Artwork for podcast Conversation with the Rabbi
In and Out of Orthodoxy with Rabbi Ysoscher Katz
Episode 272nd June 2022 • Conversation with the Rabbi • Rabbi Michael Beyo | PHX.fm
00:00:00 00:55:12

Share Episode

Shownotes

Rabbi Michael Beyo and Dr. Adrian McIntyre talk with Rabbi Ysoscher Katz about leaving Orthodox communities and navigating the contemporary world.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is the Chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and the past Senior Rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul. He studied at the Satmar, Brisk, and Beit Yosef Navaradok yeshivot. Receiving his smicha shortly after high school, R. Katz has taught Talmud and halakhah at a wide array of institutions. For nine years, he delivered a daily daf yomi shiur- twice a day in Borough Park- attended by many. During the past years, he has taught weekly Jewish thought and Talmud classes for professionals on the Upper East Side and Park Slope, and at the Skirball Center for adult education. A graduate of HaSha'ar’s educators program, he also worked as the Judaic studies coordinator for the innovative Luria school, and taught at Ma'ayanot, SAR, and Ramaz High Schools. In addition, he has directed the Lindenbaum Center for Modern Orthodox Halakhah, composed responsa on vital contemporary halakhic issues, and writes extensively on matters pertaining to Jewish society for publications including the Forward, Jerusalem Post, Makor Rishon, and the Times of Israel. He lectures widely, most recently in Jerusalem, Melbourne, Zurich, and LA, and has been a visiting scholar at Jofa, Eshel, Pearlstone and Limmud.

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

The Conversation with the Rabbi podcast is supported by a grant from Arizona Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act.

The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Phoenix, Arizona. Learn more at https://phx.fm

Transcripts

Announcer:

From PHX.fm, this is Conversation with the Rabbi, featuring open, honest dialogue, and sometimes unconventional perspectives on the world we all share.

Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome to another Conversation with the Rabbi. I'm Adrian McIntyre. Our guest for today's show is Rabbi Ysoscher Katz. He is chair of the Talmud department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York, and also the past Senior Rabbi of the Prospect Heights Shul in Brooklyn. I'm looking forward to this conversation between two Rabbis, both scholars and community leaders who have very complicated relationships to their origins and the path that's led them to their present place in life. Our host is Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley JCC. Good morning, Rabbi Beyo.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Good morning, Adrian. Thank you for being here with me again today and good morning to Rabbi Katz. It's a pleasure and an honor to have you here. We have spoken a number of times, but this is the first time that we're going to have this opportunity to be together on our podcast. And so I wanted to really thank you for being here with us today.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Thank you for having me.

Adrian McIntyre:

One of the things we always like to do at the beginning of these conversations is invite our guests to share a little bit about their story, or their journey, to situate where you are today in the trajectory of your past. And Rabbi Katz, I think you have something very unique you want to talk about, which is your relationship to Orthodoxy and how that brought you to the present day. Give us that thumbnail sketch. Tell us a little bit about your background and your journey.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Sure, my pleasure Adrian. To make a long story, a 53 year old story short, I grew up in the ultra-Orthodox community, the Haredi community, as it's traditionally called. For those who are familiar with the intricacies of the Haredi community, I grew up in Williamsburg in the Satmar community, which is considered pretty hardcore ultra-Orthodox. And long story short, and I'll fill in a few details in a second, I no longer identify as ultra-Orthodox. I no longer identify as Haredi. I would guess, if I had to pick a description, I go between Modern Orthodox and Modern Hasidic. That would be my description in terms of denominational affiliation today. Long story short, like I said, I grew up in the Haredi community. I had a phenomenal experience growing up there. Oftentimes you'll hear people who left, who would describe very unpleasant experiences in a ultra-Orthodox context. That was not the case. My case, I grew up in a very, very, very warm home, loving parents, loving home. My schooling experience was really, really phenomenal. I enjoyed the learning. I enjoyed what they offered me. And in fact, I stayed in the community to a very late age. I would say that I left, it's hard to pinpoint when I left because "left" is such a loaded word. I mean, does left mean when you started questioning or does left mean when he had the guts to finally leave? But I left late in life. I was married and had three children in the community. But at some point, somehow for reasons, which I'd be happy to get into, perhaps later in the show, it stopped working for me. I no longer felt that I affiliate, that I associate with the community, predominantly theologically. And that's when I left and like I said in the beginning, today I identify as ... it's hard. It's hard. Identifications are hard, and they peg you in and they put you into a box. And I don't like to be in a box. But I think, like I said, I go something between Modern Orthodox and Modern Hasidic. Quite honestly, my soul is Modern Hasidic, that's for sure.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Rabbi Katz, thank you very much for your introduction. And the more I listen to you, the more I realize that we share a lot in common. Both of us grew up ... you grew up in Satmar, I grew up in Italy, but we both grew up and went to Chassidish slash Haredi schooling and at a certain point in our lives, for both of us, as you just mentioned, also for me, I did not leave the Haredi community because of bad experiences there, the opposite. I do not identify myself anymore with the Haredi community for theological reasons. And maybe we can go into the reason that you left and the reason that I left and we can have a conversation about that. But before we do that, I would like to state that ever since I left my community, I was never able to find another community where I feel 100% at home. When I, in the Modern Orthodox world ... I'm not Modern Orthodox. Yes, sometimes for ease of conversation, I say that I am a Modern Orthodox rabbi, but in reality, I am not. And definitions, as you say, are so difficult. And I have always, when I think back to my community, I always ... the regret is that I have never found another community where I fully belong. Do you feel the same way, or have you found a community where you feel that you belong? Just as you belonged in Satmar.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Yeah, no, that's a great point. And I couldn't agree with you more. It's extremely difficult. I think that the negative is much more easier than the positive in my case. And from what I hear from you the same as in your case, in the sense that I am very comfortable telling you what I'm not. But what I am is very hard and very difficult. And in fact, it's kind of funny because I'm considered a success story. What do I mean by a success story? As you know, very well, Rabbi Beyo, there's a lot of people who kind of drop out of the ultra-Orthodox community, of the Haredi community. They leave and 99%, or I don't know, 95%, we can quibble about the numbers, that leave, leave Judaism altogether. They stop being Orthodox, they stop being observant, they drop everything. So in that sense, I'm considered a success story -- I mean, you don't see me doing the quotation marks -- in the sense only that I left, but I'm still fully observant, I keep everything, and I have not abandoned any of my religious commitments whatsoever. In that sense, I'm a success story, meaning that oftentimes I'll get phone calls from people and people will ask me for guidance. "Should I leave? Should I not leave? What happens if I leave? What happens if I stay?" And one of the first things I tell them is exactly what you said. If you're going to leave, you should know that you will be always spiritually homeless. You'll be a spiritually homeless person because no home is going to be the perfect home for you. And I'll take what you said a step further along the lines of what you said. There are things that I miss terribly from my native community. I miss it terribly.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I completely agree.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

