Author Archives: Alan Brill

Shlomit Metz-Poolat Esq. responds to Rabbi Kornblau on LBGTQ in the Modern Orthodox community.

Protestant congregations across the United States are facing congregational splits from confronting the issues around LGBTQ issues. There are hundreds of articles in the last few years on how the Presbyterians, Mennonites, Lutherans, and Episcopalians are dealing with the issue in their congregations, for example here, here, here, here, here, and here, Even ostensibly conservative groups such as the Mennonites have to avoid congregational splits over LGBTQ issues.

At this point, there are professional consultants that help congregations avoid splits and many books and articles on the topic. Most of the advice given is that the split starts at the top with the clergy and board. Church splits do not happen suddenly and without warning. There are usually signs of impending disaster. LGBTQ issues are usually connected to other issues of authority and organization. Leaders, if they wanted, should have taken the proper steps to protect the church. Does the clergy worry more about the image of the purity of the congregation and its doctrinal correctness or about division in the Church? The leadership has to ask which bothers or grieves them more the division or the lack of purity. If leadership draw lines in the sand or asserts their theological agenda, then the church splits. However even if there is a split, all is not lost. One can conceive of the split as a needed break between conservative and liberal elements within the community and still have the two congregations work together on bigger communal issues or you can conceive the break as creating two unreconcilable groups. They advise the former.  They also advise that God and God’s will is greater than any clergy or leadership.

The same tensions are currently found in Jewish Modern Orthodox congregations. This essay is to hear from a person who actually bears the pain and real life misery of these theoretical discussions. Much of the discussion below is on her alienation from her beloved congregation, the birth of a split in a congregation, and the assumptions made by rabbinic leadership. The essay focuses on how in real life the LGBTQ congregant is stigmatized with assumptions.

This essay is the third in a series. The first was Rabbi Barry Kornblau on the position of the RCA and the second was by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz on finding holiness with his Modern Chassidic approach.

Shlomit Metz-Poolat Esq. is the President and Founder of Kehilat Ahavat Yisrael, a Modern Orthodox and inclusive synagogue on Long Island, which was a split in the community. She is a career legal prosecutor. She studied at Hebrew University, The Oxford Centre for Post Graduate Hebrew Studies, and Brooklyn College. Shlomit received her law degree from Hofstra Law School (1998).

Shlomit spoke on a panel at the RCA’s (Rabbinical Council of America) conference in 2016 on the necessity for inclusion of the LGBTQ community in the Orthodox world, and the impact that exclusion has caused to that community.She has been an advocate for the LGBTQ community blogging about her efforts at The Blogs: The Time of Israel and raising her daughter, along with her partner of thirteen years, within her Modern Orthodox community.


Practicing Sanctity as an Observant LGBTQ Jew

In 2016, the RCA issued its statement on homosexuality and its place, or really lack thereof, in the observant world. The resolution entitled “Principled and Pastoral Reflections on Sanctity and Sexuality” was a direct reaction to concerns over the legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states and the consequence of western ideals pushing up against halakha. It concluded with the following disturbing statements:

Complying with the Torah’s sexual structures can be challenging for many. We recognize that these strictures provide no permitted outlet for those with homosexual desire, thereby creating the extraordinary demand of lifelong abstinence as well as the absence of companionate love. Although some overcome these and other challenges, we deeply empathize with those who face them.

Particularly because we recognize that homosexuals often leave the Orthodox community, we are inspired by and have tremendous respect for those who seek to remain loyal to God, Torah and the pursuit of sanctity in their lives. Each of us must encourage and support all members of our families and communities to shape lives imbued with the fullness of Torah and holiness.

The essence of these words is clear. Comply, practice abstinence and remain alone while we have empathy for you. And if you choose to leave Orthodoxy, we recognize that it is because you choose to violate halacha and have no place for God, Torah or sanctity in your homosexual life. That is the message sent, as I see it. But I will not leave it at that and will elucidate further.

The fundamental problem with the resolution is twofold:

First, its premise does not begin with providing LGBTQ Jews with the benefit of the doubt. Instead, there is an assumption that LGBTQ Jews automatically violate halacha when they declare that they are LGBTQ. It absolutely sexualizes the LGBTQ Jew with the belief that declaring oneself as LGBTQ is a declaration of “I violate halacha” when it comes to sex. In citing Rav Lichtenstein’s zt”l point of LGBTQ Jews marching in the Israeli Day Parade as akin to Sabbath violators wanting to march – I say this most respectfully – Sabbath violators make a choice – we do not when it comes to being LGBTQ.

It may be desirous to remain neutral on the nature vs. nurture argument, but it is simply embarrassing in the face of what science and psychology know today about the LGBTQ condition. In fact, I would argue, that no one would choose to be gay (and observant) and go through the pain inflicted on us by rabbis, family, and community members who learn that we are LGBTQ.

Indeed, LGBTQ Jews who march in the parade in support of the state of Israel – do so with the knowledge and support for the fact that Israel is a democratic country, a haven for all Jews, and a safe place for Jews who are LGBTQ. They march in recognition of the Israeli courts that have ruled to protect LGBTQ rights in many circumstances, including within the realm of family law and while serving in the IDF. LGBTQ Jews march to show their existence, so others will not feel alone, to show a love for Israel, and march with gratitude for its moral position of recognizing that LGBTQ lives matter too.

LGBTQ Jews who march do not hold signs that say: “we are nashim mesolelot” or “I commit mishkav zachar” and as such, most respectfully, that position must fall because we are simply prejudged as violators of halakha. In fact, we too “seek to remain loyal to God, Torah and the pursuit of sanctity” in our lives, but as LGBTQ Jews. The two are not incompatible.

Second, the position that there is admiration “for Torah observant homosexuals living with the ‘extraordinary demand of lifelong abstinence as well as the absence of companionate love’” is inherently dangerous and in fact, is a death knell for us. That is wonderful for rabbis that they can stand by and admire the celibate, lonely LGBTQ Jew and hold him or her on a pedestal, but at what cost? And the answer is, the spilling of blood. Their words are directly related to the suicide rates among the LGBTQ Jews; for we cannot survive alone without the support of our families, rabbis and communities.

In surviving this predicament, I choose to turn to the words of Hashem – “it is not good for man to be alone.” So, to those who tell us to remain celibate, or closeted I simply say that your words are akin to killing us – because Hashem’s words are greater than those of any person.

So, Rabbi Kornblau turns to the privacy argument – “Obvious and unstated: a homosexual who keeps his/her desires and actions entirely private is treated as any other synagogue member.” Really, this is a clear euphemism for “the closet.” There is a reason that the word for closet in Hebrew is the same as the word for coffin (aron).

I am sure that if rabbis search within themselves, they would agree that marital relationships are not all about sex. Do these rabbis not have physical contact with their wives without leading to sex, not make financial and health decisions together without leading to sex, care for each other in sickness and in health without leading to sex? And long after age has taken over our bodies, when sex is lessened or disappears, are their souls lonely? No, they are not, because they each have a helpmate (ezer kenegdo).They have “companionate love,” something the RCA is hoping to deny us, based on a complete oversexualization of us and a lack of understanding of how we truly wish to live Torah lives as LGBTQ Jews.

Not viewing us as beings greater than our carnal sexual relationships completely ignores our existential ones. I return to the example of the sabbath violators. Why find a halakhic tool such as tinnok shenishba to allow the sabbath violators in your midst, with the belief that one day there is hope that they will embrace halacha and the rules of shabbat? Why not do say the same for us, even if you are alleging that we are engaged in impermissible sexual acts? We too will come around. Again, that presupposes and pre-judges that declaring oneself LGBTQ is akin to saying, “I violate halacha.”

The sad reality is, that homosexuals are not restricted “in proportion” to their “synagogue’s similar restrictions upon other violators of halacha.” In my own community, we have convicted felons, individuals who are arrested for visiting prostitutes, commit adultery, sabbath violators whose funds are happily accepted, and kashrut violators who happily post their pictures of their treif meals on social media. All of them are welcomed into the community shuls, lose no ceremonial rights and continue their existence as equal members of the community. Not one of them has been summarily removed. Whereas my membership was removed and where I was not permitted to join any other shuls This directive on proportionality, quite frankly, is a pipe dream.

Looking further into the resolution I noticed the following phrase “Undeterred by contemporary norms and practices that often profane sexuality, we emphasize the sanctity of the sexual component of human nature, which best thrives in privacy and modesty.” Why is the LGBTQ Jew not granted the same level of modesty (tzniut) and privacy? Why are married men and women given the benefit of the doubt that they comport with sexually permissible acts and keep hilchot niddah, while the LGBTQ Jew is assumed to violate halacha?

What is clear to me, is that rabbis know little of our daily existence, our struggles and our hopes and dreams to practice the only Judaism we know and love. “You can’t be  outwardly gay” leaves no room for discussion.

The fact that rabbis think we can approach them with the most shameful of secrets is laughable, at most times. Indeed, there is not only perceived, but real hostility, exhibited by rabbis towards members of our LGBTQ observant community. And since, like much of the Jewish world, that is a small world, word of such acts spread very quickly and simply adds to our fears. Frankly, making most rabbis unapproachable for us.

Additionally, when someone says, “Rabbi, what is the halacha in this case?” – what are they really saying to the rabbi? I propose that rabbis understand that the fundamental question behind the actual one being asked is: “What does Hashem want me to do in this case?” So please recognize and understand that your answer is one in which people searching for the correct way to practice halacha, are actually asking each learned rabbi, please speak in the name of God. At that realization, I, if I was a rabbi, I would be trembling before God; I would be thinking of the phrase “know before whom you stand” before I open my mouth. And I would choose my words very, very carefully. Unfortunately, that is not done and the hostilities from those we turn to are not perceived, they are real.

With that in mind, the position that the resolution was written “from the perspective of synagogue rabbis” with its center being a “guideline relating to homosexuality in a communal synagogue setting” is flawed at best and dangerous at worst. The variation of rabbis amongst the congregations of the US are as plentiful as the variations among all human beings. The statement leaves a clear message for each individual rabbi to do what they want in their shul. Therein lies the danger. There is no unified position on how to treat the LGBTQ Jew in their midst and so we are at the mercy of the whims of imperfect men, some who are homophobic, some who are unkind, some who are merciful, some who are uncomfortable, and some who are focused on maintaining their positions, fearing an outcry should any of their stands be taken as supportive of LGBTQ Jews.

And finally, as to the argument that Rabbi Kornblau puts forth regarding “family values” and his concern for the destruction of our civilization, I simply say, most respectfully –such language has been used in the extreme to further white supremacist ideals, to prevent marriage between blacks and whites, and today is the language used by those preaching homophobia. Again, simply seeing us as sexual beings who allegedly violate halacha, by equating our statement of being an LGBTQ person, with someone who does not wish to be an eved Hashem, and thus incapable of establishing a Jewish and observant home with Torah values, I simply say – join us for a Shabbos.

Personally, I can only say that America has improved since Loving v. Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges, and I am grateful for that change. I have a dear family friend, who married a black convert, and they raise two beautiful frum little girls. Their “family values” are beautiful ones. I married my partner in a civil ceremony, recognizing that there is no such thing as halakhic gay marriage, and the sky has not fallen, my community has not crumbled, and in fact, ask those around us – we are building a beautiful, progressive and inclusive shul in our home town, living observant lives, and raising our observant child.

The sad reality of this debate is that I do not see a place where these two opposing views will meet. What I do see, is that you are encouraging Modern Orthodoxy to split in two. In a progressive approach to Modern Orthodoxy, women are not only seen but heard, agunot are freed, converts are supported and accepted, and LGBTQ Jews are included. I prefer that to live in that world, though I am sad to see that you are encouraging splitting the community into two. Despite that, I have hope that as we each practice Torah and mizvot, we will continue to treat each other with the mutual respect and dignity deserved by all of Hashem’s creatures.

My Journey

In the summer of 2014, I learned firsthand what it was like to contend with the power of the rabbinate. My journey began with my removal from a shul membership I had belonged to for nineteen years. I was not called to a Beis Din, let alone a rabbi’s office, or before a shul board. I was not informed of my “crimes” or even so much as told of any issue. I learned of my removal only after I had called the treasurer of our shul, asking for a membership bill that I thought he had simply forgotten to mail out. Instead, I was told to call the Rabbi. I knew something was up and so I did call.

Soon after, I met with the Rabbi, along with my partner, and was told, or rather accused, of publicly and intentionally flaunting my gayness. I had hyphenated my name and, despite being careful not to use it on any shul notices, or announcements, I had inadvertently posted my name to the shul cloud directory when I had signed up, as instructed by the shul.

Had I known I could opt out of the directory, I would have done so in compliance with the Rabbi’s wishes that my hyphenated name not appear on shul documents (other than my private tax receipts which the Rabbi had agreed to for my accountant). So, my unintentional error was accused of being done intentionally. I told the Rabbi in no uncertain terms that it was unintentional. He did not believe me and accused me of hyphenating my name to make a statement.

I was never asked before decisions were made about my membership, or rabbis were contacted at YU via the associate Rabbi, what my intentions were when I hyphenated my name; I was simply accused with no one to complain to because all was conducted in secrecy and behind my back.

In fact, I still do not know how was the question posed? Were their facts presented in my favor, or were all questions based on assumptions of intentionality on my part? Because the reality is something very different. I had taken my partner’s name not with the intent of flaunting my gayness, but rather with the intent of seeking safety under the law. However, I quickly learned from some insiders that the board had met in secret, with the Rabbis of our shul, discussing accusations based on false information. An alleged wedding ceremony and party two years earlier (2012), allegedly held at my home, had been discussed as another flaunting of my gayness. Too bad no inquiry of me was made as I would have been able to discuss the truth.

The truth being that I quietly, without frum community members present, except for my best friend, married my partner in a civil ceremony in a judge’s chambers to protect our home, assets and medical decisions from family members who under DOMA (still the law in 2012) would have greater right to those than my partner or I would have for each other in those arenas.

The alleged wedding party was in fact a Lechayim and a post construction house warming party, ten days after my civil ceremony. We were very careful not to call it a wedding or marriage reception. In fact, I still refer to her as my partner, recognizing the unease I may cause others in the frum world by referring to her as my wife. We were simply grateful to create a home filled with a love of Torah, Jewish values, such as kashrut, shabbat and hachnasat orchim; a place for sanctity, despite our sexuality.

The worst thing in all of this is that it came on the heels of our applying to Modern Orthodox high schools for our daughter. A task that became ominous and replete with emotional upheaval. At one point, at the open house of the school I wished my daughter to attend, I burst into tears worrying that rabbis out there would punish my child and prevent her from obtaining a truly Orthodox education; something I could not live with. The emotional toll was immense. I do not remember a more stressful time in my life than that first year after I was removed as a member from a shul I had loved and helped build.

Thus, I have the same problem when the resolution declared that “sensitive questions relating to the yeshiva and Jewish day school education of children being raised by homosexual partners” should be left “to rabbis and others who run such institutions.” Why? Why leave that decision to the whim of rabbis or homophobic board members who don’t want their child sitting next to the LGBTQ’s kid? Are we a people that support the punishment of innocent children for the alleged sins of their fathers and mothers? Thank God, in the end, a rabbi issued a halachik heter for our daughter to enter a Modern Orthodox high school, recognizing that she was an observant child who had only known a yeshiva education and should not be prevented from continuing that education. Those are our “family values.”

Why not issue a resolution that states that Jewish observant children, who are not born into the “normative institution through which men become fathers, women become mothers” are still “children created and loved” by their parents, mother and mother, father  and father, passing on the Torah tradition “from generation to generation?”

Do these rabbis actually mean that the laws of kashrut, shabbat, family and community minhagim, halachot relating to pesach, tefillin, tzitzit, lighting of shabbat candles, celebrating a bar or bat mitzvah, giving tzedakah, learning of Torah, gathering around the Shabbos and Yom Tov tables, dedicating oneself to the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, to the mitzva of kiddbud Av v’Em, to kvod zkeneim, to kvod habriyot, all must be lessened because our families do not look like the traditional heteronormative Jewish families?

So to all those pulpit rabbis who signed on to this resolution and who stand in front of their congregants each week speaking about the fate of the world we live in I say – to all those who hope to rally their congregants to do acts of chessed, acts of Kiddush Hashem, acts of kindness, acts of Ahavat Yisrael, acts that unite us as a people rather than tear us asunder, acts that bring light into the world not darkness – this is your time.

You just simply have to love your fellow Jew enough to see it. It is called kavod habriyot. We do not ask for anyone’s blessing. We do not ask for a change to halacha. We do not ask for a statement declaring whether this is right or wrong. We simply ask for you to love us. The way the Torah commands each of us – “love your neighbor.”

I recognize that in the Modern Orthodox Jewish world we are trying to find a way to fit a square peg into a round hole. I suggest that it is not that difficult. All you need, is a little love – Ahavat Yisrael. But know that love for one’s fellow Jews, is a platitude – one that is easy to follow when the Jew is like you. The real test of Ahavat Yisrael is in loving those that are different from you. Embracing, the single person, the widow, the orphan, the aguna, the convert, and even me – the LGBTQ observant Jew.

I am confident that as a people we will find a way to move in the right direction, guided by Ahavat Yisrael. I believe it simply by the fact that I could never have imagined a day when the RCA would have invited someone like me, and other LGBTQ Jews, to sit on a panel and  speak to their Rabbis, about our struggle to remain in the observant world. The fact that there are Rabbis in the RCA willing to do  so, gives me hope that bridges will be built. Turning to halakha, guided by love, we will succeed in finding a place for every Jew.

Judaism has three protected classes, the ger (the convert), the yatom (the orphan) and the almanah (the widow); ones most in need of protection, inclusion, and compassion. We in the LGBTQ community are like all of them: we are the “stranger” among you, even if we are from within you, we are the “orphan” as we are often orphaned by our families who abandon us, and we are the “widow,” who is the epitome of loneliness, when rabbis and members of the community exclude us. I ask each rabbi reading this to protect us, include us, and have compassion for us. Build communities with us and practice “family values” that are rooted in Ahavat Yisrael, for we cannot afford as an observant community to lose even one of us. Every one of our lives matter. Please practice and preach that, for in doing so you will be committing acts of pikuach nefesh – so that we may all live to practice Hashem’s mitzvot and find sanctity even in our sexuality.


Rabbi Ysoscher Katz responds to Rabbi Barry Kornblau

Last week, the newspapers reported that the grandson of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, the former chief rabbi, was marrying his long term same sex partner. The grandson is gay, out, and proud. The papers reported that they were maintaining their Religious Zionist- Orthodox status. The wedding was performed by a gay Orthodox woman. How does a rabbi treat the social change from an on the ground level of reaching people? Rav Ysoscher Katz  in his vision of modern Chassidic leadership sees holiness in the religious lives of same-sex unions. This post is the first in response to a prior post by Rabbi Barry Kornblau.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the senior Rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul. He received ordination in 1986 from Rabbi Yechezkel Roth, dayan of UTA Satmar. R. Katz studied at Brisk and Yeshivat Beit Yosef, Navaradok, for over ten years.  During the past six years, he has taught a well-attended weekly Gemara shiur on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In addition, R. Katz writes extensively on issues pertaining to Jewish law and society. His articles have appeared in numerous places, including the Forward and Times of Israel. He also lectures widely, most recently in London, Melbourne, Liverpool, Zurich and Brooklyn. He has written for this blog before -here is his modern chassidic worldview,  and here is his view of halakhic change. 

Katz wants to reach people on the ground in a warm pastoral way without worrying about policing denominational ideology.  His only boundary is the halakha itself. Katz treats the entire prohibition as a law without a reason, a chok, therefore one does not extrapolate anything beyond a formal prohibition. This position is complemented by his treating same sex desire as due to nature.

The Orthodox community, therefore, has to understand that those in same-sex relations share “our hopes, values, and aspirations.” Katz encourages the Orthodox community should celebrate them, feel for their pain, and help them with their journeys. We should understand the tension they live under and make them feel as welcome  in our institutions by sharing their lives and life passages. Yes, we can publicly acknowledge their relationships and their life cycle events. His basic position is that we should help them as much as possible to lead holy lives of Torah and mizvot, which are their attempts at transcendence in their lives.

Katz’s theoretical framework is his concept of being a Modern Chassidic rebbe and that everyone strives for transcendent holiness. Also note that he uses the terminology of LGBTQ in lieu of the RCA’s term homosexuals.


“And You Shall be Holy” (“קדושים תהיו”)

I. Introduction

I am grateful to Prof. Brill for giving me the opportunity to participate in this important conversation. Orthodox Jewry’s attitude toward the observant queer community is one of the most vexing religious and theological issues of our time, with ramifications far beyond the observant LGBTQ community.

This issue, rightfully or not, has become emblematic, in that, for many, the LGBTQ question is the litmus test for keeping halakha, the prism through which they explore their relationship with observance. It has come to embody the larger tension of living a religious life in the twenty-first century, where the religious observer has to constantly grapple with the dissonance created by the seeming conflict between one’s innate values and one’s deeply held beliefs. For some, the tension is so great that rather than living with such paralyzing dissonance, they resolve the conflict by letting the weight of their passions overwhelm the power of their beliefs. In the process, they often negate Judaism’s role in their spiritual development. Orthodoxy’s religious and legal stance toward matters pertaining to the Jewish LGBTQ community, therefore, affects the larger observant community, not just those identifying as queer.

