To Be, or Not to Be, a Holy People

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Steven Gotlib


Review of Eugene Korn, To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values (New York: Urim Publications, 2021).

In his newest book, To Be a Holy People, Rabbi Eugene Korn asks if age-old Jewish practices can continue to “be justified in the face of our modern understanding of justice, equality, and human flourishing?”[1] This is a fair question. After all, if the 2013 and 2020 Pew reports are correct in reporting that over 70% of American Jews believe that leading a moral life is essential to their Jewish identity, then most Jews are at risk of ceasing to live Jewish lives entirely unless there is a clear dedication to ethical integrity.[2] Similarly, R. Ronen Neuwirth ztl confidently predicted that if Orthodox rabbis cannot “boldly and honestly provide a comprehensive, relevant, response to the questions of this generation using the halakhic tools of our eternal Torah, within a generation or two we are liable to find ourselves with a significantly weaker and smaller community of the halakhically observant.”[3]

But what exactly is ethical integrity, and how can we make sure that Judaism aligns with it? The word ethics, Korn explains, signifies “the subjects of the development of human character, social responsibilities and personal duties.”[4] Ethics are part of Judaism since many traditional texts “are often devoted to describing character development, responsibilities and personal obligations”[5] through the use of explicit biblical imperatives, appealing to overarching values, and commitment to bringing about a just and God-fearing world. To use Korn’s imagery, the ideal structure of Jewish ethics “is similar to a tree. Its branches are specific positivist laws, its trunk is formed by overarching values, and its roots are the ultimate messianic dream that nurtures the entire living body.”[6]

Because Jewish ethics attempts to balance law, values, and vision, it often ends up allowing multiple competing opinions to exist side by side. As biblical laws are applied to modern situations through the medium of human reasoning, different applications of the same mitzvot can arise and practices can change over time in response to new situations. For Korn, questions that require new answers include technology, feminism, gender identity and sexual orientations, the status of Jews as full citizens in the Western world, and the reality of having a secure State of Israel. Korn suggests that examining these questions through the lens of Jewish ethics requires understanding four essential principles:

  1. Jewish religion, ethics, and culture cannot be reduced to law alone. It is a dialectic of law, values, and vision.
  2. Jewish ethics is interpretive and an ongoing process of bridging traditional values and imperatives with evolving moral consciousness and sensibilities.
  3. Redemption within history is the dream for which Jewish ethics—and hopefully Jews—work relentlessly. This will be achieved through concrete acts—some obligated and some voluntary—in the physical and social world.
  4. The doctrine that all human beings are created in God’s image necessitates that there be no disconnect between moral and religious duties, or in other words, between Jewish ethics and theology.

This framework is truly beautiful in theory. In practice, however, many of the conflicts cited by Korn remain unresolved, and the attempted solutions highlight the conflict. To illustrate this, it is worthwhile to see how Korn treats an issue that North American readers will find relevant as a case study: challenges faced by the LGBTQIA+ community.[7]

Korn writes that “Halakhic Jews have a moral responsibility to protect the welfare and equality of all non-threatening persons. Correct ethics require that LGBTQ persons be treated by others as full human beings to be understood and treated with compassion, not as problems to be solved.”[8] This unequivocal statement is used by Korn to argue against dangerous and dehumanizing treatments such as conversion therapy and to celebrate statements which “recommend non-discriminatory policies towards all persons with same sex orientations and the religious obligation to treat them in their full humanity—all without violating the biblical prohibition against male homosexual relations.”[9] But does Korn’s approach really solve the disconnect between moral and religious duties? Is it enough to treat such individuals with compassion and full humanity when the existence of the biblical prohibition itself is cause for tremendous pain and suffering? Take, for example, the words of R. Steve Greenberg:

My emotions accompanying the reading [of Leviticus 18] have changed through the years. At first, I felt guilt and contrition. Later, I felt a deep sadness for being caught up in gay desire, and I would petition heaven for understanding. After the reading, I would sob in my corner seat of the shul, acknowledging the pain of those verses on my body and spirit. I have tried to connect myself with Jews of countless ages, listening in shul to their deepest feelings of love and desire turned abhorrent, ugly, and sinful. Finally, listening has become, in addition to all else I might feel, a protest.[10]

Greenberg’s response to these feelings was to search for creative rereadings of the relevant verses that put the prohibitions at play in conversation with the contemporary gay experience.[11] If, as Korn writes, “the most severe ethical challenges to halakhah for today require us to think anew about how to justly treat and promote the full humanity of women, heterodox, secular, and LGBTQ Jews, Jews of color, mamzerim … as well as gentiles—i.e, persons other than the white Jewish adult males, who traditionally dominated halakhic discourse and Jewish leadership,”[12] then the absence of Korn’s making an attempt to go further in this regard is notable in that it seemingly prevents the full actualization of humanity for a large set of people.[13] One would have expected much more than what Korn offered if the intent was to alleviate the pain of these individuals.

