He’s all over the media – the Huffington Post, Newsweek, Times of Israel, LA Jewish Journal, Forward, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and everywhere else. He posts on Facebook and Twitter several times a day, he has authored 14 books, he was listed by Newsweek and the Forward as one of the 50 most influential Jews and 50 most influential rabbis in America, and he is the founder and CEO of three organizations – but in real terms, most of us have probably never heard of him.
His name is Shmuly Yanklowitz, and he is the most renowned and accomplished Open Orthodox ordainee to date.
Let us examine his impact and try to solve the mystery of why this seemingly hyper-accomplished celebrity clergyman is a no-name in most Orthodox circles, and let us ponder the possibility that his influence and that of his movement may be far greater and ominous than we realize.
Shmuly Yanklowitz was born in Chicago 37 years ago as Shawn Yanklowitz to a Jewish father and a gentile mother. He writes that he underwent a “rigorous Orthodox conversion” in his teens, although he has never publicly disclosed which bais din allegedly converted him.
Yanklowitz attended college at University of Texas and was later ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) in 2010, and he received two more Open Orthodox ordinations, from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo. He earned a Master’s degree at Harvard in Psychology and Leadership, a Master’s degree from Yeshiva University in Jewish Philosophy, and a PhD. from Columbia in Education.
Very impressive, but what has Yanklowitz done with all of this education?
Yanklowitz began his very public clergy activity as the co-founder of Uri L’Tzedek, which refers to itself as an Orthodox social justice organization. One of Uri L’Tzedek’s initial endeavors was the launching of the Tav HaYosher “ethical kosher” certification program. Tav HaYosher does not focus on the kosher status of establishments’ food. Instead, it focuses on treatment of workers and the like. While this sounds like a noble goal, it is hard to understand how Tav HaYosher’s staff, which has no trained or licensed auditors or inspectors, takes upon itself the role of arbiters for compliance with immensely technical and intricate statutes, which are normatively in the jurisdiction of the government, and which require expertise that the Tav Hayosher staff lacks.
Uri L’Tzedek’s most well-known activity was its month-long international boycott of Agriprocessors, run by Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, during the summer of 2008. This boycott followed a federal raid on Agriprocessors’ Postville facility relating to allegations of unlawful practices, including conspiracy to harbor illegal immigrants.
Although the charges against Rubashkin for immigration offenses were dismissed and Rubashkin was acquitted on charges of child labor law violations in Iowa state court – all in 2009 – Uri L’Tzedek was on the warpath from the start, prejudging Rubashkin as guilty on immigration, child labor and other offenses well before the courts even heard the cases. Rubashkin was initially charged in October and November of 2008, but the Uri L’Tzedek boycott occurred in the summer of 2008, several months before the charges (!). And even though Rubashkin was convicted of monetary offenses and received an incredibly excessive sentence of 27 years incarceration, he was not convicted for the charges which formed the basis for the Uri L’Tzedek boycott.
President Donald Trump, bechasdei Hashem, commuted Rubashkin’s draconian sentence, citing the voices of numerous lawmakers, leading law professors, former judges, prosecutors and lawyers from all political affiliations, whose expert opinions were that Rubashkin’s 27-year sentence was wholly unreasonable. One would expect Yanklowitz to rethink and be a bit contrite. On the contrary, upon hearing about the commutation, Yanklowitz, writing in Newsweek (December 22 – “A Step Backwards for the Ethical Production of Kosher Meat”), condemned the commutation, wishing that Rubashkin would remain in jail.
This outrageous conduct is nothing new for Yanklowitz, for in 2013, he wrote an article in the Huffington Post about Jonathan Pollard, comparing Pollard to a leper, enumerating his wrongdoings and arguing against his release. To quote Yanklowitz there:
“The Israeli government and the international Jewish community should not be spending its precious time, energy and resources rallying for Pollard’s release” (Huffington Post, April 9, 2013 – “‘He Shall Dwell in Isolation’: Jonathan Pollard, Espionage and the International Jewish Community”)
Despite his high-profile media involvement and harmful writings and actions, including maligning other Jews in non-Jewish publications, Yanklowitz sincerely believes in his social justice endeavors. He even donated a kidney to a stranger in 2015, and he has fostered several Hispanic children.
