Noah Feldman — the Oxford- and Yale-educated, New York Times-celebrated legal scholar — is today overrun by a throng of BYU freshmen. By accident or by dumb luck, he’s found himself in the busiest place in Provo on a Tuesday: The east Marriott Center concourse, where thousands of students are leaving a campus devotional headlined by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Now, at the speech’s conclusion, it seems the students have all swarmed the same concourse to exit, and Feldman is stuck in the middle.

Feldman presses against the flow of traffic undetected. This wouldn’t happen at Harvard, where Feldman studied and is now on faculty at the law school. “He’s an academic superstar there,” Feldman’s former rabbi from his Oxford days, Shmuley Boteach, said. “In the same way you see people pointing their fingers at celebrities in the street, on any campus he’s taught on, you see students watching and gawking.” 

But Feldman’s reputation extends beyond the campus he calls home. The constitutional scholar — who some dub “the single-greatest legal mind” in America — is the idea-man behind both the Facebook Oversight Board and the Iraqi constitution. He speaks Arabic, Hebrew, German, French and a half-dozen other languages. Esquire included him in its list of “The 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century,” between Elon Musk and Samantha Power. He is, as one friend calls him, a “certified mastermind.”

What this Harvard law professor learned from Abraham Lincoln when the Constitution was ‘broken’

Feldman’s visit to BYU is at the request of the university’s Wheatley Institute, which invited him to give a lecture. Raised an Orthodox Jew, his connection to Latter-day Saints is longstanding, extending back to his undergraduate years when some of his friends were Latter-day Saints fresh off their church missions. Since then, he’s taken an academic interest in church and state. During his last visit to BYU for a campuswide devotional in 2009, he encouraged his audience to enter the public sphere and more frequently discuss religion.

But on this visit, Feldman’s lecture is not theological. He came not to awe or to inspire, though his audience gave him a raucous, standing ovation after he lectured. Without notes, Feldman held the audience for 40 minutes, punctuated by a stern charge: You and I have a role to play in saving the Constitution, too.

Feldman’s newest book, “The Broken Constitution” — the latest of his 11 — deals with Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and democratic norms. Lincoln, Feldman posits, dealt with an unprecedented challenge and unprecedented pressure. In many regards — from his use of state force in preventing secession to the Emancipation Proclamation — Lincoln had to reinterpret the Constitution in a way foreign to his contemporaries.

The Union fought, the country was saved, the Constitution preserved. But when a BYU student arose to ask Feldman a question, he didn’t want to know about historical qualms or solutions — instead, he asked what a citizen’s role is now, 150 years later, when facing another constitutional crisis. 

Feldman had an answer ready. And in typical Feldman fashion, his response came as a complete surprise to nearly everyone else in the room.

Harvard law professor Noah Feldman meets with the Deseret News editorial board.
Harvard law professor Noah Feldman meets with the Deseret News editorial board in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Sept. 14, one day after delivering the Constitution Day lecture at BYU’s Wheatley Institute. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Noah Feldman, the boy, was not all that different from Noah Feldman the scholar. The accounts of his childhood read like fiction, each page more surprising than the last: At age 4, he started learning Hebrew; at 13, while on a visit to the Holy Land, it dawned on him to take up Arabic so he could someday broker peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Two years later, at 15, he learned Biblical Aramaic under the tutelage of acclaimed scholars at Harvard’s Summer School, and while studying at the Maimonides School in Boston, he learned French. He’s since become conversational in Korean and proficient in German, Latin, Greek, Italian and Spanish.

By the time he arrived at Oxford as a 22-year-old doctoral student, he’d already earned a lifetime of accolades, being named a Truman Scholar and a Rhodes Scholar and graduating at the top of his class, summa cum laude.

Feldman immersed himself in both academic and religious circles at Oxford. He found community in the fledgling L’Chaim society, run by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an eccentric young leader in his first rabbinical post. On Saturdays, the two ran the synagogue together; on weekdays, they played squash or studied Torah. “I can’t even say ‘we studied,’” Boteach told me, catching himself, “because although he’s not a rabbi, he’s a walking encyclopedia. He’d be teaching me half the time.” Feldman’s abilities go beyond the academic: Boteach still holds a grudge that within three months of his arrival in England, Feldman went from being a novice at squash to Boteach’s superior.