Such a magnitude of consequence obligates anyone willing to explore the intricacies of these issues to tread carefully. Otherwise, they run the risk of failing God, the observant queer community, and the many others whose relationship to Torah is contingent on a halakha that is authentic but also welcoming and inclusive. Satisfying these varied imperatives is a herculean task that runs the risk of failure when relying on our own prowess. Only with a lot of סייעתא דשמיא (divine help) can such an undertaking succeed.

Preliminary Assumptions

Before I begin, allow me to share several preliminary ideas that underpin my thinking on the topic:

  1. My views neither represent any organization nor do I speak for any one institution. I speak only for myself.
  2. The dialogue between the observant LGBTQ community and the halakhic community is relatively new. Only recently has the halakhic community started to address, comprehensively and with rigor, the legal challenges raised by those among them who identify as queer.  My thoughts on the various questions raised by this exciting but fledgling phenomenon are, therefore, also new and evolving. What I am sharing now, as a result, is said לפלפולא, to generate discussion. It does not have the finality of a psak. The purpose is not to adjudicate halakha or dictate behavior. Instead, the goal is to share ideas and experiment with them.

A concurrent goal is to pry open the doors of the (real and virtual) beit midrash so that the discussion is not limited to the study hall natives but is also open to anybody who cares enough about these issues to get involved. Hopefully, this will generate a robust conversation about the issues between people on either side of the Orthodox LGBTQ divide, those who identify as queer and those who do not. Such a conversation will generate new and creative ideas which will be mutually beneficial for both, the halakhic and queer communities.

Even though psak is decided by an ordained posek, this topic requires a different paradigm of psak. The enormity of this project makes it impossible for the posek to carry the weight of such responsibility all by themselves, the burden has to be shared by the community. To employ a common Rabbinic idiom, מינך ומינאי תסתיים שמעתתא; only if we combine our intellectual resources can we arrive at decisions which are just and also correct; שמוצאות חן בעיני אלוהים ואדם, which find favor both in the eyes of God and mankind.

Additionally, by having the two communities jointly explore these challenging halakhic and theological issues, which currently breed estrangement between the observant LGBTQ and halakhic community, will we be able to minimize, if not eradicate, the mutual distrust and instead allow this newfound inter-communal relationship to grow and flourish, to the spiritual and intellectual benefit of both communities.

  1. Finally, I must make clear at the outset that I, of course, am bound by the classical reading of the oft-repeated biblical verses in Leviticus (18:22;20:13) and their concument texts in the Talmud and the codes, but at the same time recognize that these texts impose severe prohibitions on the observant queer community, impeding their ability to reach optimal happiness or experience full actualization of their identity. Those severe impositions are overwhelmingly challenging, ethically and theologically, they weigh heavily on me. I, therefore, accept halakha’s behavioral demands-grudgingly. Beneath the surface, there is a holy rage, steaming at this “seeming” injustice. Existentially, I wish these prohibitions never existed.

While an intellectually rejectionist stance toward these prohibitions seems irreverent, I actually draw inspiration from the tradition itself. In the Midrash (Sifra Kedoshim) the Rabbis advocate a reluctant stance towards religious observance in general. They state, “Do not say I do not eat pork because I am repulsed by it. Instead, say, I wish I could eat it but unfortunately the Torah prohibits it.” (אל תאמר אי אפשי בבשר חזיר, אפשי ומה אעשה שהתורה אוסרתה). Here observance is about subservience. We observe because God commanded it, not because those behaviors are compelling or beneficial to us. Furthermore, Rambam (In his introduction to tractate Avot (chapter 6) calls the prohibition against gay sex a chok, a law capriciously (descriptively speaking, not judgmentally) imposed by God, without any known reason.

Similarly, Rabbis in the Talmud (Chulin 60b), according to some interpretations, make the shocking theological claim that even God needs forgiveness for (what seems from our anthropomorphic perspective) divine transgression. Inspired by this audacious theological trope, I muse at times whether this is also true for other seeming “transgressions.” Is God remorseful (metaphorically speaking) for those prohibitions which we mortals, finite beings with severe intellectual limitations, perceive as incorrect or unjust? In the context of our dialogue, is God pained by the suffering the Torah inadvertently inflicts on our LGBTQ brothers and sisters?

(As an aside, in the nature vs. nurture debate, I am personally inclined towards the nature approach, believing that sexual orientation is informed by a person’s genetic makeup. Nonetheless, the debate is immaterial to our discussion. Whether it is nature or nurture, queerness is a genuinely experienced identity and the aforementioned Torah prohibitions impedes their ability to live a full and satisfactory life, one that is true to their innately felt sense of themselves.)

4. The Rabbis (Berachot 28b) quote a prayer R. Nechunya recited whenever he entered the beit midrash to teach. His request was twofold: a) that the Torah he teaches should be correct and not anger God, and b) that it  be morally just so that it does not upset his cherished colleagues. Rarely have these requests been more appropriate. I enter the fray with trepidation, afraid that I will, God forbid, say that which should not be said, or not say that which has to be told. Like R. Nechunya I plead אנא ה’ הושיעה נא.

II Heroism and Sanctity (kedusha)

I will start where R. Kornblau finished, with his powerful closing sentence. He writes, in conclusion of the first part of his thorough and thoughtful essay, that “finally, because in a free society homosexuals can and do leave the Orthodox fold, we must remember to take pride in homosexual spiritual heroes who remain loyal to God, Torah, and the pursuit of sanctity in their lives.” (emphasis mine) In these few words R. Kornblau managed to convey the compassion and courage this conversation deserves. He succinctly articulates two of the important tenets which deserve to be at the forefront of our conscience when interacting with the observant queer. They are indeed “spiritual heros,” courageously choosing a path filled with pain and numerous obstacles. We in the Orthodox community, in turn, owe them a huge debt of gratitude for that. Further, underlying the queer community’s passionate quest for recognition and inclusion is a desire to be given the opportunity, innately accessible to everyone outside their community, to live lives of sacredness and transcendence.

To elaborate further:

1)  Heroism

Our community should celebrate the existence of people who define themselves as gay-and-Orthodox. It was not very long ago that the gay-and-Orthodox moniker was an oxymoron. People identifying as LGBT left Orthodoxy, rejecting Yiddishkeit completely.

Today that is no longer the case. Many LGBT individuals are embracing Orthodoxy despite their sexual orientation. They love Judaism and cherish observance. Even though they oftentimes feel marginalized and isolated from halakhic communities, they nevertheless embrace the observant lifestyle. Such heroic choices are reason for gratitude and celebration. Blessed is the generation in which members of the LGBTQ community find Yiddishkeit meaningful enough to hold on to it despite of what halakha asks of them.

We in the Orthodox community need to reciprocate. Their heroism behooves us to, in return, proactively welcome them into our shuls (as full halakhic citizens: being called to the torah, invited to participate in lay-lead honors, asked to lead davening or read from the torah, or appoint them as a halakhic witness; a mere queer identity should have no impact the person’s halakhic standing), invite them to our homes, commit ourselves to working as hard as we can to minimize the pain halakha imposes on them, and, most importantly, support them as they traverse this complex and challenging journey.

Being gay and Orthodox sets individuals on a lonely journey of self-discovery. Their bodies tell them one thing and God demands from them something else. Their self-identity, as a result, is broken. Their emotions pull them in one direction while their conscience guides them in the opposite direction. Healing is hard and takes time. Our current call of duty is to accompany them as they navigate this treacherous terrain, not to reject or ostracize them. They are on a lonely, existential journey, and Orthodoxy’s responsibility is to make sure that they are not walking alone. We need to offer them acceptance, not rejection; to be supportive, not dismissive. We must do our utmost to provide a supportive environment in which they can succeed in the difficult task God has set forth for them.

2) Kedusha

In “othering” the LGBTQ community, we have at times managed to obscure the obvious: that our LGBTQ brethren and sisters are us, sharing our hopes, values, and aspirations. Primary among the values we have in common is the pursuit of kedusha; holiness.

Kedusha is the belief in human beings’ ability to infuse life with sacredness and transcendence. We all crave those moments of sacredness and transcendence. It allows us to overcome life’s vicissitudes, pain, and frustrations by enabling us to take time out from the daily grind.

When we encounter kedusha we enter into an out-of-body, transcendental space. Then, when we return to our routines, we feel vivified and refreshed. We were given a few moments of intimacy with that which is greater than we are. During those moments we feel caressed and embraced by something holy and divine; an electrifying touch whose power stays with us for a while.

Life without those momentous pauses would be unbearable. Life is difficult – for all of us. Finding a partner is hard, maintaining a relationship is difficult, making a living nowadays is extremely tough, and providing for our families is incredibly challenging. Kedusha provides moments of reprieve during those difficult pursuits. It is an island of rest in the midst of the choppy tides of life, affording us a momentary transcendental break from the misery of our routines. It is our imperative to help our friends, relatives, and dependents find those islands of sacredness.

With kedusha as an elixir, the queer community needs access to it even more than the non-queer community. The harder the life, the more important it becomes to have access to those moments of transcendental reprieve.

Making sure that every human being has optimal access to those sacred moments, and is also equipped with a spiritually rich vocabulary that will enable them to infuse those moments with transcendental significance, is, therefore, crucial. That is our role as rabbis and spiritual guides.

Those who are tasked to provide our communities with spiritual sustenance help make those sacred moments accessible by championing the pursuit of friendship and relational partnership. Human connectedness, friendship or relational, the Rabbis tell us, is a primary conduit to kedusha.

The Talmud says (Sotah 17a) איש ואשה שכינה שרויה ביניהם, God is at the center of our pursuit of intimacy. The Rabbis believed that God can be found right there, in the middle of the intimate sensual encounter between two human beings. Kedusha then, according to Chazal, is immanent. Holiness is achieved by immersing ourselves in materiality and sanctifying it.

According to the Rabbis then, our pursuit for companionship is partially fueled by our innate desire for transcendence. We search for someone we connect with deeply so that we can together generate those electrifying transcendental sparks which are ignited by the passion created when two beings mesh and become one, behaviorally, emotionally and intellectually. (While the text in Sotah mentioned above is gender-specific, the premise it articulates is gender neutral. Kedusha, according to the Rabbis, is generated whenever two people develop a deep emotional connection, which is based on a multi-tiered commonality.)

That is partially the reason those who are heteronormative pursue life-partners. Just the same, those who identify as queer, pursue relationships because they are in search of kedusha.

For observant people the parameters of a partnered relationship is, of course, circumscribed by halakha. Halakha imposes limits on the way our emotional intimacy can be expressed physically. While there might perhaps be more severe restrictions on the way those who identify as queer can give physical expression to their emotional and sensual intimacy, the limitations exist on a common continuum. For our purposes, however, these restrictions are irrelevant. Every religious person needs to navigate the impositions imposed by halakha on the physical aspect of their relationship, the emotional and sensual aspects, however, are not circumscribed at all. Every person, queer or not, is entitled to a loving and intimate companionship. Its pursuit is sacred and should be celebrated and encouraged. All the while we must emphasizes that for the observant every relationship, heteronormative or queer, is bound by the limitations imposed upon it by halakha.

III. Law and Spirit: the RCA and Myself

The belief in the centrality of kedusha nourished by relationships and human connectedness, is also why I instinctually had a different reaction than the RCA to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. It, in the process also reminded me why I am Modern Chassidish and not Modern Orthodox.

The RCA, undoubtedly, needs to be applauded for their thoughtful statement. They have articulated a nuanced approach which advances the cause of the observant queer community, by urging us to make our homes more welcoming and our shuls more inclusive. Those of us pushing for greater acceptance are building on the courageous stance the RCA took, relative to the norms of the time their statement was written. They set the tone for Orthodox discourse on this issue. We amplify that voice and expand upon it.  My Chassidic theological ethos, however, puts me on a different pastoral path.

There are many theological differences between Chassidim and non-Chassidim, but the defining distinction is this: their views differ greatly over the role of halakha in the religious life. The Modern Orthodox Jew experiences the world predominantly through the prism of Halakha, while the Modern Chasid’s view is more encompassing. Halakha informs the Modern Orthodox rabbi’s judicial thinking and is also what inspires his pastoral passion. It is also the primary barometer he or she uses to determine the validity of one’s life and legitimacy of one’s choices. On the other hand, for the Modern Chasid, halakha is merely a framework, a way of life which creates an infrastructure in which the religious persona can grow and flourish, but he or she allows for a broader mix of theological considerations to inform his or her religious attitude toward others.

These differences have significant bearings on how members of each group reacts to the Supreme Court decision. It also informs the way their religious authorities understand their pastoral role when responding to this legislative landmark. The RCA and the general Orthodox leadership’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision, has been primarily halakhisist. Even the pastoral care, while kind and extremely sensitive, its outer boundaries are, nevertheless, proscribed by halakha. A spiritual leader guided by a Chassidic ethos reacts differently. They understand that they need to supplement the rabbinic admonishing voice with the soft supporting voice of a Chassidic rebbe. Currently the observant queer community needs just that-a rebbe.

Thankfully we are blessed with numerous rabbis opining about the Supreme Court’s decision and its implications for our community. What we are desperately missing is the voice of a rebbe. Their clerical roles on this issue vary considerably. The rabbi’s role is to judge; the rebbe’s to provide boundless pastoral care. Halakhic punctiliousness matters to the rebbe too, but it is not a prerequisite for helping someone navigate treacherous halakhic and spiritual battlefields.

While the Chassidic theologian whose pastoral devotion is not contingent on their interlocutor’s punctiliousness draws on many traditional sources, one Talmudic source, in particular, comes to mind.

The Talmud (Berachot 63a) lauds the criminal who pleads for divine support before committing a crime. This provocative teaching intimates that there can be spiritual significance even in those moments when an individual’s life is perhaps not perfectly in consonance with halakha’s religious prescripts.

This audacious text endorses a robust and self-sustained spirituality which is not contingent on one’s standing in the eyes of halakha. The rebbe is the one charged with facilitating this pluralistic spiritual embrace.

The rebbes should be the observant queer community’s spiritual chaperones. They should walk alongside them on their arduous journey of reconciliation between their religious convictions and their sexual predisposition. The rebbe helps them sanctify this tortuous path.

A beautiful story is told about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov. Once when walking down the street he noticed a follower reciting his daily prayers while oiling the wheels of his carriage. Instead of reacting with opprobrium, he set aside his legalistic discomfort, turned towards the heavens, and said: “God, look at your wonderful people! They love praying so much that even while they are oiling the wheels they still turn to you in prayer and supplication.” As a Chasid, he allowed his pastoral sensitivity to trump his judicial sensibilities. Instead of scolding the Chasid for his legalistic shortcomings, he chose to sanctify the seemingly transgressive behavior, believing that such a stance would lead to greater spiritual growth.

The legalistic voice has dominated the Orthodox public sphere, but our religious queer brothers and sisters deserve to have the harshness of moral certitude dulled by the tenderness of spiritually infused pastoral care. History will determine how the journey of Orthodox homosexuality will turn out. The Modern Chasid’s role is to ensure that this journey, which will hopefully lead people toward greater religious observance, is as sacred as it can be. I hope that the important voice of the rebbe will soon be added to the cacophony of religious voices on this issue. Our gay brethren need it and deserve nothing less.

I, for one, very much cherish being part of that team. Although I study and practice halakha, I, for the most part, leave the legalism of this particular issue for my rabbinic colleagues. My Modern Chassidish soul leads me in a different direction, predominantly gravitating toward the pastoral angle of this complex issue. Here is where I encounter the divinity embedded in every human being, regardless of deed, creed, or sexual orientation.

My divergence from the RCA approach, however, is complementary, not contradictory, reflecting the rich diversity of our theological tradition.

With God’s help we will go from strength to strength, continuing to create together an Orthodoxy that is ever more inclusive while, at the same time, remaining unequivocally devout. Erring on either side is equally transgressive. Being too stringent is no less abominable than not being stringent enough.

ויהי נועם ה’ אלוהינו עלינו

The blog format does not allow for further explication but I wanted to briefly mention two additional points which I hope to explore in greater depth in the appropriate fora.

  1. If we are honest with ourselves we would have to acknowledge that the current halakhic stance towards the LGBTQ community is by default discriminatory. There is a group of people who for no fault of their own is denied that which is innate to all of us; the ability to pursue, within the confines of halakha, a full fledged and uninhibited emotional life. The community in general, and those of us charged with facilitating halakhic observance in particular, therefore, need to ask the observant queer community for forgiveness for this indiscretion. Granted, the discrimination is sanctioned by our understanding of halakha but that is not exculpatory. A justified transgression is still a sin. The recipient of that discriminatory standard is not hurt any less because it is prescribed. The fact that according to Orthodox understanding of halakha those exclusionary practices have the divine imprimatur does not make it less discriminatory. While no individual is guilty of any crime, the community as a whole needs collective expiation. Our value system is one which inadvertently causes pain to numerous people.
  2. An added benefit to halakha’s embrace of the observant queer community is that the relationship tremendously enriches our halakhic discourse. The questions raised allow us to explore areas of halakha that have previously been ignored or overlooked. This is not the place to share the specifics, but being the rabbi of a shul with a significant LGBTQ population has given me the privilege to explore practical and conceptual angles of halakha unique to this community. Aside from engaging in halakha and helping interlocutors navigate the complexity of halakha, particularly as it pertains to the LGBTQ community, the process also constantly sheds new light on existing norms and established practices, outside of the queer purview. Halakha in its entirety is nourished and enhanced by these new encounters.

Rabbi Barry Kornblau on the RCA’s “On Sanctity and Sexuality”

If I were writing an article on the relationship of institutional Modern Orthodoxy to the changes of this era, I would focus on the November 29, 2016 RCA document entitled  “Principled and Pastoral Reflections on Sanctity and Sexuality,” which mainly concerns same-sex relationships. This pastoral reflection opens up to a wide range of the changes to Modern Orthodox and to society of this decade. It can be used to focus a discussion of Orthodox support for the court cases of Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Bakery along with the Evangelical churches as well as their political views. The document’s antecedent was the June 2015 Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges granting a fundamental right for same-sex marriages, I made a mental note that June night, and actually written notes to myself in the following weeks, on how the decision was going to have a strong backlash among conservative religious positions and define religion in the upcoming years.

Recently, Rabbi Barry Kornblau posted the 2016 RCA document on Facebook to elicit a discussion of what he thought was an important document. Over the next few days, Kornblau fielded a thread of more than 500 comments, most of them highly critical. He defended the document in detail and explained why he rejected all the criticism of it. Behind his answers, he displayed a clear vision of the “family values” theology of the document. From his thorough answers, we have a richer understanding of one of the creators of the current worldview of the RCA and institutional Modern Orthodoxy. Hence, I asked him to write up the thread as a blog post.

There will be several responses to the post to elicit a full discussion.  The first one will be by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz and the second by Shlomit Metz Poolat Esq. others will follow in the course of the next weeks. You may not agree with either side in this discussion, but it will articulate the current positions.

Barry Kornblau is graduate of Yale College where he studied music theory and music composition, and was ordained by RIETS.  He has served as rabbi of the Young Israel of Hollis Hills – Windsor Park since 2003, and served on the rabbinic staff of the Rabbinical Council of American from 2005-2017.He is the rabbinic adviser to Canfei Nesharim, an Orthodox environmental group.


The acceptance of same-sex relationships in American society has been a major social change, which has been rapid speeding up in the last decade. In July 2010, a broad coalition of Modern Orthodox rabbis issued a Statement of Principles affirming tolerance and acceptance of Orthodox Jews with a homosexual orientation. The 2010 document rejected conversion therapy and encouraged hearing their emotion distress. There was a variety of other statements issued at the time, see here for more details.

For some background to this discussion from 1970 to 2000, there is a bibliography of Orthodox positions by Rabbi Uri Cohen and a review essay by the historian Yaakov Ariel on these decades. There are also many articles written by psychologists working in the field. Many of these sources have been collected on the website of the Orthodox psychologist Rabbi Dr. Bin Goldman.

The 2016 RCA document was done explicitly without reference to prior statements, such as the 2010 statement, but as their own vision of policy and society. This statement reflects the input of a variety of voices. Rabbi Kornblau’s conclusions are as follows:

They concluded that Orthodox homosexuals should be empathized with in “the struggles, loneliness, and alienation and communal marginalization. They also concluded, “Personal abuse, by words or actions, is forbidden.”  They regret that “some Orthodox rabbis and Jews use hostile language towards homosexuals in our communities.”

However, on the other hand, Rabbi Kornblau stated, “Halachah plays play hard ball with its adherents, insisting that they give up their lives before violating its eternal prohibitions against sexual immorality, idolatry, and murder.” The only halakhic position from an Orthodox perspective is heroic celibacy.

They also reject “personal identity based on sexuality”.  Kornblau notes that this excludes “gay” as an “identity” from a Torah perspective, and that a Torah Jew’s only “identity” is “servant of God”.  If some are not comfortable with that, then communal splintering may result.

They still sanction reparative therapy when an homosexual willingly participates in it, and when performed by a “licensed and trained practitioner” as sanctioned by local laws.

