by Rabbi Mark Solomon
Jewish Lecture 2015
There is a sense in which solidarity and dissent are not opposites, but different stages on a journey. Apart from a few rare spirits who prefer true solitude, most of us, I think, find in dissent a new solidarity with fellow dissenters, a new group to belong to. Something of the sort was true for me when, as a boy of eleven, I began to question the moderately assimilated Australian Jewish life of my family, and risked my parents’ strong disapproval when I began, secretly at first, to adopt a much more orthodox way of life. From my first day at high school in Sydney I put on a kippah (skull cap) when I left the house and wore it throughout the school day. I was almost the only boy in my school to do so, and deliberately made myself different from the rest, someone to be bullied – which I would have been anyway as a midget – but also, in my own mind at least, someone to be respected. As a teenager I became more and more religious, to my father’s horrified anger, and fell under the influence of the Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement. One of their rabbis began coming to teach at my school when I was fifteen, and encouraged me to visit the yeshiva (rabbinic academy) in Melbourne, the only one then in Australia, which I did every school holidays. When I finished school I persuaded my reluctant parents to let me go to the yeshiva for a year, which turned into two years. In the warmth and spiritual fervour of the yeshiva and wider Chasidic community I found a new sense of belonging, a profound solidarity of devout questers seeking communion with God and total immersion in the sacred rabbinic and mystical texts. No longer the outsider I had been at school, I was embraced – quite literally – in the joyous group dances that accompanied our Sabbath meals, our monthly farbrengens (the mystical get-togethers with vodka, Chasidic singing and uplifting spiritual stories, that always ended in dancing) and the frequent weddings in the community – arranged marriages of course, since men and women never mixed – to which we yeshiva boys were always invited to “mach freylach” – to liven up the celebration.
But there was a worm in this paradisal apple. Right from the beginning of my Chasidic studies I had encountered the doctrine of the Tanya, the Lubavitch holy book by the 18th-century founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, about the difference between Jewish souls and non-Jewish souls. It originates in profound and complex kabbalistic ideas, but I will summarise it for you in all its shocking starkness.i Every Jew has two souls, a godly soul and an animal soul. The godly soul is the divine spark, “an actual portion of God above” in Schneur Zalman’s famous phrase, and it is also called “dos pintele yid”, the very essence of Jewishness. It is our urge to connect with God and devote ourselves selflessly to pure goodness. The animal soul is our bodily life-force, the source of all our physical and emotional urges. All animal souls derive from the kelippot or “husks”, the kabbalistic realm of evil, but that of a Jew derives from the highest level of that realm, the “bright husk” (kelippat nogah) which is a mixture of good and evil. Even at the animal level, a Jew is capable of some real goodness, although all our human motives are mixed and ambiguous.
Non-Jews, by contrast, have only one soul, the animal one, and that is from the mystical realm known as the “three impure husks” which are unalloyed evil, with no goodness at all. Thus “all the charity and kindness done by the nations of the world is only for their own self-glorification.”ii There can be no true altruism, no pure spiritual urge, in the gentiles, but all is a form of self-indulgence, to feel good about themselves or look good to others.
Are you shocked? I hope so. I certainly was when I first encountered this teaching, and I questioned my rabbis about it relentlessly. They had answers that satisfied me a little, for a while, and there was so much else in that Chasidic world that satisfied the yearnings of my lonely young spirit, that I quelled my doubts and carried on.iii I wanted to belong, and tried hard to do so. There is one moment that I remember with particular shame. After a rare outing from the enclosed world of the yeshiva and the Lubavitch community, into the bustle of secular Melbourne, where women dressed immodestly and men didn’t necessarily wear black, I came back slightly dazed and said to a senior fellow student, whose approval I craved, “They really are different from us, aren’t they?” to which he responded, “Now you’re starting to understand.”
Apart from that lapse, however, I kept questioning, worrying away at the problem. Ever before my eyes were my two close friends from high school, one (then) agnostic, the other who had converted while at school from Anglicanism to Catholicism. With him I had shared years of spiritual discussion, swapping melodies from our respective church and synagogue choirs, and frequent after-school church-hunting expeditions, where, if no-one was about, we would raid the vestries and try on the vestments. I knew deep down that I was essentially the same as them, not a different order of spiritual being; that they shared my yearning and my capacity for goodness. More and more I came to label the two-souls doctrine “metaphysical racism” and reject it with all my being. I became a dissenter, which wasn’t comfortable in the tightly-knit hothouse world of the yeshiva and the strictly orthodox community. I grew unhappy and disruptive, so that eventually the rabbis suggested for my own good that I leave the yeshiva.
