LimmudLA 2010

I hope Heaven will be one long LimmudLA.

Here’s my story this year:

Jan. 29. I got sick.

Jan. 31. The healing begins.

Feb. 7. I return to yoga for the first time in 11 days.

“Perfect,” I think. “I got sick at just the right time so that I will be strong for LimmudLA.”

Feb. 7. 1 p.m. I panic over my finances and flood with adrenalin for two days.

Feb. 10. 8:30 a.m. “You have therapy today?” she asks.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m going to talk about how I can get the most out of LimmudLA. In 2008, it was my favorite weekend of the year. In 2009, it was my favorite weekend of the year. I anticipate that this will be my favorite weekend of 2010.”

“Why wouldn’t you talk about having to take financial responsibility for the first time in your life?” she asks.

“Score!” I say.

“I’m serious,” she says. “You’re being forced to grow up. You can’t rely on your family any longer. Five years ago, when I couldn’t pay my rent, my parents told me, ‘You’re on your own.’ I hated it at the time. I had to live out of my car and stay with different people, sleeping on the couch, but it forced me to grow up.”

So when my therapy rolled around, I started out with this conversation and then my therapist took control and we discussed my attitude to money.

How will I ever afford more LimmudLAs if I don’t get my act together?

From Feb. 7-9, I was running on adrenalin, scared of going broke. Then the adrenalin ebbed and the fatigue overwhelmed me.

I stayed home from yoga Wednesday and Thursday night to save myself for HaShem and LimmudLA.

After my Alexander Technique training Friday morning, I get on the 405 and drive south for an hour, thinking about how in less than a second I could get into an accident that would end my life.

I’m always thinking about death. It’s separation from life is narrow, just one small mistake and that’s it.

I can’t believe I’ve made it to 43. What about all the greatest things I was destined for? I’m unmarried. Never had a kid. I’m about to be homeless. I have no way of paying for the rest of my Alexander Technique teacher training. How will I ever keep up with my required credit card payments? If I’m dead, I won’t have to worry about them anymore.

I wonder if my family will come and clean out my hovel. I’m glad I don’t have any porn in it anymore.

I thought I was destined to do great things for the Lord. I can’t even take care of myself. I can’t even keep a houseplant alive. God, I am so tired, how am I going to do anything great for you? I want to be a hero, not a zero.

I exit on Bristol Avenue and turn left.

Big mistake. I was supposed to go right.

I go around in circles, dipping into the mall parking lot to turn around and make it to the Costa Mesa Hilton ten minutes later at 1:35 p.m.

I know I have the ugliest vehicle here. I hope I don’t frighten the children. I hope nobody sees me get out of this thing.

I carry my stuff in two brown paper bags from Ralphs. Great. I’m taking my trash aesthetic into the Hilton.

When I was 15, we stayed at the Hilton for a few days in Costa Rica. I thought it was the flashest hotel around. I was so impressed that somebody was paying $100 a night for us to stay there.

I stand in line to check-in for my room. I’m right behind marketer Gary Wexler, but I’m weighed down by my trash, my suit, my Bnai David tote bag, my fatigue, anxiety and depression.

I want to say hello to Gary but I don’t know whether to introduce myself as “Levi” or “Luke”, so I just stay silent.

He probably thinks my blog is all over the place. No direction. No mission. No marketing. Just babble.

God, it is time to take this ship into the shore and throw away the oars forever. I want to be loved. I want to be embraced. I want to connect.

God, I’ve forgotten what I started fighting for. If I have to crawl across the floor, if I have to come crashing through your door, baby, I can’t fight this feeling anymore.

I want to slide into the hot tub, lose myself in the bubbles, dissolve into the steam, and let the love carry me away.

I get my room assignment — 219. Good, I won’t have to walk up too many stairs on Shabbat.

I find my room and Jesus be praised, it’s a single! I have the room to myself! I have a double-bed and two room keys! I’m ready to party.

I lie on my bed and I call a girl in Arizona with the good news. I’m so happy that I won’t be kept awake all night by a snoring roommate. That about wrecked my whole LimmudLA last year.

Now I’m calm.

I go down to the lobby and pick up my conference registration. Then I head for the Fountain Terrace to check out the eats.

I see a nice spread of coffees and herbal teas. I find three plates of cookies.

“Not too much sugar,” I warn myself and take only four cookies with my cup of coffee, my first coffee since last year’s LimmudLA.

I need to rev up. I’m exhausted. I feel as weak as a kitten but I need to be as strong as a lion. I have four days of conference ahead of me — the highlight of my 2010! How will I keep up? I want to meet people. I want to learn. I want to be my best self and yet I feel like my weakest self.

I wander around. I don’t see anyone who can recharge me. None of the 2:15 p.m. sessions appeal to me. Who cares about challah baking? That’s for chicks. I’m a manly man.

