Saturday, August 04, 2007
Newly hired Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman sent shock waves through the tiny world of Orthodox Judaism when he complained in the New York Times magazine of the ostracism he suffered since marrying outside the faith:
I went to my 10th high-school reunion, in the backyard of the one classmate whose parents had a pool. Lots of my classmates were there. Almost all were married, and many already had kids. This was not as unusual as it might seem, since I went to a yeshiva day school, and nearly everyone remained Orthodox. I brought my girlfriend. At the end, we all crowded into a big group photo, shot by the school photographer, who had taken our pictures from first grade through graduation. When the alumni newsletter came around a few months later, I happened to notice the photo. I looked, then looked again. My girlfriend and I were nowhere to be found.
I didn't want to seem paranoid, especially in front of my girlfriend, to whom I was by that time engaged. So I called my oldest school friend, who appeared in the photo, and asked for her explanation. ''You're kidding, right?'' she said. My fiancée was Korean-American. Her presence implied the prospect of something that from the standpoint of Orthodox Jewish law could not be recognized: marriage to someone who was not Jewish. That hint was reason enough to keep us out.
Not long after, I bumped into the photographer, in synagogue, on Yom Kippur. When I walked over to him, his pained expression told me what I already knew. ''It wasn't me,'' he said. I believed him.
Since then I have occasionally been in contact with the school's alumni director, who has known me since I was a child. I say ''in contact,'' but that implies mutuality where none exists. What I really mean is that in the nine years since the reunion I have sent him several updates about my life, for inclusion in the ''Mazal Tov'' section of the newsletter. I sent him news of my marriage. When our son was born, I asked him to report that happy event. The most recent news was the birth of our daughter this winter. Nothing doing. None of my reports made it into print.
It turns out however that this story is not true - and that Feldman had good reason to know it to be untrue. According to the August 3 edition of Jewish Week:
Noah Feldman, who ignited a firestorm of criticism last week with his pointed attack on Modern Orthodoxy in The New York Times Magazine, admitted this week that he learned before publication of his article that he in fact was not intentionally cropped out of his reunion photograph.
The photographer, Lenny Eisenberg, told The Jewish Week Monday that he had difficulty capturing as many as 60 reunion participants within a single frame. Eisenberg ended up taking several shots from one side, then the other, and several people on the far side — not just Feldman and his fiancée — happened to be out of the picture when it finally appeared in the newsletter.
Josh Wolff, executive director of Maimonides, told The Jewish Week, “What we were accused of doing is false.” What happened was “nobody’s intent. It’s very obvious that not everybody fit into the picture. Why some people were standing on the inside [of the picture] versus the outside was not orchestrated by us.”
Altogether, 18 of the event attendees ended up excluded from the photograph that was ultimately chosen. The Jewish Week reproduced the reunion photograph, which obviously corroborates the school's version of events.
The story gets worse. The Times wanted to run the photograph - and even paid the photographer to reproduce it. But when the paper and Feldman saw the photograph, it became obvious to them that the photo contradicted Feldman's version of events. So - solution! - they went with the story and omitted the photo.
Eisenberg, who is now based in New York, said the Times “paid my way to go back to [his Boston studio] and find the negative. They wanted to run the [reunion] picture to illustrate” Feldman’s claim of being discriminated against because of his relationship with a non-Jew. Eisenberg returned with the photo but the Times opted not to publish it, he said, when it became obvious that there was no cropping but simply an overflowing of reunion participants beyond the camera’s range.
How did Feldman react to the news that his story had been falsified?
Asked why he didn’t rewrite the story to reflect the newly discovered photo, Feldman responded: “When I first wrote it I was doing it from memory. When [the photographer] turned up the contact sheet there was no contradiction at all, as far as I could tell. They had several photos to choose from and they chose one that I wasn’t in. There’s no question that one could offer other explanations for what happened,” other than that it was intentional. “It’s not as if [the photo] was an outlying event. It fit right in with the other things [refusing to print his lifecycle notices]. This was a memoir of my experience.”
A memoir of my experience! It felt that way to me!
It's not as if Feldman did not have a story to tell. It was true: When he married his girlfriend in a non-Jewish ceremony without a conversion, the school declined to run a notice in the alumni bulletin. Ditto when they had children again whom the Feldmans have apparently opted to raise as non-Jews. But had he limited himself to those facts, it's doubtful that the readers he sought would have felt much sympathy for his complaint. While alumni of a Jewish school have every right to turn their back on their tradition if they wish, the school surely has every right not to celebrate this rejection. That's rather different from the kind of petty hostility Feldman alleged - and as we now know, alleged in full consciousness of its falsehood.
Oh well, big deal. What difference does it make, really?
As a not very proud alumnus of the law school at which Feldman will soon be teaching, I say it makes rather a large difference. The motto on the wall at Harvard, America's first university, is Veritas, "truth." Yet the idea that truth must take second place to feelings has spread far and wide in the modern academic world, as names from Rigobertu Menchu to Ward Churchill remind us.
As for Prof. Feldman himself, I have this question: What will he do when he discovers that one of his students has invented a quote in a paper? Or falsified evidence in a moot court? Will he penalize the fabricator? Or will he give the student a pass so long as the falsehood "felt true" at the time?
08/04 08:30 AM