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My meeting with Hocaefendi Fethullah Gülen

This week I was privileged to spend the night at the Pennsylvania compound of Fethullah Gülen, the Sufi influenced Turkish modernist. I had two sessions to ask him questions in front of his followers and was allowed to sit in on his evening meeting with followers as well as attend his two-hour class for his disciples in the morning. I am trying to formulate what people, especially my Jewish readers would want to know about the meeting, so these are first thoughts. I am writing up my observations with the eye of an observant Jewish and trying at points to explain Gulen’s ideas in Jewish terms.

Gulen is an Islamic modernist with a large following around the world and he founded the Hizmat movement whose motto is about service to others. This discussion will be limited to the religious and theological aspects. I will not be discussing the political elements of his life or dramatic events in other countries; I do not have first-hand knowledge of those. I will focus on his modern religion. If you want to compare this report to others then I recommend the reports of Prof. Mark Juergensmeyer, Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Prof Pim Valkenberg and a 2013 Atlantic Interview.


Part I – The Class

Visiting clergy-rabbis, priests, and ministers-usually only attend his evening public meeting with followers; few attend or report on his class. Therefore, I will start first with a discussion of his class. I will return to my discussions with him afterwards.

The setting is a modern style masjid on the 2nd floor inside a rustic Pennsylvania building. The room is tastefully modern, solid red and white clothes. The masjid has built- in cushioned seats around the perimeter of a room the size of half a ballroom. The central floor is open for prayer. There are nine mini cupola with modern Turkish floral patterns.

Gulen is called by his students Hocaefendi (Master Teacher), an honorary title of respect. Hocaefendi sits on one of the cushioned chairs on the perimeter. He is surrounded by about 35 disciples sitting on the floor who are spending 3-11 years studying in his compound while doing graduate degrees elsewhere, often in interfaith. (One at Seton Hall, several at Hartford Seminary, Niagara University, University of Scranton, and Moravian College.

All the disciples have small tabletop book lecterns (shtenders) on the floor, which open up in a V shape., a few have larger lecterns that require them to sit in a chair, and three of the students have laptops which they are using to search online databases for hadith and other sources that allude the rest of the group. Except for sitting on the floor, it seems like a higher Talmud shiur in its group dynamics. Gulen leans back on the cushions absorbed in listening to the person reading the designated text. He comments as needed, goes off into explanation based on talks he has given in the past, and answers questions.

Around the perimeter sits the older members of the compound, scholars, authors, and managers, as well as about 25 guests, members of the movement, mainly businessmen, who are visiting with their families to connect to their religious teacher. I sit on the perimeter with a mathematician who translates for me the Turkish discussion. Throughout, Gulen is relaxed and everyone knows his role. Much of it is public discussion like a Jewish Rosh Yeshiva sitting at a table with students. Those listening talk in his presence, but at no point did he need tell them to quiet down. People could explain things to me without whispering.

Similar to a Christian clergy person visiting an advanced Talmudic shiur, my attendance at this class is as an outside observer, more attune to generalities, atmosphere, and sensibility than to the finer points of the discussion.

The class consists of three parts, Sufism, Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), and a variable third part which today was Al-Ghazzali’s section on humility and arrogance from the Ihye Ulam al-Din. The texts were projected onto a screen for the guests to follow along. The students all had copies of the book

The first third was a selection from Said Nursi (1876-1960) was a Kurdish Islamic modernist who founded the nondenominational Nur Movement (Nurҫuluk), which advocated for a reinterpretation of Islam according to the needs of a modern society, an attempt to reconcile Islam with constitutionalism. He believed that change would only come through the cultivation of a new mindset.

In 1907 he began advocating for the creation of an academic curriculum integrating religious and secular sciences, with modern pedagogy. Nursi accepted many Sufi ideas and integrated Sufi books but did not advocate a new Sufi order or the need to be on a Sufi path. The Gülen Movement of Fethüllah Gülen emerged from this background.

The text read from Nursi dealt with not treating the Quran literally, one should know that examples are used to illustrate points and in other places they are only allegories or parabolic knowledge. Nursi is rejecting the Salafi literalists in principle and adding also a certain amount of Sufi spiritualization.

The next passage from Nursi that we read in class, discussed the principle of Islamic fiqh called “the people who came before us” (shar’u man qablana). According to this principle the laws of previous heavenly religions are also Islamic as long as they do not contradict with the essence and essentials of Islam. The text also discussed the Sunnah based on material from Judaism and Christianity, the Isra’illiyat material. Some people who were previously Jewish or Christian embraced Islam brought with them their previous concepts and beliefs, which in turn, also entered Islam and Muslim teachings. However, some of this previous information should be considered wrong and thus irreconcilable with the essentials of Islam. But the material which does not contradict Islam can be integrated into Islamic teachings. Many strict interpretations in other Islamic schools reject entirely the Jewish material as unreliable Sunnah, Nursi said to accept them. They are reliable as religious truth as long as they do not contradict the truths of Islam. Gulen did not discuss this because I was there, rather it just fell out in the material they were covering.

The second text was from a Turkish primer of Fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence with Sufi influence. Here too it bore a more modernist and more liberal orthodox style in its interpretation of Islamic law. The work presented the fact that there were many interpretations of Islamic law. One needs to go back to the Sunnah and figure out the appropriate interpretation. Rather than rely on the stringent later interpretations, one goes back to the original texts. It also rejected authoritarian reading. On the other hand, the fiqh book rejected the historical research of Ignác Goldziher (1850 -1921) who rejected the reliability of the Sunnah.

In his interpretation of this fiqh text, Gulen repeated stressed that the actions of Muhammad are more than his words. Mohammed was man of action and law is about the proper action (not unlike Gulen himself.) Gulen said that some of Mohammed’s decisions were made based on prior practice, [Jewish & Christian] and it is to be relied upon. His prophetic teachings parallels with the previous religions.

In addition, oral tradition in Judaism affected Hadith tradition in Islam. Gulen also said the uniqueness of Hadith tradition lies on its strong chains of tradition and methodology

The third text was Al Ghazzali’s Ihya Ulum Al-Din the section on arrogance. Here it was part moralism and part Sufism of not boasting, serving others, and to be humble. Preachers have to prepare and practice their sermons and not be so arrogant to just speak without preparing. Preachers much be concerned with people not self-glory. On this Gulen went off in a flourish of saying many of those out there today are arrogant and interested in self-glory. I tried asking to those sitting next to me, which preachers does he like, but did not get a response. Afterwards, I was told that Gulen mostly refers to the preachers under the influence of politicians. Such preachers talk according to the will of politicians rather that the will of God. Gulen has refers to them many times.

When Ghazzali wrote of not being proud of one’s spiritual level, one of the disciples in the room asked: What if someone cannot reach God or spiritual levels but is devoted in action, is that good? Gulen answered that it is better. Once again, he shows his interest in action as typified by the name of his movement Hizmat – service. I am told that it is likely that when they finish Ghazzali on arrogance, this third section of the lecture will be replaced with Ibn al-Arabi to compare.

Chief Rabbi of Israel Eliyahu Bakshi Doron, left, gives a vase as gift to Islamic spiritual leader Fethullah Gulen, right, during his visit to Istanbul on Feb. 25, 1998. (AP Photo/Murad Sezer)

Part II The Visit and Reception

Let me now return to the beginning of the story. I arrived at Gulen’s compound in the woods. After a brief tour of the grounds and my insisting that I do not need to be taken to my room in the guesthouse to unpack, I am taken to the masjid inside on the second floor of a four level building. Visitors and disciples fill the perimeter of the room reciting Quran as part of the pre-dusk prayer preparations. After ten minutes, they stop reciting and everyone faces Gulen, who is sitting in a chair in the back of the room directly opposite where he sits when giving class. Since I know the time of sunset for Jewish prayer, I knew it was not Muslim prayer time yet.

I see Gulen had a receiving line in front of him and he is giving out Turkish candy bars to all the children visiting with their families. He gives them a smile and a nod of a blessing. Similar to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. A few adults are also given candy.

I am ushered in to sit parallel to Gulen. I expected to meet him in his study later in the evening as described in several other accounts of clergy meeting him. Instead, I am meeting him in the masjid before the full attendance. There is a microphone and this quickly takes on protocol that is more formal. I am formally introduced to him, even though I have already been vetted. It is announced who I am, my biography as rabbi, professor, and author is recited. Everyone moves to sit in a semi-circle around Gulan and myself. I present him with copies of my books on interfaith, which I had wrapped together in a thick bright ribbon as a gift. He tells the translator, who is one of my graduate students, that he will place them in his personal library. Later that evening, I do see them in his personal study with several other books he received as gifts.

Gulen receives visiting clergy every week, so the question and answer session is someone stylized because I have already read what he answered to others and he expected my first round of questions. I ask him about creating stronger relations with the Jewish community. He has a ready mini talk that he has obviously given before. Nevertheless, it is good that he rehearses it and that the assembled audience hears it. The response touched on the Ottoman Empire accepting the Spanish exiles, historic ups and downs of Jewish-Muslim relation, he acknowledges the Holocaust, he mentions that he has met chief rabbis of Israel, of Turkey and various Jewish organizations, and regrets the unfortunate role that contemporary politics and political sides are playing in today’s relationship.