In August of 2012, Yanklowitz became senior rabbi of Kansas City’s Kehilath Israel Synagogue. That lasted only nine months, with Kehilath Israel suddenly announcing on May 18, 2013 that Yanklowitz was leaving his position. The congregation’s president declined to comment about the matter, as reported by the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. The reasons for Yanklowitz’ departure have not been disclosed and are shrouded in secrecy.
After returning to his hometown of Chicago for a short period, Yanklowitz moved to the Phoenix area to become dean of “Valley Beit Midrash,” where Yanklowitz has been employed ever since.
Don’t be fooled. Valley Beit Midrash is not a bais medrash or anything close. Rather, it is an interdenominational/pluralistic program of lectures, seminars and retreats held at Reform and Conservative temples, led primarily by non-Orthodox clergy, educators and social activists. In fact, some Valley Beit Midrash programming is not even Jewish. The blurb for the August 7 program at Valley Beit Midrash reads:
“Join Valley Beit Midrash for an ‘off-Broadway’ review of the Mormons. Learn the fundamentals of Mormon beliefs from a speaker who has experienced the Mormon faith as a missionary in a white shirt and tie, a leader in the Church hierarchy, a parent raising children within a minority faith tradition, and a businessman in the secular world. Learn why a church with ‘Latter-day’ in its name places such emphasis on the restoration of ancient blessings. Mr. Smith also will share his views on what the Jewish and Mormon faiths have in common. As Mr. Smith’s good friend Rabbi Jeremy Schneider of Temple Kol Ami has taught, ‘Who is wise?’ The answer, ‘One who learns from ALL people’ (Pirkei Avot 4:1). …Such open-mindedness can only make our religion and our faith stronger.”
Yanklowitz is compensated quite handsomely for his “Beit Midrash” work. According to the Valley Beit Midrash 990 tax filing, Yanklowitz is paid a total of $190,000 annually. Adding this to his book sales and any income for articles and remuneration for speaking engagements, Yanklowitz does quite well.
Yanklowitz is also what can be termed the “Open Orthodox Obama” – a “street organizer,” who speaks several times a month at rallies that protest immigration policies, the criminal justice system, and a host of other social causes. Yanklowitz is always sure to post on social media photo-ops and videos of each of his protest speeches.
Open Orthodox leaders are known for often espousing non-Orthodox views. Here are some of the things that Yanklowitz has written, to provide a taste of his ideology:
On Moshiach: “At the end of the day, I would like to suggest that we are Moshiach – we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
On the Haggadah: “Friends, please consider omitting the passage ‘Shefoch chamoscha al hagoyim’ (asking G-d to pour wrath upon the nations of the world) in the Haggadah this year.”
On halacha: “There are teachings from our tradition that are evil… We have a moral responsibility to name it and own it! The nuanced teachings were progressive in their time, but our sacred responsibility is now to reinterpret them…”
On the Bais Hamikdosh: “Whether or not the Temple will be rebuilt is not our concern, nor is it our dream.” And, professing that having a Bais Hamikdosh and the geulah will stifle pluralism, Yanklowitz wrote an article entitled, “Please G-d, Help me to understand why we must pray for a Third Temple!”
On unconventional marriage: He wrote a Huffington Post article on December 19, 2013 entitled “5 Reasons Being an Orthodox Rabbi Compelled Me to Support [-Unconventional -] Marriage.”
On Purim: “The only way I can morally justify reading Megillat Esther as a religious experience on Purim (given verses 8:11 & 9:16) is to assume the text is mere religious imagination or political satire (not history) emerging from a culture of powerlessness (just enough power to evoke such a violent imagination). Celebrating the story as actual history seems even more problematic today in an era of Jewish sovereignty with unprecedented military strength.”
Yanklowitz has also repeatedly attacked shechitah, including in the Wall Street Journal (May 29, 2014 – “Why This Rabbi is Swearing Off Kosher Meat”), and he composed a prayer against President Trump in place of the tefillah for the president (“Orthodox Rabbi’s Anti-Trump Prayer Causes a Stir” – New York Jewish Week, January 21, 2017). This prayer was later disseminated by Neo-Nazis as proof of Jewish hatred for America.
