The 39th generation rabbi who is re-inventing Judaism

(RNS) — “I am running away to join the circus.”

It was 2004, and my synagogue in Atlanta had welcomed Amichai Lau-Lavie as a guest speaker. Amichai had been the founder of Storahtellers, a ritual theater company, which was an innovative approach to presenting Torah in synagogue. He had come to our congregation along with what could only be described as a madcap ensemble of actors, singers and theater professionals — who also knew Torah.  

They dramatized the Torah portion. And much more. The congregation was mesmerized.

The next day, we had breakfast, and I said to him: “You are the circus, and I am running away to join you.” 

Those are the kind of feelings that Amichai Lau-Lavie evokes. For decades, he has been one of American Judaism’s most creative, most courageous and most outrageous spiritual leaders.

Time Out called him “an iconoclastic mystic.” NPR called him “a calm voice for peace.” According to the New York Times, he is a “rock star.” The Jewish Week called him “one of the most interesting thinkers in the Jewish world.”

Rabbi Lau-Lavie is the co-founding spiritual leader of the Lab/Shul community in New York, where he has been living since 1998. Just recently, his Lab/Shul colleague Shira Kline received a coveted Covenant Award for her contributions to Jewish education.

Lau-Lavie was ordained as a Conservative rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 2016 — which is the only thing conservative about him.

Being a rabbi is not a career for Lau-Lavie; neither is it a calling. It is a genetic predisposition.

His cousin, Rabbi David Lau, is the current Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel. His uncle is Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazic chief rabbi, who survived the Holocaust as a child. His brother is Rabbi Benny Lau, one of Israel’s most prominent Orthodox rabbis.

If Lau-Lavie did 23andMe, the results would scream: “Rabbi!” He is the 39th generation of rabbis in his family, and he is the first to be openly queer.

Did I mention that he used to be a drag queen? His drag persona was Rebbitzen Hadassah Gross, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary and the widow of several rabbis.

Lau-Lavie is the subject of a new movie, “Sabbath Queen,” directed by Sandi DuBowski, who previously directed “Trembling Before G-d,” the first film to shine a light on the plight of Orthodox Jewish LGBTQ persons.

“Sabbath Queen” had been entered in several festivals but had been canceled because, well, you know. It is finally making its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it is the only Israeli-ish film in the festival.

Lau-Lavie has many gifts. Chief among them is his ability to transform our views of Judaism, in which he takes us from the either/or to the both/and. He strives to be radically inclusive, even if it means dipping his toe into waters that some might find heretical.

My favorite quote of his: “The Bible is the PDF, and we are working on the Google doc.”

As in: The biblical text might be a set text (as some might say: set in stone). But a Google doc is the result of many minds, souls and hands writing and rewriting it — as a communal effort.

We are all working on that doc.

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