There is to be no public acknowledgement of same-sex relationships. “Regardless of the couple’s personal happiness, love, or mitzvot they perform together, there can be no “mazal tov”, no kiddush, no celebration, no joint listing on a membership roll…”
An abstinent homosexual has the same rights and duties as any other synagogue member, but an active homosexual may be restricted by a community’s rabbi from congregational leadership or ritual activity in proportion to other similar restrictions in his community””

What struck me most about Rabbi Kornblau’s presentation on Facebook and now in this article is his worked out theology of culture and society, not necessarily shared by all his RCA colleagues, but nevertheless reflective of a comprehensive worldview of how gay rights, as part of an atomized family, are opposed to the traditional family.

Rabbi Kornblau relies on works such as Carle Zimmerman’s Family and Civilization (1947) as accurate empirical data, as a reliable guide to history, and as useful to him for reflecting on the Torah’s viewpoint. Zimmerman’s work is a Spengler-influenced work showing the decline of the greatness of Western culture when the domestic family breakdown. Zimmerman revives the position of the 18th century author Edward Gibbons who famously wrote that the Roman Empire declined due to homosexuality. Zimmerman credits the strong families of the Barbarians as the cause of their victory over the decadent families of Rome and

Conservative and Evangelical authors treat this 70-year-old work as monumental and prophetic, especially that he advocates strict divorce laws, and the rejection of homosexuality in order to maintain Western greatness.  Therefore, many conservative op-eds, books, and editorials cite Zimmerman as the part of their reason for banning gay rights. For example, Rod Dreher made extensive use of Zimmerman in his book The Benedict Option in which he cautions Christians about having too much to do with society in that it is currently in decline from its values. For Dreher in this op-ed, and elsewhere, warns that “Civilization depends on the health of the traditional family.” Dreher claims that: “The late Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman believed it was true, but he also knew why. In 1947, he wrote a massive book to explain why latter-day Western civilization was now living through the same family crisis that presaged the fall of classical Greece and Rome… Religions that lack a strong pro-fertility component don’t survive over time, he observed; nor do cultures that don’t have a powerfully natalist religion.” (For Dreher on homosexuality and the Evangelical statements- see here and then here.) For Dreher, the West is unlikely to head Zimmerman’s call. But, Dreher thinks that those who do hear the call are traditionalist Catholics, “full-quiver” Protestants, “Orthodox Jews, pious Muslims and other believers who reject modernity’s premises.

Rabbi Kornblau has heard a similar call and used Zimmerman as a tool to understand Torah. He has little use for Zimmerman’s decline of Western civilization thesis but finds some of the ideas useful to explain the Rabbinic policy position by contrasting the atomised family structure with traditional family values.  Kornblau thinks: “Orthodox Jewry must explicitly articulate the details of the Torah’s “domestic” familial and societal vision, argue for its virtues in positive terms, and seek to embody and make visible that vision as much as possible.” For him, by itself the RCA’s statement “does little to win over and retain young and other Orthodox Jews immersed in an ever more “atomistic” society and its (unstated) assumptions and approach to sexual and family life and who therefore challenge the Torah’s views.” Kornblau concludes that the stakes are high and that we are playing for the very future of the community.

On Sanctity and Sexuality- Rabbi Barry Kornblau

In 2016, the membership of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) voted upon and formally adopted a resolution, “Principled and Pastoral Reflections on Sanctity and Sexuality,” to articulate some of its perspectives on changing sexual mores of our times in general, and regarding homosexuality in particular.   I am pleased to have been asked to share some perspectives into its genesis, purposes, and significance.

Since I have never been, nor am I now, an official spokesperson for the RCA, my remarks here are those of an individual, an American Orthodox rabbi, an RCA member and former employee; indeed, this essay has intentionally not been reviewed by any RCA official prior to  publication.

Prophecy is for fools, and mores regarding these and other matters within the Orthodox Jewish community and in Western society as a whole continue to change rapidly.  Nonetheless, I believe that the positions set forth in the RCA’s resolution can and will serve as an enduring intellectual and practical framework for a stable, honest, and mutually respectful relationship between Orthodox homosexuals loyal to halachah and Orthodox synagogue communities in contemporary Western cultures.

Genesis of an RCA Resolution about Homosexuality

Established more than 80 years ago, the RCA is the primary voice of the English-speaking, Modern Orthodox rabbinate, particularly those who serve as synagogue rabbis.  I had the privilege for a dozen years of serving on the RCA’s staff, working on a wide variety of matters until my departure, without rancor, in 2017. In particular, I worked closely with each year’s Resolutions Committee.  Adopted by direct vote of all its members, RCA’s annual resolutions are a primary vehicle through which it expresses views about a wide variety of contemporary matters.

The genesis of the “Sexuality and Sanctity” resolution was straightforward.  For decades, the RCA expressed its support (e.g., here, here, and here) for the nuclear family, and its opposition to increasing societal acceptance of homosexual relationships  In 2015, the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges decision of the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all 50 states.  For this and other reasons, the 2016 Resolutions Committee – chaired by Rabbi Chaim Strauchler and including Rabbis Jeffrey Bienenfeld, David Brofsky, Jerold Isenberg, and Menachem Schrader – and others within the RCA recognized that the time had come for it to address comprehensively some of the challenges posed by changing societal attitudes towards homosexuality to Orthodox communities.

The resolution incorporates the input of people within and without the RCA, including men and women, young and old, lay and clergy, homosexual and heterosexual, Jew and non-Jew.  It underwent countless revisions, including a complete rewrite, in response to feedback received.  Each word and phrase was selected carefully, and the entire document is intended to be read closely; my present remarks assume the reader has done so.

The resolution reflects the diverse personal and professional experiences, policies, and general attitudes of RCA rabbis regarding homosexuality within their communities; their personal and professional experiences with homosexuals, their friends, and family; and, their understandings of the faith challenge that homosexuality poses to young Orthodox Jews and others who struggle to understand this Torah law.  Other American and Israeli rabbinic statements about homosexuality, including Orthodox ones by ad-hoc and other groups of rabbis, played little role in its drafting.

At its center is a four-point guideline relating to homosexuality in Orthodox synagogue settings.  It does not address sensitive questions relating to the yeshiva and Jewish day school education of children raised by homosexuals, leaving these matters to rabbis and others who run such institutions.

While understandable to all readers, the resolution’s language and conceptual categories are those of its primary audience, the Orthodox Jewish community.  It does not engage with the views of other Jewish denominations or non-Jewish faiths.

Finally, the precise relationship between Obergefell and related legal developments and the first amendment of the US Constitution remains an active subject of litigation, regarding which the RCA and other conservative religious groups continue to take stands.  Given its orientation towards synagogue-based communal life, the resolution briefly notes but does not delve into those issues. Instead, this statement about the theological and pastoral issues facing Orthodox synagogue communities complements the focus on legal issues that are the appropriate focus of many on the religious political right.

A Public, Positive Attitude Towards Sexuality; and, Rabbinic Confessions

Western culture has made overt discussion sexuality culturally omnipresent.  In the spirit of eit la’asot (“it is time to act for the Lord, as they have negated Your Torah”), this resolution sets aside traditional reticence to discuss sexual matters openly in favor of forthright, public analysis.

Rejecting ascetic rabbinic attitudes towards sexuality which persist among some in the Orthodox world even today, the RCA also openly embraces as normative a bold, modern view of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l that “our [positive] commitment to sexuality” is “partly carnal, partly existential”- i.e., that the physical pleasure of marital relations and the relationship-binding aspect of marital relations are positive.

The resolution also includes two remarkable rabbinic confessions.  First, the RCA “recognizes and regrets” Orthodox homosexuals and their families widely reject its rabbis.  Moreover, it “recognizes and regrets” that such individuals find “perceived and real hostilities” in Orthodox communities.

Three Contextualizations

The resolution contextualizes homosexuality in three ways.

First, it notes that homosexuality has existed in human societies throughout history.  This simple acknowledgment underlies its dispassionate analysis, tone, and language, all of which contrast strongly with the overwrought, charged language (“toeiva marriage”, etc) common in other contemporary Orthodox Jewish writing on this topic.  It also forms the basis of the resolution’s open respect for Orthodox homosexuals who struggle with the challenges posed to them by the Torah’s prohibitions.

This contextualization also minimizes the importance of the complex nature vs. nurture debate regarding the origin of homosexual desire – which the resolution intentionally omits.  These views, in turn, undermine the primary impetuses favoring reparative therapy, which the RCA sanctions only when an homosexual willingly participates in it, and when performed by a “licensed and trained practitioner”.  The availability of such licensed practitioners varies by local law.  They also reject the related theological view, held by some Orthodox rabbis, that God could not have created people with inborn homosexual desire since a good God would not test people in such a difficult way.  This accords with the RCA’s rejection, in other settings, of specific claims about how God runs His world.

Second, the resolution places some of the challenges faced by Orthodox homosexuals in the context of challenges and failures experienced by all Jews.  This is why, for example, the resolution devotes entire paragraphs to recognizing the exceedingly demanding nature of the Torah’s sanctified sexual restrictions for all Jews, and to recognizing the difficultly of fulfilling these requirements.  Although not mentioned in the resolution, consider heterosexual Orthodox Jews’ violations of halachic sexual requirements, including masturbation, yichud, negiah, improper gazing and pornography, violations of mikveh/nida laws, extramarital sex, sexual abuse or incest, the use of prostitutes, adultery, etc.

Third, the resolution contextualizes some experiences of Orthodox homosexuals by including them alongside “the struggles, loneliness, and alienation experienced by those who feel marginalized from the Jewish community and from Jewish life. This includes those who do not participate, for various reasons, in heterosexual marriage with children, or who believe that they do not fit into our communities which prioritize heterosexual marriage, children, and family.”  This is a large number of people, including some single and divorced people, childless couples, single parents, and widows and widowers.  At the same time, it specifically acknowledges and expresses admiration for Torah observant homosexuals living with the “extraordinary demand of lifelong abstinence as well as the absence of companionate love”.  Public recognition of these painful realities by a major Orthodox rabbinic organization is remarkable.

Eternal Prohibitions

The above points notwithstanding, the resolution insists that the halachic prohibitions against homosexual acts neither can nor will ever be reinterpreted or delimited by Orthodox rabbis in such a way as to permit them.  The “eternity of the mitzvot of the Torah” which are “not subject to reinterpretation” precludes, for example, historicizing the Torah’s prohibition in order to nullify or limit its scope.  This rejects the argument, for example, that the Torah’s prohibition applies only to once-common, domineering homosexual acts and its corollary that contemporary non-domineering and consensual homosexual sexual acts can therefore be permitted.

Permanent prohibition also explains why the resolution does not address whether these prohibitions are rationally understandable (and if so, what their reasons might be) or are rather a Divine mystery (chok) which a religious person obeys without understanding.  Regardless of rationale or Orthodox rabbinic interest (or lack thereof) in changing them, they are not subject to change.

Similarly, the resolution does not relate to the halachic distinctions between different types of homosexual behavior (male vs. female homosexual sex, different male homosexual acts, etc.) because, such distinctions notwithstanding, all homosexual acts have always been and always will be halachically prohibited.

A public rabbinic statement is neither a written responsum nor an oral reply to an individual’s personalized inquiry, where such distinctions might possibly be relevant. (“Rabbi, I am incapable of refraining from all homosexual sexual activity but wish to minimizes the degree of prohibition. How shall I proceed?”; “Rabbi, we are, in fact, a gay couple. Can/should we sit next to one another in shul?”; “Does the prohibition of yichud/seclusion or negiah/touch apply for me, a homosexual, with members of my sex?”)

Halachah plays play hard ball with its adherents, insisting that they give up their lives before violating its eternal prohibitions against sexual immorality, idolatry, and murder.  For example, if a thug threatens to kill a Jewish man unless he has sexual relations with a married Jewish woman, then the commandments to sanctify and not desecrate God’s Holy Name obligate him to allow the thug to kill him instead of committing adultery with her.  This duty for a Jew to sacrifice his life to uphold the Torah’s sexual prohibitions applies even if the married woman and her husband were to beg the threatened man to have relations with her in order to save his life.  This is true, as well, were the thug to threaten the Jewish man with death unless he has homosexual intercourse, even with a willing man.

A Deep Philosophical/Religious Conflict.

There is a complete contrast between the above halachic view and the dominant secular view in the contemporary West regarding homosexual sex. The prevailing Western view is basically that state laws and hence, to a great degree, morality, justly impinge on individuals’ otherwise absolute autonomy only when one person’s action damages another person; this is J. S. Mill’s famous ‘Harm Principle’.  Particularly in the years since the sexual revolution in the West, this has come to mean permitting – and eventually celebrating – all consensual activities between adults that do not harm others.  Hence, this view strongly affirms gay identity, gay legal rights, and gay marriage and offers no reason to oppose it.

Given the acculturation of many Modern Orthodox Jews who strongly embrace Western culture in so many other ways, it is easy to see why many have adopted Western moral reasoning in this area. Hence, some contemporary Orthodox Jews are not only homosexual (as has always been the case), but also personally identify as gay, in the contemporary Western sense of that term which includes definitional aspects of personal identity, pride and public assertion of that personal identity and group affiliation, political activism and cultural and legal advocacy for rights implicit in such an identity, and more.  Along with many heterosexual Orthodox Jewish allies, gay people are “facts on the ground” in many Orthodox families, social circles, institutions, and communities.  Many young Orthodox Jews have never known a world without these realities.

The resolution recognizes all of this, even devoting an entire paragraph to a detailed history of the contemporary gay rights movement.  However, it also explains why Orthodox halachah can never accommodate these facts while remaining true to its essence, which is the quest for kedushah (sanctity, as defined by God’s revelation) in every area of life.

Liberty for a Torah Jew is not, as it is in the West, freedom from outside coercion in order to accomplish one’s own purposes in life.  Rather, it is the freedom to adopt, and then freely act upon, the only religiously legitimate “identity” that exists from the perspective of the Torah’s truths: the complete identification and subordination of one’s self as an eved Hashem (servant of God) who happily and wholeheartedly seeks to fulfill His Will.

Each of one’s opinions or traits – whether inborn or consciously adopted (including sex, race; intellectual, physical, artistic, or medical or physical conditions; political, socioeconomic, national, and cultural affiliations) – is acceptable in a Torah perspective only to the extent it does not contradict and is entirely subordinate to one’s only ‘true’ identity as an eved Hashem.

This is why the RCA’s resolution rejects “founding personal identity upon sexual desire” and hence the category of “gay” (in the cultural sense defined above) as an independent “identity”.  They cannot be recognized by halachah or by Orthodox institutions and their representatives – even as it recognizes, as a human “fact on the ground”, the equally true reality that beloved Orthodox homosexuals exist, including some who identify as gay.

Guidelines for its Communal Negotiation

Negotiating these conflicts is the heart of the RCA resolution, its four-point guideline.  Building upon the three contextualizations mentioned above, it provides a framework for proper relations between Orthodox synagogue communities and their homosexual members.  It achieves this with a fourth contextualization: namely, noting how Orthodox communities in free societies relate to all Jews whose personal conduct may not “fully reflect Torah standards of sanctity” in a variety of other areas (Shabbat, mikveh, financial dealings, kashrut), and applying such standards to homosexuals.

Some applications of these guidelines include:

  • “Personal abuse, by words or actions, is forbidden.” Unfortunately, this statement is necessary due to the aforementioned commonplace reality that some Orthodox rabbis and Jews use hostile language towards homosexuals in our communities.
  • “Torah institutions and their lay and rabbinic leaders must not, in any public venue, sanction or acknowledge any relationship or marriage between two individuals prohibited to marry by Jewish law; this includes homosexual relationships and marriages.” This is similar to Orthodox synagogues’ existing practices regarding, say, a marriage between a member and a non-Jew, or a marriage between a kohein and a woman prohibited to him. Regardless of the couple’s personal happiness, love, or mitzvot they perform together, there can be no “mazal tov”, no kiddush, no celebration, no joint listing on a membership roll; indeed, no public mention of such a relationship at all.
  • “[B]ehavior or words [that] demonstrate public disregard for halachic strictures against homosexual behavior or romance, or who seek communal approval or acknowledgment of the same” is “unacceptable [and] has no place in Orthodox institutions.” This is similar to Orthodox synagogues’  welcome of Jews who do not observe Shabbat in their private lives while concurrently prohibiting them from smoking or using their cell phones in shul on Shabbat: individuals are welcome, public non-halachic behavior or words are not.
  • Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l made precisely this point in remarks about New York City’s annual Israel parade: “The mechallelei Shabbat [Sabbath violators] of America don’t want to march in the parade under the banner of “mechallelei Shabbat of America” – they… march… as the Rotary Club, the junior high school of Great Neck, or whatever, and that will pass muster [with Orthodox groups who will march with them] – they will not flaunt. The homosexual community today has created such a ferment because it is very aggressive.”
  • An abstinent homosexual has the same rights and duties as any other synagogue member, may discharge communal duties on behalf of the congregation, and may serve as a communal leader. Rabbis or others must not interrogate individuals who keep their sexual desires and actions entirely private.
  • An active homosexual may be restricted by a community’s rabbi from congregational leadership or ritual activity in proportion to the synagogue’s restrictions, if any, upon other violators of halachah (Shabbat, the many sexual prohibitions list above, or kashruth).
  • “Many other circumstances are more complex, requiring wise, individualized decision by a community’s rabbi.” The complexities of communal life, in this area and many others, are beyond the scope of a resolution, and are subject, like other local circumstances, to individualized rulings by a synagogue’s rabbi.

The above applications and interpretations of the resolution’s text are mine.  If other responsible readers think they mean something else, so be it.

Although unrelated to communal settings, it is unfortunately necessary to emphasize that every human being is made in God’s Image, and that every Jew is one of His beloved children.  A person with same-sex desire is neither disgusting nor contagious.  Harassment, threats, sexual or physical assault, etc, against such individuals are outrageous.  (How awful that reality requires the recitation of obvious facts!)  Family members and friends must not cut off relations with such individuals but, even more than other Jews, must love them.

Finally, the vast corpus of halachah applies fully to homosexuals.  Even if they transgress sexual prohibitions regularly, they must fulfill all other mitzvot; an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvah fulfillment is not the Torah way.

Orthodoxy and Homosexuals: Plenty of Work Ahead

Much work lies ahead regarding this defining challenge for Orthodoxy in this generation.  Orthodox Jews and institutions must emphasize that the only legitimate identity for its members, young and old, is ovdei Hashem (servants of God)for whom sanctity as defined by God’s Truth and Will, not contemporary Western morals, is its lodestar in every area of personal, communal, and national life.

Some homosexuals and their Orthodox allies must realize that gay identity and pride cannot be incorporated with integrity into Orthodox synagogue communities, and, in some cases, abandon fruitless thinking about the possibility of changing unambiguous halachic prohibitions.

Some rabbis and communities need to cultivate a deep understanding of the profound, existential challenges faced by sincerely pious Jewish homosexuals.  In this way, instead of homosexuals experiencing abuse and discomfort among their own communities and clergy, they can find in them the warm, loving home they, like all Jews, profoundly need.

We all must humbly recall the degree to which we all fail in striving towards sanctity and so act and speak with love, kindness, and decency towards others who may also sometimes fail as we do.  Finally, because in free society homosexuals can and do leave the Orthodox community, Orthodox Jews must learn to take quiet pride in our community’s contemporary heroes – homosexuals who, despite all the struggle and pain required to “subdue their desire” (cf. Pirkei Avot 4:1), nonetheless remain loyal to God, Torah, and the pursuit of sanctity in their lives.

Some Additional, Personal Perspectives

Until now, I have elaborated upon the RCA’s resolution while hewing to its approach to the best of my ability.  Below, I offer my own perspectives about the issues at hand.

Changes in the West?

Attitudes and laws regarding homosexuality in Western countries, including in Israel which is quite gay-friendly overall, have changed dramatically and rapidly in the past decades.  In principle, political, philosophical, scientific, or other critiques or shifts within the West could reverse those changes, leading to more restrictions on gays, and pleasing some conservative people, including some religious conservatives.

I believe that such changes are very unlikely because the position of gays in society is founded upon basic ideas of contemporary Western moral and legal reasoning as a whole.  The primacy of the individual and his/her self-identity, freedom of personal belief and action, the language of rights and equality, and so on – these are foundational for the entire West, not only gay rights.  Reversing progress made by gays would require a fundamental moral reordering of the West, signs of which are presently absent.

Once the gay rights movement adopted an equality- and rights-based approach, protests against the “normalization” of the “gay lifestyle” within American and Western society by numerous conservative groups, including the RCA, had no chance of long-term success.

I remember back in the early 1990s when gay rights were heating up as a political issue in the US, a middle-aged, secular, Jew with conservative political views told me that he opposed such rights.  I replied that his opposition made no sense from his secular perspective, that gay rights would surely win the day, and that his opposition was either a matter of personal discomfort or leftover Biblical sensibilities that, inconsistently, he had yet to expunge from his worldview.  I’ve made similar points from the pulpits of Orthodox synagogues where I’ve served, often to the consternation of conservative congregants.

Nowadays, young people of all political and religious persuasions who live within the West’s moral framework increasingly accept and celebrate gay rights and marriage as unremarkable and fundamental.