He concludes with a refrain that he used to answer many question for the two days I was there, “it is going to take time.” Whenever he was asked about creating proper Muslim schools, or committed Muslims in the US, or full cultural dialogue, he answered it will take time or he answered give it 2-3 generations.

How to improve Jewish-Muslim relations? His answer: it will take time; the same way Jewish –Christian dialogue took time.

When asked a follow-up question about greater knowledge of Judaism for his followers, he answered that there is an American Imam of Turkish background, who has been involved in Jewish-Muslim encounter and visiting Israeli Jewish institutions, who has spoken to his followers. I get a sense that this has not been done recently or often.

Now that the formal questions about the Jewish community are done, I get to the questions that let me understand his current goals. He has always wanted to engage the modern world by accepting democracy, science, Western knowledge, and cultural diversity. He wants a modernist Islam. But his method has changed from before.

In order to accomplish this for this decade, he currently sends his disciples to study interfaith for their master’s degree. Afterwards they can study psychology, social work, or a doctorate in Islamic studies. In a similar manner, in the era of 1950’s -1960’s modern Orthodoxy, there was a modernist ideal of a doctorate in philosophy, or English or history. In addition, for the Conservative movement and all three Germany Jewish seminaries, there was an ideal of academic study of Judaism to be modern. For the current disciples of Gulen the ideal is a degree in interfaith studies.

Hence, I asked Gulen: What does he want his disciples to learn in these programs? How does he want them to use the interfaith knowledge? As their teacher, what does he want them to gain from my classes? He answered that they should figure it out for themselves.

This emphasis on self-knowledge and autonomy in decision-making comes from his Sufi influences, from Said Nusri, and from various shards of Kant and Existentialism that he has picked up. But, for me this question shows his true beliefs about Judaism and Christianity. In many ways more important than directly asking him about Judaism.

There are still skeptics out there who question Gulen’s sincerity in interfaith. Maybe he is just being political and apologetic. Maybe it is just symbolic. However, if you take your best and brightest and tell them to study interfaith, the way modern Orthodox once wanted philosophic study, then you actually see a value in the synthesis. When he says that his disciples will figure things out for themselves, he is basically letting rabbis, priests, and reverends, influence how his students see the world. The interfaith is not for show but an act of modernism. On the interfaith, he is leaving it to the students to develop new theologies of other religions. Hence, I will influence those at Seton Hall and others will influence those at Hartford Seminary.

This answer of his is also the best answer to those enemies of his who dredge up his attacks of Judaism and Christianity from his former days as a preacher in Eastern Turkey. Before he immigrated to the US, Gulen spent years as a preacher in rural Eastern Turkey. When one reads those sermons, they are only mildly modern. Yes, science, democracy, the West, and interfaith are good, but these modern things are not too good and they have many bad sides. After immigrating, he became much more liberal. Some of Gulen’s entourage was expecting me ask about these early writings, and preemptively told me how much he changed.

But with my knowledge of the Jewish community and the Enlightenment, his trajectory made sense. Back in Turkey, he was rejecting Salafi influence that said men and women couldn’t be in the same room or the same car. His leniency in the old country, similar to a modern Haredi, was to allow men and women to talk to each other from separate couches. Now he allows his disciples to attend co-ed colleges. In Turkey, he had little knowledge of Jews and Christians outside of traditional texts. Then he started doing interfaith and made it an ideal for his students, as a way of opening up minds.

When he said that his disciples would figure out, it means he sincerely wants them to be open to possibilities. He is not concerned with his earlier pre-immigration views. These disciples will be the ones to determine what the future direction of the movement holds.

When I ask, what should I tell the Jewish community about my visit? He answers: “you are smart- you will figure it out.” This is a standard answer of his to many question.

When asked later in the evening about how to bring religion to his community and create a modern but religious Islam, he also answered, “It will take several generations.” At this point, he is looking to the future, behind his lifetime.

The repeated themes in his answers are (1) It will take generations, (2)Decide for yourself (3) There is wisdom from other sources outside Islam and (4) that there should be dialogue between cultures and religions, dialogue meaning personal friendships and contacts.

We broke for late supper, a light meal of fruits, yogurt and vegetables. (I had my own food in my bag in case this was a meat meal.) I had a chance to sit with the visitors and hear their stories of immigration to the US, their building their businesses, and their relations with local Jewish communities.

After dinner, Gulen has a daily 45-minute audience with his followers in his more intimate study, a room the size of a living room. I had originally expected to be introduced to him here and to converse with him here, as most visitors had.

He is, however, running late, so I am ushered into a nearby anteroom, the study of his personal physician and lifelong assistant. Here are a half dozen scholars and authors sitting on the couches waiting for the evening to start. We were there for about 20 minutes, in which time they passed around dates, water, and the obligatory Turkish perfume for men, a vestige of Ottoman culture.

During this time, one of those in the room, a sociologist involved with the movement who documents its activities, preemptively gave answers to the usual criticisms of Gulen. I already knew these answers from the web. Why does he edit his earlier book and remove whole pages? Answer: He changed his views and became more liberal when he got to America. He was speaking to backwards provincial Eastern Turkey in these earlier sermons. What about his nasty statements about Jews and Christians, why do we remove them? Answer: he did not know better then. He was coming out of a conservative and reactionary community where even saying that Western culture has merits was questioned.

One of the people in the room receives a text message that Gulen is ready and we walk down the hall to a rectangular living room with bookshelves lining the wall on both ends. He chair with side table is at one end and a big screen video is at the other. To my embarrassment, Gulen insisted that I sit in his own chair. I tried to decline saying that he needs the back support in the chair and footrest, but he persisted, so there I was in his seat before 40 of followers.

I asked him questions for about another 15 minutes, some of them related to before but with greater consultation with my graduate student who is one of his disciples, who was sitting at my feet. (Yeah, I know, the hierarchical sitting arrangements are foreign to Americans. I got more accustomed to them in India where I was treated as a Brahmin Professor).

Since the graduate student had taken my course on theology of other religions, and he himself could not place Gulen into the theological categories. We asked him: is he is an inclusivist, universalist, or pluralist. The student explaining the fuller categories in Turkish. Gulen answered that it is about meeting people on a personal level, not worked out theology.

I asked him about maintaining religion amidst the distractions of the long hours of having a well-paying career in the US, combined with distractions of popular culture, the internet, and university life. For this one, I spoke directly to the assembled, and received many knowing nods and smiles from them. Gulen quickly replied that many Christian leaders ask him this same question. Despite this, Gulen’s answer returned to an earlier era of traditionalism as opposed to modernity. He said technology, education are good, if you use them for a good purpose. Just make sure not to be fundamentalist or secular. You will figure it out.

After a bit of back and forth on these themes, I tell him that I am done with my questions. I move out of his chair to a chair next his special chair. I expected him to return to his own seat but he did not. At this point, he give me as a gift a pair of plush Ascot slippers to wear in the building. Islamic law allows slippers in cases where one must take off one’s shoes.

To continue the evening, a video is shown of a Turkish singer lamenting the strain of life as a sacrifice, just like Abraham and asking for God’s forgiveness.

Gulan gives musar (Ethical reproach in Judaism) for the next quarter hour on the need to overcome life’s struggles and sacrifices. All the Quranic figures of Abraham and Moses had to struggle. They also all had to migrate to new countries. Yet, look how much they accomplished. The migration and sacrifice was part of God’s plan. We need forgiveness, which God’s mercy and patient endurance in our lives, and in imitation of God so too you show others tolerance, forgiveness and serve them with action. Much of this talk on suffering, sacrifice, and surviving hardships and migration had a Shver tsu zayn a yid sound to it, but here is was the difficulties of being part of the Hizmat movement. The talk left those assembled with a charge and a mission to serve others as part of the hizmat movement.

Gulen opens the floor for questions and is asked by the visiting businessmen a few basic questions about the meaning of various Quranic stories. The session ends with one of his assistants, reading off from his phone the many difficulties and difficult triumphs of the Hizmet movement around the world. Finally, a closing exhortation to serve others.

A legal points of interest to Jewish readers. I asked my graduate student why could I wear slippers in the masjid, are they not shoes? Do they have a criteria for what is a shoe? I was told that the criteria is whether it is leather or not. The law comes from the Isra’iliyyat material of the Jewish law of shoes, which many consider as not binding.. I was told there are now leniencies to wear running shoes or deck shoes if not made of leather. But out of custom and tradition, everyone still takes off their shoes no matter what they are made out of. However, a learned scholar knows otherwise. Slippers are fine because they are designed never to wear outside. They are only indoor shoes, hence not considered shoes.

Part III  Islam

As stated above, Gulen is called by his students Hocaefendi (Master Teacher), an honorary title of respect.  Gulen has no tariqa, no Sufi order, and he does want to be one a murshid, a leader or a Sufi leader. The movement was formed during the decades when the Turkish government banned all formal tariqa. Therefore, his movement functioned as a Romantic modern appropriation, a Neo-Sufism. It has no zhikr, no initiations, and no dance.