In short, the ethical dilemmas faced by many members of the Orthodox community are clear, but calling for a solution is far easier than actually offering one. This is a major issue since Korn himself writes that “nothing falsifies claims to religious truth in human hearts and minds as does unjust immoral behavior.”[14] This tension is made all the more apparent by Korn’s consistent call to make Torah life-affirming and meaningful in today’s world by bringing acute moral sensibilities into the conversation with hot-button issues. After all, “new realities demand that faithful Jews open up new horizons in Torah—horizons that include women’s voices, the entire people of Israel and all human beings. They entail rethinking our liturgy and practices, while we continue to hold fast to the deepest values of Jewish practice and ethics.”[15]

Korn seems to call for significant change but at the same time maintains that we must hold fast to both Halakhah and ethics. One wonders, though, whether he grapples sufficiently with what this might entail. It is instructive to examine two modern approaches to dealing with conflicts between ethics and halakhic practice in general, one Orthodox and the other not.

R. Aharon Lichtenstein’s approach is that by definition, an ethical change in practice or liturgy cannot contradict Torah’s plain meaning or normative Halakhah. R. Lichtenstein writes that religious and ethical concerns are inextricably woven together and cannot, therefore, truly be in contrast: “[W]e can only speak of a complement to Halakhah, not of an alternative. Any ethic so independent of Halakhah as to obviate or override it clearly lies beyond our pale.”[16] While there are certainly factors like the preservation of life, enhancement of human dignity, quest for communal peace, and the mitigation of anxiety or pain that occasionally warrant significant leniency or even temporarily pushing the Halakhah aside, “these factors are themselves halakhic considerations, in the most technical sense of the term, and their deployment entails no rejection of the system.”[17] Ethical considerations, then, are part of the halakhic system itself and cannot override that system’s fundamental values.

An alternative approach can be found in the integral Halakhah of R. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Reb Zalman, as his supporters affectionately referred to him, called for people “to ask what it is that God wants from us today,” even if such questioning ultimately results in “a change in practice, a new halachic modeling.”[18] In other words,

when we are no longer able to follow the [halakhic] form which our ancestors used … when the people themselves begin to feel that the tradition no longer works for them … we need to ask again what was the essence of the insight from which the practice emerged and consider creating a link between the same insight and a new or different practice.[19]

In the case of LGBTQIA+ concerns, this involves reinterpreting what gender, sexuality, and marriage mean in the contemporary world and how Halakhah can be made to fit that new paradigm.[20] Unlike R. Lichtenstein’s approach, Reb Zalman explicitly acknowledges that Halakhah should adapt to changing moral sensibilities regardless of traditional precedent. Furthermore, Reb Zalman made it clear that such changes ultimately rely on the consensus of religiously committed (but not necessarily Orthodox) individuals “because we rely on the committed for an upward striving and a desire for transformation. When they manifest a consensus, it is one we can count on.”[21]

Korn’s perspective does not neatly fall into either model. Like R. Lichtenstein, Korn states clearly that “Halakhic texts and legal analyses are often indispensable to determining Jewish theological, philosophical and ethical ideas.”[22] Furthermore, as shown above, his position on homosexuality is clearly opposed to radical rereadings of the biblical text itself.

On the other hand, Korn’s repeated calls for change in the face of shifting moral consensus closely resemble Schachter-Shalomi’s rhetoric. Korn claims, for example, that a halakhic system which is divested from current social and moral issues will become nothing more than a dry legal system, losing the commitment of those who are both religiously passionate and ethically motivated. In fact, if nothing changes, this generation’s Jews “will deem halakhah inferior to more just systems, lose their conviction in it and renounce their halakhic commitment.”[23] In one of his closing paragraphs, Korn even comes very close to making the claim we saw Reb Zalman make above:

How future Jewish ethics are refashioned around the basic values of justice and compassion … will not be determined by any heteronomous revelation from above. It will emerge from below, out of the everyday deliberations, ethos and principles of Jews as they live their lives, interact with others, and build their future communities.[24]

The ultimate question, which Korn does not sufficiently address, is whether or not the halakhic system as currently understood can truly integrate with the demands of contemporary ethics. On the one hand, Korn shows a clear readiness to address uncomfortable questions. On the other hand, it’s unclear how much alignment there can be when the challenges not only involve rabbinic stringencies or communal traditions but verses from the Torah itself. If the response to LGBTQIA+ concerns is any indication, completely aligning ethics and Halakhah is far easier said than done. But that is no reason not to narrow the gap where we can, and despite not always breaking new ground, Korn’s work is still an excellent step in that direction.