A Civilizational-Familial Framework-Carle Zimmerman

One longstanding, unsuccessful argument against “gay rights” is to favor “family values” which assert that “marriage is one man and one woman”, that children are best reared by their biological parents, one of each sex.   A typical rejoinder is that plenty of contemporary gays embody “family values” by marrying and even raising children, often adopted ones.  Besides, how does gay marriage damage heterosexual marriage?  The argument continues from there, likely in ways familiar to many readers.

In thinking about that dispute, I find helpful the historical perspective and analytic framework of Carle Zimmerman, in his book “Family and Civilization”.  In enormous detail, he describes changing modalities of family life (primarily in the West, with references to other civilizations, as well) from ancient Greece through the mid-20th century.  It describes three primary approaches to family life, the “trustee”, “domestic”, and “atomistic” family systems.

The “trustee” family system is dominant when central authority and institutions are weak.  Most societal powers and functions, include marriage formation and child-rearing, reside in extended tribal families which maintain strong identities across multiple generations.  (Early Greek, early Roman, and Europe of the “Dark Ages” included such families.)

Often after great social conflict, the “domestic” family system develops from a “trustee” system.  It thrives in somewhat more commercial settings.  Significant societal powers and functions reside in centralized institutions and laws.  Autonomous strong nuclear families, consisting of a distantly related husband and wife and their children, constitute the foundation of society and its institutions, and are supported by its laws, customs, and mores.  (Later Greek, Roman, and Renaissance Europe saw the flourishing of this family type.)

In recent centuries, contemporary Western society, like late Greek and Roman societies before it, champions an increasingly “atomistic” conception of family  Populous cities and centers arise, and societal power resides almost entirely in a centralized state which concerns itself primarily with individual residents and their mutual relations.  The transition from “domestic” family structures is more gradual and less traumatic than transitions from the “trustee” to “domestic” family systems.  “Domestic”-style marriage continues to exist but declines in status, duration, and strength as more flexible and varied household structures flourish, and exist primarily to fulfill the needs of its individual members.  Similarly, previously unaccepted, more permissive sexual activities (specifically including, as Zimmerman documents in chapters 15 and 16, homosexual sex) become increasingly prevalent and, eventually, culturally normative.

Zimmerman argues that this “atomistic” family structure is too weak a foundation, over the long term, to sustain a civilization.  Describing “the decay of the family into extended atomism”, he argues that “the disease is not divorce, adultery, homosexuality, etc.  These are but symptoms of the final decay of the basic postulates upon which the ‘human’ part of society is built.”  Those “basic postulates” and “fundamental value systems…upon which society is built” include the supposition that “basic human relations are considered as products of a system of values coming from the infinite world…”

Zimmerman’s analysis further allows one to see how essentially ineffective, it is, in the context of our ever more “atomistic” society to advocate for “family values” that are rooted in a minority “domestic” family system of homosexual sex.

The RCA resolution makes a similar claim: “We reassert our belief in the central importance and value of monogamous heterosexual marriage as the foundational norm of civilization.”  This position may provide a deeper meaning for the midrash [Bereishit Rabbah 26:9] that connects the celebration or legalization of male homosexual marriage with the world’s destruction.  (The Seven Noahide laws which embody halachah’s requirements for non-Jewish society also prohibit and punish homosexual sex and couplings.)

Generations from now, future historians of Western civilization will debate the degree to which such current predictions were correct.  Regardless, I think such claims are definitional and true regarding the civilization the Torah seeks to foster for the Jewish nation, and what it expects, to a lesser degree, from non-Jew nations, as well.  I cannot see how halachah and the Torah’s values, overall, can conform with an “atomistic” family system and its worldview.  Instead, I think its overall vision for Jewish families and society is essentially a “domestic” system that also includes elements of the “trustee” system which likely characterized settled, agrarian tribal life during much of the Biblical period.

I hope to develop these ideas fully on another occasion, and to respond some obvious potential criticisms about them.  But for now, note that the RCA resolution’s language asserts that precisely this view is normative: “Heterosexual marriage is a critical foundation of Torah law and society built upon many factors, including the differences between men as a group and women as a group. It is the normative institution through which men become fathers, women become mothers, children are created and loved, and the Torah tradition is passed from generation to generation.”

Five Practical Consequences

This above analysis has many consequences.

First, Orthodox Jewish communities seeking to thrive in the West must continue work – as the RCA resolution rightly notes – to secure, and maintain once secured, religious liberty protections for themselves (and other conservative groups) to the extent possible under various local laws.  Barring the unlikely (see above) event that the West changes direction, this will become increasingly difficult as it continues progressing along its “atomistic” path.

Second, the increasing Western acceptance of transgender people, gender fluidity, and polyamory (marriage between three or more adults of different sexes) for interested individuals, all accord well with the West’s “atomistic” approach to families and related matters.  While problems intrinsic in these developments may limit their appeal or cultural acceptance, I believe that protests against them from Western conservatives advocating for “domestic” family values will be just as ineffective over the long term as were their past protests against gay rights.

Even if one agrees that such protests are unlikely to lead to social change, one still might choose to make them in order to clarify Torah law and values for its adherents, or for other reasons.  When doing so, I believe that their formulations should expressly recognize the internal coherence of the “atomistic” view they critique (just as the RCA resolution does, though unlike most other such statements), and note where and why they dissent from it.  This is especially true if such protests are intended (quixotically, as per my above view) to engage contemporary societal interlocutors.

Third, this analysis provides a framework for “answering” some vexing questions.   A society or worldview built upon and devoted exclusively to a “domestic” family structure (such as the Torah’s, in my view) has no need to “explain” its prohibition or even punishment of homosexual sex or couplings, even if homosexual desire is natural; it is simply obvious.  I think this is the most straightforward way to explain “why” homosexual acts are prohibited and punishable according to Torah law and other similar, non-”atomistic” systems of law throughout history, as well.

It also provides a framework for “answering” the question, “What harm does homosexual marriage inflict upon heterosexual marriage?”  Identifying such “harm” is necessary under the West’s prevalent, sexual morality which, as noted above, is rooted in J. S. Mill’s “Harm Principle”.  No such obvious direct or even indirect “harm” can be identified – for otherwise such marriage would never have achieved such rapid acceptance in the contemporary West at all.  As posed, the question effectively includes its own answer; no serious retort is possible.

The only credible response is to advocate for a completely different, “domestic” vision of society.  This is my fourth point: Orthodox Jewry must explicitly articulate the details of the Torah’s “domestic” familial and societal vision, argue for its virtues in positive terms, and seek to embody and make visible that vision as much as possible.

Consider, for example, how the RCA resolution rightfully declares that Torah Jews are proudly indifferent to current Western epithets such as “bigoted, discriminatory, and judgmental”.  Their sting, after all, derives primarily from the West’s own moral vocabulary which differs greatly from the Torah’s.  Yet this approach convinces and fortifies primarily those who already believe. those to whom “they can’t push me around!” may appeal, and those who, for whatever reasons, are not bothered greatly by these questions.  But it does little to win over and retain young and other Orthodox Jews immersed in an ever more “atomistic” society and its (unstated) assumptions and approach to sexual and family life and who therefore challenge the Torah’s views.

To date, the families, institutions, and leaders of Modern Orthodoxy and other conservative religious groups readily criticize the “atomistic” family structures around them.  Rarely, however, do they articulate and elaborate upon the Torah’s entirely different, compelling, and comprehensive vision of Divine sanctity permeating every aspect of an entire nation.  (The RCA resolution briefly asserts this.)

This is a monumental task and one which, frankly, is beyond my imagination for all but the most insular diaspora Jewish communities who shun their surrounding powerful cultures to the extent possible.  Building such a comprehensively wholesome, sanctified society and family/tribal life for the Jewish people in contemporary Israel also seems, at the moment, impossibly distant – but as a religious Zionist, I pray that if He and His people together will it and work towards it, it will be no dream.

My final points relate, in the meantime, to here and now.  Different homosexuals and others respond to the RCA’s resolution differently, probably in keeping with their respective views of their own sexuality, of homosexuality in general, and other considerations as well.  Many will object to it strongly.  Yet others clearly find that it represents their view.  One Orthodox man, for example, even confided his struggles with his homosexuality to me as a result of the resolution – just as others have similarly confided in me and other Modern Orthodox rabbis in the past.

Some Orthodox synagogue communities have already splintered over issues described in the resolution. Although regrettable, the intensity of the human, faith, and even societal stakes at play in these issues mean that more such splits are likely, particularly in societies with strong religious freedoms. When a given rabbi/community and its resident homosexuals (and their allies) cannot find a way to abide by some variation on these (or similar) guidelines even after good-faith discussions, then each will need to decide how to proceed.

For now, though, I conclude as I began: “I believe that the positions set forth in the RCA’s resolution can and will serve as an enduring intellectual and practical framework for a stable, honest, and mutually respectful relationship between Orthodox homosexuals loyal to halakha and Orthodox synagogue communities in contemporary Western cultures.”

Joshua Shanes responds to Eliyahu Stern on Jewish Materialism

Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. He received his B.A. from the University of Illinois and his Ph.D. in History from the University of Wisconsin. Professor Shanes’s research interests focus on Central and East European Jewry in the 19th and 20th centuries, specifically turn-of-the-century Galicia and the rise of Zionism as a counter-movement to the traditional Jewish establishment. Dr. Shanes became the Associate Director of Jewish Studies in Fall 2017. He is the author of Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia (Cambridge University Press, 2014).



Response to Eliyahu Stern

Thank you for the invitation to respond to Eli Stern’s important new book and his interview on your blog. Following your prompt, rather than offering a comprehensive book review, I’ll highlight what I think constitute the most salient contributions of the project, point to some pitfalls that need to be avoided in assessing its value, and then offer some personal reflections on the contemporary implications that Stern raises in his interview.

Non-Territorial Zionism

Historians are particularly prone to choose subjects whose absence from contemporary discourse distorts our understanding of a particularly personal contemporary issue. To this end, for example, frustrated at prevalent myths about Jewish national uniqueness, my first book (Diaspora Nationalism and Jewish Identity in Habsburg Galicia) documented how early Zionists engaged in precisely the same national project as their non-Jewish peers, with whom they closely interacted. I traced how Zionists at the end of the last century pursued a radical and secular project to nationalize Jewish identity. The concept of Jews constituting a modern nation that warranted national rights – not a territorial state, but rather national minority rights in Europe – was a tough sell, but eventually won the day.

Stern’s book likewise seems to be countering a contemporary narrative that Zionism has always been a project focused on that particular land and political statehood. Stern is revisionist in this sense, though he acknowledges there are others, such as the Israeli scholar Dimitry Shumsky. I have likewise documented how few early Zionists cared about the actual land of Israel, beyond the mythic value it worked in propaganda. I argued that Zionism is best understood as one of the many innovative models (denominations) of Jewishness competing on the Jewish street following the disintegration of the autonomous community and pre-modern traditional Judaism.

Stern’s new work significantly deepens this story. The key intellectual transformation for Stern was the impact of materialist philosophy discovered by Russian Jews in the 1860s and 1870s, who then blended this worldview with Judaism itself, drawing upon biblical, kabbalistic and Hasidic sources, especially Chabad monism. Their categories, Stern repeats often, were above all “land, labor and bodies.” He contrasts this theology with Western denominations that transformed Judaism into a Protestant model focused on spiritual ideals.

By going back to the materialism that was critical for some Zionists – but not all – we also rediscover the centrality of Diaspora for Zionism itself! The point of “land” was not mythic, but rather practical; where could a healthy Jewish economic existence be assured? Thus it is no surprise that Zionists could support even emigration to the United States, where they saw the material structure to support Jewish national life.

Stern dutifully acknowledges scholars into whose work he is integrating his own contribution, but I notice a tendency of his to claim greater innovation than is warranted. To be sure, this is a critical piece of the puzzle that has been ignored for too long. I believe the argument would be strengthened, not weakened, though by narrowing the claim of his innovation. In a sense, Stern is less discovering something new – although I am not familiar with any work that traces this intellectual pedigree so thoroughly – then returning us to the materialist interests of some early Zionist historians themselves.

Post-war scholarship has trended against such materialist focus, and Stern’s work brings us back to this fundamental transformation of those early decades. He’s telling us that we have overreacted and are missing something important thereby.

When understood this way, it actually opens up new avenues of thinking. For example, my own work proved that Zionists were far more interested in building Jewish national consciousness and securing national minority rights in Diaspora than they were in any state building project in Palestine. This was an inherently secular project, focused above all on this world, not the world to come. Materialism lets us focus on land as a physical space.

Indeed, one of Smolenskin’s most remarkable comments noted the sand quality in Palestine for glass manufacturing, emphasizing it was not the Garden of Eden but an actual place on Earth. Focused on economic viability and healthy bodies. Smolenskin is a great figure to include, as he exemplifies the bridge between the Haskalah and its successor movements in the East, what Israel Bartal and others call the “National Haskalah.” Indeed, I think Stern’s distinction between post-maskilic Jewish materialism and the ideals of the Haskalah itself is overstated at times.

Limits on these Claims

First, any intellectual history bears the challenge of proving influence, both within the intellectual biography of an historical figure, and beyond that elite circle into a broad social movement. In some cases, this can be easily solved by intellectual genealogy. For example, Mordechai Kaplan was clearly quite influenced by his teacher, Joseph Sossnitz, and thus Stern’s argument for connection between the latter and the development of American Jewish notions of peoplehood is quite strong.

Actually, this book serves as a terrific prolegomenon to Noam Pianko’s Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation, perhaps suggesting it wasn’t quite so American after all, as well as Pianko’s earlier work on Kaplan in Zionism and the Roads Not Taken. I note that Stern intends to continue to pursue this line in his future work, which I eagerly await.

But other connections are more tenuous. I don’t recall a single leading Zionist – or Orthodox figure – in my own study of Galicia whose political philosophy connects to Jewish materialism in this way. Their attraction to Zionism came from other influences, although I imagine with this new perspective I will find evidence of it in some cases when I return to look for it. More fundamentally, proving the connection between an intellectual elite and a broad social movement is virtually impossible, even if intellectually exciting to consider.

I will leave it to specialists in Russian intellectual history to evaluate the accuracy of his portrayal of his pantheon, although the book was meticulously documented and is quite persuasive. However, his comments in the book and especially in the interview expanding beyond that elite group to explain the entire spectrum of modern Jewish politics – indeed even just to explain Zionism itself – overreaches to my mind. For example, Stern’s description of Ahad Ha’am as focused on “spiritualizing the idea of Jewish land, labor, and bodies” strikes me as a problematic reading of Ahad Ha’am.

Stern’s work should be used to enrich our understanding of the variant paths of Zionist leaders, rather than seeking to fit them into a single mold. For example, Gideon Shimoni famously distinguished between “disillusioned integrationists” – highly acculturated Jews who came to Zionism after experiencing anti-Semitism – and “modernizing ethnicists,” Jews who came out of a thickly Jewish cultural milieu but sought in Zionism a form of Jewishness that was modern, secular and still felt authentically Jewish. The latter category tended towards models of cultural Zionism that were far more interested in Jewish cultural questions than material existence, while the former tended towards precisely those material issues.

This is the distinction famously made between Theodor Herzl and Ahad Haam, but I found precisely this dichotomy in almost the entire leadership of Galician Zionism in its first decades. So stark was the distinction that a century before Gideon Shimoni ever noticed it, they were already discussing the phenomenon. Modernizing ethnicists were not especially interesting in Jewish materialism, in the Jewish body, and even less so in the Jewish land.

Perhaps the classic Zionist leader from the “disillusioned integrationist” category is Max Nordau, Herzl’s number two, but far more famous in his own day. No discussion of the Zionist obsession with remaking the Jewish body can avoid addressing Nordau and the Zionist Turnbewegung, or gymnastics movement. But even here, I personally don’t see how Nordau and the Jewish Turnbewegung comes out of the Jewish materialists of the 1860s and 70s, rather than the zeitgeist of nationalist sports clubs. In any event, it’s an elephant in the room that needs discussion.

I don’t imagine most of the non-academic readers excited by the implications of Stern’s ideas from the interview will find in the book the exploration that they seek. It is a hardcore technical intellectual history, closely and comprehensively tracing the intellectual development of a dozen key figures and following another dozen slightly less comprehensively. It will be required reading for all specialists. That said, the interview – and to a lesser extent the book itself – does raise some exciting questions:

American Jewry and Modern Orthodoxy

Stern argues that his research proves the “deep spiritual background to [American Jewry’s] progressive character.” The question of the anomalousness of American Jewish political behavior continues to vex specialists. This was immortalized in Milton Himmelfarb’s quip that Jews “earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans”, that is, they maintain a liberal politics despite achieving economic success. Certainly, Stern’s research suggests that the intellectual legacy of Judaism as demanding “fair distribution of the social surplus” and the protection of laborers warrants serious attention. But there are many other factors at play, and this pedigree alone hardly suffices to explain it all.

I am especially interested in Stern’s musing on contemporary Modern Orthodoxy. He cautions us to focus on the economic implications of religious life, as his subjects did 150 years ago. That wealth or the willingness to live off charity are critical aspects of choosing a modern Orthodox life in America is incontrovertible and warrants serious discussion. And this does have political consequences, above all in regards to the endless struggle for private school tuition vouchers.

But Stern’s penchant for broad statements misses the mark. He declared that Orthodox, “vote for Trump for the same reasons that they support school vouchers and day schools; it advances the reproduction of their wealth.” No, this explanation of recent Orthodox voting patterns is avoiding the critical role of Modern Orthodox culture and ideology, and there are many signs that point to this.

First of all, non-Orthodox Jews are not poorer than their Orthodox counterparts. Indeed, with more disposable income they should be even more inclined towards conservative candidates. But they are not. Non-Orthodox Jews voted against Trump in higher numbers than any demographic, besides African-Americans. Moreover, poorer Haredim were more likely to vote for Trump than their modern counterparts.

The economic argument only goes so far. People vote and act against their economic interests all the time. Countless studies have emerged since 2016 documenting that race and racial identity was the most consistent marker of voting patterns in 2016. To ignore Trump’s white nationalist politics – and the studies that demonstrate its effectiveness – is to repeat the mistake of Marxists a century ago who confidently predicted no world war could break out because socialists would prevent it. Instead, even the socialist parties themselves voted for war. Nationalism – tribalism – cannot be reduced merely to economic motivations.

I have written at length elsewhere about the crisis in Orthodoxy today in its embrace of Trump; evidence is widespread, and not just in dark red islands like Boro Park, Flatbush and West Rogers Park.

Thus the Orthodox Union, for example, swooned over Trump – a hate-mongering demagogue – for withdrawing from the Iran agreement. But they had nothing to say about the erosion of CHIP funding; about the deliberate separation of children from their parents *legally* seeking asylum in America; about Mike Pence praising Joe Arpaio as a man of law; or about countless examples of Trump’s hate-mongering, dehumanizing rhetoric, just to name a few examples in the week prior to the Iran decision. The exaltation crested in America and Israel during and after the opening of the embassy office in Jerusalem, a christening ceremony blessed by purveyors of hatred and even anti-Semitism John Hagee and Robert Jeffress.

“Political tribalism has trumped decency,” I wrote at the time of the inauguration, “as Orthodox Jews turned out in droves for a man who ran on xenophobic hatred, gross misogyny, race baiting, calls for violence, ignorance and conspiracy paranoia, an alliance with neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and a narcissistic cult of personality unlike anything in American history.” In the 18 months since that appeared, the situation has sharply deteriorated. And Orthodox support for Trump has sharply increased. It is not an economic issue, even less so than it is for the country as a whole.

Without minimizing the need to address the economic crisis, I believe instead that this moral crisis in Orthodoxy is far more essential to the meaning of Orthodoxy and its future. Our relationship to Trump and Trumpism is the single most important moral issue of our generation, and Orthodoxy is largely failing it. This will have a lasting impact on the meaning of Orthodoxy, as it will on Evangelical Christianity as well. We can’t escape ideology, identity and, yes, racism by focusing on economics and materialism.


I likewise reject explanations focused on Israel, per se, because it too is based on cultural assumptions and selective memory. President Obama, flaws and all, was a solidly pro-Israel president. On a personal level, he was almost certainly the most believing Zionist. (I urge anyone who has not yet seen it to watch his eulogy for Peres, which he personally wrote on the plane to the funeral.) His widespread rejection by the Orthodox reflects a broader American trend of Evangelical politics, to which Orthodoxy is increasingly connected, as well as racialized space of discourse that at least passively believed this black man could not have Israel’s interests at heart.

It also reflects the fact that he was a believing liberal Zionist, and even Jews who profess such ideals are often attacked as anti-Israel, and even anti-Semitic. What I wrote last year remains true today: personal attacks, comparisons of the president to Antiochus (and calls for both to be blotted out), explosive vitriol totally divorced from reality, racist attacks, “stab in the back” rhetoric and horrific iconography remain widespread today in many Orthodox circles. This is not about economics; derision of Obama and slavish praise of Trump have become integrated into much of Orthodox religious culture.

Finally, returning briefly to Stern’s reflections on Israel and Zionism. Stern’s observations that the religious fetishization of the land is relatively new are spot on. However, I think he exaggerates the extent to which Zionism was focused on achieving greater economic equality, although that was a goal of the Labor Zionists most responsible for founding the state. The key ultimately was Jewish self-realization, understood in starkly secular terms.

