When Zvi Bellin, a gay Washingtonian, heard that a vigil was being organized by members of the gay and Jewish communities in the Capitol to memorialize the victims of the Tel Aviv gay youth center shooting, he decided to invite Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. Herzfeld, who leads the modern Orthodox Ohev Sholom synagogue in Shepherd Park, is a member of the only movement of mainstream American Judaism that views homosexuality as issur d’oraita, something that is proscribed by the Torah. Thousands of years after the Jewish holy text was transmitted from God’s mouth to man’s ears, Orthodox Judaism’s classification of sexual relations between people of the same gender remains unerring: “an abomination.” But whatever the conservative doctrines of his faith, Herzfeld recognized an important Jewish value at stake in the Tel Aviv massacre: that some Jews would take halakhic prohibitions against homosexuality to mean that homosexuals are themselves an abomination and thus unworthy in the eyes of God.
“I said it would be my honor,” Herzfeld told me about the invitation offered by Bellin, who is gay and attends Ohev Sholom. Herzfeld turned what would have been a somber commemoration of a tragedy into an inspiring, even newsworthy, event. In his brief speech, he called upon Orthodox congregations to take a “communal pledge declaring that we will not create a climate of gay-bashing,” wowing his mostly gay, Dupont Circle audience.
In his five years in the nation’s capital, the 34-year-old Herzfeld has earned himself a reputation as a rabbi to the powerful. I first met him at the home of David Frum, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush, where he was escorting the Chief Rabbi of Venezuela (one event on a multi-stop tour to educate policymakers about the anti-Semitic nature of the Chavista regime). A few weeks later, I dined at his Shabbat table across from Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. Every week, Herzfeld teaches a Torah study class at the Hudson Institute, which attracts not a small number of prominent neoconservative figures like former Defense Department official Doug Feith and human rights activist Michael Horowitz. He also helps lead a weekly class for senators, congressmen and congressional staffers. “He has a lot of energy, and he combines intensity with approachability,” Feith tells me.
Though he rubs shoulders with the prominent, Herzfeld claims to have no interest in what he calls “the cocktail party aspect of politics.” Indeed, his attitude couldn’t be more different from the typical, Type-A Washington, D.C. personality. Frum told of how, leading up to the High Holy Days each year, Herzfeld borrows a taxi from a congregant who owns a cab company and drives it around downtown Washington asking passengers if they’re Jewish. If they reply “no,” the prize is a free ride, if “yes,” then they receive information about Ohev Sholom’s services. “He’s one of the great evangelists of our time,” Frum said. This hunger for forging religious connections with people regardless of their station in life is demonstrative of the unpretentious spirit that guides Herzfeld, and goes a long way towards explaining his more progressive views about homosexuality.
“Homosexuality is an ‘abomination?’” he asks rhetorically. “We don’t use that language for eating pork, yet it’s described in the same way as homosexuality.” Just as Herzfeld opens his synagogue to non-kosher Jews, he welcomes Jews who may practice non-kosher sex. “We should not assume that the totality of a person’s existence can be summed up in one lifestyle choice,” he says.
Established in 1886, Ohev Sholom is Washington’s oldest Orthodox synagogue (Al Jolson’s father once served as cantor), but over the years its congregation dwindled. When Herzfeld was contacted about assuming the position of rabbi, members could barely scrape together a minyan. Herzfeld leapt at the opportunity to build a community and moved his family—his wife is a neurologist and they have six children together— down to Washington. Ohev Sholom’s first Shabbat service under his leadership had 12 people, and Herzfeld immediately began performing outreach. Not long after he moved here in 2004, he aired television ads for High Holy Day services, as the Washington Post reported. He would find random people in the phone book with Jewish-sounding last names and invite them to his shul. Now Ohev Sholom boasts 300 families.
Unlike most Orthodox synagogues, some of those congregants at Ohev Sholom are gay and don’t feel pressured into keeping that fact a secret with their rabbi or fellow worshipers. This is of course in large part attributable to Herzfeld. Whatever the cause of same-sex attraction (and Herzfeld’s use of the phrase “lifestyle choice” to describe it suggests that he believes it reasonable to expect gay people to remain celibate), Herzfeld is obviously not repulsed by it in the way that many clerics are; his easygoing nature at the vigil is evidence of that. “I want to focus on what we can do together,” he says about Jews who are not as observant as he might like them to be, “not on what we can’t do.” This welcoming approach has provided nearby congregations with unexpected competition. According to Frum, “the knock on” Herzfeld from some disgruntled area rabbis “is that he takes the most committed people from other congregations.”
“It might be a law that has no reason,” Herzfeld speculated, comparing the injunction against homosexuality in the Torah to the proscription against wearing garments made of both linen and wool, something that, unlike murder or theft, does not harm other people. Why, then, does he still believe that homosexual activity is wrong? In an essay he wrote nine years ago, Herzfeld cited the rabbinical scholar Rashi about how to confront just such questions: “When Satan and other nations will throw arguments at you and say what is the meaning of this law and what reason is there for it, we should respond, ‘It is a chok,’ it is a decree before me, and I have no permission to think evil thoughts about it.” In other words, the Torah says it, and therefore it is so. Herzfeld likens his attitude towards the legal recognition of gay marriage with that of his involvement in the lives of gentiles seeking state sanction of their unions: it’s none of his business. “If a Christian wants to get married,” he says, “it has nothing to do with me.”
Homosexuality isn’t the only issue where Herzfeld has stirred controversy. Last August he penned an op-ed for The New York Times in which he criticized the Rabbinical Council of America, the main umbrella group for modern Orthodox rabbis, and the Orthodox Union, which represents some 1,000 Orthodox congregations, for what he considered to be their inadequate reactions to revelations of physical abuse, underage employment, and otherwise horrible labor standards at Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher food plant. Some in the Orthodox community saw Herzfeld’s printing such criticisms in the pages of the nation’s paper of record as a shanda fur die goyim. The leaders of the Rabbinical Council of America responded in a letter that it is “unethical to rush to judgment and deny due process to Agriprocessors. Jewish law—and the norms of American justice—requires no less than that.”
While it’s too much to say that Herzfeld will be at the forefront of a quiet revolution to overturn Orthodox Judaism’s reactionary teachings about homosexuality, he is quite clearly a positive force who is already playing a constructive role in the lives of Orthodox gays struggling to reconcile their love of Torah Judaism with their selves. Bellin is grateful that he’s been able to find a synagogue that doesn’t sacrifice spiritual rigor in the pursuit of welcoming people who normally feel excluded from Orthodox Judaism. “I’m very aware that [Herzfeld] coming to speak at the vigil doesn’t mean that he’s ready to change Orthodox law and Orthodox opinion,” he admits. “He’s willing to wrestle internally with that contradiction. Even if it’s a contradiction that won’t be resolved for him, he’s willing to wrestle with the fact that gay people are people and gay Jews are Jews and they also need a spiritual home and a place to explore religion.”
James Kirchick is an assistant editor at The New Republic.
James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.