Yanklowitz’s latest book, just released, is called “Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentary.” It was published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, a Reform clergy organization affiliated with Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school. Having gotten a taste of Yanklowitz’s warped hashkofah, his publishing a book with the Reform movement seems like a perfect fit.
Despite his many degrees, 14 books and hundreds of articles, and despite appearing in social media probably more than any other Jewish clergyman, Yanklowitz’s internal impact on the mainstream Orthodox community would appear to be negligible. As Chazal tell us about illanei s’rak, barren trees that are full of rustling leaves but devoid of fruit, and about a pocket with very few coins in it, they make a lot of noise, but they are empty of substance. Same here. Yanklowitz is a celebrity, with all the glitz and fame, but no serious Torah content.
Although some Open Orthodox clergy, aware that Yanklowitz’s outrageous writings and conduct have made him into a major liability for their movement, argue that he does not represent the Open Orthodox “rabbinate,” top-tier Open Orthodox leadership not only participates as guest speakers at Valley Beit Midrash activities, but also praises Yanklowitz to the sky. This year, YCT president Rabbi Asher Lopatin, lauded Yanklowitz in a public interview: “We are so proud of you as a musmach of Chovevei Torah, and that is what we are trying to create – more Rav Shmuly Yanklowitzes.” Lopatin proceeded to call Yanklowitz an inspiration. YCT’s online organs continue to cite Yanklowitz’s teachings and successes. He is indeed the poster boy of Open Orthodoxy and its most accomplished public product.
A Deeper Look
To write off Yanklowitz as a mere self-glorified nothing would be a crime of negligence, for his many writings and protest campaigns threaten Yahadus in a very real way.
For example, as noted above, Yanklowitz’s brazen and irresponsible “prayer against the president” was seized upon by anti-Semites and used to stir Jew-hatred. Yanklowitz’s public attacks on shechitah, in non-Jewish media, are very likely to be used by anti-Semites as well, who have launched war against shechitah all over Europe, and who would love to do so as well on these shores, armed with anti-shechitah ammunition by a purportedly popular and major Orthodox rabbi. Yanklowitz has attacked the Israeli Chief Rabbinate in the secular press as well, seeking to curb its quality control mechanisms and free Israeli society from the Rabbanut’s halachic regulation. There is no doubt that anti-Orthodox lobbying groups will use these attacks as “Orthodox” backing for their efforts to disempower the Rabbanut and strip Israeli society of Rabbanut-controlled halachic personal status requirements.
We may not perceive the impact of Yanklowitz and his Open Orthodox movement in our own botei medrash and shuls, but the danger is growing as a result of his incessant public campaign to tear down the walls of Torah authority.
Last week, a “pride” parade was held in Yerushalayim, Rachmama Litzlan and 200 Israeli rabbis affiliated with the Religious Zionist movement issued a letter of condemnation. Good for them. But then something shocking happened: A counter-letter was issued by a group of close to 100 “Orthodox Rabbanim and Rabbaniyot.” The letter was coordinated by the “Torat Chayim Rabbis” organization, and it was signed by leading Open Orthodox clergy in Eretz Yisroel and America. Front-page articles in Ha’aretz and Jewish Telegraphic Agency featured this letter as a counterbalance to the letter of the Religious Zionist rabbonim, sending a message that there is indeed Orthodox rabbinic support for the to’eivah movement.
Who is behind Torat Chayim Rabbis, the mastermind of the pro-to’eivah spoiler letter? You guessed it: Shmuly Yanklowitz.
