Interview with American law professor, linguist and author, Noah Feldman
E x c l u s i v e i n t e r v i e w
Dr. Noah Feldman is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University. He is widely known as a constitutional scholar and legal historian. During the 2019 proceedings to impeach President Trump, Professor Feldman became a household name when millions of television viewers saw him and two other distinguished American constitutional scholars present the case for impeachment.
In 1992, he received his A.B. summa cum laude in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Harvard College (the undergraduate college of Harvard University) and was awarded the Sophia Freund Prize, awarded to the highest-ranked summa cum laude graduate
Dr. Feldman is less known amongst the American public for his knowledge of languages, particularly Near Eastern languages. The breadth of that knowledge is reflected in the interview that follows, which was conducted between Los Angeles and Boston by your faithful blogger, Jonathan G.
Tell our readers about your upbringing and your education before you reached university.
I was educated at the Maimonides school in Brookline MA, which is the school named for a towering figure of medieval Jewish thought who lived his whole life in the Islamic world and spoke Arabic.
While at that school I was very fortunate to be taught Biblical Hebrew as well as Mishnaic  or Rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic, English of course, and French. Then I studied Arabic at age 15 at the Harvard University summer school with Dr. Wilson Bishai and then again the next summer, when I was 16, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in their summer program, with extraordinary professors. That program included classical Arabic as well as medieval and modern Arabic. I was also very fortunate that in between those courses and then in the offseason when I couldn't go to summer school I was tutored in Arabic by Michael Cooperson, a linguistic genius, who was an undergraduate at the time, and is now a professor of Arabic at the University of California Los Angeles.
You’ve referred to different categories of Arabic and Hebrew. Could you explain those in a little more detail for our readers?
There are four “flavors” of Hebrew : Biblical Hebrew, Rabbinic, or as it’s also called Mishnaic Hebrew, then there’s medieval Hebrew, which draws upon both of those earlier traditions but has its own flavor, especially if it’s medieval philosophical Hebrew, and the reason for that is that medieval philosophical Hebrew derives from direct translations from Arabic ,and so it has its own syntax and grammar that are very much derivative of Arabic. Then obviously there's modern Hebrew.
In Arabic there is pre-Koranic Arabic, a corpus of which is mostly preserved in poetry; then there's Koranic (classical) Arabic; medieval philosophical Arabic, which is based largely on translations from Greek, although those translations came via Syriac which is itself a version of Aramaic, so in other words the way that the Arab scholars translated Aristotle and Plato (those parts that they had) in the 8th, 9th 10th and 11th centuries is as follows: first the Greek would be translated into Syriac, then the Syriac would be translated into Arabic, so by the time it emerged the syntax and mode of medieval philosophical Arabic were pretty distinctive. And of course, there's modern Arabic, usually dated to the 19th century, which draws on some tropes and language of classical Arabic but is spoken differently. Finally there's colloquial Arabic, which is different in nearly every Arabic speaking country, so much so that if you're a Moroccan and you're speaking to an Iraqi, if you were to both speak colloquial dialect, it would not be a simple matter to communicate; in fact it might prove impossible. If you were an Iraqi and you were speaking to a Moroccan you would ordinarily speak in modern standard Arabic, which is the derivative of classical Arabic, which you would both understand, and that's what's spoken on television and what's written in the newspapers.
Which courses did you study at Harvard for your undergraduate degree?
At Harvard I studied biblical Hebrew and a great deal of medieval philosophical Hebrew. I also studied Arabic, primarily medieval philosophical Arabic, but I did take a course on modern colloquial Arabic given by Dr. Bishai. He took the basic foundations in modern standard Arabic, but he taught us “tricks” for transforming grammatically modern standard Arabic into colloquial Egyptian Arabic. That’s a very unusual way of teaching colloquial Arabic which was very distinctive and unique to Dr. Bishai. He was a charming, wonderful and encouraging teacher. He told me that “anyone who seeks to dine at the banquet table of Arabic shall be made welcome”. He had a great influence on me in his language instruction and I owe him a great deal.