But there is a broader connection between contemporary Zionism and its earliest decades in the nineteenth century, and Stern points to it in demonstrating how his thinkers reconfigure Judaism itself to reflect their materialist ethos. Zionism has always constituted a range of “religious” denominations, forms of Jewishness.

Zionism answers the same basic questions as its Liberal, Haredi, and other competitors: What are a Jew’s essential obligations? What are its most important “holy” days and rituals? Who is a member of the community in good standing and who, by their actions or beliefs, has moved beyond the pale? What texts and traditions are most important and how do you interpret them? What texts and traditions are ancillary and can be discarded? Contemporary rhetoric that outs anti-Zionists – and that term has become quite elastic in the hands of the current Israeli government and its supporters – as “heretics” and “enemies of the Jewish people” reflects this reality.

In any event, I applaud Stern’s call to recognize the economic consequences of a modern religious life and to create spaces, and forms of Judaism, that break this pattern. I would hope that the search for new models of Orthodoxy would consider the moral crises outlined above.

As a religious denomination, Orthodoxy should easily be able to separate from this Judaism of right-wing politics. We supposedly have a world of Torah depth – notions of God’s presence, or at least daily prayer, study and mitzvot – on which to base our Jewish communities and identities. And yet in many communities, the “heresy” of supporting Liberal Zionism – or God forbid advocating for a binational democratic state — brings greater social consequence than outspoken atheism or even openly violating Shabbat. We should be able to build a religious community as committed to the prophets as it is to the Code of Jewish Law Orach Chayim, as committed (as Jewish values) to condemning racism and hate-mongering as it is to learning, as committed to legislation and social policy that protects the vulnerable as it is to shabbes and kashrus observance.

And, finally, a community that does all of this without setting those values aside when it comes to Israel, and without replacing any of those core pillars of Judaism with the civic religion of nationalism, which so easily becomes a form of idol worship, elevating land and stones over people and God. For myself, in any event, it should avoid confusing our relationship to Torah and God from the political goal of Jewish democratic sovereignty. It can recognize the importance of Israel and its legitimacy and avoid demonizing language against Jews that privileges Palestinian sacred narratives over Jewish ones. At the same time, it can understand that project as a secular enterprise without exploiting Jewish symbols and eschatological language out of their original context for secular purposes. And can recognize the validity of competing Palestinian narratives, their right to equal treatment, and the immorality of the occupation.

Scattered communities of Jews approaching this model do exist, although they tend to blend progressive opposition to racism and social injustice with a messianic Zionist theology – and a commitment to Israel’s presence in the West Bank – even more radical than most.

Perhaps academic research such as Eliyahu Stern’s can help us challenge the myths, the sacred narratives, that block us from seeing these possibilities, assuming the community can accept its findings.

I’ll conclude with my final thoughts on why these matters on not just economic but also cultural with a quote from an op-ed that I wrote 18 months ago:

Recently, the iconic Orthodox superstar Mordechai ben David – performing in Jerusalem – shared his joy that the “kushi” would leave the White House, a Hebrew term that in this context best translates as the n-word. The audience cheered, comfortable with the racist slur and blending their rightwing Israeli and American political agendas with their identity as “Orthodox” Jews. The singer assumed (safely) that his audience agreed with the sentiment and with his manner of expressing it. We have work to do.

Interview with Eliyahu Stern- Jewish Materialism.

Several years ago after he finished his book on the Vilna Gaon, Professor Eliyahu Stern thought he was going to write a book about trends in Russian Jewish entry into modernity, a book reflective of a survey course.  There was going to be Mitnagdim and Hasidim as well as Zionist and secular. However, the more time he spent with Russian Jewish ideas, the more he found that the shift in the 19th century was not to secularism and Zionism but to materialism. When Stern found Mitnaged Orthodox rabbis who were Marxists and Darwinists and simultaneously Kabbalists, he knew he was onto something. Therefore, Eliyhau Stern recently wrote a book on this important aspect of Russian Jewry entitled Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s (Yale 2018)

materialism cover

Elli Stern is Associate Professor at Yale University. He received his Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley in 2008 having studied with Daniel Boyarin and Martin Jay. Prior to that, Stern was ordained by RIETS. From 2009-2010 he was Junior William Golding Fellow in the Humanities at Brasenose College and the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. His first book entitled, The Genius: Elijah of Vilna and the Making of Modern Judaism  (Yale University Press , 2012). He has served as a term member on the Council on Foreign Relations a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, and a consultant to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. Most importantly, he now has tenure at Yale. Accordingly, some people should be afraid; he will not suffer fools lightly.

Jewish Materialism: The Intellectual Revolution of the 1870s is a tour-de-force of rewriting the history of Russian Jewish thought away from intellectual issues- that parallel Western Europe- such as Enlightenment, haskole, nationalism, secularism, or Zionism- and toward their own 19th century Russian concern with materialism.  The volume shows mastery of Russian and Yiddish sources as well as important bibliographic sleuthing showing how 20th century Zionist editions of 19th century works removed the Russian literature and the materialism and replaced with Zionism

Example of his cast of characters include: Rabbi Isaac Baer Levinsohn (RIBaL) (1788–1860), who should not be situated just in the enlightenment project, rather he should be seen as dealing with questions of economic base and productivity.

The father of Jewish socialist Aharon Shemuel Lieberman (1843–1880), should not be seen as secular but as materialist, in that, he combined the Lurianic Kabbalah of Ramhal (Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto) with Karl Marx, a move of materialism not secularism.

Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz combined Kabbalah with Darwin; the innovation is the materialist turn to Darwin while remain an Orthodox rabbi who wrote Kabbalah.   In someone else’s hand, this might of become a rouges gallery of obscure kabbalists and Jewish scientists, but in Stern’s hands, the book become a major study of the Jewish entrance into modernity.

Why should I care about this materialism? First, it changes the narrative of Russian Jewish modernity.

Second, as an analytic category it has vital uses to explain many diverse aspects of contemporary Jewish life. For example, the best way to explain the difference between the creation of Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism is that the former was a cultural middle class project while the latter was a materialist project of jobs and self-sufficiency.

Or one can reframe much of the Russian Jewish immigrant experience as a materialist movement creating Lower East side socialism, or even modern synagogues with names such as Hebrew Alliance or Hebrew Institute were originally aimed to uplift the working class. They do not fit into our current denominational models. It is also worth noting that Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan received ordination from the religious Zionist Rabbi Reines and studied with the scientist Darwinist kabbalist Sossnitz allowing for a reconceptualization of the project of early 20th century modernizing rabbis.  Or that the cultural project of Ahad Haam was relying on these prior materialists.

Third, it opens up new ways to read other works. Contemporary historian Jeffrey Veidlinger notes in his Jewish Public Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Indiana, 2009) that the books most read by late 19th century Jews in Jewish public libraries were the materialists Nikolay Chernyshevsky & Dmitrii Pisarev. Zionism, Jewish worker’s movements, the musar movement, Mitnagdut, and early 20th century Hasidism were all responding to Russian materialism. After Stern’s narrative, we can go back to these movements and see what they were responding to in their works.

Stern’s book is however incredibly restrained and terse. The writing is so clipped that one needs to look up the biographic details as well as the philosophic details elsewhere.  A reader unfamiliar with Russian materialists such as Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Dmitrii Pisarev, or Nikolai Dobroliubov would not know the oblique references about Narodism or materialist theories.

And more tragically, the classics of Russian Jewish intellectual life have never been translated into English and are nearly forgotten compared to common knowledge of German Jewish thinkers. The books of Isaac Baer Levensohn, Rashi Fuenn,  or Moshe Leib Lilienblum are unknown today despite their importance in their own time. A reader of translations is sorely needed to create a canon of Russian Jewish intellectual history to correspond to the German one. However, Stern tight prose assumes great familiarity with these works and does not offer introductions or extensive translations.  Stern also does not directly deal with the bigger issues of Werner Sombart or Jews and capitalism.

In order to keep a crisp narrative on materialism, Stern has already spun off two side articles from his research. The first is entitled “Catholic Judaism: The Political Theology of the Nineteenth-Century Russian Jewish Enlightenment” which deals with how Russian Jews – focusing on Levinsohn and Fuenn- defended the Talmud as tradition, the same way Catholics defended their reliance on the teachings of the Church. And the other article is “Marx and the Kabbalah: Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s Materialist Interpretation of Jewish History,” which was removed to be a separate article because he was not writing a history of the Kabbalah in Russia.

This interview concludes with some application by Stern of his ideas to contemporary forms of Modern Orthodox and Zionism. His views on Modern Orthodoxy in Question #10 is meant to challenge those who ignore materialism.


  1. What is the thesis of your book Jewish Materialism? And how does it change the way we see 19th century Russian Jewish history?

The book tries to answer what accounts for Jews’ over-representation in late nineteenth and twentieth century political-economic movements such as Communism, Capitalism, Socialism, and Zionism.

Jewish Materialism argues that before we look at immigration patterns (to Palestine and the United States) class, anti-Semitism or marginality, we need to take into account the way in which Judaism itself in the 1870s was redefined around a new set of categories, namely around land, labor, and bodies. It was this conceptual shift that laid the groundwork for Jews’ involvement in movements ranging from Zionism to Communism to Bundism and in some instances capitalism and minority rights.

Jewish Materialism challenges the narratives of modern Jewish politics and modern Judaism by overcoming the bifurcation of “Judaism” as a religion and “Jew” as a secular political description. Scholars of modern Judaism have largely focused on the way Jewish metaphysics, eschatology, revelation, and ethics were reinterpreted to reflect models put forward by modern Protestant and German idealist thinkers. On the other hand, modern Jewish historians have studied the secular nature of modern Jewish politics and labor movements. This division between Judaism as a set of religious ideas and beliefs and Jews as a secular historical-political category is pronounced in the way the modern Jewish experience is most commonly divided in the American academy between departments of Religious Studies (Judaism) and History (Jews). The new agenda put forward in Jewish Materialism challenges this distinction and in so doing explains the experiences of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Jews more accurately. It also wagers that such an approach will better illuminate the historical underpinnings of the major contemporary markers of Jewish identity in United States and Israel.

Instead of concentrating on Western European lands, where the division between “Jew” and “Judaism” was conceptually developed and economically reified through a set of institutions and practices, Jewish Materialism focuses on the Russian Empire, where these categories were often employed interchangeably. By focusing on Russian Jewish thinkers, the book returns Marx and Darwin’s economic and scientific writings (rather than the various forms of idealism and ethics promulgated by Immanuel Kant and his followers) back to the center of modern Jewish thought. It was in Russian lands where Jews began to read Marx and Darwin through a specifically Jewish lens. Conversely, it reveals the kabbalistic, Hasidic, and biblical sources for today’s supposedly “secular” modern Jewish politics. Jews in Russia read Marx as part of a Jewish prophetic tradition and identified the project of historical materialism as reflecting a new form of tikkun olam.

2)      If your book is about a revolution in the 1870s why do you begin in 1795?

The material condition of Jews living in Russia in the 1870s was a by-product of political events that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1795 the Russian Empire, along with the kingdoms of Prussia and Austria, completed the third and final partition of the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Russia acquired large swaths of territory spreading east of the Nieman River and down into Volhynian Ukraine. With its territorial expansion it also gained a number of new religious and ethnic groups. Now, Russia ruled over not only Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Catholics but also over roughly one million Jews. This Jewish community had existed for two hundred years as a corporate entity–a state within a state. Under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews were allowed to establish their own courts and civic institutions in return for taxes paid by leaders of local Jewish corporations. The corporate leaders negotiated these taxes, as well as the Jews’ legal and residential rights, with the Polish aristocracy. The Polish-Lithuanian Jews did not fit into any preexisting socioeconomic category of the Russian Empire. Their customs, dress, and languages appeared foreign and strange within the largely Christian, agrarian world. Jews were for the most part not agriculturalists. And as Jews they were barred from owning property or joining Christian guilds. The empire struggled to determine how best to rule its new population.

Russia was not the first state to be confronted with a seemingly independent Jewish population. For at least two decades, France and Prussia had been taking decisive steps toward dismantling medieval corporate institutions and assimilating their Jewish populations into new confessional and economic structures. In France and Prussia, Judaism would be increasingly restricted to family law, rituals practiced in the home, and services conducted in the synagogue.

In contrast to their coreligionists in Paris and Berlin, Jews residing in Russian lands in the second half of the nineteenth century remained landlocked, sidelocked, and locked out of major labor markets and state offices. Unlike Jews living in Prussia, France, and Britain, Jews living in the Russian Empire did not experience any material improvement to their lives. In fact, Jews in the Russian Empire were still denied basic access to land and labor markets even late in the nineteenth century. The state identified Jews as a foreign entity. Jews dressed in different clothes from those of other Russian subjects, they worked in circumscribed labor markets, and, for the most part, they resided in designated lands. They were not alone in their polarization: the Russian Empire also discriminated against Catholics and Muslims at various times.

The Russian Empire was not simply unable to provide basic material necessities for Jews well-being; increasingly, it began to appear that it was precisely because Jews were Jews that they were being materially discriminated against. For Jews living in Russia “the Jewish Question” quickly turned into a material question:  Would Jews ever be able to obtain the necessary means for ensuring their survival.

3) What happened in the 1870’s in Russia that warrant the focus of your book?

In the 1870s there was a reevaluation of Judaism through the material & physical world:We can point to at-least three factors.

  1. When the serf population was emancipated in 1861, Jews, for the most part remained circumscribed and limited in their professional options. By the 1870s, the stagnant Jewish population begins to experience the economic repercussions of the emancipation of the Russian serfs. The newly emancipated serfs flooded Jewish handcrafting markets creating a glut of laborers and fierce competition for jobs. Jews began to become acutely aware that being Jewish in Russia meant that you had a limited economic profile.
  2. Jews begin to experience increased physical threats and decreased access to resources. In 1871 the Jews of Odessa suffered a pogrom. Their bodies were being marked and punished for being Jewish. Anti-Semitism was not something social; it was becoming something physical and violent.
  3. Marx’s and Darwin’s writings begin to be translated into Jewish languages in Russia. The reception of Marx among Jews in the 1870s was unique. Marx made Jews see themselves as political actors through their labor. One did not have to be a citizen of State to see oneself as a political actor with the capacity for revolutionary activity. Russian Jews read Darwin through a uniquely Jewish prism and attempted to redefine Judaism through the struggle for survival.

4)      What are the three types of materialism, social, scientific, and practical?

As the Jewish memoirist Pauline Wengeroff remarked, a “whole new set of household words” emerged in the 1870s. These included, “nihilism, materialism, assimilation, Anti-Semitism, and decadence.” The term materialism was used to describe various intellectual movements and likewise, when employed in Jewish contexts materialism meant a range of different things.

Even in the 1860s and 1870s there was no consensus about what the term materialism meant. Scientists, social commentators, economists and philosophers all used the term in multiple and often competing ways. For example, F.A. Lange’s grand work The History of Materialism–praises “scientific materialism” in the context of critiquing L. Büchner’s “philosophical materialism.”  In my work, I explore the various discourses in which the term materialism was employed, using each as a locus of discussion.

For Moses Leib Lilienblum, being a materialist meant promoting “a materialistic perspective on life,” in which social practices and religious institutions were scrutinized according to universal scientific principles of efficiency and utility.

For the Darwinian Rabbi Joseph Sossnitz, it translated into being a proponent of a “materialistic religion” based on reading the Bible and Kabbalah through the works of Darwin and Vogt.

For the Marxists Aaron Shemuel Lieberman and Isaac Kaminer, being a materialist entailed practically transforming the world through a critical analysis of history with “labor being the first principle of life.”  All these social, scientific and practical definitions of materialism circulated throughout Europe in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, often overlapping with monistic and certain strands of positivistic thought. What is unique, however, about this book’s protagonists is the way in which they connected these forms of materialism to their identity as Jews. Their Jewishness was defined by the way they related to physical world, to land, to labor and bodies.

5)      Why do we do we need to know about Lilienblum, Sossnitz, Shur, and Lieberman?

Jewish Materialism addresses people’s biographies only insofar as it illuminates something about their political and intellectual significance.

Moses Leib Lilienblum’s role as the founder of Zionism in Eastern Europe turns on his conversion from a melamed to the political upstart who said “in taten aryin.” His break with the rabbinate and critique of the Jewish enlightenment was based on the fact that in Russia both were equally impotent at helping him to procure the necessary means of survival.

The father of Jewish socialism, Aaron Shemuel Lieberman’s embodied the very political revolution he helped to put into motion. His transformation from a husband and supporter of the Russian State to an outlaw and a bisexual occurred while he was turning the pages of Marx’s Capital and Moses Hayyim Luzzatto’s 138 Gates of Wisdom. Lieberman’s life expressed in bold relief the radical sexual and political impulses in the kabalistic tradition and allows us to see why the concept of tikkun olam animated Jewish revolutionary activity.

Joseph Leib Sossnitz’s path from Habad Hasidism to proponent of a materialistic religion laid the groundwork for the idea of Jewish peoplehood developed by his American student, Mordechai Kaplan. Sossnitz’s own crisis with Habad’s acosmicism brought him to identify God in nature and to see the Jews as a distinct species.

Finally, the future Communist revolutionary Hasia Shur’s experience of being pelted with stones for taking a Shabbat walk hand in hand with Eliezer Tsukerman provides a window onto the way sexual and social liberation went hand in hand with political liberation.

The book tries to explain why these colorful vignettes in fact reflected a crucial turning point in Jewish politics.

6)      How did this effect Zionism?

Zionism was first and foremost a movement that redefined what it meant to be Jewish: Judaism went from being understood as a religion focused on rituals, reason, and study to a collective identity whose touchstones were the protection of Jewish bodies and the fair and equal distribution of resources. It is for this reason that Leon Pinsker and Judah Leib Levin and even Moses Lilienblum originally saw the immigration of Jews to the United States and Palestine as being part of the same movement. Zionism was not founded on the fetish for a particular parcel of land in the Middle East, it was directed at ensuring Jews physical protection and diversifying their labor profile. For the Jewish materialists, the choice between Palestine and the United States was rather minimal; the viability of one or the other was based on a cold and rational calculation of what option would offer greater forms of material protection and opportunities.

Zionism, as understood by the Jewish materialists, stood in opposition to Orthodox economics and politics: the shuls, yeshivot, hechsherim, and rabbanim, and the idea that Jews should be passive subjects to rulers of the various nation-states and Empires in which they resided. Lilienblum made Jews aware that they were starving because of a religious lifestyle and a set of values that drained their resources, and because of their support for a Tsar who could not adequately protect them.

7)      How have people read Klausner incorrectly?
Joseph Klausner is the scholar who came closest to identifying my thesis, but ultimately he also became the largest stumbling block to my research. Klausner was the first to recognize the novel historical impact Marx and Darwin had on eastern European Jewish thinkers in the 1870s. He knew that the Jewish reception of Marx and Darwin (and for that matter Chernyshevky and Pisarev) had radically changed the way Jews understood Judaism and related to their surroundings.  But Klausner submerged these insights into a broader theory of Zionism.

In his writings Klausner consistently insinuated materialism into ancient Jewish sources making it difficult to see the ways in which the materialist idea emerged in Jewish circles in the 1870s. “What do you mean Jewish materialism is a new idea?” Klausner might say, “look, here it can be found in the Bible!” To be sure, Klausner knew that Marx and Darwin could not be found in the Bible. but due to his own disputes with Marxist Zionists and Bundists, he asserted that the conceptual provenance of Zionism could be traced back to the words of the biblical prophets. It was only a matter of time until the writings of Marx, Darwin, and Chernyshevsky would be passed off by Zionists and Bundists as a form of “biblical messianism.”

In this regard Klausner followed in the footsteps of Asher Ginzburg, Ahad Ha-Am (who followed in the footsteps of Smolenskin). Scholars often forget that Ahad Ha-am’s insistence that Zionism was a spiritual movement was built on the material premise first put forward by Lilienblum and Lieberman via Chernyshevsky, Darwin and Marx. In other words, Ginzburg in the 1880s and 1890s was not secularizing ideas that could be traced back to Hasidic or Biblical sources; rather, he was spiritualizing the idea of Jewish land, labor, and bodies first articulated by the Jewish materialists in the 1870s.

8)      How does this change the way we see the breakdown of the religious world?

This is one the most important claims made in the book: the breakdown of the religious world did not come through what are often identified by scholars’ as a secular Jewish modernity:  the rejection of God and religious reform.

It came through the rejection of Orthodox economics and Jews’ revaluing the physical world. The Jewish materialists explained how the resources Jews were putting into yeshivot, synagogues, schools, and rabbis had come at the expense of protecting their bodies and developing their labor capacities.

As the founder of Zionism, Moses Leib Lilienblum explained in 1871, “[Jews labor profile primarily consisted of] the professions of preaching, religious adjudication, teaching, cantoring, matchmaking, writing, kabbalistics, synagogue work, psalm recitation, prayer recitation, seminary studies, asceticism, those who make their living from dowries, creditors, the fear of heaven and thievery.” Lilienblum’s answer to this problem was not to reform the Jewish soul-changing Jews beliefs reinterpreting Scripture or reforming Jewish rituals–but rather to see the Jewish body—its sustenance, maintenance, and protection—as the primary site of identity and then to ask how Jews might go about healing that body.