A midnight ride with America’s celebrity rabbi

Though his intellectual prowess was on constant display, those who know Feldman from the time remember him as grounded and genuine. He formed part of a star-studded class of Rhodes scholars — his cohort included U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Bobby Jindal — yet somehow Feldman quietly distinguished himself. “Professor Feldman is that unusual scholar who can teach the nonspecialists the complexities of a topic in a way that is not only understandable, but serves invariably as a call to action,” said Thomas Griffith, a former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Since the Rhodes scholarship program offers two years of funding, most recipients enroll in a master’s program. But Feldman completed a D.Phil. (comparable to an American Ph.D.) in Islamic thought in the allotted two years (a degree most students need three to five years to complete). Three years later, he graduated from Yale Law School and earned a clerkship for then-Supreme Court Associate Justice David Souter.

On one occasion, a group of Eastern European dignitaries visited Oxford. In a meeting with the Rhodes scholars, they mentioned their ancient royal genealogy. Feldman, not one to let a good research opportunity go to waste, went to the university library, and within half an hour tracked down their entire family line. 

“It was the only time I ever saw him with a smile on his face about his academic achievement,” Boteach said.

Feldman describes his political ideology as falling somewhere in the “mushy middle” between the left and right, and he largely avoids many of today’s baser political squabbles. But when moral issues are at hand, he rarely flinches.

In 2019, when former President Donald Trump refused to cooperate with impeachment proceedings in the House, Feldman wrote a scathing op-ed in The New York Times declaring that for the first time since Watergate, the U.S was facing a “genuine constitutional crisis.” His outspokenness (and academic bona fides) earned him an invitation to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, which eventually voted along party lines to impeach the president, advising the committee on the constitutional complexities at play.

Noah Feldman, a law professor from Harvard University, speaks at a BYU forum in the Marriott Center on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009. | Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Feldman’s constitutional complaints against Trump ran the gamut: he didn’t think Trump could avoid impeachment; he did not believe Trump’s quid pro quo with Ukrainian officials were within the realms of his authority; he pushed for Trump’s actions to be classified as “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But Feldman’s opinions aren’t easily categorized along partisan lines — after the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago last month, Feldman called the search “highly unusual” and “aggressive,” warning of the precedent it could set for retaliation against former government officials. And two decades ago, the Republican George W. Bush administration tabbed him to act as senior adviser to Iraq’s Coalition Provisional Authority in drafting a constitution.

To Latter-day Saints, Feldman has been a thoughtful public voice. When Mitt Romney first dipped into presidential politics in 2008, Feldman poured 5,000 words into The New York Times Magazine, offering a deft analysis of Latter-day Saint assimilation into the American mainstream. In the process, he called out the “soft bigotry” and “prejudice” that would keep voters from voting for a Latter-day Saint because of his faith. “Our post-denominational age should be the perfect time for a Mormon to become president,” he began his essay, “or at least the Republican nominee.”

Four years later, with Romney on the campaign trail once more, Feldman again offered his perspective. “You’d be surprised,” Feldman told the Deseret News at the time, “by how many people pride themselves on having no prejudices at all but preserve a little place in their heart for this kind of soft anti-Mormon prejudice.” And in 2016, he lauded conservative Latter-day Saints’ “moral consistency” in rejecting Trump. That year, he wrote, Utahns represented “the political conscience of the nation.”

When Robert Jeffress — the outspoken evangelical preacher and Romney nemesis — claimed that Islam, Judaism and Mormonism would each lead its adherents to hell, Feldman held his hand. “Most religions in the monotheistic tradition think they are right and others are wrong. That’s normal,” Feldman wrote. “It isn’t a reason to consider those who hold other beliefs to be bigots.” And when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ended its formal relationship with Boy Scouts of America, Feldman bemoaned the decision.

“That two famously polite, helpful, kind organizations with so much in common could not make their marriage work doesn’t say anything good for the rest of us,” Feldman wrote.

Perhaps Feldman’s ecumenical dexterity stems from his own challenges within his faith community. Feldman champions the First Amendment’s protection for religious liberty and has called upon differing groups to find appropriate compromises. But when an Orthodox Jewish community in New Jersey sued the local government for religious discrimination, Feldman offered his services to the city pro-bono, finding errors in their legal argument.

On another occasion, when he brought his non-Jewish girlfriend to a reunion at his Jewish high school, he claimed the pair was cropped out of a group photo; later, when he wed outside the faith, he faced an onslaught of ostracism and ridicule. But where some attacked him, others ran to his aid. “You are not a bad person if you marry outside of the community, God forbid,” Rabbi Boteach said. “Noah is a great son of the Jewish people.”

