I imagine things from my rabbi’s perspective:
Luke Ford was never my idea. Frankly, I blame Dennis Prager. This formerly Orthodox guy has a nationally syndicated radio show where he presents Judaism in very exciting terms, a little too exciting for my taste, because he sometimes excites the wrong sort, the Luke Fords of the world.
Mr. Prager says that Judaism is based on ethical monotheism — the belief that there is one God whose primary demand is ethical behavior.
Ethical monotheism sounds very nice, but in a few cases, such as Luke’s, it is taken as permission to f*** around, because, after all, what can be so immoral about consenting adults doing loving acts in private?
Now, I know what you’re saying. I’m an Orthodox rabbi. I shouldn’t use the word "f***". Well, let me tell you, I never even thought the word f*** until I met Luke Ford. Dealing with him for a decade has morally desensitized me.
It was never my idea to be Luke Ford’s rabbi. I think he’s my curse for espousing "Open Orthodoxy." If you ever wanted a good reason for why Orthodoxy should stay closed, I give you two little words, four letters each — "Luke Ford".
It was people close to me, the people I love most, who brought me the curse of Luke Ford.
I was new to LA. I doing something called "Meetings in Torah." I’m about the only Orthodox rabbi who does this. I gather with my colleagues from the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism and we break into small groups and study Torah with whoever shows up.
It’s holy work. But there’s a problem. Sometimes you attract Torah weirdos, as Rabbi Aryeh Markman at Aish HaTorah calls them. If they come around your shul, you have to shape them up or bust them out.
Several people came up to me that night and said I had to meet this guy Luke Ford. And for a minute, all I heard was Luke Ford this and Luke Ford that. When I met him, my first words were, "So you’re the famous Luke Ford."
We had him over for Shabbat lunch. And he walks in all jaunty. Then one of my congregants says to him, "Luke Ford? Were you on NPR this week?" And Luke goes "Yeah" and turns all apprehensive.
It was a look I came to know well.
"You were talking about your book." And suddenly my congregant turns all apprehensive because he hasn’t been able to forget the title — "A History of X: 100 Years of Sex in Film."
"Yeah," Luke Ford says, and you can see he can’t even say the name of his own book in polite company. Here’s his magnum opus, the fruit of a lifetime of exhaustive research, and he can’t even say the name. Instead he says, "It’s a history of independent film."
Independent film! A history of dirty movies is more like it. And my congregant is struggling for breath, my kids are running around, we’re all about to step up to the table to say kiddish, and my congregant chokes out, "Independent film? That’s one way of putting it."
Now, I hear what you’re saying. A lot of blokes like smut. What’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is that this is polluting my home.
You don’t understand about Luke Ford back then. He had the most innocent face. He was like "The Picture of Dorian Gray." No matter how many years went by, and how many horrible things he did, he kept looking innocent. But in his writing on Lukeford.com, you could see his depravity. It was like Howard Stern mixed with Dennis Prager mixed with Charles Bukowski.
I didn’t know this yet. All I knew is that people close to me told me he was a mentch. All sweetness and light. A breath of fresh air in the stuffy world of Orthodoxy.
He was quite chastened throughout the meal, aside from the time he tried to stir up my two boys to fight each other. They don’t need any encouragement, thank you very much.
And there was something else I noticed in that first meal — he had the hardest time looking me in the eye.
I’d usually run into him on a Shabbos morning, about 7:15. He’d be rushing off to daf yomi (a page of Talmud a day) at Young Israel of Century City. We’d exchange greetings and I could see him flinching because he didn’t fool me. I once said to him, "If you ever need to talk to someone, you can come to see me."
You should’ve seen him. He wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. He knew I knew who he really was.
The inevitable happened. His whole history of reporting on porn scandals came to light in the community when he was profiled in The Jerusalem Report. Not everybody read the article, but enough people heard about it to make Luke a lively discussion topic around Shabbos tables for a few weeks.
He got kicked out of every Ashkenazi shul in the neighborhood. Even Aish HaTorah kicked him out, and it’s an outreach center. They clean up people like Luke Ford for a living. Even Chabad kicked him out, and they pride themselves on providing a home for every Jew, no matter how fallen.
So here’s the thing. He wasn’t Jewish. He was playing dress up. He had a conversion, but it was through a Reform rabbi in Sacramento in 1993. That didn’t cut ice with us Orthodox.