9)   Is this a book just about the 1870s, or does it have a message for contemporary Jewry?

The book concludes with a cliffhanger: Lieberman, Smolenskin, and Lilienblum debating the pros and cons of joining Russian revolutionary politics, immigrating to the United States, or traveling to Palestine. This debate, of course, foreshadows the big story of modern Jewish politics and present day debates over identity politics and economics and I touch on some of those issues in the Conclusion.

But for American Jewry, the most important takeaway is the deep spiritual background to its progressive character.

The poverty stricken Russian Jewish immigrants who followed in Lieberman and Winchevsky’s footsteps and arrived on these shores became leaders in progressive, socialist, communist, and other left wing political and economic movements. Inevitably, these movements were directed at rectifying America’s discriminatory economic system. From progressives (such as the future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis) to socialists (such as Forward founder and publisher Abraham Cahan) Jews advanced a political agenda for the fair distribution of the social surplus and the protection of citizens’ rights as laborers. “The labor question is and for a long time must be the paramount economic question in this country,” Brandeis once remarked.

Their investment in these movements was not simply an attempt to be American or a rejection of their Jewish backgrounds. It reflected the kinds of sensibilities and assumptions about Judaism that were first outlined by the Jewish materialists. As I have detailed elsewhere, for these thinkers there is a clear line that runs from Luria to Luzzatto’s kabbalah to Lieberman’s Marxism. The American Jewish Left’s employment of Tikkun Olam to describe their commitment to social and economic equality was rooted in a long tradition that runs back to the very first yeshiva bochruim who read Marx in the 1870s and became the founders of Jewish socialism, Zionism and Communism.

10) …And what would the Jewish materialists say about contemporary Modern Orthodoxy?    

Jewish materialists, like Lilienblum and Lieberman, would have chuckled at a recently published 100-page sociological survey on Modern Orthodoxy. Its authors asked participants every ideological, halakhic, and theological question that you could imagine. But they forgot to ask them the most simple and basic question about their own lives: What do you do? What is your profession?

Lilienblum and Lieberman remind us that it is a mistake to examine Orthodoxy’s beliefs and spiritual positions independent of its adherents’ class profile. As I detail in Chapter Two, Lilienblum wanted Jews to realize the full implications of what it meant that religious life was an economic choice.

That means instead of understanding Orthodoxy by asking its adherents about their beliefs regarding God, Jewish law, and Torah U-madda, they should first ask them what kind of labor they perform. The Jewish materialists insist that if we want to understand Orthodoxy, we should not begin with its scholastic debates over the status of philosophy or secular knowledge. Instead we must look at its adherents’ marital patterns, zip codes, and the maintenance of boundaries (membership and conversion) that ensures a certain kind of social economy.

By starting with questions surrounding class, you will be able to better understand the cost of day schools, shul membership, and the adoption of various halakhic stringencies far better than if you begin by asking people if they accept or reject a certain paragraph in Karo’s Code. If the Judaism being promulgated by Modern Orthodoxy costs too much it is not Maimonides or Karo fault; it is because ultimately, Orthodoxy’s adherents are invested in it costing that much and want to ensure that only certain individuals can afford to be Orthodox or Jewish.

Applying Lilienblum’s insights to contemporary Modern Orthodoxy we might entertain the possibility that the high tuition fees at Jewish Day schools exist to enforce a desired socio-economic boundary: to be Modern Orthodox one must be wealthy. We might ask, do the schools ensure that only wealthy people (or those that willing to be charity cases) can be part of that community? To what extent do those who support the study of Torah together with secular subjects (Madda) do so because it costs double and ensures that only people who can afford to pay double can be part of their communities? We need to understand why only wealthy people can convert to Orthodoxy Judaism. Generally speaking, the RCA tries to convert only people that can afford to be Orthodox.

Materially speaking you cannot be part of a Modern Orthodox community and be poor; you cannot identify as a Modern Orthodox family and be working class.  To be sure, sometimes this approach will still fail to explain the full range of people’s behaviors. Checkbooks alone do not fully account for commitments.

Today’s Orthodox, however, in their voting patterns, ideological beliefs, and religious practices, reinforce a very defined class profile. They vote for Trump for the same reasons they support school vouchers and day schools: it advances the reproduction of their wealth.  It is certainly interesting and important to study the ways in which various ideas and beliefs –“love of Israel” and “halakha”—reinforce and shape this class structure. However, what Lilienblum reminds us is that if we want to understand why a group votes the way it votes, educates the way they educate, and resides where it resides (in the wealthiest zip codes in the United States), we need to first see its adherents in material terms. We must look at their labor profile and per capita income, and ask in what ways their cultural institutions and political proclivities support a certain class profile.

Lilienblum would insist: there is no such thing as “a conversion crisis” or “a Day School crisis.”  Instead, he would demand that we ask how the high cost of Day School tuition and conversion reinforce Modern Orthodoxy’s class profile. How many poor Modern Orthodox Jewish families do you know (a net income beneath $25,000)? It is a chutzpah for laypeople and rabbis to blame that on Karo or Maimonides, however it is educational malpractice for scholars and academics to continue to perpetuate these “crises” by ignoring the issue of class when examining Orthodoxy.

Channeling Lilienblum and Lieberman, I find it deeply troubling that Orthodox Jews think it costs so much be Jewish. Every time I go to a Shabbat table in an Orthodox community someone inevitably talks about how expensive it is to be Jewish. Do people really believe that Judaism was meant to be given only to rich people or that Jews are allowed only to engage in a few niche professions. Wasn’t the Torah given to the poor?

Once we understand the class profile of Modern Orthodoxy the next step would be to go about creating a space for Jewish practice that would not be classist.  We should develop forms of Jewish observance and culture that are accessible to civil servants, janitors, artists, and chefs, a Judaism for a public-school teacher or a struggling musician. That means ensuring that whatever is being taught does not require one to be able to pay a fortune or be indebted to the largess of philanthropists. We want an educational system that helps people tap into their full capacities. This does not mean that there will not still be lawyers and accountants; it means ensuring that the Judaism being promoted would be one that reflected the full range of people’s labor abilities.

11)   What is economic Zionism? What does it have to do with contemporary Israel?

Economic Zionism was an antidote to Orthodox economics and imperial politics. It attempted to ensure that people did not need to pay double to be Jewish.

Its goal was to ensure that Jews could explore the full range of their human capacities and protect themselves without recourse to institutions outside of their control. Specifically, economic Zionism promised Jews that they could be observant without necessarily being wealthy or recipients of charity.

From Lilienblum and Pinsker, to Herzl, to Borchov and Ben Gurion, Zionism was first and foremost about ensuring greater forms of economic equality. As Herzl stated in the first sentences of the Jewish State: “It is astonishing how little insight into the science of economics many of the men who move in the midst of active life possess. Hence it is that even Jews faithfully repeat the cry of the Anti-Semites: ‘We depend for sustenance on the nations who are our hosts, and if we had no hosts to support us we should die of starvation.’”

There are deep contradictions between the economic and political programs of the Zionism put forward by the Jewish materialists and that proffered by contemporary Israeli and American Jewish political actors. This is confirmed by other recent studies on related subjects. Most notably, James Loeffler has shown in his work, Rooted Cosmopolitans, the strong ties between the early twentieth-century Minority Rights Movement and early twentieth-century Zionists.  According to Loeffler, Zionism and international law were conceived of, and built, alongside one another as complementary protectors of endangered and oppressed ethnic and racial groups.

Similarly, the Israeli historian Dimitry Shumsky has revealed the way in which Zionist thinkers (from Pinsker to Ben-Gurion) stood in opposition to the fetishizing of land and the nation-state. One of the points that emerge from these new histories of Zionism is the deep discontinuity between much of historical Zionism and contemporary Israeli and American Jewish politics. The latter, unfortunately, is largely based around the fetish of a specific landmass, messianic aspirations, Orthodox economics, and the promotion of capitalistic industry and maximalist definitions of a Jewish nation-state.

It is more than ironic that a movement that was founded on the principle equality and the protection of Jewish bodies has flourished into an Israeli State with one of the highest poverty rates in the Western world.

Likewise, a movement that justified itself through an argument about economic mobility and the fair and equal distribution of resources to all groups of people has given rise to a State that seems incapable of applying the same principles to its Palestinian inhabitants.  Finally, and perhaps most shocking it not only tolerates the economic unproductivity of its Orthodox citizens, it encourages such behavior through a vast network of state-based welfare.   It makes one wonder what if any relationship there is between the current version of the State of Israel to the Zionism of Smolenskin, Lilienblum and Pinsker. But that’s a subject for a different book.

12)   What are your next projects

A small-pamphlet on the relationship between Jewish Orthodoxy and the Right Wing of the Republican Party. A large-scale history of the reception of Marx as a Jew. And I will explore the continuity of the ideas in the book in the formation of 20th century American Jewry.

Interview with Rabbi Bradley Artson on Process Theology

What sort of philosophy of God do you have? Theist, Pantheist or an Ultimate Reality or Cosmic Force? Is God all-powerful or limited? Concerned with our daily lives or not? Last week, the Pew foundation released statistics that a third of Americans treat God as a cosmic force and half of America are Biblical theists. These results should not be taken as anything new because much of American religion- from the Deist founding Fathers to the 19th century Transcendentalists, to the 21st century New Age- has always treated God as a cosmic force. However, the more important question is what are the properties of this ultimate reality? Pew, as usual, did not ask any follow up questions to determine the nature of the Ultimate Reality. Is it a disembodied Mind, a theopoetic metaphor for our own best selves or inspiring us with love and justice? Rabbi Bradley Artson has recently developed over several books a Jewish Process theology of love, compassion, and justice to address those who seek a religiously robust Ultimate Reality.

Bradley Artson holds an A.B. Degree from Harvard College, ordained by Jewish Theological Seminary and received his D.H.L. at HUC-JIR in Contemporary Jewish Theology, Artson served as the rabbi of Congregation Eilat in Mission Viejo. In 1999, he started at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University) where he is currently Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University and University Vice-President. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College at the University of Potsdam in Germany, ordaining Conservative/Masorti rabbis for Europe. Among his many books are the recent works of process theology Renewing the Process of Creation: A Jewish Integration of Science and Spirit (Jewish Lights, 2015); God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Lights, 2016).

artson- becoming

Already thirty-three years ago, while still in Rabbinical school, Artson defined his view of God as ethical and simultaneously based on Torah.

Credo – Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson 1985

The two core assertions of  traditional Judaism, assertions  which I cannot prove but upon  which I stake my life:

The first axiom is that God is loving, compassionate, wise, and passionate about justice.

The second is that the Torah and  rabbinic tradition is the preeminent  vehicle for Jews to articulate a sense  of God’s will and to concretize that will in our daily lives and our social  structure.

I refuse to read halakhah or the Torah in such a way that it makes  God seem cruel, nor will I sever the  intimate connection between God’s  will and God’s Torah.  God is just, and halakhah embodies  God’s love and justice.

From these two points, a Torah of compassion and social  justice emerges organically.

Compare this to the other Jewish Gods available in the 1980’s. Some chose a God that demanded an intellectual mastery of a corpus of halakhic books with a concurrent remaking of reality to match the vision of the books, others chose a territorial God on the verge of a messianic return to a Jewish kingdom, and still others chose an experiential and emotional God found in the personal heart. How many would have chosen this moral deity if given a choice?

Artson felt the need to develop a Process Theology of God when his tacitly assumed prior orthodox theistic theology failed, as explained in the interview.

Process theology is a form of theistic naturalism developed by Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) in which God is located in the natural order as a panentheism, ever changing and affected by temporal processes. Unlike traditional theism, God is not all knowing, not all-powerful, not engaged in supernatural acts. God is temporal, mutable, and affected by the world.

To get to today’s views, I am skipping over many subsequent thinkers such as Charles Hartshorne (1897–2000) or Henry Nelson Wieman (d. 1975). In later decades, the theologian John B. Cobb (b. 1925) wrote many works applying these abstract metaphysical ideas to a working practiced religion, religion of prayer and compassion, which emphasizes event, occurrence, or becoming over against substance. Many moderate and progressive members of liberal religion in the United States find Cobb’s view a viable religion. They find it a theology able to preach, teach, and inspire an integration of spirituality, social action, and care for the earth.

In this post-Cobb version, process theology presents a dynamic interdependent universe, congruent with the insights of quantum physics, biology, and the ecological movement. Second, experience is universal, valuable, and variable. Process theologians believe that we live in an organic lived universe in which all things have some level of experience. Third, creativity and freedom are real for God and us. God does not, and cannot, determine the experience of any creature or the future of the planet. God does not determine our lives, have a plan for the details of our lives, or respond to events in our lives. Finally, God is creative-responsive love. God and the world constitute a dynamic synergy of “call and response” in which God inspires and energizes each moment of experience and, conversely, embraces the ongoing history of the universe as part of God’s own experience.

Process theology of the Whitehead variety used to be popular in American liberal rabbinic theology.  In the 1950’s Rabbis Max Kaddushin, Milton Steinberg and Levi A. Olan, and Harry Slominsky were influenced by process theology. Olan was publicly committed to defending in the Jewish journals the concepts of process theology. In later decades, William E. Kaufman and Harold Kushner shared much of this view of a limited divine.  Mordecai Kaplan is famously quoted as defining “God as the power that makes for Salvation.” Whatever Kaplan actually meant by that phrase, Milton Steinberg, a rabbinic theologian sharply and publicly differed with it by affirming a theism, a process theism in which God acts in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, and not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature. He claimed that the universe is dynamic, creative, rational and purposive and contains consciousness: “The entire universe is the outward manifestation of Mind-Energy, of Spirit, or to use the older and better word, of God.” On these older trends, see Jewish Theology and Process Thought eds. Sandra B. Lubarsky and David Ray Griffin (1996); William E. Kaufman, A Question of Faith: An Atheist and a Rabbi Debate the Existence of God and The Case for God.

Rabbi Brad Artson’s position is, in many ways, similar to that of Milton Steinberg but with the influence of Cobb, Clayton, and many later process thinkers who emphasize experience, compassion, and creativity. However, more importantly, Artson is deeply invested in ethics, ritual, and devotional life. When one compares Artson to Steinberg or Levi A. Olan, besides the greater systemization, one sees Artson’s commitment to a life of justice, compassion, and love as well as the importance of prayer, Torah study, and mizvot.

As a coincidence, this week I inherited a copy of Levi A, Olan from an older colleague cleaning out his office.  When perusing the old volume, Olan seems more abstract with a weaker theism, almost deist, allowing only basic universal values. In contrast, Artson’s Torah is robust with many classes, lectures, articles, and dvirei Torah bringing out the ethical meaning of Torah, parasha, or a Rabbinic passage. Artson finds rabbinic texts that support his position and reads them as process theology. This interview is one of the cases where, if I could, I would have redone the interview to focus on Artson’s ethical and Torah views instead of his metaphysics.

Here are three samples of his thinking. Love and Justice, Ethics and Ritual- Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, Justice –Passover. For those who want more, Artson has dozens of divrei Torah and videos online.

An earlier version of his process theology was published eight years ago and is still online as a primer for his thought. BA-DEREKH: On The Way —A Presentation of Process Theology. This is a good place to start his thought after reading the interview. There was also a special issue of Conservative Judaism (Vol. 62 No. 1-2 Fall-Winter 2010-2011) dedicated to this preliminary version, comparing his thought to already known entities such as Milton Steinberg, New Age, Kabbalah, and Heschel. There was a solid discussion by Rivon Krygier  “The Force of Bradley Artson’s “Process Theology” and Its Limitations.” Here is a nice excerpt from God of Becoming & Relationship.

When all is said and done, process theologies may have little appeal in broader discourse and all the more so for a Jewish audience. The patriarch of process theology John Cobb was recently asked in an interview: why process theology has gained little traction? Cobb answered “The worldview that dominates most universities excludes both subjects and values a priori… Because this exclusion is a priori, no argument is needed. It is this metaphysics that still runs the world.”

Maybe, but a Jew who does not want a supernatural God but still wants a theism may be happier, and more comfortable, with neo-Hasidic, spinozistic, or New Age conceptions of God, not process theology. In addition, many Jews choose not to believe in theism altogether and prefer a secular humanism. Artson also does not engage the alternatives in a rigorous manner, of why his approach is better than weaker open theisms, than immanence, or than a non-personal God of peoplehood. Other Jews speak of God as a healer of shattered hearts, as having a plan for his people, and as experienced in mysticism. If one already has a theology then one would not be drawn to this. Artson assumes, just like Cobb, that everyone needs a metaphysics, so his is useful and adequate. However, many Jews just do not seek a metaphysics.  And those that do seek metaphysics, may be in the 50% of Americans comfortable with Biblical theism. In addition, his scientific worldview is optimistic, unlike those who sense a forthcoming global catastrophe.

Could there be an Orthodox version of process theology? I have met many Orthodox who interpret their Neo-Hasidic or Kabbalistic worldviews in process terms. But could one make a sustained theory?  (There is already a shallower version of process theology done by a contemporary Orthodox rabbi who adds Tony Robbins to produce a more gnostic New Age Secret Life of God. But he shows his complete lack of seriousness by concluding a 200-page book of process theology by tacking on a disingenuous two page affirmation of Kuzari theism).

In the end, both in this interview and the two recent books, Artson presents a Jewish process theology of God, focusing on the novelty of his process theology ideas of God. However, his ideas would have more traction if he stopped focusing on process theology and instead used these ideas to form a new narrative of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, especially an ethical covenantal narrative of the Jewish people, in which the process ideas are implicit rather than explicit. He should also concern himself more with alternatives to his approach, such as open theism and transcendental theism, and defend his position. He has all the elements of Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness in his books, but they get lost in the novelty of process theology. As a prolific author, Artson may already be writing the needed volume of Jewish narrative.

artson - creation

1) How did you get involved and discover process theology?

I grew up an atheist and turned to belief in God in college as a result of ethical philosophical questions (is morality reducible to majority consensus or is there a ground for what is good?) and then as a result of personal experience of the divine.

My theology was conventional for liberal theology (God was more or less the same God as the Orthodox but didn’t sweat the details quite so much). That carried me through college, working as a legislative aide to the Speaker of the California State Assembly for two years after college, rabbinical school, and into my new congregation in Southern California.

After about 5 years, my wife and I had twins and it soon became clear that my son Jacob struggled with a pretty intense form of autism. That threw my conventional theology (everything happens for a reason; it’s all for the best) into a tailspin. I could no longer affirm those platitudes without betraying my son. For two years, I simply avoided talking to or about God. I never stopped believing in God’s existence; I just felt it was better for both of us if we took a break from each other. But after that time, I needed to confront how this reality was possible: what kind of universe do we live in?

I knew I needed an organized program to see this investigation through, so I enrolled in the doctoral program at Hebrew Union College with Rabbi Dr David Ellenson as my supervisor. My first task was to read broadly in scientific literature to get to know the universe we actually inhabit.

I read in cosmogony, quantum physics, relativity theory, explorations of Dark Energy and Dark Matter, evolutionary biology, cognitive neurobiology, among other areas. I started to develop an understanding that the world isn’t made up of solid components that react against each other externally, but rather is made of recurrent patterns of energy that react both internally by responding to the shifting realities around, and externally by exerting an influence on other patterns of energy.  That means that the universe is profoundly dynamic and relational, and that the divine is not radically separate from creation but permeates creation and impacts it from within (naturally, persuasively). Creation impacts the Divine in the same way.

I was reading a book on different approaches to panentheism (the idea that God and the universe permeate each other but are not reducible to each other) when I came upon a chapter on Process Panentheism and discovered that my invention of Process Thought had been preempted a century earlier by Alfred North Whitehead and others. I started reading Process Theology writings and found a ready fellowship of people who share my core convictions and were personally among the warmest and most encouraging theologian/philosophers I have ever encountered.

2) You speak of the impact of your son Jacob’s struggle with autism on your emerging understanding of Process Theology. How has his autism influenced you?

I’m sure that I am not at all the same person I would otherwise have been. Having Jacob as a son has touched every aspect of my life. In terms of Process Theology, I can think of three areas of particular impact:

(1). Jacob is only moderately verbal, although he is able to type deep and sophisticated thoughts. Process Thought directs our attention deeper than rational, verbal expression, holding our deepest insights as “prehensions.” Jacob lives that reality and he has guided me past our Western obsession with words and analytical critical thought as the only, or primary, road to understanding. Seeing the necessity of knowledge for wisdom, but recognizing that the goal is wisdom, not knowledge, is a gift I got from my son and then found in Process Thought.

(2) I adore my son and see God’s love and generosity in the gift of being his father. Jacob took my commitment to diversity and different ability and vastly deepened it by sharing his life, his struggles and his triumphs every day. Walking through life with him has opened my soul to human and non-human diversity in all its beauty, courage, and resilience.

(3) For Jacob to forge a life of meaning takes such strength, such determination, such refusal to surrender. I see the ways that God is also self-surpassing in my son, as I also see God’s lure to Jacob to join in also being self-surpassing. When Jacob surprised all his doctors and experts by earning a high school diploma and walking across the stage to claim his certificate, I saw the finest example of God’s persuasive power, of listening to the lure, and of naturalist theology capable of gracing us with an additional measure of understanding, courage, and achievement. Jacob says that Torah saved his life, and that Process Theology saved Torah for him. It did for me too.