I went to Israel and found myself in another, much larger Lubavitch yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, outside Tel Aviv. Still worrying away at the problem, I discovered an article in a Hebrew encyclopaedia of Chasidic thought, which contained the extraordinary sentence, “The Holy One, ever to be blessed, hates the nations of the world [i.e. non-Jews].”iv Shocked, I went to the spiritual counsellor at the yeshiva, who at first dismissed the passage as the work of some unauthoritative writer; but when we studied the source of it together – in an obscure discourse of the second Chabad Rebbe about Jacob and Esau – he concluded that the source did really seem to lead to that conclusion, so it must be correct! This triggered a crisis of faith in me. How could I belong to a religion which taught that God hated 99.9% of God’s own human creatures? I couldn’t. v
I decided to be an agnostic, but that was too difficult for my naturally religious soul, and within a short time, to my horror, I found myself being drawn irresistibly towards Catholicism. I would sit in the study hall of the yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, and while all around me studied Talmud I brushed up my Latin with some second-hand text books I’d bought in Tel Aviv. On Fridays, when the other boys went to Lod airport just across the motorway to put tefillin (phylacteries) on secular travellers, I would go to Tel Aviv and read Christian books at the British Council Library. It all seemed like the ultimate betrayal of my Jewish ancestors, of the generations that gave up their lives resisting conversion, and I never told my mother because I thought it would kill her.
For four years I lived a strange double life back in Australia, singing in the synagogue choir, teaching at the Sunday school, but studying Church history and English religious poetry at university, and going to Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches at every opportunity. My friend Steven was training for the priesthood and I spent all my holidays in his Carmelite monastery, thinking about doing the same. Of course, in escaping the crushing solidarity of Jewish exclusivity, I was aware that Christianity had its own problematic history of exclusivism – extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “no salvation outside the Church” – but I was comforted by Pope Pius IX’s teaching about “invincible ignorance” (that those who could not hear or accept the Gospel might nevertheless be saved) and Karl Rahner’s idea about “anonymous Christians”. More powerfully still, when I flew from Tel Aviv to Rome in January 1984 (taking my kippah off as I got on the plane) and went to the Epiphany mass at St Peters, I witnessed Pope John Paul II consecrating bishops from every part of the world, of every race and colour, and felt that, in rejecting the narrow Jewish solidarity, I had found a truly universal solidarity that didn’t exclude most of humanity from God’s love and concern.
For four years I deliberated, and vacillated, over whether to be baptized. I loved the idea of the Incarnation, that God had come to earth to share our human condition, our suffering. It answered a deep longing in my soul; I just wasn’t quite sure if it was really true – and I was still afraid of killing my mother. After four years I found myself being drawn back, quite startlingly and irresistibly, to Judaism, and filled with an overwhelming conviction that I could not be anything other than Jewish, indeed, that I had to continue my studies to be a rabbi. As I came to see it, I needed that time for the “poison” of metaphysical racism to work its way out of my system, and to see past the powerful, all-embracing mystical ideology of Chabad to the more rationalistic and universalistic Judaism of my childhood, when my rabbis had taught that all people are created equally in the divine image, and that being a “chosen people” meant, not being essentially different from others, but having a special task and responsibility to uphold the ethical teachings of the Torah.
So it was, in 1988, that I came to England to study at the modern-orthodox seminary Jews’ College. My initial sense of belonging and contentment there was not to last very long, though, because, now in my mid-twenties, I had to begin facing up to the truth of my homosexuality. I had to give up the vain hope that my powerful crushes on fellow yeshiva students had just been “a phase”, and that an arranged marriage would sort it all out. It had been no mere coincidence that my Anglo-Catholic friends (not to mention the occasional Dominican friar who had shaken a thurible at me) had all been outrageously camp. I had to “come out”, but that meant going into a deep depression. The fantasy I had cherished of my life – marriage, children, an orthodox pulpit, making my family and community proud – was fading away. Every act of prayer became a painful self-flagellation. I felt rejected by God, unclean, sinful and despised, and could see nothing ahead but darkness. And as for not giving my parents grandchildren, the supreme duty of every Jewish son – it would kill my mother!
Once again I found myself becoming an outsider, cut off from the aspirations of family and community, from my own dreams for my future. At the seminary, and in the community where I was working as a student rabbi, I had to hide who I was and the turmoil I was going through. For a while I felt desperately alone and suicidal. Yet once again, in that painful dissent, I found a new solidarity. I turned to Rabbi Lionel Blue, one of the founders of our JCM conference and the first rabbi in Britain to come out as gay. With him, and the circle he introduced me to, I found acceptance and openness. I began to explore the Jewish gay scene, to meet people like me, and to fall in love. I came out to my parents, who were more accepting than I had feared, and later to my rabbi, who advised me to get married anyway, but kindly said he would help me find a job as a Jewish teacher or academic, since I could obviously not be a rabbi.