I know I need protein and I know it’s in my car in the form of a big jar of peanut butter.

So I sit in my car and eat it by the spoonful, remembering the last time I did this, I almost choked.

I imagine my tombstone: “Here lies Luke Ford. He’s dead. He choked on his peanut butter before what would have been his biggest weekend of the year. I guess he’s no longer the future of journalism.”

I feel jittery. I wonder if it’s the coffee. I need to be revved up, but not jittery.

I sit on the sofa opposite the entrance and hope my friends come soon. I just can’t make it any other way. I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend. But I always thought I’d see you again.

At least I’m not sick. My throat isn’t sore. I don’t have the sniffles. My HIV is under control. Thank God for the cocktail! AIDS is no longer a death sentence.

Jeff emails: “Were you kidding about HIV?”

Yes.

Jeff replies: “You might want to clarify that because it doesn’t come off that way.”

I have a family who loves me. I have a good therapist. I have more than a year of Alexander Technique teacher training under my belt. I no longer interview porn stars for a living.

I’m respectable now. I have my Orthodox conversion. I have my shuls. Nobody’s trying to ban me.

I imagine that me and Avrohom Union are good.

I bother no one and no one bothers me.

I’m hanging by a song. The strings are already broken but I don’t care. The Costa Mesa rocky mountain high, I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.

Jesus, Hallelujah, there’s David and Monica! I can hang with them all weekend.

They smile. They’re glad to see me. They say that I got crazy once and tried to touch the sun. I lost a friend but kept a memory.

Fifteen minutes later, after Monica and David have checked in, deposited their belongings, and registered for the conference, they join me on the couch.

I plug into David and Monica. I need their friendship. I need their gossip. I need their encouragement. I’m so weak on my own.

Poor Monica. I wonder how many times this weekend she’ll be asked, “Why do you hang out with that guy?”

3:45 p.m. Still no sessions that appeal to me.

I go upstairs to do semi-supine. Then I nap for 20 minutes, take a cold shower, slip into my Shabbos suit and head downstairs for prayer.

I stick my nose into egalitarian davening with drums (about 20 people) and then head to the Orthodox service (about 120 people). The Biala Rebbe was supposed to lead out but he’s snowed in.

I see a friend who was in Jerusalem 24 hours ago working for Israel.

I tell UCLA Hillel’s Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, who gives the five-minute drasha, that somebody should talk about the triumph of the Orthodox model (his topic for Monday morning).

I go down one level to Pacific Ballroom 1 for Friday night dinner. I hope I don’t have to do this alone. Wouldn’t it suck if I sat down at a table and then nobody joined me? They’d rather crowd in at the other tables then chill with me? Or what if I got stuck with strangers who had no interest in talking to me? Worse yet, what if I got stuck with people who I had no interest in talking to?

Why is this worse? Because it shows what a fuss-budget I am. I only want to talk to people who read books. Almost everyone else bores me.

Monica and David invite me to join them at a table with the head of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Elissa Barrett. She’s really cute and spunky and adorable. Very friendly and smiley and gay.

Well, nobody has done more than Luke Ford to fight homophobia in America!

I’m always on the front line for civil rights — unless my CFS is acting up or I just need to take time-out to get in touch with my feelings. They’re so exquisite!

We shift tables so David can be with his kids.

An Ikar contingent ups the energy level by belting out Shabbos hymns.

I watch them with envy, dying to join in.

A year ago, I was jumping around the room at this time, trying to look happy and cool and Godly. Where did that energy come from? I’m drained and LimmudLA has just begun.

“There was a time when I was watching you,” remembered a woman I’d met that first day of last year’s LimmudLA, “and I just felt sorry for you. You just seemed so lost. Nobody wanted to talk to you.”

Now I’ve got good posture. Good use. I’m calm, cool and collected because I do Alexander Technique.

7 p.m. So many great sessions. I guess I should be in Rabbi Jonathan Aaron‘s “Gossip is Called ‘Evil Tongue’ For A Reason” but instead choose Catalina Ballroom 2 for Rabbi Michael Melchior‘s lecture on conversion to Judaism in the 21st Century.

I sit in the second row. The room fills up. Maybe this Michael Melchior bloke is the superstar of LimmudLA 2010?

When he walks in, he’s a worry. He’s heavily stooped. His face is ashen. He says he’s been traveling for 29 hours straight to get here from Israel. He doesn’t look like he has the strength to climb to the platform let alone give a speech.

But once he gets rolling, he gets rolling. I’m mesmerized. He’s hilarious and wise and fair. I’d follow this guy anywhere. He’s my new hero.

