Misery loves company, so Shmuly Yanklowitz thought it might help to seek out other Orthodox rabbis who were starting to feel like outcasts. In other words, rabbis concerned about Orthodoxy’s rapid drift to the right – both politically and religiously. Rabbis who didn’t automatically embrace President Donald Trump just because he said nice things about Israel. Rabbis convinced that Orthodox Judaism needed to adapt to modernity rather than reject it. And in particular, rabbis who believed it was their duty – as spiritual leaders, educators and role models – to make their voices heard not only on matters of Jewish religious observance, but also on hot-button issues of the day.
That’s why he set up Torat Chayim, an association of progressive-minded Orthodox rabbis interested in promoting a more compassionate strain of Judaism within the movement.
“It was really a response to my existential loneliness,” Yanklowitz says. “I was really starting to feel like an anomaly, and I also wanted to create change.”
The name of the organization was chosen with great care, as its website indicates. “Torah is about rootedness and Chayim [life] is about dynamism,” it explains. “We want a Torah that is strongly rooted in tradition and that is also responsive to – and pushing us forward in – our time. Further, Torah is about life. It is about ethics, human dignity, and the perpetuation – and sanctification – of life. We embrace a life-affirming, dignity-affirming Torah, and work to ensure that Torah only adds to – and never detracts from – human dignity and the sanctity of life.”
The initiative was launched about 18 months ago, but has gained steam in recent months as membership has expanded. At the last count, more than 250 rabbis had joined Torat Chayim – about 150 of them from North America, just under 100 from Israel, and a smattering from Europe. Almost all these rabbis define themselves as either Modern Orthodox or Open Orthodox, which is even more liberal.
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Yanklowitz reveals, however, that several ultra-Orthodox rabbis (“closet progressives,” he calls them) are also involved in the initiative but prefer, for obvious reasons, not to have their names published.
A major impetus for its creation was the U.S. presidential election campaign of 2016. “Many progressive Orthodox Jews were starting to feel like they were suffocating, and many of them still are,” says Yanklowitz. “With rare exceptions, Orthodoxy has been very pro-Trump and has been very intolerant of dissenting views. If you’re not pro-Trump, then you’re a bad Jew or you’re anti-Israel. So we realized we needed a platform and a space for Orthodox rabbis who were feeling isolated by all this.”
The organization’s first public statement, in August 2016, was a condemnation of Trump’s “hateful rhetoric and intolerant policy proposals.” In March, it published a call for “spiritual resistance” to Trump policies.
Torat Chayim members have also weighed in on issues like eating meat (best avoided); Jewish pluralism in Israel (very positive); the death penalty (wrong); arms sales to Myanmar (terrible); U.S. intervention in Syria (welcome); African asylum seekers in Israel (support them); climate change (reducing it should be a “focal point” of Jewish life); and the proposed U.S. farm bill (unethical).
Its biggest attention-getter was a recent public call for solidarity with the LGBTQ community. In this first-of-its-kind statement, signed by more than 100 Torat Chayim rabbis, the Orthodox community was urged to “redouble our efforts to turn our synagogues, homes and communities into safe and tolerant places for the LGBTQ community.”
“Instead of hate, let us offer love,” the statement said. “Where others demean, let us strive for equality.”
Most Orthodox rabbis would rather focus on the minutiae of Jewish religious law, or halakha, and let others deal with the big issues that affect the rest of the world. Yanklowitz rejects this “hyper-particularistic approach,” as he calls it.
“Authentic Torah is concerned with all human beings, with all creatures and with the planet,” he says. “I, of course, don’t speak on behalf of all our members. But I have a very good sense that the Torat Chayim rabbis – and there are many more like us out there – want to liberate halakha from the ghetto and redeem Orthodoxy to a place of relevancy.”
Other prominent members of Torat Chayim include Rabbi Avi Weiss (founder of the Open Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah); Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg (author, professor and Jewish community leader); Rabba Sara Hurwitz (the first Orthodox woman to be ordained as a rabbi); Rabbi Daniel Sperber (Israel Prize laureate); and Rabbi Michael Melchior (former Israeli government minister and chief rabbi of Denmark and Norway).