[1] Eugene Korn, To Be a Holy People, 9.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ronen Neuwirth, The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2020), 16.

[4] Korn, 17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 19.

[7] Broadly, this would include the full range of concerns faced by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (and/or questioning), intersex, asexual, etc. communities. This review, matching Korn’s primary interest, will focus specifically on questions of male homosexuality.

This example is also useful because it presents the extreme disconnect between Halakhah as stated in the Torah itself and the contemporary ethical value of fully accepting the LGBTQIA+ community.

[8] Ibid., 66-67.

[9] Ibid., 67.

[10] Steven Greenberg, Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 74.

[11] Greenberg ultimately suggests four rationales for the prohibition (1. maximizing reproduction, 2. minimizing social disruption, 3. eliminating category confusion, and 4. limiting humiliation and violence) and argues how each of them are inapplicable to today’s gay community.

[12] Korn, 68.

[13] This issue is seemingly ubiquitous within Orthodox Judaism, even in its most liberal varieties. The above-cited R. Ronen Neuwirth ztl, who ran the rabbinic organization Beit Hillel, writes in the middle of his attempt to offer halakhic solutions for members of the LGBTQIA+ community that “the adoption of the term ‘pride’ by the LGBT community is a tragic distortion. Judaism believes in humility and modesty … While we should not judge a person by their sexual orientation, on the other hand, no person, of whatever orientation, ought to wave about their sexuality in public” (Neuwirth, 483). Though he goes on to write that Orthodox Judaism cannot and should not abandon those whose sexual orientations make it impossible for them to form an ideal Jewish family as understood by Orthodox halakhic standards, he adds that “empathy and concern do not mean that people ought not grapple with this challenge” and that “granting homosexual orientation complete acceptance and legitimacy can harm those people who do have a measure of choice regarding their sexual identity because it will prevent them from making the requisite efforts to face that challenge” (484). Friends of mine who identify with the LGBTQIA+ community have said that framings like this are incredibly painful for those outside of the heteronormative majority to hear, even if those who say and write such things mean well.

[14] Korn, 74.

[15] Ibid., 191-192.

[16] Aharon Lichtenstein, Leaves of Faith: The World of Jewish Living, Volume 2 (Jersey City: KTAV Publishing, 2004), 38.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Daniel Siegel, Integral Halachah: Transcending and Including (Trafford, Victoria, BC: Trafford Publishing, 2007), 8.

[19] Ibid., 11-12. To what degree this approach can be seen as part of the broader halakhic conversation is subject to debate. Shaul Magid, for example, prefers to frame Reb Zalman’s approach as “post-halakha” because “it reimagines Judaism from its very roots without the obligatory tie to halakha or its past authority, while [remaining] committed to ritual as a basis of communal cohesion.” Shaul Magid, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 7-8.

Ariel Mayse, on the other hand, has argued that “we would do better to identify three distinct—if roughly hewn—stages in Schachter-Shalomi’s writings on Jewish law. His years until the early 1960s were defined by his commitments to Hasidism and to apologetics in favor of Orthodoxy … [From the mid-1960s until the late 1990s] he unmade legal traditions and remade rituals in light of his encounters with other religious traditions as well as new cultural currents … [and] in his later decades, Schachter-Shalomi’s writings and oral teachings reveal his return to more traditional patterns of observance and praxis without relinquishing the core of the radical spiritual vision of his young adulthood.” Ariel Mayse, Renewal and Redemption: Spirituality, Law, and Religious Praxis in the Writings of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, The Journal of Religion 101, no. 4 (October 2021): 464.

[20] A recent example of such thinking (albeit within a framework that is much more committed to traditional precedent than Reb Zalman) can be seen in the writings of R. Avigayil Halpern. In her words, responding to a responsa by R. Jeffrey Fox, “Queer sexual culture does not look like straight sexual culture … To ask halacha to meet the challenge of queer sex is not simply to ask which kinds of sex can be mutar, though, as I said above, that is important as well. But halacha—and poskim—must take the alternative vision of what sex is, what our bodies are for, and how we build relationships and communities, that is offered by queerness, and figure out how it sits with halachic structures and frameworks.”

[21] Integral Halachah, 37.

[22] Korn, 224.

[23] Ibid., 73.

[24] Ibid., 249.

Steven Gotlib is Marketing Manager at RIETS and Director of the Capital Jewish Experience. He is the incoming Associate Rabbi at Mekor Habracha - Center City Synagogue in Philadelphia and has held a number of rabbinic positions in Ottawa, Toronto, and New York. A graduate of Rutgers University, Rabbi Gotlib received ordination from RIETS, a certificate in mental health counseling from the Ferkauf School of Psychology in partnership with RIETS, and a certificate in spiritual entrepreneurship from the Glean Network in partnership with Columbia Business School. He can be reached for questions, comments, or criticism at