And there are things that'll never be replaced because there are things that they do very well, that I still have nothing against them and nothing that I dislike about them. That's one end. And the psychological piece is, as my wife likes to joke, don't make any references to TV before 2000, because Ysoscher only started watching TV in 2000, right? And these are small things, but every now and then I'll sit at a table and someone will make a joke from Daddy Knows Best, and I'll not get it. So it's not a big deal in the scheme of things, but it is the little reminder of, well, I am not one of them.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right.

Adrian McIntyre:

Everyone on earth was watching The Wonder Years ...

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Exactly.

Adrian McIntyre:

And you have no idea what I'm talking about.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Exactly. Quite frankly, I don't even know what you were talking about.

Adrian McIntyre:

Exactly. You barely caught the end of Seinfeld.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Thank god for reruns. You can watch all of Friends on HBO.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Exactly. Exactly.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

You know, I always say that I left home, and that's the home I cannot go back to. But that's still home. When I think of home, that is home.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

For sure.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

And if people have time to listen to my new self-definition, then I say, "I am a Sephardi Jew that tries to keep Torah and mitzvot, and I fail every day miserably."

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

I totally know what you mean at every level.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

But that's a long definition that I can't use on my CV. It would need it's own podcast just to explain those four words.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Right, right, right. Yeah, go ahead.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

No, go ahead. Go ahead.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

No, no, I was going to say, and perhaps we'll get into it because I know you and I have had a lot of, not several conversations about my own somewhat out-of-the-box views. And I know I'm being generous to myself. I suspect that when I'm not around, Rabbi Beyo would describe them as radical views, which might be correct and more appropriate. But I have taken stands on certain issues that are not mainstream. And I never know whether, I got it right or not. I tell my students all the time that when I get up there, when I get to heaven, I know exactly what's going to happen. I think God is going to go to his laptop, and bring up Ysoscher Katz's file. And God is going to look at the file and say, "You know, Ysoscher, I'm really sorry, but the averot list, the sin list, is far longer than the mitzvot list. I have no choice. I gotta to send you to hell." And I tell my students, always, that what I'll do is I'll tell God, "Fair enough. If that's what your algorithm concludes, then I'm not going to fight it." But I do know that on my way out, God will call me back, and give me a kiss on my forehead, and say, "But you know, Ysoscher, I know you tried damn hard." And I'll say, "That's all I wanted to hear."