Oy, but that stoop. Look at how tips his head back and compresses his neck. So much unnecessary tension there. His shoulders curve inward. His spine must be all mashed together. I could really help him with some Alexander Technique. Poor man. He’ll have doctors and healers fussing over him all weekend. He’s not going to listen to me. But I can help him more than anybody! And he can help me, he can be my new father figure. I’ll confess to him my sins and he’ll absolve me. He seems like an understanding bloke.

Question time. Conservative rabbi Daniel Greyber asks Rabbi Melchior if he’d accept a conversion done according to Jewish law by three Conservative rabbis.

“That’s not so much a matter of who is a Jew,” says Rabbi Melchior, “but who is a rabbi.

“But if it is a conversion done by three observant Jews [with mikveh and circumcision if necessary, etc], then it’s valid. The Talmud doesn’t know Reform, Conservative or Orthodox rabbis. It knows halacah (Jewish law).”

Rabbi Melchior says he doesn’t blame the ultra-Orthodox aka the Chareidim for the conversion crisis. He says Likud and the other mainstream political parties lack the will to tell the chareidim that while they will subsidize their educational system, they will not give them control of conversions.

I’m grateful to be at LimmudLA. I’m grateful to not be sick, only weak. I’m grateful to have my own room. I’m grateful for David and Monica.

I’m in my room before 11 p.m. I do semi-supine for 15 minutes, clear my head, and go to bed. I love my pillows. There are about six of them. I push four to the floor. I just need one under my head. I’m a simple Jew with simple needs. I don’t want to crawl under the sheets. I lie on top of my bed and pull the cover around me and toss and turn.

About 2 a.m., I crawl under my sheets. Then I rip them loose from the sides so I’m not entrapped. An 85-year old friend recently fell off the side of his bed next to the wall and got stuck in his sheets for three days until a neighbor found him barely alive. (My friend is OK now and walking miles a day.)

8:30 a.m. Shabbos. Skipping the 12 Steps meeting, I head downstairs for breakfast. I don’t have the strength for Stephanie Avedon‘s “Spirituality, Breath and Body.” No yoga for me.

Instead, I pop into the Liberal Shabbos morning service with Jonathan Aaron, Rachel Timoner, Jewish rocker chick Naomi Less and drummer Avram Mandel.

It’s 9:15 a.m. I didn’t expect to be here but the music is beautiful. I can’t leave. I pick up the prayer book and join in. I feel like I am back at Stephen S. Wise or Ohr HaTorah, two temples with rocking musical instrumentation on Shabbos.

9:30 a.m. Chavruta learning with Karen Radkowsky. For some reason, I think the blonde bloke next to me, my chavruta, is a professor at the American Jewish University. I keep calling him professor and he keeps telling me it’s not true and finally I get it. He’s not a professor. He hosts a public radio show.

“I daven every Shabbos morning,” we say. “This morning I want to learn.”

We discuss the sh’ma. Were the Israelites of the book of Deuteronomy monotheists? Or did they believe that their god was just one god among many gods?

11 a.m. The Vagina Monologues Meet the Talmud. It’s taught by Aviva Richman of American Jewish University.

According to the program, this talk is “teen approved.”

No teens show up.

I never knew that “The Vagina Monologues” could meet the Talmud. I never knew a feminist could be this funny.

“The Vagina Monologues” are a sensitive spot for me. A few years ago, I was dating this woman with great breasts. I told her that I hated “The Vagina Monologues” (I had never seen them performed, I had never read them, I had just read some right-wing critique and believed it) and she interpreted this to mean that I hated vaginas, including hers.

She’s married now.

I notice that Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews tend to study sacred text differently. The Orthodox tend to let the text judge them. The non-Orthodox tend to judge the text by how it accords with their contemporary sensibilities.

I’ve found that in many Reform and Conservative synagogues on Shabbos mornings, the crowd sits around and shares their views on the parsha. In most Orthodox shuls, by contrast, the rabbi elucidates the text and doesn’t take questions.

Sometimes when I study with the non-Orthodox, I feel that the barbarians are at the gates. We read through the text and then everyone — whether or not they can read Hebrew — shares their thoughts.

Study becomes becomes an ordeal of listening to ignorant opinions. I hate that. I don’t care about your opinion unless you’re learned or I’m dating you.

Jewish superstar rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches at this time on “tikkun olam.” I’ve heard him before on this topic. I figure he’s given this lecture a thousand times.

The room overflows for all of his talks at LimmudLA.

I’m introduced to a smart, attractive and accomplished young woman who I’ll call Torah Girl. I make a good impression. The conversation flows easily until I hear the name of her roommate and then get this guilty look on my face and confess, “Umm, I once wrote something mean about her.”

“Oh,” says Torah Girl, and steps back, physically repelled, “I know who you are.”