3) What is Process Theology?

Process Thought understands reality not as the bumping together of solid substances in absolute space and time, but as a cosmos of shimmering particles of energy which interact constantly and eternally. Every creature is really a resilient pattern of interlocking energy, each in a developing process of becoming.

Because “becoming” is concrete and real, and “being” is only a logical abstraction, the distillation of becoming in pure thought, Process Thought focuses on becoming as the central mode of every creature, of all creation, and indeed of the Creator as well.

The universe is recognized to be a series of interacting recurrent energy patterns, but not one that endlessly loops in the same repetitive patterns. Instead, the surprising miracle of our universe is that it seems to generate novelty with each new moment of continuing creation.

Process theology recognizes every “thing” is really a series of events across time, a process, that emerges in relationship. We are each a process, and creation is a process. God is a process, revelation is a process. All emerge in relationship, meaning that no thing can be understood in isolation. Each event has an interiority in which it integrates the reality around it with its own choice about how to proceed. In addition, an exteriority in which it has an impact on the choices of every other event around it.  We are all part of something interactive and dynamic.

In such a worldview, God is not outside the system as some unchanging, eternal abstraction. Instead, God permeates every aspect of becoming, indeed grounds all becoming by inviting us and every level of reality toward our own optimal possibilities. The future remains open, through God’s lure, to our own decisions of how or what we will chose next. God, then, uses a persistent, persuasive power, working in each of us (and all creation at every level) to nudge us toward the best possible outcome. But God’s power is not coercive and not all powerful. God cannot break the rules or unilaterally dictate our choices. Having created and then partnered with this particular cosmos, God is vulnerable to the choices that each of us makes freely as co-creators.

4) Is Process Theology Theist or Panentheist?

Process Thought sees itself as theistic. God has personal and impersonal aspects, eternal and timely manifestations. What most Process thinkers affirm also is that God permeates creation but is not reducible to it (panentheism) and that the two are mutually-influencing. We also reject the notion that God uses coercive power or can break the rules.

Can one ignore God or have a meaningful understanding of life without belief in God? Sure, but ignoring this force doesn’t mean it isn’t a force. One can choose to ignore gravity, but gravity manifests whether we attend to it or not.

Process Thought sees God not just as a character in a novel (with specific lines or actions), but more akin to the presence of the author of a play. Shakespeare, for example is never manifest in particular scenes or as a distinctive personality within one of his plays, nonetheless he permeates the entire drama, every line and as a whole. So, with or without a self-conscious sense of God’s impact or presence, a non-theist lives and moves in a cosmos in which God permeates the entirety of creation and powers its unfolding within and among each of us.

I am a panentheist not a pantheist. A classical theist believes that God is completely separate from the world. I don’t believe that. I believe that the world Is marinating in God, and that God is marinating in the world. If I were a pantheist, I would affirm that God and the world are one and the same.

I believe that both permeate each other, but that there are aspects of God that don’t involve the world, and aspects of the world that don’t involve God. Both have an irreducible reality beyond the other, but both permeate and influence and constrain each other. God influences the world by holding all potentialities, by keeping the future open, by offering lures to each created event, and by forever retaining our choices and all reality. The world influences God by the choices we make, which can either give God pleasure (when we rise to choose the Lure) or pain (when we do not). God’s memory becomes a permanent aspect of God, and it is shaped by our choices and behavior.

5)      How is God relational? How is God loving, caring and wise?

Every reality has an inner aspect (its own self-determination) and an outer aspect (its connection and relationship to the rest of creation. God is no exception: what God shares in common with all creation is a dynamic relationship that responds to the choices and becomings of others, which in turn shapes and constrains divine choices and becomings too.  That means that God influences creation (as I described above) and creation has an impact on God by providing the content of unfolding reality that God will eternally know and remember.

So, God has an internal aspect, choosing how to respond to the newest shiftings of reality. And God has an external aspect, impacting and shaping the Lure that makes our own choosing possible. Because God has timely aspects (ways in which God interacts within time and in the world) and eternal aspects (required by logic to be outside of time), God’s manifestations are beyond our own. One of the ways that God differs from the rest of reality is that God is able to relate to all of creation as a whole (that is part of God’s eternal attributes) and to every entity within creation (as the unifying ground of all becoming), and that God forever holds our choices and journeys in the divine memory (integrating the unfolding our choices into God’s eternal being). Nothing real is ever lost for God.

God’s goodness (love, care, wisdom) is absolute in all frames of reference. God is forever luring us (and all creation) to make the optimal choice facing us at the present moment (optimal in terms of love, experience, compassion, justice). God never gives up on us, never stops offering us the optimal possibility and empowering us to implement that lure if we so choose.

One of the great achievements of Process Theology is to declare that God is a force for good, but not the author of our suffering. As the Book of Genesis recognizes, there was tohu va-vohu (chaos) when God began the work of creation, of inviting the chaos to become cosmos. That chaos always exists, always threatens to destabilize cosmos. And God is always working to bolster the cosmos – the order, patterns, and reliability of creation. God is that force within nature allowing us to thrive, to grow, to surpass ourselves. That is the root of my religious optimism (and of Judaism’s): that our God is a God of righteousness, of justice, of hope. The Holocaust was an eruption of the tohu va-vohu and the outrage of the German nation choosing evil and rejecting the Lure.

6) What is the right way to read the Bible with process theology?

Process thinkers read the Bible as revealing deep wisdom, but not necessarily on the level of literal, historical facts. The stories and guidelines are divine in their insight and capacity to further human thriving, regardless of whether or not they actually happened. In this reading, Process Theology shares a great deal with other non-literalists.

A God who is not outside of time and space is one who can bubble up within human consciousness, removing the false dichotomy of the Bible having to be either God given or a human product. God works in, with and through us. We wrote the Bible together, our ancestors distilling the Lure into words: paradigmatic stories and wise behavioral guidelines that reflect our listening and distillation of a divine/human conversation across generations.

Revelation is the recording of the prehensions (intuition) that God inspires and which, in turn; Israel’s prophets and poets record in writing. That writing is both temporal and involves a series of events across time, making revelation both an ongoing series of punctuated events (the oracles of a particular prophet or the teachings of a particular sage, for example) and also a process that moves through time (hence, the open and ongoing nature of torah sheh be-al peh, the Oral Torah).

7)      How is your approach better than a generic agnosticism or being a “none”? Most Jews don’t care about God and don’t care about any theology, why process theology for these Jews?

One of the fatal challenges of contemporary Jewish thought is the segregation of scientific information and theory from cultural memory and practice. Among today’s Jewish thinkers, Judaism is just a culture, which means it does not help us in relating to the actual physical world, nor to addressing any real existential questions outside of a sophisticated notion of “myth.”

Most people find that approach barren and broken, and I believe that is one powerful reason by so many Jews reject the idea of God or divinity: because it is often presented in contradistinction to (and ignorance of) science. I teach my students that they must cultivate scientific literacy if they hope to be able to say something relevant to the actual world.

Science itself is an ongoing research method and a process of investigation, so it isn’t enough to read up on a field and then stop. Contemporary findings in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, cognitive sciences, to name a few unfold in a dazzling array of new insights and challenges.

I have given this general presentation to research scientists at NIH, who affirmed my scientific claims and descriptions as accurate. Both of my books are grounded in speculating on contemporary scientific data and research, for example the significance of Higgs fields (a relational process) rather than the insignificance of particular Higgs bosons (a thing).

8)      What is gained in your approach compared to other theological views of God?

I think we lose people to Judaism if we can’t provide a single coherent narrative that explains the universe from the beginning to our own cultural emergings and an agenda to make our own future meaningful and worthy. Contemporary people need an integrated description of reality and their place in it and guidance for how to live lives of beauty and purpose. That renewed unified story has to include all we know from the natural and social sciences, which will in turn shape new readings of our tradition and new ways of living that integrate Torah in our communities and our lives.

Process Thought offers several benefits:

(1) It integrates our scientific knowledge with our speculative thought and cultural heritage, Process Thought makes it safe to be rational again, and invites people beyond a false vision of religion as a shortcut around science or science as eviscerating morality. It allows us to know everything we know about the world and to take inspiration from that knowledge.

(2) A God of persuasive power is no longer the bully who torments us or torments our loved ones. That means that theodicy (why bad things happen) is no longer either an intellectual trap or a moral monstrosity that makes religious people blame the victims.

(3) God becomes our cosmic companion, seeking our thriving and making that thriving possible. Just as God is always luring us to an optimal choice and giving us the strength to choose that lure, so we can renew our hope and our strength in the light of this realistic faithfulness,

(4) Finally, a process faithfulness allows us to put our energy into this world: the work of building inclusive compassionate communities, living in harmony with creation, doing the work of justice.

9)      If you say God is our GPS then how does this work? What is gained by process theology that guides our life more than any other non-supernatural approach?

God lures us by an immediate perception or intuition (Whitehead calls that “prehension”) of the optimal next choice for each of us (“lure”). That lure is unique for each one of us, the integration of our own past, personality, character, talents, and possibilities. This is not a specific method, it is a comprehensive explanation of why the future is open, why we have agency and choice, and why some choices allow us to thrive better than others. We can discern the lure through prayer, meditation, therapy, nature, study, mitzvot, and  a host of other paths. They are dipolar too: meaning they are complementary rather than mutually exclusive.

What is certain is that we all have the prehension within, and we need training and discipline to be able to discern its content above the clatter and din of modern life. Religion is such a training and discipline; a life of mitzvot can offer such access, if approached with an open heart and a willingness to discern.

Process Theology prioritizes actual events above speculation or conceptions of those events. That prioritizing of real life also elevates a naturalist view of the world, as opposed to a supernatural realm somehow outside of space and time.

Why does that reconfiguration matter? We now know that the cosmos is pretty super all by itself, and it continues to reveal wonders previously unanticipated. Nature itself is super, and wondrous (one might even say, miraculous!). There is neither need nor room for another realm.

10)      It seems you are basically a liberal theologian since you do not take God, Revelation, or reward literally. Are you not just a Jewish Unitarian?

There is a difference between taking something literally and taking it seriously. I affirm that God is real, not simply a useful fiction in my life or our culture. I affirm that God communicates with us and seeks our good (revelation) even if I don’t think that the mechanism God used was dropping a Hebrew book on us around a mountain one day. So, can we clarify: Process thinkers are God lovers, striving always to discern God’s message and God’s will. And we turn to our respective scriptures, to creation, to conscience to distill that message in our own lives and times. That’s pretty religious, isn’t it?


11) Can I just be an ethical ethnic Jew with theology?

I have no need to argue someone out of ethnic Jewishness. But ethnicity doesn’t guide how to live, to rise to what is right, to stand against injustice. So it seems to me a rather trivial goal, one that many contemporary Jews justifiably abandon as marginal. I think many people want to know what is asked of them now, this moment. And they want to live lives of significance and uplift.

Process Thought opens Jewish scriptures (Bible and rabbinics) to help today’s people renew their strength and clarify their life purpose while enlisting the best of today’s knowledge and information into that worthy effort. For others, what it might offer would be a coherent explanation of the cosmos and life that includes what western thought divides up into science, social science, and the humanities. .

12)   You cite the musar masters as process theology, but they used Maimonides and Kabbalah to express and develop hesed.

Finding scattered quotations doesn’t replace the need for a coherent system. And an overarching systemic understanding would then seek instantiation in the insights and sources of a wisdom tradition like Judaism. The metaphysical system of Process can deepen and clarify how a value-concept (to quote Max Kadushin, an early Process influenced rabbi) like hesed works in a way compatible with our scientific and contemporary understandings.

And if that metaphysics is “True” (in the sense of explanatory, predictive, coherent) then we would expect to see multiple Jewish sources that would reinforce its assertions and provide examples of its interpretive utility.

Many have recognized that Aristotle himself was a proto-Process thinker (explaining the world as dynamic, interactive, responsive), and that would entail that the medieval neo-Aristotelians (like Maimonides) also prepare a path that later explicit Process thinkers can extend.

13)   Where do mitzvot fit in to process theology? Your theory of authority of the tradition, a traditional Conservative position, is not itself generated from your process theology. 

In Process approach, the doing of mitzvot as a manifestation of God’s presence and concern would be of greater importance, not less.

Judaism is not reducible to an abstract set of principles, because it has to be lived in actual relationships – between real living entities, between us and other peoples, between humanity and all the earth, between contemporary Jews and Jewish tradition, between Jews and God. Science can inform us about the physical aspects of reality, but the making of meaning is a human action, mediated through culture and character. Hence the humanities are the proper address for that decision making and affirmation. Talmud, in this case, not test tubes.

Of course, bringing a cosmic, Process perspective to our Jewish practice will make that practice more pluralistic and fluid. Some will resonate to a fairly traditional and halakhic Shabbat. Others might discover Shabbat community and connection in a less traditional framework, or outside of any halakhic reference whatsoever. A Process approach won’t adjudicate between these possible Shabbat days, other than to continue to insist that our practice enhance experience, justice, love, relationship (hence, community). The authority of the system is the wisdom the system manifests, not simply how it came to be written down.

14) What is prayer in this approach?

Prayer can engage hope, reminder, struggle. It can be a pouring out of words, song, postures, and crying out. It can be solitary or communal. Maybe the key Process tool here would be to recognize that “prayer” isn’t a thing to be measured against some objective criteria. It is a name we give to range of human activities. People pouring out their hearts, articulating their hopes and pains and aspirations, affirming or smashing assumptions of power, utilizing established liturgies or sitting in silence, dancing to music  or sitting in silence have all been prayer acts in different times and places. I refuse to choose among them.

15) Where do you go beyond Whitehead? What do you take from other Process theologians? Should your readers read them?

One place where I deliberately go beyond Whitehead is to prioritize morality. Whitehead was reacting against the moralistic fundamentalisms of his day, but I think he pushed too far. He correctly saw God as portrayed in Tanakh as moral and the prophets of Israel held an ethical yardstick to their assessment of religious authenticity. We need to restore that priority today as well, so I specify the lure in those terms (love, experience, compassion, justice) to make that moral voice primary.

John Cobb is the living grandfather of Process Thought, and as fine a human being as I have ever met. His introductions to Process Thought (two volumes of Q&As) are worth their weight in gold. Phil Clayton is also a first rate mensch and his scholarship on emergence and on panentheism opened doors for me that I traverse daily. Catherine Keller is my favorite theologian ever! Her audacious heart and her soaring use of English are simply unparalleled. Reaching her book On The Mystery is itself a religious experience. Jay McDaniel has written a great work on the place of animals in a creation theology and a great anthology introducing Process Thought. He has also created a raucous Web site of Processy articles from all faith traditions ( All of these wonderful people have become my treasured colleagues, mentors and friends.

Mordechai Kaplan in his later thinking surpassed his youthful naturalism (a more mechanistic view of nature) into a richer transnaturalism that has more than a few explicit references and hints of Whitehead and Process.  Steinberg and Kadushin also acknowledge the impact of Process thought and manifest it sporadically, but none of these great thinkers addressed themselves in a systemic way to a comprehensive and underlying metaphysics.

Pesach Sheni as a therapeutic holiday

This is an update of a short 800 word post from 2010, now it is seven times larger. It is another one of my loose observations of lived religion. (I will still be editing and changing this post over the next few days)

Pesach Sheni is this Saturday night and Sunday-Iyyar 14. It seems that before our eyes Pesach Sheni became a holiday of second chances, reminding everyone to make sure that everyone is included and in which no one is excluded. This folk practice has connections to Chabad, contemporary American sociology, and current trends in theology

Traditionally, Pesach Sheni was a minor vestigial day, which some especially Hasidim treating it as a minor festival.The practice of Pesach Sheni was originally a day for those who could not bring the Passover sacrifice to be allowed to bring the sacrifice a month later. There are customs among some Hasidim to eat a piece a matza on this day or to hold a seder – a tisch for Hasidic Torah.

The homiletical Torah in later centuries for this day was about those who carried Yosef’s bones. In the Middle Ages it was the last chance to see the miracle of the Exodus and bask in how God is above the natural order. And there is some Polish Hasidic Torah about hametz and matzah being at the same time. There was an important section in the Zohar and it was the holiday of Rabbi Meir Baal Hanes charity (see below).

A decade ago, about 2008 there was a burst on the scene of this Pesach Sheni practice within the broader Jewish community. This day became a day when all those who need a second chance have their holiday. Almost any metaphors of 12 step, broken pieces, therapeutic religion, shattered lives has made its way into Pesach Sheni Torah, from all sorts of outreach/kiruv and self-help sources. (There is enough for grad student to collect and sort it out.)

Originally, it applied to those released from prison, recovering from addiction, or having mental health issues. In the last five years it was further extended to broader questions of diversity to include feminism, LGBTQ. In 2010, Kolech – the Israeli Orthodox feminist organization and initiated by Bat-Kol, the organization of religious lesbians, proclaimed it a day of inclusion of all. The holiday picks up steam in 2016 year when was a widely circulated blog post discussing it as a holiday for GLBT exclusion. In addition, Rav Cherlow gave a Pesach Sheni talk on the need to confront the other and this year on the need to accept gays in the community. In 2017, Pesach Sheni was a declared religious tolerance day.

But what I am noticing on this one is that the individualism of the kiruv organization, yeshivish self help and Neo-Hasidism is overlapping in metaphors and folk holiday with the liberal voices of diversity. There is a social reality of exclusion needing homilies of inclusion and a reality of therapeutic Torah.

Since the practice of Pesach Sheni had little current actual practice except the pietistic custom of eating a piece of matza. It was an ideal underdetermined date with underdetermined practice ready to be filled in by a contemporary cosmology. Much of the language for this holiday comes from Chabad sources.

rebbe-pesach sheni

Origins in Chabad Theology

The Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn arrived in the United States, first as a visit in the 1929 and then permanently in 1940. Already from his first trip the United Sates, he emphasized the piety of the common person over the Rabbinic elite. In his sermons from his visit to Chicago, he categorically stated that the simple Jew who burns in his heart is greater than the intellectual scholar who is religiously cold. He also produced many stories of holy people who appear as sinners or ordinary people. He taught about how simple unlettered Jews are not far from God – in contrast to the rigid hierarchy of Lithuanian Jewry. He was showing inclusiveness for those whose journeys took their personal narrative far from the imagined ideal in contrast to the Rabbinic establishment seeking to exclude.

In 1944, the Rebbe Riyatz (Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn) wrote that Pesach Sheni is a second chance for all those who were far away. It was a noble message for an era of immigration and dispersion. This concern for simple yidden and their probelms, however, went out of fashion in the post WWII era.

In his diary of daily advice (edited by his future successor Rabbi Menachem Mendel) he wrote:

Iyar 14, Pesach Sheini, 29th day of the omer 5703

The theme of Pesach Sheini is that it is never too late. It is always possible to put things right. Even if one was tamei (ritually impure), or one was far away, and even in a case of lachem, when this (impurity etc.) was deliberate – nonetheless he can correct it.

Rebbe Yosef Yitzhak Schneersohn in his sermons was dealing with actually displacement of war, famine, and struggles to survive. Now we have an acute sense by many in the community that many people are excluded and need to be made welcome again.

In 1978, his successor the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneersohn told over the teaching of Pesach Sheni from the prior Rebbe as an opportunity for a second chance.

Pesach Sheni gives those who did not offer the Pesach sacrifice the first time the opportunity to do so a month later. Its message is that nothing is irretrievable, that a Jew can always rehabilitate himself.
One clear lesson from Pesach Sheni is that a Jew need never give up hope. In the words of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe: “The idea of Pesach Sheni is that nothing is irretrievable; we can always rectify our behavior. Even one who was ritually unclean or who was on a distant journey – even willingly – can still rehabilitate himself.” A Jew is intrinsically good, his soul “a part of G-d Above.” Sin is completely antithetical to his nature. If he does transgress, it is an aberration that cannot touch his essential self. He may be temporarily unclean, but he is of the loftiest levels. Thus no sin, no omission of service to G-d, is irretrievable. A Jew can always return to his real identity. Likkute Sichos XII 5738, emor 216-220

In later talks, as paraphrased on the Chabad website, the holiday is an opportunity to change our lives. However, this opportunity is available specifically to those fell from the envisioned path. Their fall is the catalyst for greater growth. A form of spiritual decent for the sake of ascent.

Pesach Sheini embodies the approach of teshuva. In order to return to the proper path, it is not enough to merely avoid impropriety; the individual must address the fact that he has succumbed to the forces of evil and use this fact to strengthen the weak point in his relationship with G‑d. When he does this, he transforms the power of evil into holiness and his previous sin into a source of merit, thereby obtaining G‑d’s forgiveness for his misdeed. This capacity – the ability to change that which is already done and to overcome wrongs that have already been perpetrated – is drawn from a source of transcendent spirituality, a level beyond merit or iniquity. It taps into the essential relationship between man and G‑d, which is not predicated on our obedience to His will. This connection can never waver, for it is intrinsic in nature; the essence of the Jewish soul is one with G‑d whether they obey His will or not.The leaven need not be banished, since we are ready to elevate it…

Because Pesach Sheini, is an exercise in transcendence, it does not require the methodical preparation required by the regular Pesach. The leaven need not be banished, since we are ready to elevate it, too. Earlier impurity no longer matters, for it cannot destroy this intrinsic connection. And one day is enough, for this connection transcends time as well as behavioral issues.