In a profoundly personal essay in The New York Times Magazine in 2007, Feldman laid out his own experiences and nuanced perspective on Jewish Orthodoxy’s future. Feldman was “overwhelmed” by the response his essay, titled “Orthodox Paradox,” received. And it didn’t just generate conversation within the Orthodox community — Feldman said in 2007 — the responses came from “surprising quarters,” including “Mormons in Utah, who said they knew what I was talking about.”

Noah Feldman, author, historian, scholar and professor of Harvard Law School, delivers a Constitution Day lecture at BYU’s Wheatley Institute on Sept. 13, 2022. | Jeremy Lewis, Wheatley Institute

By the time Feldman enters the lecture hall on the top floor of BYU’s Hinckley Center, he needs little introduction among those in the crowd. His audience includes an impressive who’s-who of university dignitaries and faith leaders, including Elders Jeffrey R. Holland and D. Todd Christofferson of the Church of Jesus Christ’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Nearly every other chair in the room is filled by an eager law student or ambitious undergraduate.

As Feldman approaches the rostrum, he carries no written remarks. His entire speech — all 40 minutes — is offered extemporaneously, and he looks down only once (to pour himself water). “The period I’m talking about today is where the Constitution was broken,” Feldman says, launching into a detailed analysis of the first two years of Lincoln’s presidency, from his controversial (and largely ignored) first inaugural address to his acclaimed Emancipation Proclamation.

Lincoln faced a series of dilemmas, Feldman posits: What was he to do about the Southern states’ secession? What about armed civilians’ attacks against U.S. troops as they traveled southward? And what was his authority in unilaterally freeing enslaved people? Lincoln maintained he was obeying an “oath registered in Heaven” to preserve the Constitution, but the Constitution offered no concise answers to his impasses. 

“In order to fulfill an oath you’ve taken to the Constitution, you first have to interpret that document to know what it demands of you,” Feldman says.

That led Lincoln on a path of moral revolution. He went from defending the rights of slaveholders to unequivocally demanding the liberation of all enslaved people. He launched a military attack on the Confederate states. And in the end, Lincoln became a “figure for the ages,” Feldman posits, achieving “perhaps the greatest moral accomplishment of any one person” in the U.S. government’s history.

As Feldman concludes his speech and starts taking questions, a student approaches the microphone. “In your opinion, what is the greatest danger to the Constitution currently?” he asks. “And what is your message specifically to this rising generation of college students on how to defend it from such?”

Feldman smiles and thanks the student for the question. He’s already decried political polarization in his speech, but Feldman here sidesteps partisanship and instead squares the question back on his audience: The biggest threat to democracy, in fact, is everyone in this room, when we fail to see the better angels in each other.

“The greatest danger is that people in your generation will look at the people in my generation, and cease to believe that ... what we’re trying to do is argue about what we believe the Constitution really means by our best lights,” he responds. Look at the Supreme Court, he says: We can view the justices as principled people who interpret the Constitution differently, or as radicals pushing personal agendas. The former fosters a healthy democracy; the latter tears it apart.

“If your generation looks at the deep disputes that we’re having,” Feldman continues, “and says, ‘You know what, this system is ridiculous — people are just pointing at this document and it doesn’t mean anything to any of them,’ that will cause a loss of faith in the core idea of the Constitution.”

“The core idea of the Constitution,” he continued, “is that we, the people, have enough consensus to live together.”

It isn’t the answer the student expected, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Feldman, even when he has deep disagreements with the court or others, chooses to confront their logic and arguments rather than their person or politics. When conservative Supreme Court justices are lambasted for judicial activism, Feldman instead critiques them for trading their professed originalism for historicism. When the Dobbs decision outraged millions of Americans, Feldman included, he held nothing back in decrying the outcome (he called it “one of the worst decisions in the court’s history”) — but his argument dealt wholly with the decision, and avoided ad hominem attacks.

Feldman has become one of the nation’s foremost constitutional scholars at a time when Americans are losing trust in the Constitution. If anyone is equipped to offer a new way of protecting democracy — particularly to those on the left— it’s the man who has spent a career doing so in concert with the Constitution itself. 

Where others see human frailty as the foremost flaw of a constitutional structure, Feldman sees strength. That’s why Feldman maintains both a civic faith and a “civic religious faith” in America’s possibilities, he says. Not because the Constitution is perfect, but because “our Constitution, inspired though it may be, nevertheless has to deal with real human beings in the real world.”

And in that real world, out in the crowd of real human beings, count on there being one Noah Feldman, navigating against the current.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article said Feldman testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2019. It was the House Judiciary Committee.