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yes.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Because that's the best we can hope for.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I agree with you very much. And that's why maybe I connect with you on multiple levels, even though our friendship or our acquaintance does not run many, many years. And you mentioned something now that I would like to take this opportunity to speak with you about, because you are probably one of the few people that I feel comfortable speaking about this. Talk to me about your stand, your public stand -- very, I would say, controversial from where we both come, about the LGBT community.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Sure, absolutely. So, let me give you the kind of therapist assessment, and then I'll get to the specifics. I have a deep, deep, deep, deep sense of affinity with the LGBTQ community. And the reason for that is because, I know we cannot compare circumstances and no two circumstances are alike. And God forbid that I'll compare my own experience with the experience of people who go through what a typical LGBT person goes through. But in a small way, in a very teeny way, I had a couple of years when I lived in the closet, in the sense that I was no longer what people thought I was. But I was terrified of letting people know who I really am. And the notion that I am someone who -- I thought, I'm a fine person. I don't think that what I'm doing is wrong. This is who I am -- can be so damaging and so consequential, and so terrifying, really taught me a lesson of what it means like to be in a closet. And again, I'm not comparing the experiences, chas v'sholem, God forbid that I should compare. It's nowhere near to just be not Orthodox, but Modern Orthodox, and to be something that the community abhors and despises. But in a small way, I had that. In fact, oftentimes, and there will be conversations about LGBTQ and people living in the closet, and someone will say, "You know, you got to be careful. It can sometimes lead to suicide." And the response is, "Wait, you're exaggerating. Don't get carried away." And my response is, "You know what? It's not an exaggeration all." When you walk around in this world, day in, day out, knowing I am terrified for being found out for who I am and who knows what that will do to me, it is incredibly, incredibly devastating. So that's the psychological piece. The psychological piece is that I deeply relate to the LGBTQ community. Philosophically, and I think we started out that conversation in the past, Rabbi Beyo, God's Torah is vast. And I think I can make sense of almost all of it, to a degree or the other. I mean, is the prohibition against mixing meat and milk as dangerous as let's say incest and murder? No. But I can make sense of it. I can live with that. The prohibition against homosexuality, Rabbi Beyo, for me makes zero sense. I've tried again and again and again to just logically understand what does God have against two men or two women doing what otherwise a man and a woman do? And I know there are explanations out there. I know there is that, oh, they don't procreate. Well, elderly couples don't procreate either. You know, people have tried. So I don't know if you want to ...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right. I completely agree with what you're saying. My disagreement or my lack of understanding is not on anything that you have said so far. My question is how would you explain the specific terminology used in the Torah.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Right. Exactly. So, here is where we come to my philosophy of halakha. And in fact, I hope my friend doesn't mind that I invoke his name. Rabbi Steve Greenberg, who I think both of us know, who is a very, very, very public advocate for the LGBTQ community. And we're good friends. And in fact, you'll find out in a couple of days, we're going to do actually a series of lectures on the topic. Here's where we disagree. Steve Greenberg is willing to attempt to argue that we misconstrue the biblical verse. That when people think that the biblical verse is a prohibition against homosexuality, he has made an argument, and he wrote a book about it, in which he argues that's not what the Bible really means. Long story short, he argues that the Bible prohibits homosexual rape, not homosexuality and not homosexual sex. That's his argument. Here's where I differ. I'm an Orthodox Jew, and a proud Orthodox Jew. I like Orthodoxy. I like Orthodox halakha. I like Orthodox observance. So reinterpreting the Bible is my red line. I'll never go against what has been the traditional interpretation of the Bible. So much so that it could even be that Steven is theoretically right that people have misinterpreted the verse, but that's my tradition. My tradition's interpreted the verse as thus, and I'm stuck with. However, because the prohibition is so bothersome to me, theologically, psychologically, and emotionally, I will do my utmost to really keep the prohibition to the bare, bare minimum, pun not intended. To the bare minimum. In other words, I mean, we can get into the nitty gritty offline. I don't think that the audience is interested in the nitty gritty. At the end of the day -- and I've written about this, I've written a response about this -- I think I can show, I can prove, that the biblical prohibition is limited to that which the text explicates. And that's my attitude. So when a homosexual person comes to me and says, "Rabbi, I am homosexual. I mean, that's not negotiable. I still want to be Orthodox. What will you say to me?" I would say to them, "Listen, there is something," and I don't want to get into the graphic details, "there is something that the Bible is opposed to. Refrain from that. Beyond that, okay, you're fine."

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I did not know that this was your position, but I agree with it 100%. And that has been also my position for many, many years. So, I'm glad that [Hebrew phrase]. I'm glad that my thoughts were in line with yours.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Can I add one more small thing, Rabbi Beyo?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Please.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

One more small thing. So I think that's not even a controversial thing. The more controversial piece is, and I think that's when we started communicating more often is, the issue of gay marriage. And here is where I am dumbfounded. You know, I'm not a fan of Shmuley Boteach at all. There's nothing about Shmuley Boteach that I like. I don't know if you're familiar with Shmuley Boteach, the ex-Chabad guy.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yes.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