Our goal is to communicate what You have taught us to those whose hearts are sick as our hearts are, and whose minds are barren…. We have made mistakes, but we have made them while seeking You and trying to guide others… O Ruler of my heart. To the Ruler belongs the Royal manner that befits Him…If You forgive us, we should wish to study the book of Your universe anew so as to pay attention to the voices that tell of You. We should wish to witness the signs of Your Existence, and to be enraptured by the songs about You, so that we may reach Your holy realm. By your Graciousness, assist those in need! (Gulen)

They do tell stories of the devotion in times of old and have art work of dancing Sufis in their living rooms. They are like Heschel, or Samuel Dresner (Heschel’s early student) or the psychologist Abraham Twerski or even the Lubavitch Rebbe’s Essence of Chassidus. It is a Neo-Sufism about ethical musar, helping others, showing devotion, and working on community. The message of the Hizmat society consists of “All is based on love” so serve people. Gulen is called by his followers a Rumi for a Neo-Sufi modern age. “Love is one of the most subtle blessings that the All Merciful One has bestowed upon humanity. It exists in everyone like a seed.”

Fethullah Gulen is a liberal Hanafi imam when it comes to law, (think of Rav Uziel or Rav Nissim- a study of the relationship of Jewish pesak and Islamic modernism is a desideratum). In one of his books he has a chapter on the many early 20th century Islamic modernists who influenced him including Muhammed Hamdi Yazır, Ferit Kam, Babanzade Ahmed Naim and Ahmad Hilmi of Filibe. (This is a diverse list akin to a Jewish list that included C. N. Bialek and Rabbis Hayyim Hirschenson, Solomon Schechter, Shmuel Hayyim Landau, and Bernard Revel.) Here is an Oxford MA thesis on his Modernism. 

The movement still relies heavily on ethnic immigrant identity – it is “tradition” like American Jewry circa 1930 – rather than educating them to higher levels of knowledge. They will use a few basic legal guidebooks and not worry about the details.

Members of the movement chose to keep daily worship or not. Hizmet does not intervene with personal matters. Gulen himself encourages people to pray prescribed prayers in Masjid or eat halal foods whenever possible. However, Hizmet does not reject those who do not do pray or not eat halal foods. Those are personal matters and in Gulen’s philosophy worship is expression of the relationship “between man and Allah” nobody can enter between them. The movement has those who in Jewish terms would be Modern Orthodox, it has those who would be old –time Conservative, and those who are not that observant but the observance they do not keep is traditional.   Hocaefendi’s position is that he does not judge people on their devotions. He accepts everybody regardless of their level.

Are they like the Conservative movement of the 1940’s – traditionalists following accepted practices of the people? Are they a romantic modernism as their base a universal reading of Sufism as tolerance, love, and intercultural understanding? Are they Modern Orthodox for their insistence on women covering their hair and everyone only eating OU kosher as their halal– both inside and outside the home? The range of practice varies from those who will not trust airline food as being Halal to others who will eat everything out. Are they like the former European Orthodox community kehillot of Einheits gemeinde- communautés consistoriales?

The movement produces a modernized Islam that keeps the commandments but has little to do with the vast corpus of Islamic works as studied in a traditional madrassa. For the laity, the only Islamic teaching that they study are the writings of Fethelulah Gulen, who defines Islam as love, tolerance, interfaith and cultural dialogue, science, and caring for others.

They are lenient in the practical keeping of Islamic law in many aspects. For example, if you are busy with work and school, then you do not need to pray in a masjid. College students are exempt during their busy school years and it is sufficient if they pray privately. Men will shake women’s hands in a business context.

The role of women in the movement will hit them hard in the next half century. Currently, women are excluded from the classes and the evening audiences with Gulen. At the retreat center, the women eat first and then the men to avoid comingling. Surprisingly, or not, one of the few items of Islamic law they are strict about is women covering their hair. I was told “most women in the movement have conservative background thus even before embracing the movement they used to cover their heads. There are other women in the movement who stay unhijabbed as they were before any affiliation to the movement.” However, I did not see any women in the movement without a hijab either in Pennsylvania or Turkey. There is no standard code of women’s clothing. However, Gulen stresses in his sermons modesty in women’s clothing.

My colleague  Prof. Pim Valkenberg, who wrote a book on the Hizmat movement, had a different experiences than mine.  He has have met women in the Hizmet movement who did not wear a veil, both in Turkey and in Washington D.C. and even though they are a minority he never got the impression that they were seen as maybe less good examples. I have seen quite a few examples of veiled and non-veiled women working together. Gülen has been quoted to say that the veil is a personal matter and it does not make one a good Muslimina.

The masjid has a separate women’s gallery, what Jews would call a mechitza, with a thickly woven wooden lattice allowing women to peak through the lattices like in Hasidic Synagogues. There was also a second floor balcony women’s section with one way glass, the men only saw a mirror. This is a strict interpretation of Islamic law on the need for a separation. In some of their schools, men and women are separated, but there is no physical division.

When Gulan gave his morning lecture, there was one women with her teenage daughter in the women’s section. I sat right in front of them on the other side of the partition. Whatever the mother expected in woman’s learning, what would the daughter want for herself and her daughters in the future? Will it be enough to be allowed to quietly sit in the back of a men’s class?

The events the Hizmat organization holds for outsiders- the non-Muslims who attend Hizmat events- the diners, public forums, and trips are co-ed. They have a distinction between insiders and outsiders.

The movement is lay driven and always regionally organized. They have set up summer camps, afterschool programs, and gap year programs for their members to instill Islam in their children. Each regional center is independent and makes its own material or independently decides what to use.

Gulen is official the mujahid (posek, rabbi) of the community but that is more as honorary title of respect than reality. Therefore, what do they do for having a mujahid in each community. I emailed someone this question and he answered ” throughout the communities in different places the decisions are taken on the basis of consultation( shurah). An example would be the boards members of the cultural or dialogue centers. Thus when new issues arise they are discussed by the members of the communities” They do it by committee as a ritual committee.

In this, they seem more 1930’s Jewish immigrant community than a modern denomination. These members on the committees do not have advanced training but they have done some studying like the reverends, shamashim, and old-timers who acted as rabbis in Jewish immigrant communities. I assume that at most, they have a year of training or they went to an Islamic High School.

Gulen himself writes about consultation “There may not be always unanimity (ijma’) in consultation. However, in a case where there is no general concurrence or consensus of opinion and decision amongst those present, the decision is taken and people act according to the opinion and conviction of the majority.”

Already in 20th century secular Turkey, the traditional madrassas were abolished as part of “Atatürk’s reforms”. Instead they created an alternative, the İmam Hatip school is a secondary education institution to train government employed imams. A similar process went on in soviet central Asia. They taught skills of running a mosque and basic Arabic and laws, but without the legal structure and traditionalism Islam was from textbooks. (There were similar such schools created by the Russian Tsar and the Austro-Hungarian Empire for Jews, a way to create government employed rabbis without rabbinic authority.) Gulen schools that taught Islam in Turkey, before the recent political events, followed this model.
The textbook on fiqh that Gulen taught when I visited was a book produced by a professor for these schools. It is like studying Menachem Alon’s Mishpat Ivri along with Mamonides’ Mishneh Torah in lieu of a traditional beit midrash. (As side points of which I do not have first-hand knowledge, Erdogan has allowed more right wing instructors into these school in Turkey. )

Right now they don’t turn outside the community, so in the future they may turn outside for legal guidance or some of their disciples will find themselves the premature gedolim of the community. What will be their religion when the ethnic identity wears off and they have to form their own American Islam?

Most of those in the US in 2018 chose the Hizmat movement as their path over secularism or more fundamentalist versions of Islam. They are successful in the broader Ottoman countries of the Balkans and Cental Asia. Now, as they set up centers all over the US and beyond, they will be the Islam in town for many others, the place to go for festivals, Islamic after school and camps for the kids, and for Islamic single sex dorm houses on college campuses.

Similar to Chabad, the very message is to go out and serve other, build institutions, build connections with people. They are both trans-national religions of the age of globalization taking over by showing up. They currently have 2 million students in 1000 schools in 40 countries including Japan, Australia, Germany, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia. (Salafi dawah is more about building Mosques and staffing them with Salafi preachers and Salafi books). The majority of their current publishing is, after Turkish, in English followed by German as their second language along with thirty other languages including Spanish, Urdu, Chinese, Indonesian, Polish, Thai, and Bosnian. Right now, they are mainly publishing in English and German. The next generation will definitely switch to vernaculars from Turkish

If one advocates the combining of secular studies and Islam, then what are the parameters? If the goal is to combine democracy with Islam and tolerance and Islam, then what does one do with prior texts, especially those that take a harder line? If the goal is to combine interfaith and Islam, then where are the lines?

If a college student who grew up in the Hizmat movement looks to get guidance on these question and finds it lacking, he will look to authors such as the very liberal Sunnism of UCLA Prof, Khaled M. Abou el Fadl or Emory Prof. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, who advocates a secular state for Islam. Alternately, they could like the answers of a variety of feminist or progressive Muslims. I am sure others will say we cannot go any further than Gulen did and reject change.

Since each disciple is given independence and each center is both independent and lay driven, this will naturally create greater diversity and multiple approaches in the future. It will also cause some to look for new leadership.

Disciples can question his ideas among themselves but do not do it to him. They can easily say to me, that they follow something else or don’t agree with his reading. The class had questions addressed to him but not a questioning of him. Those were left as comments among themselves. They wanted Gulen’s wisdom of how to apply this text in terms of service and modernity. They were not really looking for lamdanut or peshat (analysis or close reading) but his religious views. (No one questioned the Lubavitcher Rebbe or Rav Shlomo Carlebach about their quotes from Maimonides, it was not the purpose of the talk, which was charismatic).

