Post-Orthodoxy Journey

Haaretz/March 4, 2004
By Neri Livneh

"We've forgotten the Ela [the Goddess]," says Rabbi Mordechai Gafni, founder of Bayit Chadash, a community that aspires to be a new stream in Judaism, and, in his words, "to restore the spark of holy paganism." Judaism was once an erotic religion, he argues, in the sense that the Divinity had two experiential sides or dimensions: a male side called "God" and a female side called "Shekhina," the Goddess. The sense of the Divinity is achieved by a fusing of the two elements, as between a man and a woman, yin and yang, Shakti and Shiva. In the Temple, the Holy of Holies, there were two cherubim - male and female. To kabbalists, the blending of the divine male, called "Tiferet" and the divine female, called "Shekhina," a unity described in the Babylonian Talmud in reference to the cherubim on the Holy Ark, represents the Divine Power. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook described the fusing of these two elements as the combination of a (male) straight line with a (female) circle.

To Gafni, the line without a circle represents Ethos without Eros, i.e., rational life, without emotion, disconnected from Mother Earth and from natural impulse. The circle without the line represents an immersion in the erotic or spiritual, as in New Age practices. The fusion of the line and the circle represents Eros purified by the encounter with the rational and ethical foundation - a desirable encounter that is necessary for the building of the "Bayit Chadash" ("new home") or the new Judaism. "Orthodox Judaism developed out of the ethical teachings of the Prophets, who tried to obscure the Eros for the sake of nurturing the Ethos," he says. This is how we've gotten the ultra-Orthodox Judaism that we're familiar with, a religion that tries to suppress the impulse and whose rabbis are supposed to supply absolute truths and answers to every question. Gafni, who calls himself "post-Orthodox," takes an opposite view of what religiosity ought to mean: "To me, the religious duty is to ask questions. I think it smacks of great arrogance to give pat answers to ultimate issues."

Gafni is not an anonymous personality by any means. His Channel 2 television program, "Tahat Gafno," attracted many viewers. He says that thousands of people have attended his community's encounters. He also writes a regular column in the magazine Hayim Aherim and has published five books in the United States in recent years. One of them, "Soul Prints," will soon appear in Hebrew translation, with an introduction by the religious poet Admiel Kosman. Gafni's television show is due back for a new season, and he recently finished taping segments for the Keshet broadcasting network "about the situation and questions related to the situation - for Keshet to use on days when there is a terror attack."

In addition to his rabbinical ordination, he also holds a Ph.D. from Oxford. And no, he says, he is not at all inclined to become a guru. He says that he's as far from New Age as he is from Reform Judaism. His "new Orthodoxy" does not offer any breaks when it comes to observance of the 613 commandments, or mitzvot. What makes him unique are the additions he makes to Judaism, the changes of emphasis, the way he relates it to modern life and the special focus he puts on commandments related to human dignity and love of fellow human beings. He also invites non-Jews to the Shabbat weekends he runs at the Bayit Chadash center in Poriya, overlooking Lake Kinneret. He officiates at same-sex marriages, and sees feminism and equality for women as key Jewish values. He plans to ordain women as rabbis and women in his community can be called up to the Torah. Every blessing in the community's prayer book and every blessing recited at community ceremonies open, as usual, with "Baruch ata adonai eloheinu" and then continues with "ve'berukha at hashekhina" ("And blessed art thou, the Shekhina"). "I'm not talking about Judaism-lite, like the Reform or the settlers," says Gafni. "I'm talking about whole Judaism that has both Ethos and Eros, both faith and a full life, both male and female."

Gafni divides his time between the new Bayit Chadash center in Jaffa, where this conversation took place, and the older center in Poriya - and between Israel and the U.S. He is 42, married to Chaya (his second wife), and father of three children from his previous marriage. He radiates warmth, and is not the type of rabbi who is reluctant to shake a woman's hand. On the contrary, he does not shy away from physical contact. "Someone who wanted to study with me said, `I have a problem with you. I've heard that you love women.' As if loving women is a bad thing. I told him that I'm very happy that I'm a loving person and also that I love women. I think love is a very important thing."