There's nothing about him that I like. The one time he wrote something that I completely related to was after the Supreme Court passed the law of legalizing same sex marriage, right? And there was this whole brouhaha. This whole balagan. And Shmuley Boteach wrote the most fascinating piece in which he said, isn't this funny? Marriage throughout the United States is crumbling. People divorce. The divorce rate is 60 to 70%. Here is a segment of the population who's begging, please let us get married, let us get married. It's like, they want to solidify their union. They want to kind of bring something to their union that will make them committed to each other, right. That minimizes the rate of being casual about sexuality. They want to sanctify their relationship so that they're committed to one another. Why would anybody oppose to that? It's like, how amazing! So, the same thing, given a gay couple comes to me and they say, "Rabbi, could you help me get married?" I'm thinking like, wow, you guys have matured. You no longer are finding new partners every another week on Tinder or whatever is the gay equivalent of that. You want to really create a home that's devoted, that's dedicated, that has a sense of exclusivity. Why would I be opposed to that? Why wouldn't I do my utmost to try to find a way to make it work halakhically, number one. Number two, if let's say we would have a pact among all of Orthodoxy that we're not doing that, that would not diminish their homosexual life. They will still be homosexuals with the only difference that they will not have help in trying to create more of a union and more of a sense of exclusivity. So it baffles me when people are opposed to it. Baffles me.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Would you perform a polygamous marriage?

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

No.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Meaning a guy that wants to marry ... that it is married to one woman wants to marry a second woman.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

No. So, I get this all the time. I get this all the time, right? And you're nice. You're analogizing. And I know you don't mean it only for the purpose of the argument. You're analogizing a polygamous marriage. People will say, "Oh, would you officiate a bestiality marriage? Well, someone comes to you one day and says, I would like to marry my dog. Would you officiate that?" Like I said before, Rabbi Beyo, all of those to one degree or another, cause hurt, cause pain, are not good for society. This is the only union that hurts nobody. In fact, I'm going to say something really controversial that's going to hurt me so much. I am far less patient for a congregant who comes to me for help with an intermarriage that I am with a congregant who comes to me for a gay marriage. Because intermarriage, you know that the society's opposed to, and I know that a lot of beautiful non-Jewish women are very attractive. There's also beautiful Jewish women. It's not like the end of the world. It's not that if I refuse to do the wedding -- and I'm not saying ... we can talk about what I do in the case of ... intervention, and all of that. But if I refuse that wedding, you are not doomed for life. If I refuse a gay couple a wedding, for life they're doomed forever being able, be like you and me and everybody else and say, ah, we are married like everybody else. So that's the difference for me.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I understand what you're saying. And I understand the pathos and passion and motivation even of what you're saying. My question is because you're so committed to halakha, how do you resolve it from a halakhic perspective?

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Right. Right. So, I have written an actual response on that. I have written a teshuvah on this, which I would be happy to share with you. Unfortunately, I've been told by many friends that if I publicize the response, I will be completely excommunicated from the community, as will my family. And at the end of the day, I have a family to feed. So I am for now not publicizing it, but I've shared it with many, many, many friends. And I will share it with you soon after we finish this podcast. You'll tell me whether I made a compelling argument or not. But I have to agree with you. The third piece of my philosophy on LGBTQ. I mean, in terms of A) I know a little bit of what it feels like. B) I'm dedicated to keeping the prohibition to a bare, bare, bare minimum. C) is that the theology of halaka's attitude towards LGBTQ is so hard. Because at the end of the day, as an Orthodox Jew, there comes a place where I have to conclude God decreed something that, in my experience as a human, is hard and painful, and I'm not using this, chas v'sholem, heretically. What feels cruel, you know? But that doesn't mean that I'm not going to conclude sometimes that, you know what? Yes, that's what God wants and we don't understand God's wants and God's plans and all of that. My point is, if I am not successful to prove that there is an argument to be made in favor of SSM, of same-sex marriage, then of course I would conclude that, you know what? Tough luck. What can we do? There are tough things in there. I attempted to make an argument that it is okay. And like I said, you'll tell me whether I've convinced you or not. And if you tell me no, we'll still be friends, I promise you, Rabbi Beyo.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah, I promise you as well. Because another argument could be made is that just like throughout Jewish history, there have been for various reasons, I'm just giving this as an example, Jews that were only married halakhically and they were not married civilly. That did not detract from them being married. So why couldn't it work the reverse? That a same sex marriage could be approved, legalized according to the laws of the state, the laws of the country, but without the kiddushin, meaning the formal Jewish side marriage. That would not detract from their commitment.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Right. Right. So, it's not a good analogy and I'm exaggerating, but here's what the response is. And my experience for this comes from the fact that in my past experience as a rabbi, as Adrian mentioned, I was a rabbi in a shul in Brooklyn and Prospect Heights, PHS. And Brooklyn, as both of you know ... are both of you in Phoenix? Adrian, are you also in Phoenix?

Adrian McIntyre:

I am.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Yeah. So I don't know if you know about Brooklyn.

Adrian McIntyre:

I know about Brooklyn.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Okay.