He is telling them to rely on his charismatic message and to refer to his writings. They are publishing his writings and distributing them. There is no heir and no succession plan. Each community is led by its own lay board. As of now, they do not have standardized textbooks or uniform classes for summer camps and after-school programs. But his writings embrace a charge of educating the youth without a clear direction of implementation into the complexity of democracy, human rights, science, education, or interfaith. They are only now beginning to discover the lack of depth, but Gulen encourages them to be their own people and that they can differ with him

As I noted eight years ago in my blog discussions with various members of the movement. I talk to a 21-year-old economic major who describes how the movement took Islam from the folkways and tradition in his small town and made it into a religion. Now the religion of Islam that he follows is by conscious choice and he sees that it can be treated as Turkish-Islamic culture. This would sound like a religion of self-conscious Orthodoxy, the Jacob Katz thesis on Orthodoxy. Their own newspaper quoted anthropologist Ruth Benedict that “Our faith in the present dies out long before our faith in the future.” They are a transition that is still taking place in which the plausibility structure of the past has died and the Gulen movement offers the potential of a future plausibility structure that works.

Another vignette: I am speaking to an 18-year-old recent graduate of the Gulen boarding prep school in CT. He explains to me how Islam was not part of the curriculum but they have prayer and chaplains. He tells me that he is going to study Political Science and pre-law in a major Midwestern mega-university. What will his Islam be without any book knowledge?

A third vignette: I am speaking to a 50-year-old organizer in one of the centers. Someone shows him a keychain and asks: what is written on it? He says he thinks the first Surah of the Koran but that he cannot translate it and would need to look up its meaning. Since the first Surah is known to every school child who learns Koran-and even to any Jewish studies teacher who has ever taught the second Surah because of its Judaic sources- what do I make of his lack of knowledge of the Koran? it is not hard to remember.

In general, they say to trust one’s own heart in religion. Don’t be a hypocrite and try to be sincere in your practice. They have created an Islam of knowledge of the basic rules and Mosque etiquette but no real learning of Islamic sources. They say to trust the heart for matters of interpretation. Imams, kadis, and scary sources of authority do not play a role in their thinking.

How can I evaluate if the next generation will return to sources of authority and which ones they will choose? Strict ones, progressive ones, Sufi ones, legalistic ones. When asked about restrictive fatwas, salafi interpretation or about Islamic reformers, they tend to shrug it off and say: Don’t question others or engage in polemics- love all – don’t fight with the right or the left.

What happens when the kids open the books of these other trend? Is this a viable long term movement. Will the second and third generation either follow Hanson’s law and move towards Islamist  or Fundamentalism or completely assimilate, or a majority becoming something like a liberal progressive Islam once they are financially established. What does our experience as American Jews (or American Catholics) show?

Interview with Batsheva Goldman-Ida-Hasidic Art & the Kabbalah

The presentation of history using objects is currently the trend in many books and exhibits. There are books on the history of a given topic in 8, 10, or 50 objects. For example, I recently saw an exhibit on the history of Frankfort am Main with 100 objects.

Scholars in religious studies are also turning to material culture, where they apply anthropology, art history, performance studies, and aesthetics in the investigation of belief in everyday practices. They look at the images, objects and spaces of religious devotion and the sensations and feelings that are the medium of experience. The new questions include those of embodiment, sensation, space, and performance. Here is a podcast on the topic of material religion.

In a new book, Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah (2018) by Batsheva Goldman-Ida, she connects material culture and Hasidism, the textual world of Kabbalah meets the art exhibit. In several ways, this is the best book I have seen on Hasidism in many years. This may seem like hyperbole but for teaching and understanding the movement, the new book Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah gives a new angle of access to Eastern European life.

Batsheva Goldman-Ida, Ph.D. (2008), The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is Curator of Special Projects at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and specializes in visual culture, especially in the early modern period. Born in Boston, MA, she studied Decorative Arts in New York at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum and Parsons School of Design, then studied Jewish thought at Hebrew University.

hasidic art

In the past, Jewish ceremonial art was treated as decorative and functional. This book, in contrast, explicitly investigates the symbolism and theological meanings of the objects. It is as if we merged the studies of Moshe Idel with art history. Hasidic Art and the Kabbalah presents eight case studies, almost as exhibits, of manuscripts, ritual objects and folk art developed by Hasidic masters in the mid-eighteenth to late nineteenth centuries. Goldman-Ida investigates the sources for the items in the Zohar, German Pietism, Safed Kabbalah and Hasidism. She shows Kabbalah embodied in material culture, not just as abstract ideas.  In addition, we are treated to discussions of magical theory from James Fraser and on the subjective experience of the user at the moment of ritual using the theories of Wolfgang Iser, Gaston Bachelard, and Walter Benjamin.”

Goldman-Ida  also curated a recent exhibit and catalog Alchemy of Words: Abraham Abulafia, Dada, Lettrism (Tel Aviv Museum of Art 2016), which juxtaposes the medieval mystic with early modern innovators of linguistic mysticism as well as contemporary performance artists.

The book shows that the concern with liturgical objects as used in the life of the Hasidic court was built into the theology and fabric of Hasidism. The concern with special garments, crafted ritual objects, and folk arts were part and parcel of the movement. So too, the 19th century movement focused on objects blessed by the Rebbe or used by him, which then had magical powers. There was no pristine point where the movement was not involved in how one dressed, how one performed a ritual, or how one prayed. All of this concern for objects was part of a Hasidic imagination of divine immanence. Tobacco pipes, drinking cups, and synagogue art were all infused with a quest to serve God through physical objects, what we would now call material culture.

Everyone acknowledges that foods such as borsht, pirogies, stuffed cabbage and pączki were Eastern European foods, eaten by Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants alike. About foods there is little debate, except for the occasional squabble in historical cookbooks about who contributed the food item to the region. But when discussing Jewish liturgical material culture-such as Purim groggers, wimples, or havdalah sets with Polish eagles – there is a deep reluctance to admit that one can learn the most about the history of these items by studying the non-Jewish folk arts of the region. For a good example of contextualizing a Jewish object, see the award winning essay by David Zvi Kalman, The Strange and Violent History of the Ordinary Grogger.

Batsheva Goldman-Ida’s book shows how the Hasidic movement used the material culture, the arts, the crafts and craftsmen’s of the wider culture. They took the designs of Germany, Austria, Poland, and Russian and made them their own. It was never a mystery to Jews of the era that these crafts were also done by the non-Jews surrounding them. Hasidim were embedded in their broader culture as much as acculturated Italian or British Jews. Hasidic arts were embedded in the world around them

However, Hasidism made the arts their own. They connected the objects to Kabbalistic and Hasidic thought, or broader Jewish ritual themes, or to a special status of the Rebbe.  Silver tableware used by German non-Jews or by wealthy German court Jews became symbolic seder plates or kiddish cups. Sometimes the difference for the Jewish version was in method, such as the woven silver brocade made on a special loom and not by hand.

There is an old Yiddish phrase, translated as “know your poritz,”- know the Polish noble (Polish pan or Hebrew- Yiddish poritz) for whom you work because your relationship with him determines your life and livelihood.  In the arts, this book also shows that they knew the arts of the non-Jewish superior, in that, Hasidic art used models from the wealthy nobility and life of the princely court, not the church or its chalices or church liturgical objects. The Hasidic court was to be like the royal court, showing kingship and royalty, especially in the court of Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin and his descendants. The book left me with the question of: why further East did they turn to Russian folk arts? The book also shows that some of the same arts were shared with Non-Hasidic Jews, for example in Prague.

Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art curated a costume exhibit of Catholic inspired clothing. On the walls, the curation cited the 2000 book by sociologist Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Imagination. Greely defined this imagination as referring to the Catholic viewpoint that God is present in the whole of creation and within human beings whereby material things and human beings are channels and sources of God’s grace. God is present in the world discloses Himself in and through creation. According to Greely, the Protestants on the other hand, assume a God who is radically absent from the world. Which is Judaism? Batsheva Goldman- Ida clearly shows that the Hasidic imagination finds God manifest in material objects as part of serving God through corporeality and that no place is devoid of God.

I would be delighted to have similar books combining kabbalah and the arts for the Jews in Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, or  especially Morocco. Three years ago, I interviewed Marc Michael Epstein about his book Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Michael Epstein (along with many contributors), where he also weaves together Jewish thought with Jewish art.

The book is a 450 page gold mine of the Hasidic theological imagination expressed in material culture. This wonderful book reads like a curated exhibit moving from object to object based on the eight representative objects. Reading it makes one feel as if one spent several days wandering around a well-curated special exhibit on the topic. However, if you want to have a sense of chronology and regional differences then it would be profitable to read it a second time to piece together the historical narrative.The book is worth reading more than once for a new way of seeing the movement. Similar to a return walk through a well-curated museum exhibit a second or third  time to collect the details.

The major flaw of the book rested with the regrettable cost of the book at $165, I look forward to a reasonably priced paperback edition. Another issue is that the book came out as a monograph book size at  6.1 x 9.2 inches when it should have been a coffee table book size 9.5 x 11.8 inches to display properly the abundant photographs and illustrations. If you can get a hold of the book despite the price, then read and work it into your courses on Hasidism and into your thinking about the movement.

