With eye on Jewish continuity, maverick spiritual leader goes mainstream
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Interview'It's a fluid, complicated and rich time, and I want to lead in it'

With eye on Jewish continuity, maverick spiritual leader goes mainstream

Ordination as Conservative rabbi will both limit and empower innovator Amichai Lau-Lavie, who aims for a more inclusive, dynamic and nourishing Judaism

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie is founder, spiritual leader and executive director of Lab/Shul in New York City. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie is founder, spiritual leader and executive director of Lab/Shul in New York City. (Courtesy)

Although Amichai Lau-Lavie will only be ordained as a rabbi on Tuesday, you could be forgiven for thinking he already was one.

This week he was named as one of America’s most inspiring rabbis on the Forward’s prized annual list. And he already leads an inclusive, experimental Jewish spiritual community in New York called Lab/Shul.

In fact, for almost two decades Lau-Lavie has been on the vanguard of creative, progressive Jewish spiritual and ritual expression in the 21st century. He has taught Torah and other Jewish texts at hundreds, if not thousands, of congregations and schools through his innovative Storahtelling Jewish ritual theater organization. Founded by Lau-Lavie in 1999, Storahtelling advanced Jewish literacy by bringing performance tools and stagecraft to bear on traditional texts.

So what is a rabbi anyway, if not a teacher of Yiddishkeit?

Lau-Lavie’s name alone could have led one to assume he is a rabbi, as he is the scion of an Eastern European rabbinic dynasty going back 39 generations. His uncle, Yisrael Meir Lau is the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel from 1993 to 2003. His first cousin, David Lau, is Israel’s current Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Lau-Lavie’s older brother Benny Lau is a well-known, Jerusalem-based Modern Orthodox rabbi, community leader and social justice activist.

But it took Lau-Lavie, 47, a long time to join the family business, so to speak. And once he finally did join, he did it his own way.

Amichai Lau-Lavie's uncle Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau ( Flash90)
Amichai Lau-Lavie’s uncle Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau ( Flash90)

Unlike his relatives, Lau-Lavie has not become an Orthodox rabbi. Instead, he will be ordained by the Conservative Movement after completing a five-year course of study at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

There are practical reasons for his choosing the Conservative Movement: As an openly gay man, he cannot serve as an Orthodox rabbi.

But there are other aspects of the Conservative Movement (which changed its stance on the ordination of gays and lesbians in 2006) that make him feel it is the right fit.

“I believe in following halacha [Jewish law], but I also believe that it evolves,” Lau-Lavie told The Times of Israel by phone Sunday from the Salt Lake City, Utah airport as he flew home to New York from a Reboot meetup. The network of young Jewish movers and shakers, of which he has been a longstanding member, works towards re-envisioning Jewish life for contemporary times.

“I like how Conservative Judaism straddles halacha and innovation. Jewish law has a vote, but not a veto,” he said.

‘Jewish law has a vote, but not a veto’

Through his years with Storahtelling, Lau-Lavie, who grew up in a Modern Orthodox milieu in Israel, was exposed to Conservative congregations. However, his interest in the Movement and its philosophy began much earlier, when as a teenager he discovered the works of Zechariah Frankel, the 19th century German rabbi, theologian and historian who applied modern historical criticism to the study of the development of classical sources of Judaism, and is considered the founder of what would become Conservative Judaism.

Around the same time, Lau-Lavie (who had just returned to Israel after several years in New York, where his father Naphtali Lau-Lavie served as Israel’s consul general) became a student at the then-new Hartman High School in Jerusalem. There he studied under the late Rabbi David Hartman, who although Modern Orthodox, exposed him to Jewish religious pluralism and the conception of halacha as evolutionary.

Lau-Lavie’s search for a spiritual home outside Orthodox Judaism was sparked by the confusing and painful situation in which he found himself at his bar mitzvah, when his Torah portion was Kedoshim, the one in which homosexuality is cited as an abomination.

‘Here I was, having already come out to myself, having to chant and speak about the abomination clause’

“Here I was, having already come out to myself, having to chant and speak about the abomination clause,” Lau-Lavie recounted.

Years later, at age 43, he wrote and published what he wished his bar mitzvah speech could have been:

And the truth is that I’ve been thinking a lot about this law, and it makes me afraid and ashamed to think about it and to talk about it, but it also makes me angry and confused.

I know it’s wrong to question God and the Torah, and maybe I’m too young to understand. But I don’t think that the law about abomination is fair, and I don’t think that people who break it deserve to die.

I am not an abomination. I don’t deserve to die because of whom I love.
You are all looking at me now, and it’s not pleasant, but I’ve held this secret, this abomination in my stomach, long enough.

If today I am a man, then on this day I tell the truth and face it, like a man. And you, who came from near and far, if you really love me, will love me still, I hope, just the way I am.

I know the Torah says it’s wrong.