How many times have I heard this? How many times, O Lord, have promising Torah talks been compromised by this revelation? How long, O Lord, must Your Servant suffer so?

I promise Torah Girl not to write about her nor her Torah, and I slink away with my didgeridoo between my legs.

The women here are amazing. They have different outfits for every day. Sometimes they wear pants. Sometimes they wear dresses. At all times, they inspire me to be more than just the most controversial Jewish blogger in LA.

I try not to be creepy on Shabbat.

I pile lunch on my plate and head to Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller‘s lecture on how to renew the Zionist idea.

In contrast to his wife’s poise, the rabbi is all slumped over. Too many hours studying the sacred texts. He badly needs Alexander Technique.

The rabbi’s stuck in startle pattern. His head is hunched forward, just like mine was until 18 months ago, from so many hours reading.

When most people are startled, they jut their head forward, tightening and compressing their neck. As people age, they tend to get stuck here. As people come under stress, they tend to go more and more into startle pattern and stay here.

When you get stuck in startle pattern, you have less freedom and flexibility with your body, your mind and your emotions.

You probably notice that when you know people well, you can tell by their posture how they are going to act next. When we get stuck in unhelpful habitual alignments of the body, we tend to get stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking and feeling and reacting. That’s why we have to re-educate our responses to stimuli so we can maintain our freedom and poise.

The way to do this is through Alexander Technique, through freeing the neck, thinking up and sending the head forward and up, and the whole organism up. I’m two inches taller since I started studying the Technique. At age 42, I gained two inches by letting go of useless ways I was contorting my body and holding myself down in a slumped defeated posture.

Psychologist Doreen Seidler-Feller stands tall, straight and poised.

I leave the Zionism lecture halfway through and wander the hallways, looking to connect.

2 p.m. Emerald Bay 1. Rabbi Michael Melchior again. “Michael Melchior, former Minister for the Diaspora, has throughout his political career struggled with the most important global Jewish question: how to define the Jewishness of the State of Israel, and what its relationship should be to the rest of the Jewish People? For over a century, we have been preoccupied with survival and security; and quite rightly so. Michael now asks: What is the purpose of the Jewish nation?”

After the lecture, I sneak into the hot tub. Surely this is a sin on Shabbos, but I need to decompress. I sit in the bubbles with a bunch of Conservative Jews from Ikar. Then it’s nap time. I want to be strong for Havdalah, a highlight of the conference when we all come together to sing, dance, hold candles, smell the spices and renew our souls.

7:30 p.m. I learn the deep secrets of the soul from Conservative rabbi Scott Perlo.

8:45 p.m. Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and his wife Doreen shape a new sexual ethic. “Classical Jewish teachings regarding sexuality (homosexuality, pre-marital sex…) generate increasing individual conflicts and social consequences that demand our attention. As long as these tensions are not addressed, community members are confronted with a choice between all of the restrictions of the tradition on the one hand and the permissive orientation of contemporary culture on the other. This seminar intends to step into that breach by proposing a contemporary sexual ethic that maintains fidelity to the values of the tradition while promoting a more modern and discerning practice.”

They say that masturbation is OK so long as it is not obsessive and it is porn-free.

Why is porn so bad? Doreen says that virtually all of the people who perform in it are victims. We’re exploiting them when we use porn. Also, it is unholy to introduce strangers into our sex lives.

This generates objections from men who apparently don’t believe that porn is so terrible.

10:15 p.m. Punch drunk from so much learning and socializing, I enjoy the comedy festival:

Gerry Katzman is a successful actor and comedian who has appeared on shows like “JAG” on CBS, “Angel” on The WB, “Lucky” on FX, “A.U.S.A” on NBC, “In Justice” on ABC, “Ned’s” on Nickelodeon, “The Rerun Show” on NBC, and many other film, theater, and television roles.

Avi Liberman is a comic who has appeared on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. He recently shot a special for Showtime and appeared in Iraq and Afghanistan to perform for the troops. Twice a year, he brings a group of comics to Israel to perform, with proceeds from sales going to the Koby Mandell Foundation.

Avram Mandell is the Director of Education at Leo Baeck Temple — as it turns out, he’s also a really funny guy.

Avram says there’s a zagat’s guide out their for shuls in LA.

Yep, that’s mine!

Avram says Eilat Market on Pico Blvd is like a dirtier version of its neighbor Glatt Mart.

I’m in bed before midnight.

Sunday. Feb. 14. 10 a.m. “Religion is very much on the frontline of every conflict of the 21st century. Is it possible to also bring religion to the frontline of the pursuit of peace? How can this best be achieved? For years, Michael Melchior has conducted open and secret talks with leading Muslims in Israel, the Palestinian territories and all over the Arab world. Come and find out if you share his conviction that inter-religious peace is the key to any regional political solution.”