All pictures are property of Batsheva Ida Goldman and copyrighted© . I thank her for use of the pictures. 

  1. How did you get started in this project?

The project began gradually. When I first approached the university, I came with an idea to combine Jewish studies, especially Jewish thought, with the study of objects. It was a long process. I had to first complete art history studies through the MA, and only on a doctoral level could I concentrate on my initial interest in the symbolism behind Jewish objects.

On a personal level, I had a direct connection through my brother-in-law to a Hasidic dynastic family, whom I joined for holidays such as the Passover Seder. As Assistant Curator of Judaica at the Israel Museum from 1977 to 81, and through inventorying the collection, I became very familiar with the field of Jewish ritual objects.

As an art historian, I looked for symbolic Jewish art, while most viewed those objects as solely functional. I felt this was a new field, a last frontier of Jewish art. What I love about the early Hasidic traditions is their creativity in thought and action, and I wanted to discuss the subjective experience of the user.

jul03_38 close up
(King David dressed in Hasidic garb)

2) Why is there an emphasis on material culture in Hasidism?

Hasidic objects are important because Hasidim have an inclination to raise up mundane or everyday objects not considered under the category of tashmishai kedusha (sacred objects) or tashmishei mitzvah (ceremonial objects) under Halacha, and attribute to them higher levels of sanctity (pp. 7, 395; BT Megillah 26b)); this is called ma’alin be’koshesh (raising the level of sanctity).

In this category are most of the objects presented in the book, since in these objects Hasidim were able to be creative and invest the objects with Kabbalistic and Hasidic significance. These include the Prayer Book, the Kiddush Cup, the Seder Plate, the Sabbath Lamp, the Atara, the Shmire (amulets), even the Pipe and the Rebbe’s Chair. My point in my research is that these are not to be presented solely as functional, rather as theological and symbolic.

The reason behind this radical move of investing objects with holiness is rooted in a general Hasidic approach to worship through the mundane, also called Avodah be’Gashmiut (Worship through Corporeality) (pp. 389-391). This approach was very much part of early Hasidism and is generally attributed to the Baal Shem Tov.

We have two approaches to beauty in Hasidism. The first approach of the Baal Shem Tov insisted on actually focusing and seeing the letters in the Siddur and through this intent gaze – by a direct encounter with the material world – to experience the Divine.

In contrast, the Maggid of Miedzyrzecz chose a different path, of cognition – upon seeing a beautiful object, to reflect on the Divine source of that object and hence encounter the Divine (pp. 5-6).  In both cases, the true beauty is that of the Divine.

Among the Hasidic followers, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonnye, the scribe of the Baal Shem Tov, and his son Rabbi Shimshon of Rashkov, who wrote the Siddur I describe below, both felt strongly about following the Besht’s direct encounter.

Others, such as Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, a disciple of the Maggid, continued on to a more rarified, conceptual standpoint. However, rather than a strong dispute, I think the third and fourth generations of Hasidim chose a combination of the two approaches.

3) What is the concept of hidur mizvah as a Hasidic concept of beauty?

The concept of hiddur mitzvah is closer to that of kavod (respect) (p. 3) and relates to the user and to his approach to the ritual object that as part of the commandment should be a respectful one.

The Hasidim use a more emotional and extreme term of hibbuv mitzvah (liking or loving the commandment as a term of endearment), so, when leaving the Sukkah, they kiss the coverings as if they were a mezuzah. This also refers back to the user and his approach, rather than to the object itself.

Unlike the Maggid of Miedzyrzecz conceptual thought of the Divine source, here it is a general idea that hiddur mitzvah and hibuv mitzvah as describing a person’s approach of respect or emotional ecstasy respectively  to a ritual object

There is also the concept of pe’er (grandeur or splendor), which is used to describe the extra-large size of, for example, the atara on the tallit of the Rebbe (p. 241).

This, in turn, when applied to the Ruzhin dynasty and its related Chernobyl dynasty, refers to their status as a royal family – derekh malchut (the Royal Way; also possibly carrying more complex connotations to the tenth and lowest sphere of Malchut). The Ruzhin dynasty traces its ancestry back to King David (p. 390-91), and this sense of royalty is expressed in all the ritual objects, buildings and furnishings, costume, etc. In all of these, the finest workmanship and materials are used (gold, silver, velvet, silk, etc.) as befitting royalty.

4)      What are the different shapes of Kiddush cups and what do they signify?

The most important Kiddush cup is the Epl-Becher (apple-shaped beaker), whose form was designed by the Maggid of Miedzyrzecz, according to Hasidic tradition. The apple-form is symbolic of the Shekhinah (also called: the Assembly of Israel), as the “rose among thorns” which is “surrounded by five petals” as depicted in the opening page of the Zohar,

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The Hasid is requested to hold the cup upright in his right hand (equivalent to the sefirah Hesed or Compassion) with all five fingers; and the “orchard of the holy apples” referred to in the Ari’s Sabbath hymn (p. 102). The apple-shaped cup stands on a winding chain with generally three leaves and a trefoil base. Over time, the petals underneath the cup were multiplied to 13 corresponding to the 13 attributes of Mercy and to 26 petals, corresponding to the name of God. The finial on the cover is sometimes in the form of an olive and other times in the form of a dove with outspread wings, both referring to the Assembly of Israel.

A second kind of cup relates to the Hasidic custom of Tikkun, which has become a familiar custom in general, that is, to recite Kiddush on Sabbath morning from a shot glass or small beaker for whiskey or alcohol (Schnapps) (p. 312; Fig. 133, p. 313). The original custom was to greet a new member or share a simcha with a ceremonial drink and wish a le’chayyim (to Life).

The third Hasidic Kiddush cup is of no particular size or shape (being sufficient to hold 150 ml). However, it relates to a unique Hasidic custom since it is forged or melted down from Shmire coins blessed by the Rebbe and treasured as talismans, mainly among the Ruzhin and Chernobyl dynasties, and their related branches.

5)      How was Hasidic material culture affected by non-Jewish
material cultural? Did they follow German, Polish or Russian folk arts and crafts?

The non-Jewish Austrian and German Courts were an influence on the Hasidic art in the ornamentation of silver and gold objects.

The use of figurative scenes reflects the influence of the Russian Lubok or folk print, which featured figures and texts and were distributed widely.

The carved wood decoration on the Chair of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav on the one hand reflects Polish or Russian (now Ukrainian) folk art motifs of the flowerpot, for example, but also motifs from the Empire style (pp. 355-356). However, whereas the Ukrainian folk art is highly geometrical, the Hasidic wood carving of Reb Nahman’s chair is symmetrical, with motifs paired, but much less rigid in design. The chair shares motifs with Ukrainian folk art, but although symmetrical, is much less geometrical displaying more rounded forms.


An interesting trend in Hasidic appropriation is the tendency to use materials from the urban or city folk in terms of costume, headgear or objects rather than look to the church and the clergy.

This availability of visual materials from the surroundings is best explained by the scholar of the Yiddish Language Max Weinreich, who explained that the difference between Jewishness and non-Jewishness was in the “combination of the ingredients.”

There are two axes – the horizontal plane of the society around them and the vertical plane of past generations and tradition. “There is no marked attempt at horizontal legitimization in Ashkenaz. It identifies itself vertically, with previous generations of Jews.” (See pp. 381-2).

The apple form of the abovementioned Epl-becher, for example, is a smaller version of a type of non-Jewish naturalistic domestic cup designed by Albrecht Durer in the 16th century (pp. 87-92, Fig. 29, p. 90). It should be noted that a domestic silver cup was chosen rather than a Church chalice.
The Chernobyl and Ruzhin Seder plates, although they hold attributes of the Kabbalah in its design and reflect Hasidic life in their figurative scenes, are similar in size to 18th century large pieces of dinnerware of the period among European royalty

Bildnis des Joseph Hölzl
German table silver similar to those used for Seder plate

6)   What is a Henglaykhter? What does it mean and why was it popular?

The Henglaykhter (hanging lamp) is used for the Sabbath and was designed by the Lelov Rebbe Elazar Menchem Mendel Biderman, after he came to Eretz Israel in 1851. Its three levels of metal rings with apertures for shallow glass dishes echoes the diagrams of the ten sefirot with an upper level of 3, middle level of 6 and the lowest – a single ring for Malchut. It is simple to make of low grade metal rings and glass, yet it provides a very real vehicle for contemplation of the ten heavenly sefirot. Later on, a more elaborate one of 26 glass vessels was made, echoing the more complex parzufim diagrams.

Fig 89 Henglaykhter, Jerusalem 1979

The Henglaykhter is ingenious since it combines a Middle Eastern prototype of the hanging glass lamp with the Ashkenazi six to eight armed Judenstern, a hanging Sabbath lamp used from the Middle Ages in Europe. The original prototype was Islamic – ubiquitous throughout the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century but already in use in the Byzantine period but now combined with European Jewish lamps. In this way, the Hasidim were able to create new objects that built on their familiarity with their Ashkenazi background.

From the time of the Ari and later the Shelah (16th century), the custom spread to kindle 7 lights for the Sabbath corresponding to the seven heavenly spheres used to create the world, and then 10 lights for all of them (the three highest are considered to be in another realm).

7)   How were prayer shawls and atarot used as art?