Yanklowitz founded Torat Chayim last year as a social media repository for fringe “Orthodox” clergy, and it bangs out and disseminates articles and online discussion on a daily basis that reflect the views of these clergy – especially Yanklowitz. Thus, articles and social media conversations, as well as petitions, favoring to’eivah “marriage,” abortion and the dilution of geirus standards, female clergy and downright kefirah such as Bible Criticism, and all else that threatens Torah and mesorah, are promoted and circulated by Torat Chayim throughout the day, every day. If one wants to find articles by purportedly Orthodox rabbis that argue in favor of egalitarian prayer at the Kosel, seismic halachic reform and the dismantling of the Rabbanut, and expressing concern about the “Israeli occupation,” Torat Chayim has it all and promulgates it globally. (Yes, one very vocal Torat Chayim rabbinic member, “peace rabbi” Hanan Schlesinger, pens articles such as “Occupier and Occupied” and “The Other Wailing Wall, the Palestinian One,” which are featured and disseminated by Torat Chayim.) The sheer confusion and danger that this all engenders, on multiple levels, is of inestimable proportion.
Mike Moskowitz serves as the “scholar-in-residence for (to’eivah) studies” at Beth Simchat Torah, a to’eivah Reform temple in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Moskowitz claims that he has three “ultra-Orthodox rabbinic ordinations.” He was hired last year by Yanklowitz as Uri L’Tzedek’s senior educator and is now a rabbinic member of Torat Chayim. (After being fired from his Manhattan shul, prior to his current work, Moskowitz had been serving as “Beit Midrash Advisor” at Jewish Theological Seminary/JTS – Conservative).
Moskowitz sows the seeds of ultimate confusion in those lacking sufficient knowledge, as, garbed in a black hat and a rosh yeshiva’s frock, sporting a long beard and speaking with a yeshivishe tinge, he lobbies for “gender-switching” legitimacy, argues that the issur of beged ishah does not apply to to’eivah relationships, and gives “rabbinic” credence to to’eivah lifestyles. His website features gender-switching tzitzis with pink strings, along with his articles, such as “How Goodly are Your Rainbow Tents” and “I’m an Orthodox Rabbi Marching with Pride.” Like Yanklowitz, Moskowitz speaks in church sanctuaries, and he wears a large tallis to every event at which he delivers a protest speech. Talk about chillul Hashem – yet Torat Chayim enthusiastically promotes Moskowitz and his very unholy work.
And take the new “Nationality Law,” which is designed, despite whatever flaws it has, to assure a Jewish character for the State of Israel. This law faces immense challenges, but it is largely seen as a very positive safeguard against assimilation and further religious dilution within Israeli society.
Enter Torat Chayim, which prominently posted an article by one of its rabbinic members against the Nationality Law entitled “Israel’s Nationality Law Will Humiliate the Jews of the Diaspora” (JTA, July 18). Now, secular opponents of the Nationality Law will have some potent new ammo at their disposal, as they argue that even Orthodox rabbinical leaders oppose the law.
Rabbi Seth Farber is another Torat Chayim rabbinic member. Torat Chayim posted Farber’s August 1 New York Times article that calls for revoking the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s control over personal religious status in Eretz Yisroel, and that calls for the adoption of children by to’eivah “couples” and the acceptance of gentile Russian immigrants as Jews. In this non-Orthodox rant, Farber boasts that he has sued the Rabbanut six times.
These are the offerings of Open Orthodoxy rabbis, who serve as the hechsher for Lapid and Meretz types to publicly undermine Yahadus large-scale. Envision the massive churban that is being perpetrated.
It has been brought to our attention, with elaborate written and oral personal accounts, that numerous frum individuals in the Phoenix area who became involved with Yanklowitz and began to attend his activities have veered from proper mitzvah observance. These people, who were previously sincere ba’alei teshuvah, had comprehensively embraced Yiddishkeit. The married women among them were covering their hair, the men were attending shiurim and learning Torah on their own with enthusiasm, and the children were enrolled in the local yeshiva day school. As these people began to attend Yanklowitz’s programs, they began to abandon observance, up to the point of dropping shemiras hamitzvos and pulling their kids out of the yeshiva day school, enrolling them instead in public school.
There is insufficient evidence to prove that Yanklowitz directly caused these former ba’alei teshuvah in Phoenix to veer from the path, but the correlation between their involvement with Yanklowitz and their total abandonment of Torah observance raises serious questions and must be noted.
How did Yanklowitz come to receive three ordinations, for whatever they are worth, and write 14 books and hundreds of articles about Judaism, most of which the established Orthodox world have never heard of? And why has he, and have his coreligionists in Open Orthodoxy, sought to engage in Jewish pursuits in the first place, given that they so often attack Judaism and its authentic leadership?