Luke didn’t get kicked out for writing about porn. He got kicked out for not being who he presented himself as — an Orthodox Jew. That he wanted to convert to Orthodox Judaism, well, we’re tough on converts to make sure they are sincere. Writing a history of the porn industry does not seem like the act of a sincere convert to Judaism. We’re not into that stuff.
The community thought that at best he was a fraud. At worst, he was trying to infiltrate us to write a scandalous expose.
So Luke Ford sold lukeford.com for $25,000 and quit writing on porn. He started coming to my shul. We’re a bit touchy-feely for his tastes, a bit too progressive on women’s issues and gay issues. We pride ourselves on being inclusive. He’s very right-wing and unbelievably respectful of other shuls’ decision to exclude him. Even though he didn’t agree with our ideology, we were the last Modern Orthodox shul in the hood, so he felt like he had no choice but to give us a shot.
He’d sneak in to my shul, scared he’d be kicked out, and he’d stay in the back during davening, and then he’d rush out at the end. A lot of people couldn’t believe he had the balls to show up, that filth-monger. One of the pillars of the community said to him one Friday night, "I’ll give you one thing — you’ve got courage."
People couldn’t believe that Luke Ford would keep showing up to shul after The Jerusalem Report said the guy used to be the Matt Drudge of the porn industry.
I tracked Luke down the first time he came on a Shabbos morning. He was sitting as far away from me as possible, trying to stay out of my eye-line. I climbed the stairs, gave him the big friendly smile we learn at YU rabbinical school, shook his hand like I do with a thousand people on a Shabbos morning, and said, "Gut Shabbos, Levi. Please call me during the week."
Then I just stood back and watched him get the biggest attack of the trembles.
He knew I knew.
He came into my office later that week. I closed the door. And he sits there wobbling. I tried to settle him down by inquiring about his welfare and his whole sordid story came tumbling out. And he’s just dying. He’s dying for the tiniest bit of kindness. He’s just dying to know that I don’t consider him evil, a deceiver, a filthmeister. He’s just dying to be treated like a human being in an Orthodox shul. He’s just dying to fit in. He’s just dying to start a new life. He’s just dying for a second chance. He’s just dying for a place to pray.
I told him I’d think about things. I’d talk to my colleagues (who all told me to boot him, oy, I stuck my neck out for Luke Ford). I’d talk to his therapist. And eventually I let him know it was OK if he wanted to come to shul to daven. Everything else was off-limits. No kiddish. No lectures. None of the things he really enjoyed.
I had a liberal reputation in Orthodox Judaism, but I was no pushover. I lived my life by Jewish law. I was no fan of desecrating God’s name. By writing about Judaism and Jews and pornography and prostitution and sexual perversion and organized crime and his own spiritual journey all on the same website, Lukeford.com, he desecrated God’s name. He had made the chosen people, the Jews, look bad.
I was no fan of Luke Ford. I knew who he was. I just believed in giving him a second chance. I saw a divine spark in him. I saw his potential for greatness.
After a year of this, there were no incidents. You’re probably asking, incidents of what? Writing? Well, Luke Ford was such a controversial character in our community, many people viewed him as akin to a serial killer. An internet terrorist who’d terrorize people with words, with things that might be true but should not be made public, things like scandals and infidelities. A cyber-stalker. You should’ve seen the obsessive way he reported on his new blog Lukeford.net about Dennis Prager’s radio show. And he was a fan of Dennis Prager! Oy!
There were no incidents. Though I took him off probation and let him join the community, we watched him closely.
He was a chastened Luke Ford those days. He’d had the stuffing kicked out of him. Orthodox Jews can be pretty stern about the desecration of God’s name. I didn’t see the glimmer in his eye anymore. They were just sad. When I first met him, he could turn on the charisma and captivate a room. People would gather around him when he spoke. They’d ask him questions. They’d get excited about life just by being in his presence. I didn’t see this anymore. He just looked pathetic.
He was not popular in the shul. Some people loved him, but overall? Opinion stayed 50/50 during his tenure, maybe edging 60/40 against him during his last few years. Did he do anything bad in the shul? In the community? No. It was his blogging. His forthright manner made some people angry. He had no sacred cows. Everybody in power in Jewish life was fair game for his journalistic scrutiny. Sounds commendable, but practically, it’s not how Orthodox Judaism works. We like to keep sacred things private.