Adrian McIntyre:

I don't know about Orthodox Brooklyn, but I know about Brooklyn.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Well, my grandfather used to have a Yiddish saying, I'll say it in Yiddish and translate it. And the Yiddish goes, [Yiddish phrase], which basically means whatever happens with the non-Jews more or less trickles into the Jewish community. And there's a lot of overlap. So whatever you know about non-Jewish Brooklyn, more or less, you know something about Orthodox Brooklyn in the sense that Brooklyn is today, the mecca of liberalism and openness, I should say inclusiveness. So the same is true for Orthodox. So my shul, my synagogue in Brooklyn, was very inclusive to the LGBTQ community. Very open. And we had a significant segment, and it was a beautiful, beautiful experience. I know we have very limited time, but I would love to tell you fascinating stories about them. But that's where most of my knowledge comes about this issue. And then I also have students who identified LGBTQ and friends, et cetera, et cetera. When Yeshivat Chovevei Torah decided not to ordain a particular gay student, a gay student of the yeshiva, without getting into the details right now. It's a complicated story. And the student was devastated. Devastated. What do you mean you're not going to give the smicha? And then people went to him and said, oh, why don't you go to JTS, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative rabbinical school? They would give ordination to a gay person. And to the person, my student lost his temper, said, "Yeah, but I don't want to be Conservative. I want to be Orthodox." Like, thank you. You're telling me, oh, stop being who you are. And then you'll be okay. But I mean, you wouldn't tell an ex-person become Conservative. He'd be horrified. Why should I be Conservative? My point is, imagine that a child, and I don't want to be melodramatic, who comes to you and says, "Daddy, am I Jewish like the rest of the Jews?" And the answer would be, "Sure. I mean, of course, why not?" And then he would say, or she would say, "You know, sister Channi had this beautiful wedding, and it was so nice. And we sang Od Yishama, and we had a chuppah, and we had a ring, and we broke a glass, and we invited the whole community. When I get married, am I going to have that? I would like to. It's so fun and beautiful." And you say, "No, no, your wedding is going to happen in City Hall. This is why: because you're just marrying someone like you." How devastating is that? Because the kid doesn't know why? Why am I losing out? Now, I know we're exaggerating. And I know your age. I'm 53. My second wedding was 15 years ago. Over time is, big deal ... it was so fun to have a poofy dress, and who knows what? But when you're a young kid and you said you're not getting any of that. If we can't ... again, Rabbi Beyo, if it turns out that the argument is, halakha does not let me do it, I will submit. I will capitulate. But if there's any chance that I can make a legitimate argument for that boy or girl, for that man or woman, that they are no different than anybody else, I will do all of that. And let me say one more thing, and I know I'm speaking to the converted. I, as an Orthodox Rabbi, am so thrilled that today it's no longer a joke to say, "I'm gay and Orthodox." Five years ago, if someone would say that, "Ha, that's so funny! You're gay and Orthodox? That can't be. How is that possible?" And thank God, we've progressed enough that the LGBTQ community said, yes, we going to stay. We're not going anywhere. We're here, we're queer, and we're Orthodox. And they've enriched my Torah. They've enriched my Judaism. They make me ask questions that I've never asked before. And I'm so indebted to them. Am I wrong in making an assumption, Rabbi Beyo, that you're Sephardi, that you identify Sephardi?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

100%.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Okay. So I'll tell you this cute little story quickly because I know you'll enjoy it. So, like I mentioned, I have a big gay community in my shul. There's a lesbian couple. Before Pesach, one of them calls me up and they say, "Rabbi, I have a question." And usually if it's a gay couple, I assume it has to do something with the gay life and so on and so forth. And she says, "You know, rabbi, I'm Sephardi and my partner's Ashkenazi. What's the story with rice this Pesach?" And it was fabulous. It was just amazing. It's like, when did I get a question about a couple, what's not a man and a woman, and they want to know what to do about rice? And in fact, I hope to publish it, towards the end of the summer. I got a grant. It made me look into the first principles about Minhag and especially Minhagim in families. And I understood Minhag in a way that I would've never understood if it wasn't for that lesbian couple. So thank you. And I know I'm a kid when it comes to Torah. It's like, that alone makes me feel I owe to them. I mean, I need to reciprocate.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Rabbi Katz, I appreciate everything that you're saying. And there's certain things that I agree with you more, other things I agree with you less, but it's definitely given me room to think and to grow for myself. And I am sure that we will continue at other times this conversation. I would like to step back and approach a different topic, a topic that has been on my mind for a long time. I have personal difficulties in defining myself as Orthodox. Because Orthodox, whether I like it or not, means certain things to 99% of the world. And I left my community because of theological reasons, the doxa of Orthodoxy. Not the practice, but the doxa. And we are dealing with a lot of issues, also in my own family, with Orthodox feminism, with approaches and acceptance of LGBTQ community and et cetera, et cetera. And to broaden the normative Orthodox understanding of halakha to various ways, always within being honest with our halakhic understanding. That's why I cannot honestly say that I'm Orthodox. Because I am not in my doxa anymore where I used to be. Please explain to me if you consider yourself an Orthodox rabbi, whether you have ever thought about this question, this dilemma that I have?

