The New York Times Makes a Questionable Editorial ChoiceOn July 22, 2007, Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine published an article concerning the difficulties in reconciling an Orthodox Jewish way of life and the rest of the world. The opening of the essay is an experience from Feldman's past, when he bought his Korean-American fiancée to his tenth reunion of his yeshiva and then was surprised and, presumably, hurt because the two of them were cropped out of the reunion picture in the newsletter.
Unfortunately, there seems to have been more of a story. According to The Jewish Week, there is considerable evidence (the word of the photographer and an admission by Feldman) that the cropping was not a deliberate slight, but that a number of people were inadvertently left out of the picture because there were simply too many there for a single frame of film.
I used the word unfortunately for good reason. The faulty reporting, and the apparent unwillingness of Times editors to have Feldman correct his essay's opening, has brought the accuracy of the entire piece - and the intentions of all involved - into doubt. That is a shame, because there is value within the piece as it addresses the difficulty of trying to be Orthodox in this world as well as the tensions on the Jewish part between these two worlds:
One time at Maimonides a local physician -- a well-known figure in the community who later died tragically young -- addressed a school assembly on the topic of the challenges that a modern Orthodox professional may face. The doctor addressed the Talmudic dictum that the saving of a life trumps the Sabbath. He explained that in its purest form, this principle applies only to the life of a Jew. The rabbis of the Talmud, however, were unprepared to allow the life of a non-Jew to be extinguished because of the no-work commandment, and so they ruled that the Sabbath could be violated to save the life of a non-Jew out of concern for maintaining peaceful relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.And then there was the teacher who stood and said that view put the doctor in the danger of violating Torah. The teacher later apologized to the class - not because he felt he was wrong, but because there were non-Jews in the audience when he spoke. "The double standard of Jews and non-Jews, in other words, was for him truly irreducible: it was not just about noting that only Jewish lives merited violation of the Sabbath, but also about keeping the secret of why non-Jewish lives might be saved," as Feldman writes.
Depending on how you look at it, this ruling is either an example of outrageously particularist religious thinking, because in principle it values Jewish life more than non-Jewish life, or an instance of laudable universalism, because in practice it treats all lives equally. The physician quite reasonably opted for the latter explanation. And he added that he himself would never distinguish Jewish from non-Jewish patients: a human being was a human being.
Of course, this ultimately isn't about a tribal attitude belonging to Orthodox Jews. You can find the same attitude among Muslims (look at the Shiite/Sunni divisions), among Christians, among virtually any nationality. You can find it in school rivalries, for heaven's sake. We are People and you are not. This is the heritage of mankind and, perhaps, one of the real meanings of the Tower of Babel story. We as a global people have long ceased speaking the same language, and we don't recognize each other's humanity. If we did, war, economic oppression, and many other features of modern life would become impossible to undertake. Oh, for some real translation in today's world.