Monday, July 23, 2007

Missing the Point

From Noah Feldman's Orthodox Paradox, which appeared this weekend in the New York Times Magazine:
It is more than a little strange, feeling fully engaged with a way of seeing the world but also, at the same time, feeling so far from it. I was discussing it just the other day with my best friend — who, naturally, went to Maimonides, too. The topic was whether we would be the same people, in essence, had we remained completely within the bosom of modern Orthodoxy. He didn’t think so. Our life choices are constitutive of who we are, and so different life choices would have made us into different people — not unrecognizably different, but palpably, measurably so.

I accepted his point as true — but for some reason I resisted the conclusion. Couldn’t the contradictory world from which we sprang be just as rich and productive as the contradictory life we actually live? Would it really, truly, have made all that much difference? Isn’t everyone’s life a mass of contradictions? My best friend just laughed.
There are a number of ways to approach his fascinating, detailed piece, but I think that these last two paragraphs show best how he missed the point. Feldman is primarily upset that his alma mater, the Maimonodies school in Brookline, MA, cut himself and his - non-Jewish - wife (then girlfriend) out of a picture from their 10th high school reunion. He then proceeds to analyze through his own worldview that which he finds to be the "Orthodox paradox" of Modern Orthodoxy, toeing that line between secularism and religion very precariously.

The problem with his piece is that he just doesn't get it. To some extent, Gil summed this up best: (emphasis mine)
After thirteen years in yeshiva, you knew very well that by marrying outside of the Jewish faith that you were committing the ultimate slap-in-the-faith to the community in which you were raised. It was and remains your choice. This is a free country and it's your life to live. ...

The community in general does not want to completely cut off ties with you. But certainly a smart man like you knows that it can no longer hold you high as an example of one of theirs who succeeded. You didn't.
Gil is focusing on the communal aspect, but I think it's even stronger than that - it's the educational aspect. It's not just that Feldman is complaining that he has been cut out; his example is possibly from the place where it makes the most sense to be cut out: His school. From his school's standpoint, he is quite possibly one of the worst examples of a graduate in terms of the education they are giving to their students: A brilliant mind, a Rhodes Scholar, a valedictorian at Harvard, a Truman Scholar... and yet, married to a woman who is not Jewish - a man whose children will not be Jewish either. To a religious school that strives to show how one can balance a religious lifestyle with the secular world, this demonstrates the complete reverse.

And yet, despite all of this, his school seems to be happy to have him at their events. They have not truly cut him out as implied; he admits and is proud of his close ties with many of his old friends. Clearly, they, too, have not cut him off. They are happy to see him, have no problem talking to him, consider him their friend - but at the same time, they aren't going to praise the choices of his with which they do not agree. His friend is absolutely correct, and the irony is that while Feldman sees it, he doesn't understand it:
Our life choices are constitutive of who we are, and so different life choices would have made us into different people — not unrecognizably different, but palpably, measurably so.
Feldman's mistake is that he gets caught up in that dream of youth, one that often finds itself in liberal and academic ideology - a noble one to be sure, but unrealistic. I saw this quote recently and think it is perfect in this case:
“The charm and insolence of youth is that it is everything in potentiality and nothing in actuality,” wrote the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset.
Jonathan Rosenblum summed it up well over there:
It is characteristic of young people to hesitate in the face of the seemingly infinite possibilities before them; they know that walking through any door will foreclose others and signal the end of their infinite potential.
Feldman (and all of us, really) don't like this idea. We love the idea of infinite potential; we can't stand when that is taken away from us. People hesitate to marry because they constantly wonder if there is 'something even better' out there; they don't take a job offer in case an even better one gets brought to their attention. But while this can sometimes pay off in the short-term (albeit rarely), one cannot do this forever or they will never have either. It is for this reason (among others) that a person cannot afford to out-think their biggest decisions in life, or they will never be able to accomplish much; there is no such thing as the 'perfect' woman, and the 'perfect' job doesn't just land in your inbox all that often. You marry the girl whom you can love, grow with, and be happy with despite all their flaws and who accepts you despite all of yours; you take the job that offers the best balance of income, security, and contentment.

Feldman, however, questions why this must be so - why can't we choose both paths? Why does choosing one automatically exclude the other?
Couldn’t the contradictory world from which we sprang be just as rich and productive as the contradictory life we actually live?
No! We make choices in life, and those choices do make us measurably different. This is why the article ends with his friend's laughing at him. Once he has admitted that he is unwilling or unable to accept that clear and obvious point, there simply is nothing left to say.

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