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

If I wouldn't have known otherwise, I would've thought maybe we're twins. Of course! Of course I struggle with that a lot. I struggle with that nonstop. And I think I struggle with that in two ways, because I like the fact that you threw in the theological angle into the mix, because I think the theology is primarily the piece where it manifests itself most. And I'll say, you know, a negative and a neutral. It recently dawned on me that ... let's speak Rev Hershel Schachter, right? Rev Hershel Schachter is kind of, you know, the spokesperson for mainstream Orthodoxy, who has come out very publicly against a lot of the more liberal aspects of Orthodoxy, liberal Orthodoxy and so on and so forth. So one of the places that he and I disagree with very strongly is women's aliyot. Can a woman get an aliyah or not, right? Can she be called to the Torah. And I wrote, again, a response in which I argued that a woman can be called to the Torah. He is vehemently opposed. He is vehemently opposed. It recently dawned on me that there's also a theological piece to this debate in the sense that Rev Hershel Schachter -- and this is something positive about Rev Schachter -- Rev Hershel Schachter believes that if, indeed, a woman is not allowed to get an aliyah and she gets one, that's terrible. That would be such a big sin. That would be such a big transgression. And that's why he's so anxious to get it right. Because if he gets it wrong, it will be so consequential. I don't share that theological fear. I argue, within the halakhic system, why a woman can get an aliyah. But at the same time, I don't think that if it turns out that I was wrong and I called a woman to the Torah when I was not supposed to, that God will be that angry. You know? So I think that's a part that I've not made sufficiently public in my discourse. I need to be open that people should know, by the way, another difference between us is I don't think it's all that consequential. So that's kind of the neutral piece. The other piece is that the denominational affiliation has been such a burden on our conversations that it takes up so much energy and so much mental space. And I don't know what to do with it. I mean, am I Orthodox? I think I am Orthodox, according to my definition. Am I Orthodox according to the definition of my siblings, my brothers, sisters, my father and mother, et cetera, et cetera, my whole family? I don't think so. But quite frankly, Rabbi Beyo, even if I am Orthodox, I don't care about my Orthodoxy so much. It's not where I get my religious inspiration. My Orthodox identity is really my background noise. When I built the house, so to speak, of my identity, the first layer of bricks was Orthodoxy. It tells me how to live halakhically and that allows me to be the person that I am. But it's not a central piece of my day-to-day thinking. In other words, Orthodoxy to me is a means not an end. Now here's the thing, though, is that I recently wrote up an essay and I thought I made it very clear that, of course, like you said, Ortho- or behaviorally, of course I'm Orthodox. I keep Orthodox halakha. I follow halakha the way it was meant to be understood all these years. But in terms of my identity, that's not who I am. It's not who I identify. Like I said earlier, Chasidut is a much bigger source of spiritual guidance for me, and so on and so forth. And I'm sure you have that too, Rabbi Beyo. I've showed it to five to six friends and all of them said, oh, so you're not Orthodox. I said, "Well, no, no. Read the essay. That's not what I said!" And then I can't publish it because people are just going to hear what they want. And unfortunately, people obsess with denominational identity.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

No, I agree with you. The way that I try to resolve, again, when I have to give the two-minute speech on the elevator, I say I'm Modern Orthodox. But I found my way out is I'm a Sephardi rabbi.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Lucky you, in so many ways.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right? Something that you can't say.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

I am so jealous.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I mean, we do accept converts, so you are welcome to join us.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

No you don't.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

But what I'm saying is that by defining myself differently, not in the Ashkenazi milieu ...

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Framework.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

... of Orthodox, Modern Orthodox ... framework, right ... Haredi. Which is the Ashkenazi framework. I say, you know what? Let me regain back my Sephardiness and I'm going to reestablish myself, not according to the definition that others want to put on me, but my own traditional definition. I'm a Sephardi Jew. Which makes me much happier and avoids constant internal struggles within myself on who am I and who I'm not. And what I find fascinating, and I am sure that you have encountered this over and over again, that in the Sephardi tradition, as we find it in the various teshuvot throughout the times, including Rav Ovadia Yosef, much more lenient, much easier to approach modernity, and the community that is so multicolored, from a Sephardi perspective.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

See, you're kind of causing me so much pain that I can't even begin to tell you. First of all, like I said, lucky you. I wish I had an easy alternative, A) that doesn't need so much explanation and B) still keeps you within the fold, right? Because when someone says I'm a Sephardi rabbi, everybody's like, okay, fine. Okay. That's just different, but you're still inside. You're still part of it. You know, when I try to explain what it means to be modern Chassidish, well, you can't be modern and Chassidish. What does that mean?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

It's a [Hebrew word].