We once had a singles lunch at the shul. We got in a circle and shared two things about ourselves we’d like people to know. He talked about how much he loved cynicism and irony.
During the program, I saw that flash return to his eyes as he started chatting people up. His gestures got bigger and more flamboyant. "He’s a faegella," I thought and I got all tender. He was out of the closet and out of his depression. He was embracing his gay self. I would refer him to Beth Chayim Chadashim — the world’s first gay synagogue — and wash my hands of Luke Ford.
Afterwards, I got phone calls about his inappropriate language. He’d been talking dirty to the ladies.
I called him into my office and we had a nice little chat.
I checked in with his therapist and asked, is he a threat to my shul?
I was assured he was not a threat. He was just an idiosyncratic blogger. A lover of free speech and loose speech.
He went to talk to his psychiatrist about the singles lunch incident and he got a prescription for lithium. He calmed down. The glint in his eye was gone.
Years went by. I started getting complaints about his blog. The same ferocious way he went after pornographers? He was now going after people in the community.
I didn’t know what to do. I met with him and let him know that anybody in the shul was off limits. He agreed. I let him know that he could talk to me about any of his stories before he blogged them. He agreed.
Well, he never took advantage of my services.
When he started at my shul, he was all timid about his blogging and everything else. As the years went by, he became increasingly vicious. It was like he hated the community that had rejected him. They’d booted him from shul for writing about sex, so now he was on the hunt for any rabbi who sexually misbehaved. He thought he was doing a service.
All I know is that I’d walk around our beautiful community and I’d see the walking dead. People he’d knifed on his blog and they were but a shell of their former selves. One colleague of mine resigned from the rabbinate after Luke Ford brought to light some of his sexual escapades with high school girls.
I liked Levi well enough but I could never make peace with Luke’s blogging. It’s not the Orthodox way. We don’t out people on blogs. We take care of things quietly. And what disturbed me the most was the joy he seemed to take in destroying people’s reputations.
One night I dreamed that I ran into him in an alley outside one of our shuls. The rabbi was on the ground bleeding and Luke Ford was dancing over him, blood dripping from his knife.
"Levi, what have you done?" I said.
"He deserved it," said Levi. "He was screwing kids."
"This is not the Torah’s way, Levi," I said.
"Yeah," he said. "But it’s my way."
He’s off his lithium, I thought.
Would he do this to me?
One day I got a very strange email from Levi. He wanted to finish his Orthodox conversion and he wondered who he’d have to bribe.
That’s how he saw things, that the only Beit Din that would pass him would be one that he’d bribed.
I ignored his email. The years went by. The corpses mounted.
Finally, I said to him, "You need to do an Orthodox conversion or you need to move on."
I steered him towards a rabbi with unimpeachable integrity. I said, Levi, I’m willing to sponsor your conversion, but you’ll have to convince me of your willingness to live by Jewish law.
He said he would live by Jewish law.
The conversion process began.
A couple of months into it, he starts publishing horrifying things on his blog about various rabbis who are sure to end his conversion.
I was on Sabbatical at the time. But oy, how I got phone calls. It was easier to just deal with the mess.
I biked over to Levi’s hovel and sat down with him and said, "Levi, sometimes you have to think strategically."
It was a good talk, but I left with the uneasy feelings that all my efforts on Levi had been wasted. Eight years down the drain.
A few days before Rosh Hashanah, he exposed a yeshiva girl in Jerusalem for writing an anonymous blog about sex. I let him know that humiliation was not acceptable, and I suspended him from the shul for two weeks.
He didn’t like that. He was all ominously quiet for a few days, and then, just before Rosh Hashanah, he exploded on his blog. He was now free to write what he wanted without having to fear a meeting with me. And he just went crazy. He posted all these bad things about the shul. About members of the shul. He speculated about how long I’d last at the shul.
He was a pen-wielding Rosemary’s baby.
He was everything I’d been warned about.
A few weeks later, we had a meeting. I said, Levi, if you want to come around here, you’ll have to accept me as the editor of your blog. You’ll need to close down Lukeford.net and start anew at PicoRob.com.
He said we had a deal.
And then I never heard from him again.
A few weeks later, all the horrible stories went back up. He was going his own way.
PS. I now write my own blog. It’s night and day compared to his blog. I follow Judaism’s dictates about acceptable speech.
I gave Luke Ford my best shot. He’s a work in progress. It’s too early to tell if he’s more of a blessing or a curse to my community.