Rabbi Michael Melchior says it is easier to train a lamb and a wolf to lie down together (particularly when you replace the lamb each day) than to get humans to make peace. “We can not beat the other side.”

He says that the major rabbis (among them Rabbi Yosof Sholom Elyashiv, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Chief Rabbi for the Sephardim Shlomo Amar, “a scholar and a real Chief Rabbi” according to Rabbi Melchior) support his peace-making overtures with the Muslim imams.

11:30 a.m. “”A Decade at Bernie’s”: The Ethical Crisis in Contemporary Jewish Life: From Agriprocessors to Madoff to Tropper, ethical misconduct appears to be rampant in contemporary Jewish life. Is there an ethical crisis? What are its causes? Join panelists Blu and Yitz Greenberg and Doreen and Chaim Seidler-Feller for a discussion about what can be done to reassert the centrality of ethics in our lives.”

In reaction to the moderator’s first question, Blu Greenberg shocks the audience by saying: “You definitely shot your whole wad here.”

Who says that rebbitzens have to be prudes?

Here’s what bugged me about some people at LimmudLA — they frequently showed little consideration for others.

The major offenses:

* Men planting their feet on the legs of occupied chairs, imparting unwanted pressure and sway.

* People talking to each other inside sessions while somebody is trying to teach. People talking during a concert.

* The noisy consumption of beverages during sessions. I’m talking about water bottles that snap and pop. Cups filled with ice repeatedly and noisily raised to the mouth and down.

* People not bussing their own mess.

* People writing on Shabbos during sessions. Cell phones ringing on Shabbos.

During the Bernie session, Rabbi Seidler-Feller — a master fundraiser — says that three people implicated in financial scandals have their names on the UCLA Hillel new building.

He says that surveys reveal that Jews are the most affluent and least spiritual religious group in America. He says these qualities tend to go together.

While his wife speaks out against agunot, she blushes as bright as her red top.

Monica and David head off to a session on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“Heschel is for Jews who want to be Christian,” I say.

They don’t like that.

I’m accused of being Lithuanian in my approach to Judaism.

I pile my plate with lunch and head to “Do Married Men Live Longer or Does it Just Seem Longer? This session uses the commandment of a bridegroom not being allowed to do military service to unearth the answer to one of our most basic questions: How do I create a meaningful relationship and, once I’ve done that, how do I maintain it?”

Rabbi David Levin-Kruss breaks us into pairs for chavruta study.

Man, I just want to sit back and have all my thinking done for me. I’m tired. I wasn’t bargaining on this work.

The “Women in Orthodox Judaism” panel intrigues me but I head for the swimming pool instead. I do a few laps, hit the hot tub, feel dizzy, return to the pool and then to my room for a nap.

The Biala Rebbe shows up Sunday afternoon and meets with people for about 30 hours straight, giving private brachas (blessings). One Milken High School boy says he was told to avoid masturbation, to do “netilat yadayim” and to not date until he’s 19 (and then just for marriage, not for fun).

4 p.m.

Judaism and Homosexuality: An Orthodox Conversation

Many assume that Orthodox leaders are uniformly unwelcoming of gays and lesbians, but Orthodox communities are far from monolithic. Join a conversation between an Orthodox rabbi and the director of a gay Jewish organization on the range of Orthodox approaches to gay Jews. What are the opportunities for inclusion and the necessary limits? How does one strike a balance between upholding halacha and empathetically engaging with human diversity?

Gregg Drinkwater directs Jewish Mosaic: The National Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, an organization that helps Jewish institutions become more welcoming of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews. He is the co-editor of Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (NYU Press, 2009) and president of Limmud Colorado. Prior to joining Jewish Mosaic, Drinkwater worked in nonprofit communications, at a daily newspaper in Moscow, and as the news editor for San Francisco-based PlanetOut Inc., publishers of Gay.com and PlanetOut.com, the world’s most popular LGBT Web sites.

I feel guilty blogging this session given that the rabbi says he’d prefer to keep these type of discussions private, but I tell myself that Susan Freudenheim from the Jewish Journal is there taking notes, so a harmless drudge such as myself can do no damage.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Bnai David-Judea: “My peers call me the most liberal Orthodox rabbi they know…”

Gregg: “Do they mean that as a compliment?”

Rabbi Kanefsky: “It means they embrace me as an Orthodox rabbi. We do things programatically together. They acknowledge my Orthodoxy but put an adjective in front of it. Everything I say, you have to see it through the lens of who I am… While I will do my best to represent normative Orthodoxy, don’t go saying that because Kanefsky says this, Orthodoxy says the same thing.”

“Our congregation (Bnai David) was the only congregation on the West Coast to have a screening of Trembling Before God. We had a number of people whose stories were told in that film in the audience.”