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Exactly. Exactly. That's what people think. I wish I could have that easy alternative. But more importantly, what you said is so true and so important. But here's the challenge. So I'm sure you know Zvi Zohar, Professor Zvi Zohar. So Professor Zvi Zohar is a expert on Sephardic psikah. And he and I are very, very close friends. His family hosted us when we were in Israel. And I've talked to him extensively, because here's my problem, Rabbi Beyo. Most people are superficial. And most people will tell you, "You know, Sephardi poskim were more lax. They were more easygoing. They were more forgiving." I don't think so. I think there's a deep ... I know I'm preaching to the converted, but it's unfortunate because most people don't get that. Sephardi poskim have a sophisticated, very elaborate theology that explains why the end product is more inclusive, right?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

It's not a laxity. It's not a lack of passion. And here's the thing. I would love to figure out the tools, how to replicate it so that I don't have to be Sephardi to do that. And I really mean that, right. There's a methodology there. What is that methodology that explains how they ended up in such a different place than these Ashkenazi poskim?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Well, we know. I think that I understand historically why it developed in one way and not the other. Because the Ashkenazi world had to confront itself with emancipation, modernity, Reform Judaism, secularism, all of these perceived and actual attacks that Sephardi Judaism did not have to deal with, and on.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

I mean, Mark Shapiro, you know Dr. Mark Shapiro ... Dr. Shapiro throws in one more thing.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Sure.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Mark Shapiro says, in Ashkenazi communities there was always an Orthodox shul, a Reform shul, and a Conservative shul. So if someone was a troublemaker, the rabbi would say to him, "Why don't you go across the street? There's a Reform shul. You'll be perfectly happy there, or the Conservative shul." And in the Sephardi community, there was not an option.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

The troublemakers had to stay in there. No, but my point is, Rabbi Beyo, that if I want to replicate what they did in addition to knowing the why, which he so aptly explained, there's also a how. Meaning, I don't believe they can have said, "Oh look, we have these kinds of Jews in my shul. You know what? I'll be more lenient." No, no, no, no, no, no. They had a methodology that explains what are the building blocks that allows a rabbi to conclude X rather than Y. That piece I've not yet learned, and I would love to learn.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

I think that part of it is "koach d’heteira."

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Yep. Yep. That's part of it.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Meaning "the strength of leniency." Meaning there are two approaches, and it does connect in a way with what you were mentioning earlier, whether God will be upset or not with two men marrying or not. Ultimately, God doesn't get upset.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Yep. Absolutely not.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

We've learned this from Maimonides. We've learned this from Moreh ...

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Exactly.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

... Rambam: "God doesn't get upset." Let's start there. God doesn't get upset.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Right. Right.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

So the question is not, as Rev Schachter were to hold, that Hashem is going to get upset. No, Hashem doesn't get upset. It's not what Hashem does or what Hashem feels, it's what I do in my [Hebrew phrase]. It is what I do in my service towards God.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Right. Right.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

And the strength of leniency, which is an approach that Sephardi rabbis have had for a long time, I think is also part of the puzzle. And in the Ashkenazi world, for various reasons that you know better than me, the direction is the opposite. It is "the strengths of chumra." The more stringent you are, the more of a rabbi you are. The better you are.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Right. Right. Right.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

And that is something that makes it so much more difficult for people to embrace Orthodoxy or to make people leave Orthodoxy. As we started this podcast conversation, we mentioned so many Orthodox Jews leave Orthodoxy. And unfortunately, I believe part of it is because they're only shown what is [Hebrew word], what you're not allowed to do, rather than show them how you are allowed to do everything. It is all in moderation, in a proper time, in a proper place, with the proper people.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Yep. Yep. I couldn't agree with you more. I couldn't agree with you more.

Adrian McIntyre:

I have a question from the sidelines here, which is ... many of the issues that you two are discussing, and many of the topics that we have gotten into with previous guests on this podcast, have been substantive, by nature. And what I mean by that is, they're the kind of issues ... and the approaches that you bring ... are serious. They rely on deep learning, scholarship, participation in traditions of knowledge and learning, et cetera. One of the frustrations that I know Rabbi Beyo has had, and we've talked about this, is so many of the times you're trying to discuss these things with the broader world, you're dealing with people whose understanding, as Rabbi Katz said here, is very superficial ...

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Yes.

Adrian McIntyre:

... and is very casual. Not people who are committed to scholarship. I find this for myself, in the same way. Whether it's dealing with topics that I'm an expert in or topics I'm passionate about, I'm often engaging with people that haven't gotten the foundation, let alone the depth. It's superficial. As we wrap up this conversation, I'd love to hear from both of you, how do you see the future of Jewish communities, where the tradition of scholarship, whether it's Torah studies, or it's adult education at the JCC, or it's early childhood, all of the different ways in which Jewishness is experienced, engaged with, et cetera. How do you see bringing others along to the point where they can have the kind of conversation you're having today with at least the level of ... what is the word we used to use in higher education? The "prerequisite" level, right? Like, they'd done the 101 already, and now it's time to have the real conversation, the graduate seminar, if you will, in a secular context. How would you bring folks into this conversation who say, "You know what? I only have that inherited, superficial kind of person-on-the-street point of view. How do I get to where you are?"

