Summer 2014, Operation Protective Edge. Crazy days are upon the citizens of the State of Israel: running to shelters and protected areas and receiving news bulletins without end, and Eric Silberman, a 27 year old American Jew, chooses to come to Israel to change the direction of his life. “My mom always wanted me to study medicine. But while I was in Israel I decided to change directions and become a rabbi,” he says.
Silberman came to Israel for the Israel Government Fellows program at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center within the framework of Masa Israel Journey. He stayed in Israel for about a year and afterwards he debated whether to make aliyah to the Israel he fell in love with or to return to the United States, to his family and his friends to whom he is so close. He ultimately decided to combine the two – returing to his community but instead of continuing his studies in medicine, he chose to study rabbinics at Hebrew College. So far, this sounds like a too-well-known story, but Silberman, who is an observant Jew, is also openly gay.
Israel Government Fellows Graduation (Eric is the second person from the rigth)
Photo Credit: Menachem Begin Heritage Center
What makes a non-Israeli come to Israel in the midst of war and still feel a deep connection to the country?
“There is this concept of a triangle whose sides are am yisrael (the people of Israel), torat yisrael (the Torah), and eretz yisrael (the Land of Israel).” Silberman admits that he didn’t always pray or keep mitzvot, and he didn’t live in Israel, so “I wasn’t part of the Torah or the Land. I was only part of the people of Israel – and only because I’m Jewish.” He explains that he felt he had taken himself out of this triangle. “Even though I always identified as Jewish, I learned over time that if one wants to be part of ‘the people of Israel’ without being connected to another part of the triangle – that simply doesn’t work. You need all of it. So, I tried to build my own little triangle. It’s sad because many Jews in the United States only identify with the part that is the ‘people of Israel’ but they don’t have the Torah of Israel or the Land of Israel. And this is one of the things that motivated me to come to Israel.”
And you weren’t afraid to arrive during a time of war?
“First of all, tickets to Israel were super cheap at that time. And the answer to your question is basically ‘no – I wasn’t afraid.’ I felt relatively safe because we had the Iron Dome, which worked really well, so it was fine.” Silberman explains that his decision stems from his desire to influence the different streams of Judaism and to produce greater openness towards all groups. For example, he wants to introduce the universal values of kindness and acceptance to the religion.
What caused that change?
"I had been in Israel twice before, once with my parents and once with Birthright. And I felt that there was something missing in my life, and I had to find it.” Silberman explains that Judaism doesn’t always manifest itself very prominently in his family. “My father’s father, for example, was raised Orthodox, but he raised his children in a Reform setting. They didn’t keep kosher outside the house, they didn’t go to Jewish school. Outside of Israel, it’s harder.” “While my mother doesn’t connect with any religious ceremony, she is extremely proud of being Jewish,” he adds.
“Halachah is Too Ancient.”
Silberman’s dream of being a ‘kosher’ rabbi can sound a little strange, even to secular friends who tell him that it’s not possible to be a gay rabbi. And that is, in his opinion, the central challenge facing Israel: “There are people here who are Jewish, but they don’t follow the pinciples of the Torah of Israel.” He explains that there are two opposing sides in Israel that refuse to engage in pluralistic discussion. “One side is the secular Jews, who don’t seem to have much connection to ‘Judaism.’ The other side is the haredim, who are stuck in their Judaism. As far as I can tell, the haredim don’t think creatively. They have a tremendous amount of knowledge in the 'Torah of Israel' but because they insist on going by the letter of the law, they lose ‘the people of Israel.’”
You identify as Reform. The Minister of Religion, David Azuli, said that Reform Jews don’t count as Jews.
“That’s obviously wrong. What I do think is that Reform Judaism in America is in trouble because they lay out as a premise that there is no Halacha. So, what does one do that makes one Jewish? However, I also think that someone who isn't observant is still Jewish.”
According to Orthodox Judaism, we must obey halacha.
“I think that halacha is liking voting in elections. That is to say that you should vote, but it’s not required to vote and you do get to decide whether to do it or not. That’s how it is with halacha. I think it’s worth keeping, but I can’t force anyone.”
But then everyone gets to decide what they feel like doing.
“Not exactly. I want my children to keep shabbat and lay tefilin, and I will raise them that way. I think that halacha is extremely important, but we have to find creative solutions to problems and not just say that one group is better than another. For example, I think it is hurtful and damaging to claim that Jews who are coming from the former Soviet Union are not really Jews.”
In his words the halacha we follow today, is an 'ancient' halacha and it doesn’t have to stay that way. “Halacha isn’t some fixed thing – we adapt it all the time. Right now it belongs to the haredi sector, but it’s possible to change that. And, in Israel in particular, it’s easy to see that there are many different traditions and interpretations of halacha between Sephardi (Spanish/Mediterranean) Jews, Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, and Yemenite Jews - we don’t have to be stuck with it.”
Eric praying in his tallis and tefilin
Photo Credit: Menachem Begin Heritage Center
You say that Judaism needs to support LGBT rights because it is never against the Torah to be a “good person.” Orthodox Judaism doesn’t require people to be better people, just to obey 613commandments.
“This isn’t related to the 613 commandments. You can see that as time passes, things change. There was a time when rabbis allowed men to marry multiple women, and today that doesn't happen anywhere. Therefore, rabbis can create space and oppenness to approach the gay community. Even Rav Kook (the first chief Rabbi of what was then ‘Palestine’) made revolutionary changes to halcha for the sh’mita (the land’s resting year), because if we had practiced it properly we might have started to death, but he changed it."
How can rabbis recognize gay marriage when it’s against halacha?
Silberman claims that the Torah can be interpreted in different ways because there are different interpretations and commentaries of the Torah. “If you have a rebellious child, it’s written that you have to kill him. But then one rabbi in the Talmud says that really you should learn this commandment, but you shouldn’t kill the child. Maybe that’s something we can apply to gay relationships. I would say that God wants us to learn this, but then we can interpret it differently. The Torah was given once at Mount Sinai, but we are allowed to interpret it to fit our needs, for every general. I think the status quo that Ben Gurion created gives all of the halachic authority to one group of people, the haredim. We can find ways, and I want the haredim to be a part of the conversation as we open up to the gay community.”
But the rabbanut doesn't really want you to be part of the conversation.
“I’m Jewish, I'm permitted to be part of the conversation just like them. Not any less. We don’t choose our family, we love them as they are. As it’s said, 'We are brothers, all of Israel.'"
When you finish your studies and become a rabbi, what will be the first thing you want to do in the world of halacha?
“I often joke that I want to be the first openly gay chief rabbi. But I think that when I officially become a rabbi, I will do what is most important for the Jews and for the Israelis. The burning issues are kashrut and marriae. So something in those areas.”
Why did you return to the United States instead of staying in Israel?
“I think that it’s a lot easier for Jews to live in Israel in many respects. But I felt that I needed to be back at home with my family. In general, I think that if Jews succeedin creating a perfect society that is totally isolated and cut off from the world it would lead to hatred and war. One of the great contributions of American Jews to the United States was their role in the civil rights movement for African Americans. Today, you can say that we helped make their lives better. In any case, my studies will be five years, I'll learn Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Jewish History. After that, I want to go somewhere and make a positive impact, and I hope that place could be in Israel.”
Originally published in Hebrew on Walla! News