The atarot (collars on the prayer shawls) in Eastern Europe were made among many Hasidic groups in the 19th and early 20th century using a unique Jewish technique of braiding silver thread on a loom, similar to bobbin lace. According to Milton Sonday, the textile expert from the Cooper Hewitt Museum, this is a uniquely Jewish technique. It emulates the couched and laid thick gilt embroidery found in  German or Austrian church vestments and Parokhot Torah Art Canopies for example in the synagogue, from the 17th and 18th centuries.

The silver braid was also used for gilt bonnets among Jews and Gentile women in the 18th century. The uniquely Jewish Shpanier loom was a Jewish response as a way to emulate these more elaborate bonnets and collars, without resorting to non-Jewish hand embroidery.

Fig 112 COLOR Yosef Greenwald spanier SAM_1860

The designs were various and related to the Hasidic dynasties. For examples, Ruzhin had a rosette and Sasow had a heart-shape. There was even the unlikely find of a Star of David found among the designs.

The Magen David Star of David was used in Prague in the 16th century. However, it became a national symbol – a Zionist emblem – only in the latter half of the 19th century. The Hasidim were on the whole firmly for making Aliyah but not all identified with the Zionist movement. So, the Star of David on an Atara seems to represent a Zionist background, which is unusual.

These atarot were made especially large and decorative for the Rebbe, who also had a narrow braided strip around the waist. The atara-makers produced these also for those outside of Hasidism, for example, for the Chief Rabbi of Prague or Warsaw, and even sent gilt collars to Paris! Hasidic women used the same technique and the same designs to decorate their Sabbath bonnets (sterntichel)

8)   How did the seder plate take on extra Hasidic meaning?

When the Chernobyl or the Ruzhin-Sadigora Rebbes designed and ordered the design of a silver Seder plate, there were already similar Seder plates from Austria and Germany in the 19th century with a platter on the top for the Seder foods and three drawers for the matzot. The combination plate is typical of Ashkenaz, but the Kabbalistic attributions to the parts of the plate are only found among the Hasidim.

Fig 54a COLOR Peshkan Seder plate frontIMG_9525

For the Rebbe all parts of the plate and the plate as a whole were given Kabbalistic significance. The platter with the six Seder foods were arranged according to the Ari in two triangle shapes, and corresponded to six of the seven lower sefirot. The three matzot refer to the three upper heavenly spheres. The plate as a whole was considered to be the lowest sphere malchut, symbolized by a small crown on top

This elaborate Seder plate is a combination object typical of Western Europe especially Germany and Austria, similar to the combination havadalah spice box which was combined with a candle holder. This plate which holds the matzas and the top part is the Seder plate with the symbolic foods.  The three-fold matzah napkin or porcelain and metal Seder plates continued to be in use even in this period among Jews and other Hasidim.

In Hasidic thought, hesed is always on the right, and all things move from left to right toward hesed to mitigate the gevurah or din with hesed, lovingkindness.

Noteboard: The diagram on page 178 has a problem. (The publisher did not agree to correct the diagram– but please simply switch the right and left. The Shank-bone and the Haroset should be on the right. I explain it properly on the previous page, 277. Please forgive me this mistake.)

9) Why was smoking, pipes, and snuffboxes important for Hasidic art?

Any object connected with the Rebbe is considered by the Hasidim to be precious. Many would only touch them after immersing oneself in the mikveh (ritual bath). For this reason, pipes or snuffboxes used by them are considered special. Later in the 19th century, smoking was associated with raising the divine sparks, a necessarily delicate act of tikkun according to the Lurianic doctrine of the Ari.

There is no special design here. Only the idea that a mundane and not especially healthy habit was uplifted through a conceptual relation to the object 1) as something the Rebbe had; and 2) related to the incense in the Temple.

10)      How do images lead to ecstasy or communion with God?

The ritual objects are used in real time, held with the sense of touch, utilizing other senses, and with a prayer or song said or sung in connection with them, intensify the ecstatic experience. (p.3).The combination of a text that is spiritual or otherworldly with concrete actions combines to create a magnified experience.

Moreover, the gaps between the actions, words and objects – gaps in space and gaps in the text itself – are completed by the user while enacting the ritual. The user is thus an active participant who brings the different aspects together and so feels as if entering a sacred time. The sacred is experienced as a kind of reality that is above time. The texts provide a context outside of time while the objects and ritual enacted in real time provide a context of reality.

11)   What is the role of magic in Hasidic art?

In Hasidism, the mystical and magical are intertwined – the ecstatic and the theurgic. The Baal Shem Tov who was a leading figure for the Hasidim began as a writer of amulets and talismans, inherent in the very name Master of the Divine Name. Regarding the shmire coin blessed by the Rebbe, it clearly seems to be sympathetic magic (magical ritual using objects or actions resembling or symbolically associated with the influence  sought.) However, the experience for the Hasid of meeting the Rebbe is on a very high spiritual plane.

There are two kinds of sympathetic magic as defined by James Frazer: involving direct touch (contagious); and influencing an action from afar (homeopathic or imitative). The Shmire coin is both. The Rebbe holds it (direct touch) but a Hasid can also receive one for a friend and bring the friend’s contribution or pidyon to the Rebbe (thus acts from afar). That is why I bring in a discussion of Marcel Mauss who explains that a person who brings a gift also gives over part of him or herself. (See p. 341). The Hasidic Rebbes also understood it in this way. That a blessing can only be made effectively when the Rebbe has possession in some way of part of the person, or has interiorized that person. Often other gifts are given to the Rebbe with the intention that they will be blessed, including ritual objects and also Siddurim prayer books.

Silver objects made of melted-down Shmire coins retain the same magical (or protective) nature. So there are soup tureens (See p. 310), Kiddush cups, even Torah crowns, etc. made from these coins. And there are many amulets written on parchment or metal that are used by Hasidim.

12) How were some of the printing houses producing beautiful books?

The son (Moshe Shapira) and later grandsons (Shmuel Avraham Abba and Pinhas) of the Rebbe Pinchas of Korets (Korzec) established a Hasidic printing press in Slavuta (from 1791-1835)   Their frontispieces are known for their beauty with red (and black) print on tinted blue or pink paper and open spaces on the page.

FIg 21b COLOR crop Menahem Mendel EE.011.019
(Hasidic manuscript from the GFC Collection, Tel Aviv)

In addition, Hasidim illustrated manuscripts, on paper or vellum, were produced within the Hasidic communities  This follows on the 18th century Bohemian and Moravian revival of manuscript illumination and illustration that served the Court Jews and other wealthy families, often copying the script of printed editions out of Amsterdam and this was encouraged within the Hasidic court, especially in the Sadigora court. Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin’s grandson (son of Rabbi Shalom Yosef Friedman) and the son-in-law of Rabbi Avraham Yaakov of Sadigura – Nahum Dov Ber Friedman of Sadigora had an amazing library of these illuminated manuscripts.

The illumination of hand-written manuscripts was a tradition in mid-18th century Central Europe (Prague, Bohemia, and Vienna, also Moravia, and parts of Germany like Hamburg). The Hasidim continued this tradition in the 19th century. The revival of manuscripts followed the very popular printed books and prayer books done in Amsterdam with a unique font that was used in printing there. It gained a reputation and the scribes would be proud to emulate the printed font in their manuscripts, so they called it “Amsterdam script.” The manuscript editions were generally made for Court Jews, and the Hasidic Rebbes especially of the Ruzhin-Sadigora and Chernobyl groups sought to have a similar royal lifestyle also expressed in their manuscript books. A kind of prestige item.

13) What is the role of the ilan hagadol in Hasidic art?

The Ilan ha’Gadol is a diagram of the ten sefirot according to the Lurianic doctrine of the parzufim (Countenances of God), spiraling down from the Ein Sof (Infinite One) and encircling the light of the Ein Sof as it penetrates the world. Such diagrams from the 18th and 19th century served as ways to understand the intricate Safed Kabbalistic contemplation. The Ilanot are a kind of map to explain the cosmography of the Lurianic doctrine. The contemplation comes when the various names of the Sefirot and the names of God are incorporated into the liturgy of the Siddur.

Fig 95 Ilan Hakodesh 028.012.016_008
(Ilan ha’Gadol, GFC Collection, Tel Aviv)

14)      How were prayer books used for contemplation?
The symbolic illustrations of the early Hasidic Lurianic Siddur Hechal Ha’Besht of Avraham Shimshon of Rashkov, the son of Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, show the Sabbath table and Mikvah in a realistic, figurative way – following on the concept of Worship through Corporeality and according to the approach of early Hasidism to focus on the mundane

Generally, in Lurianic Siddurim, there are diagrams of the mikveh or the order of the 12 hallahs Sabbath loaves on the Sabbath table. The diagrams help the reader in organizing his kavanot or yihudim meditations while praying.