You have been called a “hyperglot” with a command of spoken/and or written English, Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, but also a grasp of French, German, Italian, Spanish. You also speak and read Korean, as well as being able to read Greek and Latin.
On the French, Spanish and Korean, I’ll explain: I get to speak French whenever I'm in France and I watch French films. I had the good fortune to be in Tunisia working both as an adviser and as an observer for the Tunisian constitutional process, I mostly used Arabic but there is a class of highly educated Tunisians who like to speak in French and the French there is a kind of working phenomenon. The same is true in Lebanon, where again educated Lebanese are equally comfortable using English, French and Arabic, so French has been very useful to me, not only in France but also more broadly in the francophone world.
With respect to Spanish, a high percentage of Americans speak Spanish so it's really a second language for Americans. There's a lot of Spanish television on all the time here so it's easy to engage with the language and to use Spanish colloquially and informally. Regarding Korean, I began to study Korean when I was living in Washington DC before I was engaged to my former wife, a Korean American, and then when we were engaged. Her parents were first-generation immigrants from Korea, and they spoke perfect English, but they spoke Korean around the house, and I wanted to be able to participate. Remarkably at the time that I was there the Korean Embassy in Washington DC offered free evening courses in Korean, so I took two years of evening Korean, very seriously taught by first-rate teachers in a beautiful building in “Embassy Row”, in Washington DC. After we married, I came back to Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow and I took a year of second-year college Korean as a postdoctoral fellow. That was a very funny experience for me because I was 29 and the other people in the class were freshman, aged 18, who had acquired fluent Korean in their homes, but who didn't know how to read or write or didn't have proper grammar, so they didn’t need an introductory course because they could already speak the language, but they didn't place into advanced Korean because they didn't have the formal training in Korean that was required. As the one person in the class who wasn't essentially a quasi-native speaker of Korean, I found it very challenging to keep up.
A lot of the language instruction at Harvard takes place in the same building – a very old building called Vanserg Hall that was originally built as auxiliary space during WWII. So I was sitting in Vanserg, where I'd sat a decade previously, studying Arabic, and I painfully realized that my ability to memorize vocabulary had degraded just in that decade between being 19 years old and being 29 years old. It was very upsetting to see in real time that one's brain was already doing it. Now I'm 50 and I look back on what it was like to be 30 and I ask myself how much more language acquisition skills have I lost in the intervening 20 years? It's a painful thought.
Since you graduated from Yale Law School, and embarked on a prestigious career as a law professor at Harvard University, have you managed to keep up to speed with any of those languages? Are you still proficient in non-living languages, such as ancient Greek, Latin and Aramaic?
I am lucky enough to use the Aramaic all the time because I direct a program on Jewish and Israeli law (the Julius-Rabinowitz Program - https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/jilaw/people).
It’s a seminar that I run that meets every other week throughout the academic year and the sources are primary documents from all periods of Jewish history, but many of them are rabbinic or Talmudic or medieval, whereas some are more contemporary and modern, so that gives me a chance in a very ongoing way to exercise my language skills and my interest in those sources and texts.
I use the Talmudic texts, many of which are in Talmudic Aramaic, a lot. I use the classical Arabic to some degree when I am supervising graduate students or working on Islamic studies or when I'm writing on the classical Islamic world, which I have done as part of my career, because I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to write a book or two that touched on classical Islam.
I have to say that my Greek and Latin are a little rusty, but they are serviceable when I have to translate a passage or read a passage. But the lucky thing for law professors is that we can work on all kinds of different projects both historical and in the present, and so I have for example the book manuscript that I've been working on, on the side for years, that traces Aristotle’s idea of equity through a wide range of different legal systems including Athenian law, Roman law, Islamic Law, classical Jewish Law, Canon Law and early modern and modern British law. In that project I had to deal with texts in all those languages. I haven't yet published that manuscript, I hope to do that someday, but what I love about it is that it requires me to engage in all of these languages and it's completely consistent with what I do is a law professor, so that is very fortunate that I can go backwards as well as into the present. It keeps getting bigger and bigger but eventually I do intend to cut it in such a way that a reader would actually want to read it, and then I would publish it.