Yanklowitz sees the forum not only as a vehicle for pushing forward a more progressive agenda within Orthodoxy, but also as a tool for creating and strengthening ties with other denominations in Judaism and for organizing like-minded rabbis around the world who might otherwise feel intimidated to speak out.
“Whenever I meet these rabbis in Israel and elsewhere, it’s comforting to hear that we’re all going through the same thing,” he says.
Torat Chayim operates differently from other Orthodox rabbinical organizations in that there is no hierarchy of power. “We are totally grassroots, so anybody here can lead his or her own initiative and try to gather support,” explains Yanklowitz. “Unlike other organizations, we don’t hold any votes. We have people here interested in different sorts of issues. Some are fighting for women’s leadership roles, some are passionate about stopping weapons sales, and others are focused on intellectual pursuits like biblical criticism.”
Indeed, some of the statements issued by Torat Chayim rabbis earn dozens of endorsements, whereas others garner a mere handful.
The driving spirit behind it all, Yanklowitz brings an impressive list of qualifications to the table. An author, educator and activist, he is the founder of Uri L’Tzedek, a first-of-its-kind Orthodox social justice movement; of Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, an animal welfare center; and of YATOM: The Jewish Foster & Adoption Network. He also co-founded Jews for Human Rights in Syria and heads Arizona Jews for Justice. Harvard-educated, the 37-year-old rabbi lives with his wife and four children in Phoenix, Arizona, where he serves as president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash.
A firm believer in practicing what you preach, Yanklowitz and his wife regularly open their home to black and Latino foster children, and make a practice of welcoming Syrian refugees into the community by hosting them at their place. He and his wife have been vegan since their wedding day, he says. Three years ago, Yanklowitz donated his kidney to an Israeli he did not even know, but says “I gained so much more than I gave in that.”
His desire for greater tolerance and inclusivity in Orthodoxy was clearly influenced by his own life story. Several years ago, Yanklowitz published an op-ed in The New York Times, in which he revealed he had converted to Judaism because although his father was Jewish, his mother was not. “As a teenager, I recall breaking down in tears during my first trip to Israel when others questioned my Jewish status,” he wrote. “I was interrogated with the most personal questions about my beliefs, practices and relationships, by strangers who controlled my religious destiny; I felt powerless to challenge them.”
As edgy as they are, Torat Chayim rabbis try to avoid politics unless they can’t help it – which has often been the case since Trump appeared on the scene. The organization has yet to issue a position paper, for example, on Israeli settlements. Given that some of its rabbis actually live in the West Bank, it makes sense that the organization would want to avoid such a fraught topic.
But that doesn’t mean the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is completely off-limits. When the Trump administration announced its decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, for example, a group of Torat Chayim rabbis issued a very nuanced response. It lauded the decision but included the following qualifier: “This step does not diminish the imperative of a negotiated settlement, which could include a Palestinian presence in Jerusalem. Any forfeiting of Jewish sovereignty of the capital would be painful, but sacrificing part of the City of Peace for the sake of peace is a price worth paying.”
Coming from a group of Orthodox rabbis, that is a pretty revolutionary thing to say.
Yanklowitz doesn’t like to use the term “fringe” to describe his peers, but at the same time he acknowledges, “we’re definitely not mainstream.”
“We have lots of work ahead of us,” he concedes. “On the one hand, we need to move fast enough to respond to issues of urgency. But on the other, we need to be slow enough to bring the community along with us.”
He takes comfort from recent changes in attitudes toward the LGBTQ community within his own Orthodox world. “Five years ago, I wrote an article in The Huffington Post saying I was pro-gay marriage because I’m Orthodox,” he recounts. “I was virtually slaughtered for it, whereas today not only do you find a growing number of Orthodox rabbis who say they’re willing to support gay marriage, but some might even perform gay weddings.”