If, as has been explained, Pesach Sheini embodies a higher degree of divine service, why is it reserved for those who became defiled? Why could one who brought the sacrifice on the first Pesach not enjoy the sublimity of the second? How was he to achieve the advantages of transcendence?

It was only those who had deviated from the proper path and had never begun a proper journey of growth that needed to skip directly to the transcendent. They required a catalyst, an offering to be brought in the second month, because without that “jump”, they would have remained helpless and unchanged.

Why do we celebrate the Pesach Sheini nowadays? We were not obligated to bring the sacrifice on the first Pesach. Why do we mark the secondary choice?

The answer is that we celebrate its spiritual meaning. We celebrate the added capacity to achieve a higher degree of spiritual connection. And, we celebrate its lesson: no matter what may have happened in the past, no matter what we may have spoiled, it’s never too late. We still have the ability and opportunity to change – not only our futures, but even the effects of the past.

Typically, Chabad spirituality since the Tanya has stressed the proper path of Torah teaching that one should avoid sin or things that take one from the path. In Chassidic language. It is overcoming temptation (itcafya). However, here we have the other Hasidc option discussed more in other groups of transforming the spiritual energy of the deviation to a higher service (ithafcha). This is closer to an Izbitz of transforming sin into merit teaching than popular Chabad approach.

Nevertheless, this homily follows from the other homilies of Rebbe Menachem Mendel teaching there is a transcendental place, a higher connection, that can transcend ordinary approaches. In most places, the Rebbe calls this Kesser (keter), the point of pure devotion and giving of the will higher than medieval sefrotic hierarchies or specific mizvot. Here we have an ordinary day in which we can work and eat leavened bread that is paradoxically higher then Passover itself.

There is also speculation that the Rebbe’s Pesach sheni teachings are somehow also connected to the yahrzeit of Yisroel Are Leib, the Rebbes brother, who left the religious path.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach added these ideas to his repertoire of stories from Rebbe Riyatz on holy sinners, ordinary people, and deepest desires as a path to a high service. The Carlebach Torah for Pesach Sheni was already on the web back in the days of Web 1.0 and majordomo mailing lists letting the ideas diffuse widely.

By the new millennium these ideas had migrated into English Breslov, outreach literature, and web Torah, but as part of other homilies. It was turned into a day of second chances for convicts, addicts, abuse, sexual and gender alienation, divorce, second marriages, and GLBT identity.  It seems to have happened very quickly both here and in Israel.

Prison and Released Prisoners.

The first group to make use of these ideas was for Chabad organized conferences for prison chaplains. Prisoners and those families touched by cycles of incarceration needed a second chance.

But there is a deeper story here; once again a Chabad story.  Chabad under the Rebbe Riyatz and Rebbe Menchaem Mendel reached out in their outreach to prisoners, mentally and psychologically challenged in mental hospitals, the elderly and infirm, the substance addicted, the handicapped, soldiers, and the deeply assimilated.

I recently supervised as an outside reader an Israeli social work MA on the principles of inclusion of the Rebbe. Whereas, most Jewish communal work is focused on the core of those committed or bringing people into the core, Chabad as expressed in the Rebbe’s talks includes everyone. They can fill an empty synagogue space by going door to door and inviting the elderly and infirm, or bring people from a local institution or assimilated merchants. They can ask tattooed musicians or intermarried store keepers: “Are you Jewish?” Many say they want to learn from Chabad in doing outreach but then miss the point by doing outreach only to comfortable and well organized suburbanites. Then you are only doing marketing and not imitating Chabad who are doing inclusion. I am not saying that Chabad always has the knowledge and professional skills to handle the problems of these constituencies, but they include them.

Hence, one of the first groups to make much of this day were the Chabad groups engaged in outreach to prisoners.

It’s a most opportune day to change for the better, notes Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, the executive director of the northeast chapter of the Aleph Institute, an international organization that aims to help incarcerated Jews and their families, in addition to Jewish service men and women in the U.S. military.

The nonprofit entity will host its seventh annual Re-Entry Symposium, a training program for Jewish chaplains who serve people in prisons, hospitals or group homes. “The way forward is to teach” people who are incarcerated, emphasizes Vogel, “and give them the rehab they need to become productive citizens.”

“We all trip in our own ways, and we have to know that there is a second chance,” says the rabbi. “We can always repent. We can start off life anew. We can fix the errors that we have made.”

Here is where this blog post comes in. These concept of second chances and these activities of inclusion are mainstream in the 21th century among many Americans. When the Chabad chaplains were organizing, so too the Christian and non-affiliated groups have been organizing for the last decade. Most of you are probably unaware that in April 2017, the month of April was adopted in a bipartisan action as “Second Chance Month for those affected by Crime and Incarceration.” The United States has institutionalized April as a time of Second Chances and it coincides every year with Pesach Sheni

In 2017, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a resolution declaring April “Second Chance Month,” a time to focus on giving those who have committed a crime, done their time, and have been released back into the community a second chance to be productive and contributing citizens. The 65 million Americans with a criminal record experience limited access to jobs, education, housing, and other things necessary for a full and productive life.

Make your church a welcoming place for people affected by crime and incarceration with a message on redemption and a special prayer time for impacted families.

Someone even wrote a speech for President Trump on this theme of reintegration in society after incarceration.

During Second Chance Month, our Nation emphasizes the need to prevent crime on our streets, to respect the rule of law by prosecuting individuals who break the law, and to provide opportunities for people with criminal records to earn an honest second chance.  Affording those who have been held accountable for their crimes an opportunity to become contributing members of society is a critical element of criminal justice that can reduce our crime rates and prison populations, decrease burdens to the American taxpayer, and make America safer.

pesach sheni

Further Extensions to the Holocaust and to Acceptance of our defects.

As noted, this idea of a second chance moved to many directions. There are dozens of applications online, but I only want to note a few.

It has been extended as a way to understand how Holocaust survivors were given a second chance, helped by the proximity of Holocaust Remembrance day to Pesach Sheni. There are stories online connecting Pesach Sheni to the liberation of Buchenwald and the Passover eating of matza held that year on Pesach Sheni. “All Jews were invited by Rabbi [Herschel] Schacter to attend services and to eat Matza, since it was Pesach Sheini that day. The second Pesach, for Jews that couldn’t observe the holiday of Pesach at the proper date…The prisoners of Buchenwald never dreamt they would be given a second chance.

Here is one where the Holocaust theme become a model for accepts our defects and moving beyond things that hold us back.

The Gift of Second Chances 

Some apply the concept to their personal narratives as children of Holocaust survivors and their own having to learn compassion as second generation of survivors. “My parents’ lives were replete with second chances. My mother lost her entire family, yet she was able to pursue her life-long dream of becoming a physician. My father survived numerous dramatic encounters with death…”  Yet this author notes they became critical and perfectionist with their children.  “My parents survived on second chances, but they were unable to offer me (or my siblings) the same. Perfectionism ruled our home. Mistakes were not an option. Compliance was survival. Criticism was the language of lullabies; I was nursed on negativity.”

Today I have compassion. I know that my parents could not have done any differently. With their pain, they built the best lives they could. They endured unimaginable horrors. They lacked the gift of faith.

In their plea for a second chance to bring the Passover offering, our ancestors gave expression to our own inner truths: Just because we have inherited traits and adopted behaviors that do not serve us well, why should we miss out on the joys of life? We, too, want fullness and richness and serenity in our lives, true closeness in our relationships.

The same author then extends this framework of not  missing out on the joys in life to brader issues of Judaism and serving God with our imperfections.

The gifts of recovery stem from our connection with our Creator. Biblically, bringing offerings was about coming close to G‑d. In our days, we, too, bring our offerings as a way of coming close to G‑d. We present our defects of character. We offer our addictions, our passions, our habits. We beg G‑d to remove the obstacles to our spiritual, emotional, and physical well being.

Many recovery groups study Step Five this month. We admit to G‑d, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. This is Pesach Sheni/Second Chance work! In admitting our shortcomings in this manner, we have another opportunity to renew our relationship with G‑d. We can become acquainted with our true selves.

Pesach Sheni as a holiday for Feminism and LGBTQ inclusion

Pesach Sheni can represent the inclusion of women for example using the daughters of Tzelophechad as an example.  This Year JOFA is hold a women’s seder on Pesach Sheni as part of a message of inclusion. An example of an Orthodox feminist application is the following:

Nowadays Pesach Sheni is a symbolic date on our calendar, but we can imbue it with contemporary significance by lending it to the ongoing debate around the inclusion of women in rituals from which they have traditionally been exempt. The debate, comprised of numerous elements, both halakhic and hashkafic, would be richer if it included the sociological role of belonging that many of these rituals invoke.

It may well be that in strict halakhic terms a woman is exempt from a particular ritual, but as Pesach Sheini informs us, exemption often comes at a cost. In the case of women and ritual, the cost can be alienation and disconnection from the sacred community. The important question then is, can we afford to bear this cost?

An analogy between the celebration Pesach Sheni and the allowance of same sex marriage as an act of inclusion. Several online statements argue that this Torah portion tells us God instituted a new holiday to enable all people to be involved even if they were different.

They usually connect this inclusion to general diversity issues related to gender and sexuality, but also race, ethnicity, and class

Our Torah portion tells us God instituted a new holiday to enable all people to be involved even if they were different. Putting this notion into modern times makes it easy to believe God wants us to be able to marry if we choose to, since today, marriage can be perceived as analogous to Pesach observance for our ancestors many millennia ago: it demonstrates a kind of “fitting in” or adherence to “expectations” and we all deserve to be able to do this if we feel so inclined.

Second, all people, according to the Torah, are held to the same standards no matter when they celebrate Pesach. Similarly, no matter whether a marriage is same or opposite sex, God expects the same level of commitment, respect, etc. within the relationship; simply being different doesn’t mean we are held to a different-no matter whether it’s lower or higher standard than other people are.


American Popular Psychology Applications of Pesach Sheni

This topic of second chances is playing a bigger role in American culture. For example, there is a journalistic pop psych book “The God of Second Chances,” by Marcia Z. Nelson in which the author traveled the United States in search of people whose lives were transformed by religion.  She found people who returned to religion as a second chance after drugs, after tragic loss of family in premature deaths, after involvement in extreme political groups.

None of her stories told how everything has been wonderful since they found God, the struggles continue, even after divine presence has entered into their lives and transformed them. Rather the book showed that shows something that American organized religion tends not to see: “the extreme highs and lows that characterize the lives of many people, including people of faith.” And it showed the complex ebb and flow, the forward and backward movement of divine transformation. “Sometimes, there are permanent scars. The Jewish man, for example, lost his once-powerful voice to throat cancer – an experience he understood as God taking him by the throat and insisting, “Shut up. Stop talking. Start listening.” The important thing about second chances is that the past can and will influence your life forever. A person uses their struggles to fuel the second chance.

In a similar manner, there are human-interest stories from Jewish journalists about their second chances and their overcoming a sense of disconnection. Websites such as Aish can sanctify people getting their lives in order as part of the Torah concept of Pesach Sheni.

Pesach Sheni: The Holiday of Second Chances Karen Wolfers Rapaport

Disconnection is often a byproduct of unconscious living. When we let our conditioning be our compass so that our paths never change, neither will our landscape. Whether it’s in relation to ourselves or to others we will feel disconnected from the inroads that lead to our essential self.

But life gives us many second chances. And each time we choose to live consciously and move from judgment to compassion, apathy to care, idleness to activity, we begin to reconnect and travel towards home… Pesach Sheni, the Second Passover, thus represents the power of rerouting to our core, to our Divine connection.

American Society and Second Chances

Prof David Newman, a sociologist at DePauw University delivered a paper on “The Practice and Promise of Second Chances in American Culture” and will have a forthcoming book The Promise, Practice and Price of Second Chances in American Culture (Lexington Books), projected to be published in 2019 (Lexington Books). He shared his unpublished paper delivered at the ASA with me.

Newman notes that the news is filled with stories of high-profile people making serious mistakes, crimes, or acts of bad behavior, followed by apologies, then a period of non-visibility (in rehab, in prison, on the disabled list, under suspension, or simply in seclusion). The conclusion is inevitably the individual claiming to experience an epiphany about the misdirection of his or her former life and promises to be a better person from now on, allowing him or her to make a comeback.

But our American lives are filled with adults shifting the trajectory of their lives, divorces remarrying, or fortunate patients overcoming a life-threatening medical condition. According to Newman, “in every facet of our lives” including “intimate relationships, academic performance, occupational choices, financial well-being, run-ins with the law, spiritual happiness, physical health” Americans “expect and seek out opportunities to overcome past misfortune, fix past mistakes, amend past transgressions, or correct past failures.”  Newman notes that the concept of a second chance is a “quintessential cultural paradox,” which represents “individual hopes for redemption, while at the same time it reminds us of our harshest proscriptions and darkest suspicions about the intransigence of human nature.

We find the concept of a second chance “in some form, in societies around the world, it has an especially American appeal.” It combines “Judeo-Christian tradition’s allowance for sinners to repent or atone for their sins and be fully redeemed” with American “therapeutic ideology, providing a progressive, optimistic, curative setting for individual rehabilitation while simultaneously rebuffing the notion that people are inherently, permanently flawed.”

Newman counted over 2,000 listings in the Library of Congress “for novels with “Second Chance” or “Starting Over” in the title.” In addition, “second chance imagery is especially strong in our popular cinema.” We use the phrase second chance in diverse aspects of our life ,” there are second chance checking accounts, second chance credit cards, second chance auto loans, and second chance low-rent.”

In short, we want each phase of our lives to lead logically and progressively to the next… By connecting past transgressions or mistakes to future opportunities for a second chance, we allow our life stories to unfold in a comprehensible trajectory. We are thus able to create order out of a life that might appear on the surface to be muddled and aimless.

When you combine this sort of cultural ethos with the equally powerful western value of individual achievement and the drive for success, it is not surprising that a narrative has taken hold that rhetorically and pragmatically provides people who have somehow fallen short with opportunities to reboot and start over. The second chance serves as road repair—renovating the cracks, filling the potholes, and ultimately smoothing the route to future accomplishment and fulfillment.

As the therapeutic second chance industry has grown, it has become highly specialized. Yet Newman’s analysis of these agencies revealed that they are split roughly equally between those that exist to help people whose misbehaviors have gotten them into trouble, including ex-prisoners, former substance abusers, rebellious teens. And those that seek to help people who are victims of some unfortunate life turn that they couldnot control, including homeless people, transplant recipients, cancer survivors, domestic violence victims.

Newman notes with surprise “that a significant number of agencies… make no distinction at all between the various types of suffering that lead people to a point where they need a second chance… “Indeed some agencies pride themselves on the fact that they attempt to serve the needs of anyone who needs a second chance, no matter who or why.” The philosophic and theological concept of a  second chance takes precedence over the causes of that need. Hence, troubled teens, substance abuser or ex-criminals are treated together with cancer survivors, homeless, and violence victims.

Newman contrasts this new narrative with the concept of the permanent stigma narrative. One cannot have any do overs or second chances in this model. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression. This more traditional alternative stress that  “Once a ________, always a ________,” for Newman this model “resonates in this culture just as much as the redemption rhetoric.”

Contemporary Theology

These popular ideas of second chances and finding a means for inclusion of those who were excluded is also important in contemporary theology. There are dozens of books on the topic and American theological schools and seminaries offer courses on inclusion and second chances. Courses teach about offering hospitality to those in our population considered strangers and to enable students to use that moral framework in developing a pastoral response to contemporary issues of diversity and inclusion in church and society.

Persons with disabilities help theologians to rethink theological assumptions about God, humanity, and the church. They are also helping ministry practitioners to make worship more inclusive and hospitable to all people. For example, religion cannot only be for the smart, able, and wealthy.  The courses discuss diversity, race relations, homelessness, refugees, migrant workers, and persons with disabilities.

The goal of these courses is to teach that we are not our limitations and our limited bodies, or conversely we are our bodies and limitations. The community has to learn to be accepting without being patronizing, rather the fundamental anthopology has to be inclusive.

Here are some examples:

On Disability read Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God  and Amos Yong,  The Bible, Disability, and the  Church. Then discuss How do contemporary perspectives about disability change how we think of human nature? How does our view of disability affect pastoral care and welcome for those with disabilities?

When I read these theological works on physical disability, I wanted to blog about how that changes our views of Maimonides, of Soloveitchik, and of Modern Orthodoxy but never had the chance. If most of our conceptions of our prior conceptions Torah are intellectualist then where do the mentally challenged, the person with cerebral palsy, or the deaf fit in? Not the question of whether they can be called to the Torah for an aliyah but what is our religious anthrology?

On Gender read Sarah Coakley,  God, Sexuality, and the Self,  then discuss how do women’s voices change discussions of gender and sexuality? What is the relationship between theology and pastoral care in matters of gender

On Race, read M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom & J. Kameron Carter,  Race: A Theological Account. Then discuss: What is the theological significance of race?

Older classics from twenty years ago on these topics that won awards include:

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.; Bernard Adeney, Strange Virtues: Ethics in a Multicultural World. InterVarsity Press, 1995;Brett Webb-Mitchell, Unexpected Guests at God’s Banquet: Welcoming People with Disabilities into the Church. NY: Crossroad, 1994.


Traditional Sources on Pesach Sheni not related to Second Chances

Pesach Sheni is the Yom Hillula -Yahrzeit of the Tanna, Rabbi Meir “Baal HaNess” (“Master of the miracle”), on which the charity Kupath Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess Kolel Polen, founded in 1796 in Poland named after the tanna Rabbi Meir.  The charity was founded by Rabbi Abraham Kalisker, leader of the Hasidim in Tiberias. He secured the assistance of Rabbi Mordecai of Nieschiz, who issued a proclamation urging all Jews of Poland regardless of age, gender, or living conditions, to pay a fixed sum every week for the support of their countrymen who had settled in the Holy Land. The amount was to be paid quarterly, in addition to special donations at weddings, circumcisions, and other religious rejoicings.

In the Ra’aya Meheimna (The Faithful Shepherd) section of the Zohar, an early 1th century work that makes Moses the faithful shepherd, not Shimon bar Yochai as the hero and protagonist. In this reading the divine Matron descends to be seen in her full regalia for a full month which ends on Pesach Sheni. (It is like a darshan of Shakhti in Hinduism). This second passsover from the left handed side of gevurah from binah in which all human impurity is burned off in the fire of gevurah.

It is a commandment to make a second Pesach for those that were unable or were defiled by any other uncleanness. If the secret of Pesach, which is the secret of the faith in which Yisrael entered, dominates in the month of Nissan and then it is the time for rejoicing, how could those who were unable to prepare it on time, or were defiled, make up for it in the second month, seeing that its time had already passed?

Once the Congregation of Israel is adorned with its crowns in the month of Nissan, she does not remove these crowns and adornments from herself for thirty days. The Matron sits in her adornments all these thirty days, beginning with the day of the exodus of Israel since the Pesach lamb and all her legions are in a state of happiness. Whoever wishes to see the Matron may look.

A proclamation calls: Whoever did not get a chance to see the Matron should come and look before the gates are locked. When is this proclamation proclaimed? It is on the fourteenth day of the second month, since the gates remain open from then on for seven days following. Following that, they lock the gates. Therefore, this is the second Pesach.

The Shekhinah is the first Pesach from the right side, and the second Pesah from the left. The first Pesach is from the right where Hokhmah prevails. The second Pesach is in the left where Binah prevails. In Gevurah all foreign fires are removed, which are like straw and chaff in relation to the fire of Gevurah. The unclean are delayed until the second Pesach.

For an example of a non-hasidic homily, I offer Rav Gedalia Schorr who read Hasidut including Izbitz and Rav Zadok, yet treats the holiday as our chance to show our yeshivish effort and earned merit unlike Passover itself which was God’s hand.

Rav Gedalia Schorr in Ohr Gedalyahu explains that Pesach is a great gift from Hashem.  Normally for us to get something from Hashem we must make the first move towards Hashem and then he reciprocates by opening the floodgates.  You open up a miniscule opening for Hashem and Hashem will open a gigantic opening for you.  We didn’t make the slightest move towards Hashem in Egypt yet Hashem ignored that and came our rescue anyway.

Sefira is a time where after having received Hashem’s great chesed on Pesach we go back slowly and earn it day by day… When we demanded Pesach Sheini Hashem opened up the Heavens and graced us with this wonderful opportunity.  The whole point of this second Pesach was that the inspiration come from us below.

Finally, as I was writing this blog post a lecture appeared on YUTorah on Pesach Sheni given in Israel by an Ivy League law graduate and former law partner that was entirely about exclusion or the need to find a way to submit to the fixed system in order to be counted, the opposite of all these recent trends. The lecturer basic showed how without keeping Passover you are entirely excluded from the Jewish people and without believing in God’s miraculous hand in the Passover story, you are excluded and deserving of excision from the people (karet). If one is excluded, then one is outside the foundations of Torah and hence excluded regardless of the reason. Pesach Sheni is way to make sure you don’t miss the boat in submission in thought and action and find yourself excluded or cut off (karet).