Mourning rituals. Gay rights. Policy change and the silent scream that is the shedding of a snake’s skin and the process of change in the world. Somehow this all comes together in my report from a few meetings and encounters in Jerusalem in the first week of January 2012.
This Midrash came to my mind a few days ago: There are six sounds that carry from one of the world to the other – yet are never heard. These include the sound of a soul leaving a dying body, and the sound of the snake shedding its skin. I heard echoes of these silent, painful and beautiful sounds of change during the week I had just spent in Jerusalem. It was a complicated week of mourning, family obligations, and extended encounters in regard to the important transitions of the Masorti Movement in Israel – my extended community.
Somehow these encounters are woven together, a convergence of experiences, conversations and realizations, private and public moments that I’d like to share with friends as they may be helpful through this navigation of communal and institutional change, a shedding of sorts. I bring but one personal perspective.
I had planned to visit my family in Israel over winter break anyway, but by the time I arrived in Jerusalem right after Chanukah, my father had been sitting Shiva for two days, mourning his 92-year-old older brother whose soul passed away peacefully. (My late Uncle Shiko was the heir to the Viznitzer Rebbe title who embraced Zionism instead, later to become one of the founders of the Gush Emunim Movement. His widow and six children, mostly leaders of the Settlers Movement, sat Shiva along with my father and his remaining brother, Rabbi Lau. There were many visitors – from Peres, Bibi, all the Hasidic rebbes and their entourages to countless relatives and friends, an intense time, esp. for my frail father. For me, back in the midst of my Orthodox extended family in such intimate settings, the Shiva was both a warm rekindling of family ties – but also a sad reminder of the feeling of ‘otherness’ – that subtle or not so subtle distance which comes along with forms of discrimination, an invisibility familiar to so many of us in so many different contexts.
As a gay – Non- Orthodox man in an Orthodox family I am used to it. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is a norm I still find difficult to challenge. At the Shiva, surrounded by all levels of frum family members, I was welcomed (mostly by the women) – part of the family, focused on supporting my father – who was ‘promoted’ to patriarchal status – but there were also several remarks, comments and glances the other way from some of the relatives. I mostly ignored it.
On Monday morning, the last day of the Shiva, someone said something to someone about me, casually, half jokingly, behind my back, and I heard, stood at the back of the living room, part but apart from the minyan, unable to pray, seething, silent, hurt. I planned my ‘let me tell you something’ speech – but then decided to let go of the anger or even the rebuke. This was the way to make this conversation happen – and not the place for me to fight for my rights. Not here, not now, not yet.
We rose from Shiva that morning, and I drove to Mechon Schechter that afternoon, just five minutes away from my parents’ home.
Other than quality time (!) with family – the other goal I had while visiting Israel was to have several meetings with key people directly involved with Mechon Schechter. I wanted to better understand some of the facts and feelings in regard to the institution’s admission policy, esp. since the resignation of Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum one month ago. On both personal grounds and as a member of the Conservative – Masorti community I want to understand this conversation better so that I can make a more informed choice as a student – and as a future rabbi.
The next two days were busy: On Monday I sat in on a Talmud class, talked with several Israeli and American students, joined the community at Mincha, and then met with Rabbi Shlomo Tucker, and later, at length, with Rabbi David Golinkin. The following day I met with Rabbi Tamar and later with Jonah Rank, a JTS student, and with Rabbi Andy Sacks of the Masorti Movement.
I can’t say that I know more than I did before coming here about the facts – but I do feel that I was able to share and learn more about the feelings and thoughts expressed by the people who represent the life and challenges of this institution itself – within the context of the Masorti movement in Israel – and perhaps even in the bigger context of what’s going on in Israel’s religious and social evolution at this time.
