, a strange creature of the Modern-Orthodox movement, whose massive intellect and superb education has allowed to make peace between utterly incompatible feelings and concepts without too much damage to his psyche and his native character traits. He is indeed a treasure to the Jewish people and to humanity as a whole. He has my best wishes that God help him find his way home.


David Guttmann said...

Very well written. I like the respectful tone and dealing with the substance. i am not sure i agree with every lomdus (Shabbat is Nidche bifnei pikuach nefesh, see rambma hil. shabbat 2:2-3.)but they all have al mi lismoch.

BARZILAI said...

Thank you.

To anyone reading the comments: I edit my post as the week progresses, so Reb David is not necessarily expressing agreement with any possible future iterations thereof.

Regarding the source for my pshat in being doche Shabbos: RShBG in Shabbos 151b and R Shimon ben Menasia in Yoma 85b-- challeil olov shabbos achas ke'dei she'yishmor shabbosos harbei.

Robert J. Avrech said...


Excellent post. Feldman reminds me of the Jewish Hellenists who underwent painful surgeries to reverse their circumcisions. Feldman's surgery is mental.

BARZILAI said...

Thank you for your yasher koach. It means a lot to me. I have this screenplay....

At least the Hellenists didn't claim they were fulfilling the "true intent" of the Bible.

Anonymous said...

From Blackleibel: My son just finished Feldman's course on Church and State. Feldman lectured for hours on the Eruv issue and apparently is well-versed in the Halachik fundamentals of Eruvin. He, of course, argued for the wrong side in Tenafly Eruv Ass'n, Inc. v. Borough of Tenafly, 155 F. Supp. 2d 142, 146 (D.N.J. 2001) and lost.

Anonymous said...

Oh my. Seems Feldman has crossed the line and gone public. Now this "B'farhesya" is potentially a huge embarrassment to the Orthodox Community. What a conundrum. After all, he has far too much "lumdus" to be dismissed as an Apikores.

And the audactiy to not fit into a convenient category to allow swift excision of the Feldman cancer, or at least easy marginalization.

Talk about cognitive dissonance --- how does someone who was such a luminary decide that desipte his keep knowledge and observance, it's worth discarding for a shiksa?

Can't possibly be a commentary on Orthodoxy. After all, there are too many of us brilliant thinkers and doers who have stayed true to the scriptures to allow for any interpretation of Feldmanism other than the latest example of a star who fell from the sky.

Better that he marry a crack whore --- as long as she is Jewish,
than a fellow Oxford scholar who may be of the purest moral and ethical standards but lo and behold is not a yid. Ostracision is the safeguard of all Orthodoxies. We don't corner the market here.

Anonymous said...

The post on Feldman is excellent. But the last annonymous comment is simply confused--its author doesn't even understand his own comment. Does he want to try to explain Feldman's foolishness solely by reference to the prejudicial attitudes of Modern Orthodoxy, and its purported preference for a "Jewish crack whore" over the putatively pure and upstanding gentile? Of course for starters, this overlooks the point that anyone, even a great mind, can fool and flatter himself when it is in his own interest (that being one of Barzilai's main points about Feldman). But even more, to criticize the shortcomings of Modern Orthodoxy and its institutions as the commentator does is, in reality, to ask frum yidden to live up to being frum yidden. That is hardly a bad thing! (It's actually a mitzvah d'oraita...although the Chazon Ish doubts that we know how to do it anymore, egocentric as we have now become.) But Feldman decided to leave, rather than try to do that. So who is the commentator really attacking, who is he really defending?

George said...

I linked from Robert Avech's Seraphic Secret.
Unlike both Robert and yourself, I do not find Mr. Feldman's commentary either particularly objectionable or, more to the point, particularly interesting or noteworthy.
The musings of a man who is peeved that his high school does not accept his rejection of some of their values seems somewhat petty to me.
His intellect; his apikorus; and his objections, all seem less informative about the man than the fact that he is essentially whining about being excluded for the choices he freely made.
He is waxing nostalgic in the same way I might muse on my former hippie days and all that that might entail. I could even go as far as wondering why my former best friend has never spoken to me since I told him I couldn't go to his non-kosher, non-Jewish wedding which was in another State, on Shabbos... He pleaded with me that surely my (very strange to him) G-d would understand...
Now, I have somehow been excluded now for not accepting the values that I grew up with....
Please - Mr. Feldman is not an illui...

Anonymous said...

From Blackleibel: He's confused.
See the Feldman interview at:

BARZILAI said...

Yes, I think it is self evident that he is donning the mantle of universalism and pluralism and reason in order to justify what he knows to be wrong.

I'm just happy that he didn't choose the defense-mechanism that other talented and charismatic individuals have in the same circumstances-- the revisionism chosen by Jesus and Shabtai Tzvi.

BARZILAI said...

george-- I don't know if he is an illui or not. I've known many brilliant people-- Moshe Brown, Tzvi Berkowitz, Moshe Lowy, and so on. But I've only known one real illui of my own age, and that is Yitzchak Breitowitz. From reading about Feldman, it seemed that he fit into the same mold, lehavdil.