Looking back on your years of studying languages, did you find that to be beneficial beyond the intellectual exercise involved?
Massively. I would say to learn another language is to begin (not to complete but to begin) the process of entering into another thought-world. Particularly for someone who, like me, had been brought up in an educational milieu that was Jewish, because I went to a Jewish school, and had learned modern Hebrew, to study Arabic was to begin the process of trying to learn to see the world through the eyes of people with different religious backgrounds, with different religious experiences. Even though the classical medieval, especially the medieval Jewish, world was deeply Arabicized, so that, for example, Moses Maimonides the person for whom the school I went to was named, himself was a native speaker of Arabic and wrote the “Guide for the Perplexed”, his most famous philosophical work and one of his most famous works, entirely in Arabic.
Of course, I knew that many important Jewish thinkers had written and thought in Arabic, and had indeed been influenced by Islamic civilization, to know that in the abstract is very different from knowing it in the concrete. To speak to people especially in the Middle East who grew up in Arabic-speaking countries or maybe even grew up in Israel but were native speakers of Arabic, really changed my way of seeing the world fundamentally. I would say that more than almost any other single factor that I can think of in my bildung*, being exposed to Arabic at a relatively early age changed the way I encountered the world and it has affected everything that I've done professionally and academically since, not only in the literal sense of the value of knowing the language and being able to speak to people and to access texts, but more profoundly in realizing just how many different perspectives there are on any one set of issues or questions, and how profoundly different those perspectives, are, and how people from all sides can be utterly convinced of the correctness of their experiences and views (including me - I'm no different than anybody else), and yet that we as humans also have the capacity to open ourselves up and listen to other people. That’s kind of the astonishing thing. You would think that humans associate by language, associate by culture or associate by a received narrative, so surely would never be able to expand, but actually the opposite is the case: we are able to expand and the acquisition of another language, even when we're no longer children and can't speak exactly like natives, is a great, great testament to the human capacity to try to understand one another, without claiming perfect comprehension, but just the human capacity to try.
You are familiar with the story of the rejuvenation of Hebrew as a living language. Aramaic, on the other hand, also a Semitic language historically connected to Hebrew, is spoken, in its different forms by one million to two million people and may join the list of disappearing languages. Did you ever have a chance to compare Hebrew and Aramaic, and do you have any observations about their similarities, differences and trajectories.
The trajectory difference is really fascinating, because whereas Hebrew began as a living language, then it was a language that was alive in books and in scholarly circles, but was only rarely spoken interpersonally, and then starting in the 19th century through this very self-conscious process of rejuvenation it was remade into a modern language that in certain respects is similar to the classical Hebrew but in other respects is so different, that some linguists actually think it should be called a different language: “Israeli”. In contrast, Aramaic has been spoken by communities that self-identify as Chaldean or as Assyrian, and these are very self-contained, communities that have managed to preserve themselves for a few thousand years through their strong communal identities, and they have an unbroken continuity of their language, but they haven't governed a state through their language in a long time. There were empires governed in Aramaic, great empires. The Assyrian Empire for one, in various times, but not in a long time, and so their language has a continuity that is absent from the revivified modern Hebrew, but because it doesn't have a state attached to it, it's always vulnerable alongside the vulnerability of the people who speak it. And since many of those people live or historically lived in areas that are war-torn and dangerous and because they've been an oppressed minority for much of the last 2000 years, that's one of the reasons that there is a worry about the survival of their language community. It's not that they've stopped speaking their language. Sometimes a language becomes endangered because the people who speak it stop speaking it, sometimes the language becomes endangered because the people who continue to speak it are endangered, and it's really the latter that's the case for native speakers of Aramaic.
You have published a great deal including 8 non-fiction books Please tell us about those books.