I sat in on briefly on a Talmud class taught by Moshe Benowitz with the Mishlei students, an interesting comparison of sources and close reading of the rabbinic text – so much better in Hebrew… After the class I sat with several of the students to ask for their take on recent events and their hopes for continuing the studies into a rabbinic track. One of the students, Shimku El-Ami, shared his doubts about pursuing the rabbinic track in general and at Schechter in particular. Having grown up in an Orthodox Kibbutz and currently working as a organizational consultant and informal Jewish educator in Modiin, he spoke of his passion for social change via religious leadership. He just wasn’t sure that what Israel needs is the ‘old’ definition of rabbis – and whether Schechter could offer him the skills for a more creative sort of new forms of rabbinate. He and others were skeptical that with Tamar’s departure the institute will be able to open the promised rabbinic track by the fall of 2012. But they were hopeful, stating that they didn’t want to go to HUC – for various reasons – and saw no other viable options for rabbinic studies.
As we sat talking in the small cafeteria (sandwiches, so so coffee) Mincha was announced and people were asked to help complete a minyan.
I was the tenth.
Rabbi Golinkin served as Shliach Tzibur. One woman walked out as he began the repetition of the Amidah and someone ran after her to make sure she come back – or there would be no minyan… Rabbi Golinkin paused for a moment while this was going on, and then, with the tenth present, completed the tefila.
As soon as Mincha was over, Rabbi Shlomo Tucker, whom I had just met in the cafeteria moments ago, welcomed me publicly, and introduced me to Rabbi Golinkin, who graciously welcomed me as well and agreed to my request to meet with him later that afternoon.
Rabbi Tucker and I sat in his office for about 45 minutes, finding many friends and former colleagues in common. A wise and kind man, attentive listener, he asked me about my reasons for choosing the rabbinate, shared his own path, and briefly discussed some of the ‘current events.’ He expressed hope that the working committee that has just been established, of which he is a member, will be able to discern viable options for navigating the institute forwards. He reiterated several times that the committee was examining several issues about the institute – the rapid turn around of senior academic staff in recent years, the low enrollment of rabbinic students, and other issues. The Gay ordination was one of the issues examined – and an important issue on various levels. He was very diplomatic and didn’t convey his Halachhic views on the admission policy, but did let me know that he supports me and my colleagues fully and wants to do all he can to make sure we are present at Schechter in a loving, supported and respected way.
At the end of our meeting, he led me to Rabbi Golinkin’s office – a large room filled with books from floor to ceiling on each of the walls. As we sat down around a dark wooden table I mentioned to Rabbi Golinkin that the room reminded me a little of Rabbi Gilman’s office on the sixth floor of JTS – where I was privileged to spend a few hours each week this year, working on an independent study on theology. Just two weeks ago R. Gillman told me that the room had been Heschel’s old office. R. Golinkin pointed at the table – it was Saul Lieberman’s old desk. We began our conversation talking about the legacies of the great minds of the movement.
Then we talked about theater– I knew that he was an avid actor, and had seen in at a local Jerusalem production several years ago. He knew vague details about Storahtelling and wanted to know about the theatrical and Halachic elements of the methodology – then suggested that method may be useful in TALI schools – one of the movement’s projects very dear to his heart. It was a delightful and insightful conversation. He pulled out several books with footnotes and comments that I has asked me about in regard to the ruling on the triennial reading – very useful information I had been hoping to obtain for quite some time.
And then we moved to ‘current events’. I wasn’t sure that he knew my personal story and position. But it became evident that he knew of me and my story – not just from my mention in the recent Jerusalem Post article, but apparently also from conversations with Rabbi Nevins, during his recent visit to Jerusalem.
‘You know my position’, he said to me, ‘and I don’t expect you like it – but what do you think should happen? How can this machloket be reconciled?’
I was surprised by the question. But I knew I had to be completely honest, and I think I said something along these lines –
First – I respect your position. As a Halachic posek with a firm grasp on the delicate and complex elements of the halachic process – I fully honor your commitment to Halacha and your firm stand. I don’t like it – but I truly respect it – if you would not be taking this position you would not be the posek and the leader you are and would not represent the minds of the many rabbis who have created a serious tradition of halachic debate – in all movements and denominations.
My problem is that while the Halachic decision to not ordain GLBT rabbis in Israel may serve a careful reading of Halacha – it doesn’t serve the evolving Jewish and Israeli society – and thus it hurts me – and many people I know and love.