He was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to a family of Holocaust survivors that lived an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. "At age six or seven, I knew that I wanted to be a rabbi," he relates. "Because I really loved the world of the book, which I'd known since I began learning at age 3." He went to a yeshiva high school in New York, then to Yeshiva University. He also took courses at Queens College and earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy ("I majored in Sartre, Heidegger and Nietzsche"). At the same time, he also set up a network of Jewish clubs within the New York public school system, to draw in Jewish youth that had left the synagogue and Judaism behind.

After being ordained as a rabbi, he moved to Florida and served as the rabbi of South Palm Beach. Then, at age 29, he decided that it was time to make aliyah. "To me, the Divine call of our generation was to participate in the destiny of the Jewish people in our generation, and that's hard to do from Florida," he says.

What happens in Israel will either shape or answer an essential question: "Is Judaism a relevant and important instrument in the symphony of the spirit of the modern world? Or is it just another fundamentalist approach that does not grapple with this generation in a substantial way? Of course, I'd prefer for us to develop a Judaism that has relevance and contributes to life in our era."

New look at kashrut

Gafni describes his main occupation as "clarifying the issue of the place and contribution of the Jewish instrument in the world symphony of the spirit." To this end, he participates in discussions with a group of philosophers and "international sages," as he calls them, who conduct a dialogue, by means of e-mail, on theological and philosophical subjects. One member of this group is philosopher Ken Wilbur, whom Gafni calls "the Aristotle of our time." "We examine Judaism's place and contribution, starting with the premise that there is no competition between religions," he says. "It's not the old idea of seeking to prove that Judaism is better than other religions. That outlook has to be uprooted."

Another question he addresses is the purpose of Judaism. "The standard argument is a circular one - that Judaism must be preserved so that Jews will be preserved so that they will preserve Judaism. If the whole purpose of Judaism is merely the survival of people as Jews without any ethical or spiritual content, then Judaism is essentially a kind of `enlightened racism.' In my opinion, the answer to the question of what is the purpose of Judaism has to come from questions about the essence of Judaism. The question that all the big rabbis are concerned with now - whether the tuna is a kosher fish or not - is not, in my view, an essential Jewish question. An essential Jewish question is a question that shapes life."

His transition from Orthodox to post-Orthodox began even before he received his rabbinical ordination. "We were studying `The Letter of Rav Shrira Gaon,' and in it he says that everything that happens in the world is for the sake of the Jewish people. I asked the rabbi a simple question: When a couple in China, on a beautiful moonlit night, feels a great physical attraction to each other and makes love - are they also making love for the sake of the Jewish people? The rabbi said, `Indirectly, yes.' That's when I realized that there was something twisted in this Jewish outlook that is incapable of seeing anything that happens in the world as distinct from it, but instead sees everything as somehow enslaved to the needs of Judaism. To me, that means that as a Jew you cannot see the Other, and I don't accept that."

Gafni sees the world as rich and varied and ever-changing. "The classic Jewish outlook tries to freeze everything in order to fit the changes to its needs, instead of fitting itself to the needs of the world," he says. "I thought that it was necessary to seek a new Jewish outlook that would try to deal with our place in this world and in this generation. For example, the matter of kashrut. I don't give myself any breaks in terms of kashrut, but I have a different understanding of the meaning of kashrut than the standard one."

In speaking of kashrut, Gafni includes ecological and humanistic considerations with the halakhic [Jewish legal] system: "Meat is considered kosher if it comes from a kosher animal that has been slaughtered according to Jewish law. Everyone knows this, and that suffices for them. But I say, let's ask another question: A goose that is slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law is kosher according to the classical outlook, but is the fact that it was cruelly fattened in such a way that its entire internal system was wrecked of no significance? How can that not detract from its kashrut? Or if the vegetable that we eat was previously sprayed with a substance that harms the soil and poisons the groundwater, can it be kosher?"

And he adds another, social consideration: "What I mean to say is that there needs to be kashrut not only in the accepted halakhic sense, but also `eco-kashrut.' Judaism must also be expressed in concern for the world and for life, for ecology in other words. And another question: If someone eats food that was grown by people employed in slave conditions at starvation wages, how can it be kosher?"

You're adding a moral dimension to kashrut.

"Yes, and not just to the kashrut of food. I'm saying that we have to find the kashrut in every aspect of human life. For example, I need to check into my mutual fund and make sure that I'm not investing in the world of globalization that is impoverishing people and companies."