I can divide them into two groups: roughly half deal with political governance in the Middle East, both historically and in the present. Those grew out of my dissertation work on medieval Islamic political theory, updated to the contemporary world and so a lot of them were about Islam and democracy, and how they can or cannot interact, including my most recent book in that genre which is called “The Arab Winter: A Tragedy”. So you can guess from the title of that book that is not very optimistic; my earlier books in that area were more optimistic. And then the other half of my books are roughly about the US constitutional tradition, and they focus on the intellectual history of the ideas that inform the US constitution, as seen through the human beings who developed those ideas and shaped them. So I have a long biography of James Madison, who was the primary draftsman of the US constitution, another long book about a group of four Supreme Court justices appointed by F.D. Roosevelt who developed American constitutional ideas into the modern era. I'm just finishing a book now which is not yet in press so effectively won't come out for a year or so, about Abraham Lincoln and how he changed the constitution in the course of the American civil war.
You have mentioned some of your practical activities, outside the academic sphere. Please expand on that.
Yes, so for example over the last three years I've been involved in inventing and designing a constitutional “court” for Facebook, that is made up of independent scholars and activists who don't work for Facebook. This entity has an endowment, which Facebook put into it, but Facebook can't touch it, so it's independent. The “Court” has taken the first set of cases that they're going to take and they're going to adjudicate those cases about what content should stay up on Facebook's platform or what content should be taken down, and Facebook has committed itself to abiding by its decisions. That has been an extraordinary experience for me. It involves languages as well, as Facebook operates in more than 100 countries and therefore has people using Facebook in scores and scores of languages, and so its content moderation requires a nuanced comprehension of different languages and that's a huge challenge for Facebook and it will be a challenge for the oversight board as well. That's an example of a practical pursuit that I’ve spent a lot of time on in the last few years in the hopes of making incremental improvements in the way Facebook operates, because although obviously Facebook does a lot of good by connecting people, it also has many risks and downsides associated with disinformation and hate speech and other things, so this institution is meant to try to address some of those issues through independence, reason-giving, transparency and accountability.
For our French speaking readers would you compare or contrast French with other languages that you have learned? Would you call yourself a Francophile?
I would call myself a Francophile, maybe I would call myself more precisely a “Francophonephile”. It's not that I don't love France but I really love the French language tremendously, and as any speaker of French knows, the French have produced an extraordinary literature on the beauties of the French language, so I wouldn't presume to have original insights into the beauties of French, but I do think that French is extraordinary in that it is simultaneously a language for philosophical thought and reflection and a language that is capable of a significant degree of poetic license despite being rather formalized. That is an unusual combination, because many languages are good at one thing or the other. English is very good for plain talk, especially plain talk in any space in philosophy or in law or even in poetic diction, but English is not that good at the high-flown forms. French is good at two very, very different things and that's a remarkable aspect I think of French. I think German is also good at both of those things but in different ways and there is a way in which when one does philosophy in French it seems to press in certain directions of thought and when one writes poetry in French or reads poetry in French it also seems to push in identifiable directions and those seem very, very different from their German equivalents, so I think they're very differentiated in that way.
 The language of the Mishna (a collection of Jewish traditions), written about AD 200. This form of Hebrew was never used among the people as a spoken language.
- (2003). After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- (2004). What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- (2005). Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem – and What We Should Do About It. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
- (2008). The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- (2010). Scorpions: The Battles and Triumps of FDR's Great Supreme Court Justices New York: Twelve Books.
- (2013). Cool War: The Future of Global Competition. New York: Random House.
- (2017). The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President. Random House, New York.
- (2020). The Arab Winter: A Tragedy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Feldman, Noah R.; Sullivan, Kathleen M. (2019). Constitutional Law (Twentieth ed.). St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press. – various editions/supplements have been published
- Feldman, Noah R.; Sullivan, Kathleen M. (2019). First Amendment Law (Seventh ed.). St. Paul, MN: Foundation Press.