In the early Hasidic Siddur, however, instead of a diagram you have an actual depiction of a mikveh with an attempt to show depth or 3D and a depiction of an actual table with a table cloth and actual looking hallahs on the table. This idea of showing real objects expresses the Besht’s concept of “worship through corporeality.” In this way, even the Lurianic theosophy is brought before the worshipper in concrete terms as an image of a real object in the real world.
The Hasidim incorporated the Lurianic kavanot (contemplation) of the Ari of Safed from the writing of Hayyim Vital into their Ashkenazi prayer books, preferring, following the Ari, to use the Sephardi liturgy (13-15). For example, the Sabbath morning service follows the use of Lurianic kavanot to move the sefirot through the Four Worlds to the highest sefra of Keter, recited during the Kedushah by way of the Hechalot (Palaces), which are related to different paragraphs, such as the preliminary paragraphs to the Shema Yisrael prayer, and the Kaddish de’Rabanan (pp. 57-63). The symbolic drawings of the Hechalot and the angels of the Kedusha prayer (p. 35-36) aided the Hasid to contemplate or visualize this Lurianic contemplation.

Similar to other diagrams found in Lurianic Siddurs, the seven Hechalot (palaces) of the stages in prayer are generally shown as diagrams. However, in the early Hasidic siddur, the images are a quarter of the page, very large and ornamented, often with a significant number of motifs that carry a Kabbalistic significance.

Thank you to Rebbe Dr. Yisrael Ben-Shalom Friedman

One of the Rebbes who assisted me and passed away last year, was Dr. Yisrael Ben-Shalom Friedman (1923-2017) of blessed memory, a scion of the Buhush and Peshkan dynasties related to the Ruzhiner Rebbe.

Upon visiting him at Kibbutz Saad where he then lived, we were walking down a path and in his quiet voice he was explaining something to me. I do not remember what he said, but as he talked I began to see around me every detail of nature, and even the dots on the neck of a pigeon we passed, and hear the sounds around in a new way.  Of course, the story is told of the Baal Shem Tov and Reb Aryeh Leib of Polnoye, the Preacher, who wanted to learn the language of the animals. (Shivhei HaBesht [Rubinstein Edition, Jerusalem 1992], 298-300 (in Hebrew); but it really happened to me.

Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman responds to Rabbi Barry Kornblau

This essay is the fourth 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, the third was by Shlomit Metz-Poolat Esq on Sanctity as an Observant LGBTQ Jew.

Rabbi Yehoshua Engelman is a practicing psychotherapist and teacher, has taught in various yeshiva’s and was rabbi and director of the Yakar Center in Tel-Aviv. He was a Ra”m at Yeshivat Hakotel and Yeshivat Hesder Othniel and taught at Siach Yitzhak Hesder Yeshiva. He has produced four widely popular albums of his musical compositions, and is currently working on his book of essays on the Torah.

I once received a phone call asking about Rav Shagar and LGBTQ issues. The rabbi phoning me asked: now that Rav Shagar is available in English he will certainly have the appropriate full leniencies for the gay community. I tried explaining to this person, that that is not what Rav Shagar is about, he is not American liberal Orthodox. This response essay by Rabbi Engelman, a student of Rav Shagar since the 1980’s, shows the difference in approaches between my caller and the the potentialities of Rav Shagar’s ideas.

Rabbi Engelman is primarily concerned with the question of how do we build lives of sanctity and holiness? Just being a member of the Orthodox community does not grant holiness, and certainly not sexual holiness.  We need to develop a theology of the body, of holiness, and of sexuality that will help us grow. The approach is closer to that of Catholic moral teaching of the body in Pope Benedict’s students or in Pope Francis’ recent exhortation Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family). This need for a theology of the body that includes heterosexuality, before further discussion is show in many current Israeli volumes on marriage. To take one example, Rabbi Yakov Nagan of Othniel, a student of both Rav Shagar and Rav Froman as well as Rav Lichtenstien, gave lectures this year on the Zohar as a source for holiness in relationship.  The Zohar is not part of the American Orthodox canon, let alone a source of aspirational ethics. This is not what my caller was hoping to gain.

More notably from this essay, Rabbi Engelman objects to rabbis as gatekeepers to the private clubhouse of Orthodoxy. It infantilized the congregation and it demeans the rabbi to a guard instead of a teacher. He considers it a form of magical thinking that pronounces people sanctified with words, or through membership in the club. They are confusing the path with its goal, similar to confusing membership in the gym with attaining athletic abilities. Engelman notes how this approach implies rabbis have a special knowledge and status by virtue of being rabbis. Some Orthodox gay or lesbian people actually like the rabbi as gatekeeper and Orthodoxy as a club, they just want to be included in the club. They are deeply hurt by their exclusion but are perfectly willing to follow the rabbis as guards as long as the rabbis let them in as LGBTQ.

In contrast, Rabbi Engelman’s vision is one of embracing doubts and struggles with the rabbi functioning as a midwife to attaining holiness and an educator for those in the community to discern what God wants from them. He rejects the certainty of who is closer to God and sanctity that Orthodoxy asserts. For Rabbi Engelman, no one can say who is closer to God. And for him “it is a problem that people consider matters of spirit and holiness as quantifiable.”

Holiness is not limited to those in a suburban marriage. Both gay and straight marriage, those celibate, and sexuality in general needs personal discernment. The psychological and sociological world we live in is not the same as that of the past. Engelman is a therapist who works with LGBT patients and recognizes a limit of the sources of our legal decisions.  For him, the rabbinate is similar to the therapist, or the Socratic teacher, helping the person work through issues. This is different from Rabbi Ysoscher Katz response who sees the rabbi as a caring rebbe offering pastoral advice.

Rather than emotional care, Rabbi Engelman asks: how do we become holy? How do we attain the lofty heights of being a servant of God, a title ascribed to Moses, Joshua, and the Messiah. To be a servant of God is one of life long hard work, not “given freely to anyone who will simply tow the Orthodox party line” Rabbi Engelman finds the discussion lacking practical steps toward holiness and certainly, lacking the lifelong struggle to attain such heights.

Years ago, I thought, somewhat facetiously, that this Orthodox thinking produced people who thought they got entrance into the world-to-come just by affording a mortgage in Teaneck without any need to engage in Torah or work on themselves in mizvot and middot (character traits) for the rest of their lives. Rabbi Engelman asked it in the opposite direction, as a positive question. Even in a heterosexual marriage, let alone a same sex relationship, who are our guides to help in discernment for this lifelong work of attaining sanctity, especially regarding sexuality?


On Sanctity and Sexuality

Reading the title of the RCA’s statement, as presented by Rabbi Barry Kornblau, I thought: What a breath of fresh air, what a brave step, that rabbis are prepared to relate to these crucial aspects of Judaism. It is hard to imagine Judaism without certain concepts, such as brit (covenant), faith, Torah min hashamayim (revelation), and kedusha (sanctity) is certainly a concept without which one cannot imagine Yiddishkeit.

Is there anyone who does not desire kedusha? Every day we say Asher Kideshanu BeMitzvosav, and we pray constantly Kadsheinu Bemitzvotecha – both meaning sanctify us with Your Commandments. The area of sexuality is always a thorny one to discuss as Torah. In its broader sense it encompasses our very being since Gan Eden, and so I expected and hoped to read rabbinic advise on how to make our lives holier. How disappointing to find ne’er a word on this in the whole declaration.

A famous rabbi once stated “Unmarried Orthodox” is an oxymoron. He was not casting aspersions at the level of observance of any singles or divorced observant Jews, only stating what for many of them is clear – that there is only one (real, legitimate, true) way to be Orthodox – and that is: Married. He was but expressing what many unmarried people know and feel – הן אני עץ יבש’ “God has separated me from His people, Yea, I am a dry tree”. In my work as a communal rabbi, and as psychotherapist I meet Orthodox men and women who feel ostracized. It is subtle. No one, God forbid, rejects them from the community, but they are aware that ‘the community’ means the married couples and families.

Sometimes it is blatant, as when shuls give discounts to couples and families; sometimes it is more subtle, a feeling given from the lack of invitations. But beyond this, and deep-rooted in the fabric of most communities is the feeling that as things stand – Judaism is a ‘family religion’, one tailored primarily for families, whether laws of Shabbat, festivals, mourning or, of course, modesty (tzniut).

As a Rosh-Yeshiva once said to me: “Ravina and Rav Ashi, Rambam, Shulchan-Aruch, even Mishneh-Berurah, never imagined a society in which many people, even a majority, would not be married by the age of 20”. All Orthodox Jewish thinking till 50 years ago, Halachic or theological, is the thinking of married men. Even though this may have no practical ramifications – this needs to be recognized, recognized as a limit of the sources of our legal decisions (pesikah).

Unmarried people who earnestly seek closeness to Hashem through the path of Torah and Halacha – and I have been privileged with meeting many such people – repeatedly come up against a ‘glass ceiling’ of how much a part of an Orthodox community they can be. Of course, we believe that standing before God all are equal, that HaShem does not ask “First of all – are you married?” But communities themselves still have a way-to-go so as to catch up with their maker in this aspect, and unmarried people do feel outsiders. In addition, paradoxically – LGBT’s desire that their “marriages” be recognized by the Orthodox community is an expression of their desire to belong davka to the Orthodox community. Needless to say, such recognition cannot be expected from the Orthodox rabbinate, but the question of how to relate to such people who seek to live their relationships within orthodox communities – to these the document relates.