“Rabbanit” Dasi Fruchter, ordained in 2016 at Yeshivat Maharat, the Open Orthodox “rabbinical school” for women, explained her plans for the “rabbinate”:
“I seek to be among the Jewish leaders whose leadership lends itself to radical shifts in power structures and to creating more expansive and inclusive communal and ritual spaces” (Lilith, February 20, 2013, “Rabbis in Red Lipstick”). Fruchter’s aim was to use the Torah and her “rabbinical” status as a tool to reform and restructure Orthodox Judaism. Other YCT and Yeshivat Maharat students have expressed similar sentiments.
In other words, just like some people acquire academic degrees in order to have the necessary credentials to change the system, so have people such as Fruchter, Yanklowitz and others literally used the Torah to advance a reform agenda. Torah is a tool – a kardom lachpor – rather than a treasure in this disingenuous pursuit. Becoming a rabbi is a mere platform to effect social and religious change; Torah lishmah does not appear on the radar.
This explains why Yanklowitz’s books are not selling too well at the seforim stores and why whether he writes 14 or 114 books, it will make no difference, for the books are mere tools to serve a radical agenda of change; they are not vessels of chochmas haTorah, but axes designed to cut down Torah and hew it into alien configurations. Yanklowitz’s books, such as The Soul of Jewish Social Justice, Postmodern Jewish Ethics and Jewish Ethics & Social Justice, are part of a scheme to change value systems and challenge authority.
Despite all that he and his colleagues have done, Yanklowitz is just getting started. This past week, on July 30, he posted:
“Being a Jew or not being a Jew is not a binary but a spectrum. There are countless wonderful people who are not halachic Jews but who are most certainly members of the Jewish people and should be embraced warmly as such. No need for higher walls of exclusion or to pursue ethnic ‘purity.’”
In other words, being Jewish is no longer something defined by the Shulchan Aruch, but by how one feels.
(Several months back, Yanklowitz wrote that if faced with being single or marrying a gentile, one should marry a gentile. The list of such perilous statements by Yanklowitz and his colleagues is endless, and there are people out there who will surely heed these Open Orthodox “rabbinical” rulings or opinions.)
Last week, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz, Yated Ne’eman’s editor-in-chief, wrote about Start-Up Shul, an organization initiated by Open Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and YCT board chairman emeritus Steven Lieberman that will, as per the Washington Post, “create gender-inclusive Orthodox synagogues, will fund two synagogues this year and plans to increase to four or five new synagogues a year down the line.”
Start-Up Shul is funding a new “Orthodox” congregation in Philadelphia that Dasi Fruchter will lead, and before we know it, there will be dozens of “Orthodox shuls” across the country led by female Open Orthodox clergy.
Is the goal of Start-Up Shul to spread Yiddishkeit? I’m afraid not. Rather, per the Open Orthodox playbook, Start-Up Shul is using and hijacking the institution of botei knesses as a platform to foist upon the community a radical feminist agenda and a Reform version of Orthodoxy.
In Washington, DC, where Herzfeld’s congregation is located, he and his female clergy assistant opened a new kashrus agency, which certifies vegan restaurants all over the city for free, using volunteer spot-check mashgichim who are trained by Herzfeld and his “Maharat” (female clergywoman). Orthodox consumers and eateries who do not know any better will henceforth have to choose between patronizing the Vaad of Greater Washington or Herzfeld’s organization, resulting in immense michshol.
Yanklowitz’s career is the master playbook of Open Orthodoxy. One can ignore the troop movements at his own peril, but Yanklowitz & Company are trying to work the system against us all. Once dozens of “Orthodox shuls” led by women will have popped up all over the country, once the Israeli Chief Rabbinate will have been weakened beyond repair, chalilah, with the assistance of Yanklowitz, Farber and others, and once to’eivah parades and relationships will have become widely accepted based on “Orthodox rabbinical” rulings, while opponents thereof are castigated and denigrated, it will be way too late.
Hashem yeracheim veyishmor.