“As a congregation, this was the kind of conversation we wanted to have about the issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox community.”

The discussion turns to the December 22, 2009 event at Yeshiva University hosted by the YU Tolerance Club and the Wurzweiler School of Social Work — “Being Gay in the Orthodox World: A Conversation with Members of the YU Community.”

Rabbi Kanefsky: “Rabbi Yosef Blau is a wonderful, wise and thoughtful rabbi. He’s the rabbi who stuck out his neck to the facilitator of that forum. There’s no end to the courage and bravery he demonstrated.”

The rabbi reads from this unofficial transcript of Rabbi Blau’s remarks: “The halakha as expressed explicitly in the Torah and in the Chachamim is clear to everyone here. And this is not what we’re here to discuss and I’m making the point in the sense that if someone does try to discuss halakha, I will ask them to stop.”

Gregg says he is not Orthodox. He says he is married to another man.

Gregg: “What would you tell young rabbis about how to deal with gay and lesbian people in their community?”

Rabbi Kanefsky: “The most important thing is to not panic… It’s difficult when you leave the academy and meet real people with real issues… If a young rabbi were to react to the word ‘homosexual’, this young rabbi will utterly fail to interact meaningfully… He has to take a step back and say, I am interacting with a holy Jew.”

Gregg: What about dealing with this issue publicly?

Rabbi Kanefsky: “We were talking about our screening of Trembling Before God. I limited that evening to members of our congregation because the members of the congregation function as an extended family. We were discussing the issue of homosexuality in the Orthodox community within a group that’s mutually trusting and mutually respectful. We were all stakeholders in the outcome. I’m almost risking my own rules right now.

I did this once at the UJ before it became AJU. I’m not sure that I look back on it as something I enjoyed doing. I didn’t know who was out there and when you don’t know who’s out there, then you don’t know whether the things you are saying are on the mark or potentially offensive or potentially misunderstood or misconstrued. I wouldn’t advise a young rabbi to write an article in the newspaper. When you don’t know who your audience is, it is so easy to misstep.

“A colleague of mine sends me an op/ed that he’s hoping to publish. I notice in one paragraph an explicit comparison in the eyes of the halacha between someone who is a practicing homosexual and someone who is a felon. You don’t mean that. You’re just trying to say that everyone is welcome in the synagogue. That’s a completely unnecessary comparison… That’s the sort of thing when people go out in public, it’s easy to say things that are misconstruable, offensive. But a mutually trusting stakeholder conversation is more effective.”

Gregg: “I want to ask you about giving advice to someone who comes to you who thinks he’s gay. Imagine an 18-year old man who comes to you and says, ‘Rabbi, I am gay.’ Or, ‘I think I’m gay.'”

Rabbi Kanefsky: “Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter.

“I just had a notice that I am invited to the 25th reunion of my college class at Yeshiva College. I am positive that twenty five years ago, it would’ve seemed obvious to me and to every other graduate of Yeshiva College who wound up going to rabbinical school that the reaction to that 18-year old would be to say, ‘Let me get you help. We can fix that.’

“In 25 years, the world has changed dramatically in our thinking… I am confident that I speak for a wide swathe of the Modern Orthodox rabbinate, based on conversations I’ve had with rabbis, based on things they’ve published, based on comments they’ve made in lectures… The understanding that a person’s sexual orientation…is what it is, a person is who they are, brings the conversation not to ‘Let’s see how we can fix this problem’ but brings it to ‘What do you want to do now? How do you want to act? Do you want to continue to live in the Orthodox community? If that’s what you want to do, let’s try to talk about what that might look like and what that might involve. What limitations on your expression of who you are will be necessary if you want to continue to function in the Orthodox community. If you do not want to live in the Orthodox community anymore, let’s see if we find the very best place for you so that you are comfortable in the sense that your personal commitment to tradition is respected and upheld with your sexual identity not being an issue that would in any way prevent you from expressing yourself completely.’

“That’s the conversation I would have. Because that’s helpful. That’s what a rabbi is intended to do. Not intended to ‘fix’ something that can’t be fixed and not to tell a person that their lives are over.”

“I was the baal koreh in Steve Greenberg‘s shul.”

“One of the points that Steve made early on, and that a lot of people have made since then, that to be gay or lesbian in the Orthodox community is extraordinarily challenging. It’s not the sort of thing a person would choose to do if they had a choice. I would take it for granted that if a person coming to me and saying, ‘I’m in the Orthodox community and I’ve always been in the Orthodox community’, I would take their word for it. It’s not something they would be making up.”

Gregg: “What about the parents?”