I came to Schechter in 1995, inquiring, with hesitation, about ordination. I was turned away because of my sexual orientation. My decision to move to the US in 1997 was in part fueled by that reality. The 2006 ruling convinced me that the Conservative Movement takes progress seriously and is willing to pay for the price – including the noble choice to endorse and enable co-existence of opposing views.
I understand your Halachic stand as I understand the same stand taken by my own brother, an Orthodox rabbi. I am not asking you – nor him – to change your views.
But I’m asking you to consider why in some people’s minds – and my own opinion – your stand is dangerous to the evolution of our people, esp. now.
Things are changing in Israel – for better and for worse. A new generation of religious leaders is needed and they are not finding their way to Schechter – either because they are gay or because they are allies who refuse to consider a discriminating institution. I know of at least a dozen such people – mostly formerly orthodox men and women who consider the Masorti option a possible viable for their personal worldview and leadership.
I myself wish to come back to Israel and would love to complete my ordination studies at Schechter – if only it were possible.
The needs of the times supersede the halachic norms of yore that deny gay students their place at the table – this table – I remember emphasizing.
So one ‘elegant’ solution – off the cuff – two Masorti Batei Midrash in Israel. Can the movement in Israel handle two rabbinic programs? One led by Rabbi Golinkin and the other open to new leadership? With the brand new, currently empty building on the Schechter campus, as well as the plans to open a center in Tel Aviv’s historical Neve Tzedk neighborhood – maybe that’s an option? Elu V’elu diveri Elhoim Chaim?
‘Financially impossible’ he replied. And from what I hear I’m sure he’s right.
Then he asked me directly – ‘do you think you can consider learning here next year?”
It’s a real dilemma, I answered. On the one hand – I want to be a student in what is still considered to be the flagship of Masorti/Cosnergvateive learning in Israel. This is a place with great history of scholarship and erudition. On the other hand – how can I look my Israeli friends in the eye – waving my privileged ‘American’ pass for a year and sit in the front of the bus while they are barred from the ride? On ethical, moral grounds I feel this is an impossible choice. I know I am not the only one with this dilemma. Many of my classmates feel the same way, even if they are not Israelis and may not feel as strongly about the reality in Israel.
He thanked me for my honesty. Somehow the conversation turned back again to the Torah Service. He suggested one more source regarding the halachic issue we discussed earlier in the context of the triennial option. I wrote down the sources and as I left he handed me an invitation to the upcoming theatrical performance he’s in – Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man. We shook hands as I left – warmly, and with respect.
I walked outside, circles the brand new, beautiful and empty new building on the campus and burst out crying. The conversation felt very honest and even though I didn’t know it would take place and wasn’t sure whether I will share my truth – I did, and it felt good.
I was glad that we prayed together, opened books together, spoke honestly about our differences, heard each other.
Later I got to thinking about the symbolism of the day – my isolation at the morning minyan, my completion of minyan at mincha – and the Tenth Man – Paddy Chayefsky’s 1959 Broadway play about the young man who completes a minyan in a decaying and emptying synagogue and becomes part of a bizarre exorcism.
The following day I met Rabbi Tamar for lunch at a café on Emek Refaim. A radiant presence and dear friend, she reiterated her powerful position – taking a strong moral stand – and determined not to discuss the reasons publicly for the time being. We spoke mostly of personal matters to us both. I am full of admiration and respect for her, hoping to learn with her next year and often after. Like many others, I have no doubt that she will continue to serve as a major leader in the movement, the country and beyond.