What else do you consider an essential Jewish question?

"For example, how do I see my world: Do I divide the world into the enlightened and the primitive, the secular and the religious, the Jews and the goyim, or is my world more complex than that - one in which no one possesses the absolute truth, in which each one contributes something to the symphony of the spirit and in which everyone must ask himself questions. In my view, the most essential part of the spiritual quest has to be doubt - to begin every effort to understand something not from the classical Jewish starting point that says either I or my rabbi has the right answers to all the questions, but to cast doubt on all the answers, and from this point to begin asking questions."

Male and female He created them

Another essential question on Gafni's mind is where the feminine voice has disappeared to in Judaism. This question, he says, is especially urgent in this generation, in which the feminine voice has great importance. "The Orthodox public is so worried about `kol be'isha erva' (the provocativeness of a woman's voice) that it also doesn't listen to the Bat-Kol (the Heavenly Voice) and erases the Goddess."

What exactly is the connection between God and the Goddess?

"First of all, these are two different elements of one Divine essence. The masculine God creates the world outside of himself and the feminine Goddess creates the world within herself. The masculine God is rational, judgmental, ethical. The Goddess is more giving, more encompassing, more accepting. I don't advocate annulling the masculine God, but there has to be a holy mating. Meaning, a combination of the male and the female - in experience, in prayer, in equality. And all this isn't my own personal invention, it comes from the sources of Jewish thought, from the Talmud and the kabbala and Jewish mysticism."

What do you have against neo-liberalism?

"That's another essential question. We live in a world today in which no one truly lives solely in his own place - economically, ecologically or culturally. But what happens is that in the New Age world, which is all superficiality, and in the academic world, which is completely disconnected from life, and also in the world of intellectualism, there is no real discussion of globalization and its meaning for the life of the spirit, government and economics. This discussion has to take place, and that's what we're trying to do in Bayit Chadash."

Is Bayit Chadash a group of 'sages' conducting a discussion, or it is a type of Jewish community?

"Both. Bayit Chadash is comprised of several parts. First of all, it's a spiritual-cultural stream that currently has about 2,500 adherents and aspires to be a new stream in Judaism. There's the aspect of the community, which is built on the model of the Buddhist community, or the way the Hasidic community was built once upon a time. The original Hasidic community wasn't in the community center: A person would go to his rabbi a few times a year or a month, or every Shabbat. In our community, there are people who come a few times a year for Shabbat and there are those who come for the festivals and those who come every week or every few days and study in our Beit Midrash or take a class.

"In the inner circle of the community, there is our ordination program and our leadership program. I decided that we have to ordain people for the rabbinate and we currently have 17 men and women in our program. In our leadership program, we try to train people for social leadership. Outside of this inner circle, there is the public, cultural circle, which is composed of our activities in the media."

What is pleasure?

People who have been to Gafni's center in Poriya and to the new center in Jaffa describe Shabbat there as an especially pleasurable experience. "I had seen Rabbi Gafni on television and read his articles in Hayim Aherim, and I was intrigued," says Ziv Barnea, a student in the rabbinical ordination program. "I come from a Marxist, very non-religious background. I went to the Bayit Chadash center in Poriya and discovered that I'd come to a warm and accepting and interesting place. Gafni greeted me and hugged me and also said it was an honor for him to meet me. He's a very warm and loving and loved man, and on the other hand, has no pretensions at all of being a guru.

"One hundred and sixty people came that Shabbat. I kept coming for weekend retreats and there was usually a big crowd. I take my children and my wife there, too. One Shabbat, my wife was called up to the Torah and this had tremendous meaning for me, because the value of equality is something that has very great meaning in my life: equality between men and women, between Jews and Muslims, between straights and gays. Gafni applies this in his life, too. His wife, Chaya, is his equal partner in leading the community. She gives classes and workshops."

Bayit Chadash is registered as a nonprofit organization and also has a center in New York. Gafni is the director-general of the NPO and when he is abroad, Rabbi Avraham Leader, who also grew up in America, substitutes for him at Bayit Chadash.

The organization pays a salary to several teachers and a director. Money to fund the centers comes from fees paid for lessons and - primarily - from contributions raised by Friends of Bayit Chadash, which operates in Israel and the United States.