Rabbi Kanefsky: “Whenever I need to talk to the parent of one of my congregants, I try to put myself into the place of the parent. What if one of my children was coming to me about their child… The things that I think about are the beauty and the value and the potential and the dignity of my child and the recognition that most of the things we wish for our children don’t happen anyway. They get to a point early on where they are going to do what they want to do.

“The most important gift I can give my child is the gift of Judaism and the gift of desiring to leave the world a better place. I would be very troubled if I could not give one of those gifts. Beyond that, our children are going to make their own decisions.

“The worst thing a parent can do with a child is to back away from the relationship.”

Gregg says that many Orthodox siblings of out homosexuals have a hard time finding a shidduch (spouse).

Rabbi Kanefsky: “There’s a duality. I hope everyone appreciates the severity of this duality. Depending on where you are in the Orthodox community, the system by which people find spouses can be highly regimented, one that does not flow organically…but rather takes place within a regimented system that involves parents, teachers, rebbes, background checks.

“Everyone on the more liberal end of this issue [of homosexuality] needs to respect this reality. If I come out, then my brothers and sisters may have difficulty finding the right shidduch. That’s the sort of thing that falls on the shoulders as well of the sibling who has come out as gay or lesbian. They have to recognize, even as they have the right to expect love and support from their family, they have a responsibility to not damage the futures of their siblings.”

It seems that don’t ask, don’t tell is the quid pro quo for getting along as gay (or as one who deviates from any of Orthodox Judaism’s fundamental laws, not marrying and having sex with the same sex is a really big deviation from the Orthodox path as compared to quietly watching TV on Shabbos in the privacy of your own room) in most of the Orthodox community.

Rabbi Kanefsky: “Contrary to what you may have heard, Orthodox shuls are not entirely populated by people entirely observant of halacha.”

“Our commitments are clear. Our legal framework to which we are committed is a crisp and clear legal framework.”

Rabbi Kanefsky gives this hypotethetical example: “If I were to drive to shul on Shabbat, I don’t, I shouldn’t take my seat and say to the person next to me, ‘The 405 was terrible this morning.’ Everybody knows that I drive. I live 30 miles away.”

“It’s not fair to assume that your Orthodox community can formally officially recognize your identity because that would undermine the structure we live in, even as we know we’re all imperfect, we’re all struggling, we’re all short of the mark (halachah).”

“If any person wants to join an Orthodox shul, they should be embraced. They should be hosted like every other new member at everyone’s homes in the first two months, the rabbi’s home, the president’s home. That person should be brought into committees the person wants to be a part of. They should be a full member of the shul.

“If a lesbian couple were to adopt a child and their desire was that at the baby naming, they be named together as the parents of the child, that would fall under recognition and that’s an unfair expectation of an Orthodox community that it bestow full recognition on a gay or lesbian couple.”

Rabbi Kanefsky says that most people have close friends at shul who they can talk with about anything with. “One of the reasons we belong to a community of any type is to develop friends with whom we share everything. Rabbis are the only people who don’t have these friends.

“Of course someone will share who they are with their friends.”

The rabbi says that there is an age for children to learn about homosexuality and if you go earlier, it just won’t make any sense for them.

The rabbi talks about a junior at a yeshiva “when the Proposition 8 issue cropped up about a year and a half ago, he heard all kinds of things being said, including awful disgusting things, including from faculty members, and he stood alone.”

Rabbi Kanefsky discusses Rabbi Mayer Twersky‘s talk condemning the unofficial YU forum on homosexuality as “a desecration of God’s name”. Rabbi Kanefsky says Rabbi Twersky probably wants to ban discussion of homosexuality in the yeshiva setting and that he “represents the last effort to hold on to an anachronistic standard.”

A minute later, Rabbi Kanefsky says, “I’ve been hearing my own voice and I’ve been hearing an edge in my voice that I don’t associate with myself. I don’t mean that.”

Gregg keeps talking about “my husband and I.” They have a four-year-old daughter.

Rabbi Kanefsky opposed Proposition 8. “If the state is granting a civil right, we ought not to be rallying to withdraw that civil right.”

Rabbi: “I can’t speak for other shuls, but I say with confidence in our shul [Bnai David] there is no reason that sexual orientation has anything to do with receiving an aliyah or leading the tefillah (prayer).”

“I know that many of you recognize the sensitivity and creativity and frankly the guts that Bnai David has on that.”

The room applauds.

I think the rabbi’s wording is slippery. Orientation does not get much consideration in Torah. What about action that defies Torah? Isn’t that what counts in Judaism, not orientation? I am oriented towards all sorts of things that I do not allow myself to do. What about one who is out about living in a homosexual relationship? Why is this different than an Orthodox Jew being open about living in adultery or incest? Adultery, incest and man-on-man sex are all equally forbidden by the Torah (written and oral). Is homosexual sex sin different from other sexual sins? Is there a good reason why we need to be more sensitive about it?