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Allow me to have a stab at this, because I'm more interested to hear what Rabbi Katz will say later. I think that it is a very good point, and it's a difficult one. I think that the access to knowledge -- academic knowledge, scholarly work, rabbinic knowledge, rabbinic scholarly work -- is so available today, compared to last generation, that people that have any interest can start to learn a lot, even on their own. The gates of knowledge are wide open. And people are learning, people that a generation ago would not even be accepted to learn, today are not only accepted, but are becoming scholars of their own, are becoming rabbis. So that is wonderful. That is wonderful. The challenge, I think, is not the access to knowledge, but if people are going to want to take the time to dwell in knowledge that has been written thousands of years ago, hundreds of years ago, rather than only focus on what is the immediate reward of a fad that comes today. And that I think the responsibility is mine and Rabbi Katz's, that each one of us within our communities -- and so many other educators, and rabbis, and community people -- we need to inspire people to find a path into Jewish learning that is so wonderful, and it's so addictive once you get a taste of it. But I would love to hear what Rabbi Katz has to say.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

As if I have anything to add after you said everything. No, really. I mean, I think I'll just piggyback on what you said and just elaborate for a minute or two. Is that, I think that the last piece is the most important piece. And I don't know about your experience, but my experience as a rabbi, along with my colleagues, is always that we try to design the most creative classes, the most interesting classes, and then we get together and we kvetch that, oh so few people showed up. And what I tell my friends always is, we need to take responsibility. If we were to make it exciting enough, in a way that resonates with our audience, you bet they would've showed up. If we can convince them that it's as much fun as, I don't know, whatever fad is now on TV, because I don't get around to watch that much, right?. Then they would say, yeah, it's worth an evening of my time. So we need to think better. Yeah, obviously it's much more complicated. People are overwhelmed. People are mostly two- family, two-parent jobs and paying bills and all that. It's hard. But if we can make them feel that it's important enough for themselves, then they will participate. And then the other thing I think in terms of your question, Adrian, is the big tension that I have all the time. For example, I mentioned before that I'm hoping to publish at the end of the summer, a responsa volume. Do I do it in Hebrew or in English? Do I write it in Hebrew, the lingua franca of the elite, right? The lingua franca of the scholars. Or do I write it in English where it becomes more accessible to the broad masses? And there is a big argument about where change happens. Does change happen top down or bottom up? Does it happen that rabbis guide the change, the rabbis set the tone and the people follow? Or no, the congregants come to the rabbis, say rabbi, we living in a new world and either you join or you'll stay behind. And I think that at the end of the day, its a tension. And like everything else, the answer is both, right? You have to, A) convince the elite, which is what I'm trying to do with my responsa. And people listen to the rabbis, if they know that they're safe. I think the important piece is they need to be safe. And what I mean by being safe is spiritually and emotionally, and all of that. I've seen this time and again, the resistance to its LGBTQ inclusion, of course partially philosophical, partially theological, but there's also a nonjudgmental homophobia. What I mean by that is that it's not like that they hate gays or they hate people who identify as LGBTQ. It's just very foreign to them, right? It seems to undermine everything they know about masculinity and femininity, and they rightfully are nervous and say, "What else are you going to undermine? What else are you going to challenge?" And we as rabbis fail in convincing them that no, no, no, no. We're not here to break norms. We're not here to undermine your Jewish home. It will actually make your home more religious, more spiritual, more devout. And so far, at least for myself, I'm giving myself a generous C-, because that's the part where I failed in convincing people that I'm not out to break the Torah. I'm not out to pull the rug under the Torah. In fact, it will be a better experience of Judaism. And I think the best argument, and with that I'll finish, is the youth. Because the youth has made such headway on these issues, and they're either going to drop out, or stay if we can make it an inclusive place.

Adrian McIntyre:

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is chair of the Talmud Department at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York. Thank you so much for joining us for this conversation.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Thank you for having me.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Rabbi Katz, thank you very much. We appreciate all that you have taught us today.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Thank you so much, Rabbi Beyo. Thank you for this wonderful, wonderful opportunity.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

No, I have to say that this is a podcast that I was eagerly looking forward to. It allowed me to express certain thoughts -- and to hear certain ideas and thoughts -- that I knew I could only have them with somebody with your knowledge and your background. And I hope that we will continue this whether within the format of the podcast or offline ... physically offline or virtually offline.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Absolutely.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

That we shall continue this, and I look forward to learning with you.

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz:

Likewise, thank you very, very much.

Adrian McIntyre:

If you enjoyed today's show, please subscribe to Conversation with the Rabbi on your favorite podcast app. You can also find the latest episodes online at ConversationWithTheRabbi.com. For all of us here at PHX.fm, I'm Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Conversation with the Rabbi.