I know it’s disappointing to you, my parents and siblings, relatives, friends.

But maybe the Torah does not mean what I’m feeling, because I don’t think — I don’t believe — that God thinks I am dirty, or sinning, or an abomination. Because isn’t that how God created me, in God’s own image, just the way I am?

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie with his three children at his American citizenship ceremony, 2014. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie with his three children at his American citizenship ceremony, 2014. (Courtesy)

Lau-Lavie’s own three young children are living in a very different world than the one he grew up in. He is co-parenting two daughters and a son with a lesbian couple in Manhattan. Lau-Lavie is the children’s biological father and abba (Hebrew for dad), and he sees them once or twice a week, and spends holidays and vacations with them.

Juggling part-time parenting, rabbinical school, Lab/Shul leadership and other professional and communal responsibilities for the past five years has been tough. Despite his reputation for being a consummate multi-tasker, he is glad to now have his rabbinical studies off his plate.

He regrets having little time as of late to pursue a romantic life, but he has no misgivings about having gone through the rabbinical training, which is something he believed was necessary for achieving his goals.

“I wanted to delve deeply into halachic learning and scholarship. I spent the first 20 years of my career on aggadah, midrash and story. It was time to focus on the evolution of law in our lives as Jews,” he said.

He also knew that having “Rabbi” in front of his name would bestow upon him the gravitas and authority that would allow for greater agency.

‘I used to wave the “artists are the new rabbis” flag. Now I wave the “rabbis are the new artists” one’

“As an artist, I can have an impact. But to have deeper agency, to really be part of systemic growth and change and to be a respected leader in this, I needed to become a rabbi,” he explained.

“I used to wave the ‘artists are the new rabbis’ flag. Now I wave the ‘rabbis are the new artists’ one,” he added.

According to Lau-Lavie, the Jewish community and Judaism are undeniably at a pivotal moment. He is consumed with the question of how Judaism can resonate in the 21st century, when faith is not a given, and being Jewish is a decision and a choice to be made.

“We are in a post-ethnic, post-patriarchy age. It’s happening now. It’s a fluid, complicated and rich time, and I want to lead in it,” he asserted.

For Lau-Lavie, the most pressing issue to be dealt with, what he calls “the next frontier,” is finding creative solutions for inclusion of families where one partner is Jewish and the other is not. Conversion is not the solution, because in many cases the non-Jewish partners are not converting.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie chants as members of the Lab/Shul community hold an unfurled Torah scroll. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie chants as members of the Lab/Shul community hold an unfurled Torah scroll. (Courtesy)

He sees this as a win-win situation, rather than a loss for the Jewish people.

“The argument that we are losing Jews is bullshit,” he claimed.

He believes Jews and non-Jews alike are attracted to the rich traditions and texts of Judaism, but that they won’t stay part of the community unless the religion markets itself better and speaks to people in a way that resonates with their lives today.

‘The argument that we are losing Jews is bullshit’

“We have a good product, but the packaging and marketing are the challenge,” he explained.

Lau-Lavie used a fast-food metaphor to explain what he means.

“Even if you have the juiciest, highest quality hamburger, Jews aren’t going to want it if all they have ever known is a year-old, dried-out thing from Wendy’s,” he said.

With Lab/Shul (spun off from Storahtelling in 2012) poised for growth, the newly-minted rabbi plans on staying in the US (where he became a citizen two years ago) for at least the next decade. But with his mother and three siblings living in Israel, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of returning there someday.

Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie with Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles' IKAR community at the White House Hanukkah party, 2013. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie with Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles’ IKAR community at the White House Hanukkah party, 2013. (Courtesy)

Despite growing reactionary fundamentalism in Israel, Lau-Lavie is optimistic about the possibility of doing the kind of work he is doing in America also in the Holy Land.

“It’s true that we are up against fear and resistance to change, but things are changing. There is a good chance for light and love to prosper in Israel. I am already working with Haredim, and with interfaith leaders. Change can happen,” he said.

A major challenge ahead for Lau-Lavie lies within himself. He needs to adjust to being part of the Conservative Movement in an official capacity as a member of its Rabbinical Assembly.

On one hand, he can benefit from being part of what he calls “a larger ecosystem.” But on the other, he needs to do what is known in kabbalistic terms as tzimtzum, or contraction.

“I’m a creative personality and the question is how to squeeze a big, creative personality into a box. Somehow, I have to curb my enthusiasm,” he reflected.

For instance, as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly he must abide by its guidelines, which preclude him from officiating at interfaith marriages as he once did.

While he will still pursue his “flexidox” or “polidox” ways, he’s also committing himself to working within the system. He recognizes that change will be gradual and will come from within the established Jewish community as well as from grassroots initiatives such as the ones he started.

“My eye is on the next 25 years, not only on tomorrow. It’s a sacrifice, but it’s a good one,” he said.

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