Would Bnai David react identically to one living in a homosexual relationship to one living in another type of sexual relationship that is forbidden by the Torah?

In the three Modern Orthodox shuls in Pico-Robertson (Bnai David-Judea, YICC, Beth Jacob), sexual orientation seems to play no role in determining ritual honors.

Anat Hoffman says the Haredim in Jerusalem have stopped demonstrating against homosexual parades in Jerusalem because they didn’t want to explain to their children what they were protesting against.

Rabbi Kanefsky: “How can you be a religious leader without being engaged in the world? I credit my parents. When everybody on the block wanted to get together to buy that house so that a black family wouldn’t move in, my parents refused to participate.”

John emails: “I think its time there was an outpouring of sympathy on the part of Orthodox congregations for men with the alternative orientation of being into Asian women. How come there were no limmud sessions for that? Think how big that would be.”

My thoughts on this topic.

LimmudLA is like a beautiful young woman. I picture her in white pearls giving a talk on peace in Jerusalem. She’s not getting paid. She’s doing this for love.

I watch her long dark hair fall in ringlets below her shoulders.

She’s nervous and her chest is breaking out into hives.

I want to protect her. I want to be kind and gentle. But I feel like a lumbering elephant. No, worse, I feel much worse. I feel like a dinosaur.

Women run the show at LimmudLA. They’re soft and cute and they smell good. They know how to play nicely with others. They dress well and they don’t get food stuck in their beards.

In fact, these LimmudLA women don’t even have beards.

I’m a lone warrior. I’m not good at that cooperation thing. I don’t have their diffuse awareness. I’m into hierarchy and rules and self-assertion.

All the women I date make more money than me. The worse the economy, the more men like me fall to the curb. We’re not built for these times.

The year 2010 calls for cooperation, coordination, and other feminine strengths.

I sit back and watch women who work harder than me, make more money than me, have more friends than me, put on the show at LimmudLA. They organize the conference. They run the conference.
They put up the signs and call for more chairs and bring on the band. They direct us to the fastest lines for lunch.

And what do I do? I just take. And then I go home and blog about my feelings.

I’m not a man and I’m not a woman. I’m a blogger, mate!

Ain’t nothing better! And all the answers to our prayers, nothing ever breaks up the heart, I feel like swirling and dancing, if only you believe like I believe, baby, we’d get by. I love you so. Baby, with sugar on it tonight. That’s how I like it.

How come the moms love me but the daughters do not? The moms adore me. They hug me up. They tell me about their dead husbands. They show me pictures of their beautiful daughters. They tell me that they still haven’t found anyone. That they want grandchildren.

God, why do you tempt me so? LimmudLA is filled with beautiful young women. I’m here to learn Torah. I know that if I pause for one moment to converse, all my Torah learning will be for naught.

Good thing I’ve got a beard. It’s excellent woman repellent!

I run into an old friend on Sunday. He doesn’t recognize me with the beard. “You look like a dirty Hasid,” he says. “Did you use to die your hair?”

“Yeah,” I say.

“I don’t recognize you all grey.”

Monday. 11:30 a.m. Uri Regev is a dynamic speaker. Ariel Picard reads his talk and the room gets sleepy.

“The “Who is a Jew” debate has plagued and challenged Israel-Diaspora relations for decades. It is a complex halachic, philosophical, sociological and political challenge that goes to the heart of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. While for a long time it was dominated by the battle over conversion among the different denominations in Judaism, in recent years there is a growing realization of the internal Orthodox discord. We will discuss the urgent need for a new paradigm in this arena, demonstrate why “Who is a Jew” is too important a matter to be left to Orthodoxy, and outline and discuss the legal, halachic, and public aspects of this debate and the urgent need to develop new conversion options.”

Monday lunch. I finally get asked about the Alexander Technique. “It provides you with more freedom and poise in the body,” I say, “which leads to greater emotional and mental freedom. Alexander Technique lessons usually lead to increased tranquility.

“When you’re compulsive in the way you use your body, you are more likely to be compulsive in how you react to stimuli. I am much more tranquil.”

“I noticed that,” says an organizer. “I told my husband, there’s a different energy to Luke this year.”

“Yeah, I’m not as compulsive,” I say. “I can be a compulsive talker, a compulsive attention seeker. This year, I didn’t ask one question during the sessions.”

A woman berates me for not sleeping with her at LimmudLA.

“I didn’t say no to you,” I answer. “I said yes to HaShem.”

When I ask around about the highlights of this year’s conference, Saturday night’s comedy show gets the most mentions.

I mix with the vulnerable and the disabled at LimmudLA and it gives me the courage to go home and to be vulnerable and disabled myself on my blog.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Limmud, Personal, R. Michael Melchior and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.