Just as, a few years before, I had worried away at the problem of metaphysical racism, and rejected it, now I worried away at the problem of a supposedly loving and just God who condemned a certain percentage of people, who could not choose their sexuality, to either death or a life of loneliness. I was locked in, mentally and spiritually, by the orthodox view of God as lawgiver and judge, who commanded, on pain of death, “Thou shalt not lie with a male as one lies with a woman, it is an abomination.”vi
Then, in one marvellous month, at the end of 1991, I read two books at the same time, and together they changed my mind and my life. One was The Color Purple by Alice Walker, a great novel about the emotional and sexual liberation of a young black woman in the American South. The other was a pioneering work of Jewish feminist theology, Standing Again at Sinai by Judith Plaskow. Together, these beautiful, boldly dissenting feminist classics unlocked the mental prison of patriarchy I had been locked in. I could see God in a gentler light, not distant, domineering, judging and condemning human diversity and pleasure, but dwelling within the pleasure itself, rejoicing in our joy and flourishing, laughing with us in all our crazy, queer variety, loving with us in the earthy freedom of our sex, whenever it is truly free and loving. With the help of Biblical criticism I became convinced that laws and beliefs which condemn human nature and consign people – women, non-Jewish, disabled, LGBT – to second-class status or worse, are evil, anti-human and anti-divine, creations of patriarchal, abusive power and narrow human prejudice, which our evolving conscience calls on us to reject and outgrow. Judaism could be bigger and better than that.
That breakthrough liberated me to create a new future, to leave my orthodox synagogue and become a Liberal rabbi, to use my knowledge and gifts to help inspire and liberate others with a loving, open, inclusive vision of Judaism.vii It was just at that vulnerable but exciting turning point in my life, when I was starting to teach at Leo Baeck College, that I came to Bendorf, to JCM and Bible Week, for the first time. I vividly remember how emotional I was, sitting in my first JCM discussion group, with mainly elderly German women, and speaking about the turns my life had taken. The acceptance and warmth – the solidarity – I found then has inspired me ever since, even as I’ve grown older, greyer and more set in my ways. The dance I danced with my Chasidic brethren, I dance now with LGBT brothers-and-sisters in gay clubs. For me it is the same dance, the same ecstasy – more or less – and the same sense of a solidarity of dissenters. From the 1990s until now the great symbolic issue in Progressive Judaism, as in many Western countries, has been the right of LGBT people to be married, whether civilly or religiously. I have tried to put my own dissenting experience to use campaigning for “equal marriage”, and in Britain we have succeeded – although not yet in Germany. It is much easier now to be gay than twenty years ago, just as it was much easier for me then than for the generations before who were persecuted and criminalised. Even so, to come out is still an act of dissent from the tyranny of the majority, and from the weight of religious tradition that still crushes so many human spirits. Freedom for women, for homosexuals, for the poor or the disabled, is still a dream in many parts of the world. Even though I was outed in the Jewish press years ago and have lived an openly gay life, I am still faced with the decision whether to come out in all sorts of situations, and especially in interfaith encounters. With Christians it’s not usually very difficult, but encountering Muslims I find myself asking: will coming out fatally compromise this moment of encounter, this possibility of friendship and reconciliation? Should I hide something essential about myself so that this person in front of me, who is already prepared to take the risk of encountering a Jew, can accept me in a solidarity of faith and tradition? And yet, if I hide, am I not compromising the encounter myself, by presenting a false or partial face? I am ashamed of my own cowardice, and of the prejudice I nurture by assuming that the Muslim in front of me will relate to me more negatively if I come out. So the dance of solidarity and dissent, of sameness and difference, of belonging and individuality, dances on and on, in the great decisions of our lives and in the moments of our human interaction day by day.
i Schneuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), Likkutey Amarim-Tanya, Slavita, 1796, Part I, Chapters 1-2.
ii Tanya, bilingual edition, trans. Nissan Mindel, London: Kehos 1973, p. 5.
iii Apologists for this doctrine point to the severity of persecution in Tsarist Russia and earlier to justify such a reactive sense of Jewish superiority. Chabad rabbis are used to being challenged concerning this teaching, and have a number of stock responses. A follower of R. Schneur Zalman, R. Hillel of Paritch, wrote a commentary on the Tanya in which he claims that the “pious of the nations” (chasidey ummot ha-olam) have animal souls that derive from kelippat nogah, and are this, like Jews, capable of true altruistic goodness. Present day Chabad rabbis will say that most non-Jews are, in fact, among the “pious of the nations” (i.e. ethical monotheists, inon-idolaters) and are this, in effect, on the same level as most Jews, who never access the spiritual level of their exalted “godly sould” in any case.
iv Yoel Kahn, ed., Sefer Ha-Erechin Chabad, s.v. Ummot Ha-olam.
v Whenever I have publicised these ideas about the Jewish soul I have been accused of breaching Jewish solidarity by exposing the „shadow“ side of Judaism to the gentile world.
vi Leviticus 18:22, and see ibid. 20:13
vii My first sermon at The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, the largest and oldest British Liberal congregation, where I later worked (2000-2009), was on the theme of Individuality in Judaism. I argued that, important though communal solidarity is, the community must exist for the individual, unlike in many expressions of orthodoxy, where the individual exists for, and is subordinate to, the community or the “people”. All experience, and all value, ultimately reside in the individual human being, and the community should be oriented to the flourishing of individuals, not an enforced conformity. This has been a major theme in my preaching over the years.