Most notably, it relegates rabbis to the role of gatekeepers. Their role and the role of community rabbis is to surround their communities with a fence, to guard the safety of their Kehilah (community), to affirm firm boundaries. As I see it – it is sad when rabbis see their role as gatekeepers rather than as educators. One cannot be both, to the degree that one is a gatekeeper one is not an educator, time spent doing one is time not spent educating, not spent inspiring people. A case could be made for their role being to educate people to keep and create boundaries. Everyone needs laws and boundaries, these are what parents are expected to educate their children to know and live, a healthy person is one who keeps laws and respects law. But it is sad when parents think that the only thing they have to teach their children are rules and regulations, rather than values and faith (emunah) and ideals and love of HaShem (love of God) and kedusha (sanctity) , and sad when teachers believe that this is their primary role.

Such an attitude seems to express lack of faith. Not necessarily a lack in the faith of the rabbis themselves in Torah, but their lack of faith in congregant’s firmness of belief and keeping of the commandments (Shemirat Torah uMitzvot) as coming from deep conviction and commitment, based on a sense of love of HaShem and Brit. They seem to believe that their congregants need their borders affirmed and strengthened: Strengthening and reaffirmation of boundaries and laws is always a result of inability to teach and educate people to act from within the boundaries.


Of course, it can be said that this is missing the point: The real problems are those facing the institution of marriage. Marriage, and structure of the traditional family in general, is indeed in a crisis, and some would say that recognition of LGBT’s endangers the value of the traditional family intrinsically, but also as the only true way of Avodat HaShem (serving God). Although I firmly question this theory.

As a therapist who works with Orthodox gay patients, I have yet to meet anyone who consciously chose to be gay. My work with such patients’ is just like my work with anyone else,  amongst other aspects, which is to facilitate them hearing their own unique voice and desire, all expressions of which are extraneous to the soul, actions not essence, to be able to make whatever choices they make from within themselves, not from habit or societal pressures. What I often hear is the depths of their yearning, like most people, for deep committed loving partnership, and that these be recognized as such; rather than choosing a Queer position of distain for any such institutions, they too want matrimony, and the continuity of this form is important to them too.

Such an attitude of the part of the Rabbinate is itself a problem, in their relating  to marriage as both a crucial institution and an endangered one. I believe it is neither. And I hope that no-one would doubt that Ben-Azzai who famously declined marriage and was one of the “Four who entered Paradise” together with R Akiva was treading the path to saintliness, as did many righteous Torah giants.  Indeed, many sages such as Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon and down to our times lived monastic lives and were married only in name.

Marriage is a path, Mitzvot are a path, Torah is a path to kindness and closeness to Hashem and to sanctity. There are no guarantees. There are no promises that such a path will bring those who walk it to their goals. However, ascertaining that whoever walks on a certain path has attained its goal is akin to saying that one who walks on the running track is a marathon runner.This is the severe mistake that those who wrote this statement make – confusing the path with its goal, and thinking that one can attain sanctity simply by denotation.

No one can really believe that simply by getting or being married one is, or becomes, holy. No Torah book that I know of ever imagined anyone making such a disastrous mistake. קדושים תהיו  – You shall be holy – is an instruction for everyone forever. One can only hope that this mistake is an innocent one.It is a problem that people consider matters of spirit and holiness as quantifiable

Perhaps, to strengthen marriage and family values, the writers of the statement thought to provide this encouragement: “Look!” they say, “You’re holy, sanctified by matrimony, by home and hearth and having your nuclear family. You can be proud of this (another Jewish value), and it needs to be protected from those who would – no less! – defile it with their imperfection and difference”. However, calling someone, an athlete never even made him or her healthier, let alone athlete, and describing something as sanctified does not make it holy.

To return to my previous point – it saddens me to discover again how so many rabbis see their primary goal as gate keeping, as delineating what may and may not, should and should not be done. Many rabbis used to see their main role as inspiring people and facilitating their closeness to Hashem through the mitzvot, sort of marriage counselors for one’s relationship with Hashem. Few vocations are higher than being an educator – why aspire for less? True – little in the traditional rabbinic training teaches rabbis how to inspire and empower people; this certainly needs to be addressed.

However, even in allowing rabbis leeway in decisions re LGBT the RCA position as presented by Rabbi Kornblau is still setting the role of rabbis as that of gatekeeper (shomrei hah-homot). A rabbi as teacher can do so much more than that! I felt this way ever since I taught in Yeshivat HaKotel, later at Othniel, and afterwards as a community rabbi: That my job was NOT to tell people what to do but to discuss the issue at hand, explain the Sugya and various aspects, so that a person can work hard to decide what Hashem wants specifically from them.

Midrash Shmuel writes הספיקות עשו את האנשים חכמים  Doubts make people wise. Why deny a person the opportunity to be wise? When a person deliberates what Hashem wants from them – they are very close to God in that deliberation. Similarly – a rabbi can discuss various aspects and sensitivities with the community and let them decide what rules to adopt. Is this not a higher vocation than telling people what to do?

These words in the RCA document struck me:

For every Jew, striving for and achieving sanctity require sacrifice and life-long effort. The limitations of the human condition often result in our failing to accomplish what we seek; we often must settle for partial victories and for the need to try again in the future. We believe that the effort, pain, and sacrifice we each invest in this struggle bring the potential for great personal fulfillment and ultimate Divine reward. Such lifelong struggles and yearnings towards sanctity are the summom bonum of religious life.

I would be so very grateful – maybe even inspired! – to read of the sacrifice and effort, settling for partial victories and life-long struggles that the writers of this document attest to having to go through in their life. Is it that they gave up running multi-million dollar corporations? Was it not playing sports or performing concerts on Shabbat?

I have been privileged to know many rabbis whom I highly respect. Very few of them have made sacrifices different from those made by any professional, such as outstanding academics or dedicated artists. Yet such people do not necessarily think that their sacrifices accord them privileges, or make their lives more ‘lishmah” (for the sake of heaven) than that of other people.

It seems that some rabbis labor under the illusion that their training gives them access to some knowledge superior to other’s. Tosafot certainly did not think so. The Talmud stated: “I (a talmid hakham) am a creature and my friend (the ignoramus/Am HaAretz) is a creature” (Berachot 17a) Tosafot write on that line: “This means: He has a heart like mine to discern between good and bad.” Of course the person unlearned in Torah does not know Torah, Talmud, Halakha etc, but, according to Tosafot, he is able to discern no less than the talmid hakham (scholar) between what is right and what is wrong. Is not helping another person deal with doubt and make choices the highest of vocations? Can rabbis not apply this approach of helping people with discernment choices also be done with communities?

I suspect that the lives of these rabbis being similar to that of the vast majority of orthodox Jews for whom orthodox heterosexual married life is a pleasure which demands few sacrifices, is what makes it easy to expect sacrifice from others. However, even were their lives to have demanded sacrifice from them, I am reminded of Nietzsche’s famous words: Self-sacrifice is what makes it easy to sacrifice others without feeling guilt.

Similarly, in Rabbi Kornblau’s article: Repeatedly he mentions servant of God “eved Hashem” “avdei Hashem”. Is it that simple? All that is needed is to be (heterosexually monogamously) married and Pronto! One is a servant of God!

How has it come to be that this highest of accolades, ascribed to Moshe Rabeinu and to Joshua, one by which Isaiah denotes the messiah, is so easily bandied around and given freely to anyone who will simply tow the Orthodox party line? I assume that the addressees of this statement are people who desire to serve HaShem, and it is to this desire that the words are aimed, at telling them that you, by keeping strict boundaries, are and will be sanctified. But how did this come around that people allow themselves to thus see themselves, as servants of God with such ease?

(For accuracy’s sake: The Maharal in Gur Aryeh does say that while we are all commanded קדושים תהיו –  to become more and more holy,  we are all already קדושים – Holy by virtue of not eating all types of insects. Perhaps it would be better to agree on this inclusive minimum requirement to merit the title given in the essay).

This talk of sanctity in sexuality – before looking into other’s sanctity I would ask whether any of the writers of this paper, in their own sexuality, experience sanctity and in what ways? Have there been any directives how heterosexual relationships can be sanctified?

Is naming something ‘Holy’ enough and no awareness is needed? All denotations of holiness in Halacha, whether of people, places, objects, or food, have practical implications. Does calling marital relationships “sanctified” make them so? As a rabbi of a community, I was repeatedly challenged by congregants to be explicit, not just use words but also expand on precisely how Orthodoxy may be an experience of The Holy. We are not priests who sprinkle holy water on people and pronounce them sanctified, but I fear we may often do something similar, just replacing water with words.

Finally: There used to be one place of service of God that required the most stringent purifications to enter. Not only gentiles, but also any impure Israelite was not allowed to enter the temple and, sometimes (depending on type of Tum’ah) even parts of the surrounding areas on the Temple Mount. Punishment for transgression could be as severe as excision (karet). Yet, nowhere in the Talmud or other Halacha literature do we find that there were guards positioned to make sure that forbidden people would not enter Temple precincts. Even though the prohibition was severe, – much more severe than any entrance by any ‘forbidden’ person could be today – a prohibition that central parts of Yom-Kippur service were to atone for, yet responsibility for this was left in the hands of each individual.

Indeed, the Talmud tells of a gentile who managed to eat of a Korban Pesach (Pesachim 3b). Would this not be a more beautiful model for our shul’s – places where everyone is welcomed and no gatekeepers guard the gates, where the central focus indeed is on service of God, on depth and sublimity of prayer rather than worrying next to whom one is sitting and who is in or out? Can we not try to make our synagogues akin to the Temple?

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 heterosexual 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.