Rabbi Andy Sacks and I met for a late night drink, and I got to hear some of his views on the challenges of the Masorti movement in recent years in the context of the Israeli reality – esp. in the context of the conversion issues. It was interesting to hear some of the recent history of Schechter – the last decade or so and how staffing decisions were made and created. When R. Golinkin was made head of the institute about a decade ago it was assumed that he would excel as an academic leader and bring that level of prestige to the institute. He has excelled as a fundraiser – with the new building as proof. But recent staff strikes challenged the financial priorities and investments made in the future of Schechter. Like Tucker, Sacks stated that there are many changes that are needed to make the Mechon a great center of study – new faculty, direction, policies and direction. The admission policy is a first step – and an important symbolic one on the road to the needed makeover, which will take a long time. Sacks was Golinkin’s classmate at JTS and knows his quite well but I was surprised to find out that he had never sat with him for a personal conversation about the gay agenda. This lack of conversation spoke volumes for me – and reminded me of the conversations I have had not had with my own family members. We come out all the time, slowly, carefully. We need the safety to do so – and not every family member or colleague or rabbi knows how to provide that safety. That’s part of the required progress.
Andy, like many others I had spoken to about these issues in recent weeks, was only able to share fragments of what he knew about all that was going on. As Chancellor Eisen told several of us at a meeting at his home a few weeks ago: ‘The only thing I can be transparent about is that I can’t be transparent’.
A few days later, now back in NY, reflecting on all this, I read Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s defense of Orthodox Same Sex Commitment Ceremonies in the Forward. He is talking to the Orthodox community’s dealing with the gay dilemma– but not only:
“I trust that brave poskim, those willing to take the logic of empathy to heart and press the halachic system and the community toward greater responsibility, will soon rise up and truly employ the inner creativity of the Halacha to solve this dilemma. Those who believe this to be a fundamentally insolvable problem are, to my mind, lacking faith in both God and Torah and are dangerously risking the credibility of Halacha. Rav Yehuda once said, “We appoint to the Sanhedrin only someone who knows how to purify a reptile”. Rav Yohanan added that anyone who does not know how to prove a reptile pure and prove it impure 100 times cannot defend the accused.
The profound halachic questions of our moment (and this is not the only one) surely demand a generous sense of the possible. Rabbis will need to be as fearless as were their forebears to imagine the opposite of their suppositions.”
There’s that snake again, shedding its skin in slow motion – pure or not?
I have no doubt that the policy at Schechter will change, in accordance to the decision taken in 2006. The question is when and how. The Masorti movement in Israel needs fresh leadership and a direction that will attract young leaders and strong voices that will speak to the greater Israeli public – thirsty for this access and inclusion. The LGBT agenda is merely a representative of that direction. Where women’s dignity was at the forefront two decades ago, the evolution of dignity and inclusivity continues, in the spirit of this evolving – moving – skin shedding – movement.
This is what it feels, sounds, like when change happens, painfully, reluctantly for some, adamantly for others, a transaction as mysterious and simple as a snake shedding its skin – same creature, but different. New and improved.
Before leaving back for NY I shared the conversations with my parents and with my brothers – who listened attentively, asked many questions and supported my position – not a small thing. In some way I feel like this conversation – and the stand that I decided to take – is helping me truly own who I am- and I believe that why my choice to accept who I am and fight for my rights and dignified place at the table, member of the minyan – is holy, honest, and for the sake of heaven. It is an incredible privilege to be able to voice these feelings and make these claims – it is an incredible moment of change in our history and evolution.
HADARA is the hot buzzword in Israel these days – fancy modern Hebrew for ‘discrimination’. It’s a word that speaks of anguish, invisibility, and violent struggles for human dignity. Andy gave me some of the smart stickers created by his team at the Masorti Movement – they have been heard loudly and clearly in this context, standing shoulder to shoulder with many of Israel’s liberal forces for human dignity for all in the name of religion. There is a clear demand by the sane majority for strong religious leadership that will represent the Israeli public with a clear progressive and moderate voice. Hadara also comes from the root of HADAR – beauty and increased value. From tears of pain, sometimes, hopefully – we reap our greatest joys.
I left Israel grateful for the opportunity to be there with my family at a difficult time and grateful to be part of this important conversation in my community. I am excited and energized about coming back to Jerusalem – coming home – and helping to be part of the change, opening the doors wide to the Jewish experience that honors all of where we come from and where we really want to go – all of us – somehow, together, elu v’elu – these and those words and deeds of a living God.
Amichai Lau-Lavie, 1/8/12