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?

Comments are closed.