"I don't make my money from religion," says Gafni. "Most of what I earn comes from lectures abroad and from my books." He lectures, among other places, at the Harvard University business school and teaches several times a year at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue. "And even though they're Reform there, they accept me as an Orthodox rabbi," he says.

"Judaism needs to be liberated from all the religious establishments. The establishments are a desecration of God's name. If buses have to travel on Shabbat for the non-Orthodox majority, then there should be buses. And if the needs of this majority require civil marriages, then there should be civil marriages. And if gays and lesbians want to live together in love, then there should be marriages between them. Only if we throw off all the shackles of the religious establishment will Judaism be able to freely contend in the ideological market without cloaking itself in a mantle of establishment-based superiority. Tommy Lapid is always saying `no.' I agree with most of his `nos.' The problem is: What does he say `yes' to?" And what do you say?

"I say: The security of the State of Israel depends on our ability to recount a narrative that the country's non-Orthodox majority will feel a part of. If there is no such narrative, then you can make one kind of fence or another, set borders here or there, and it won't work. Because what will be inside the borders? This, by the way, is a very Zionist and not a right-wing thesis. Now, in order to search for this narrative, you need seriousness first of all. New Age populism and kabbala centers won't help. The insularity of the yeshiva world and the alienation of the academic world won't help either. And another thing, we have to create the kind of philosophy in which a person feels that he is developing and growing in his inner spiritual and ethical world, that he is on an inner journey.

"The kabbalists say that the primary ideal in life is pleasure. But what is pleasure? Pleasure is to develop. Today, the Orthodox Jewish world has become a kind of gym or training program where a person marks off pluses and minuses on a card and calculates how many pluses he needs to check off in order to get to heaven. I've done such and such mitzvot - okay, I've completed my quota. It's a rigid approach that doesn't contribute a lot to one's inner life, and we need to return to the inner view that says that Judaism is a journey that can be expressed in many areas outside of religion: culture, science, you name it."

You're opposed to the rabbinical establishment and yet you ordain rabbis yourself?

"Yes, but a different type of rabbi. They won't be rabbis whose job is to give halakhic answers. In Orthodox Judaism, the rabbi serves as a kind of alter-ego whose role is to underscore the imperfection of anyone who isn't the rabbi. I say that anyone looking for this kind of rabbi should not come to me. I've made and am making a lot of mistakes in life. A rabbi has to be a person who genuinely loves people, who loves the Torah and is a person who has courage and is not just another kind of political person. He has to be outside the establishment and outside the political system and must be capable of admitting mistakes.

"I tell my people that I fall down and pick myself up every day. I'm no better than anyone else. But if you want to go on a spiritual journey together with me, then let's do it. The whole philosophy of Bayit Chadash is that the rabbi is not a guru, the rabbi is essentially the community as a whole. Our philosophy is a kind of new Hasidism. We're the successors of the Ba'al Shem Tov in this sense. Naturally, I'm aware that this approach is threatening to all the traditional approaches."

Gafni may not want to be a guru, but he has not shown any special reluctance to establish a Hasidic-style court. A picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe - "when he was still young and modest" - in other words, before he was crowned as the Messiah by his admirers - adorns the wall of his study. The approach of Bayit Chadash could reopen the war between Hasidim and Mitnagdim, if it comes to be perceived as a real threat to Orthodox Judaism. The Hasidim of the Ba'al Shem Tov were accused by the Mitnagdim of engaging in a form of paganism, and the emphasis that Gafni places on the existence of the Goddess and her importance certainly could invite such accusations.

It's not that hard to see the study methods at Bayit Chadash as a kind of almost idolatrous cult. Gafni himself described this in an article he wrote for Hayim Aherim: "In the Bayit Chadash spiritual community, located at Poriya overlooking Lake Kinneret, we are committed, in the spirit of Rav Kook's teachings, to restoring the spark of holy paganism. We return to the pagan when we reconnect to Mother Earth ... We restore the pagan in meditation, in ecstatic rituals and in passionate love of the Shekhina in her many manifestations. According to the kabbalist Cordovero, we yearn for the consciousness of this Goddess, when we speak of the dream of rebuilding the Temple."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.