‘For Judaism to survive, it has to get out of the shtetl’

  • RabbiShmuly3
Love him or shun him, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Dr Shmuly Yanklowitz is an extraordinary human being whose controversial views are a spiritual thorn in the establishment’s side.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Aug 10, 2017

He is a vegan, a kidney organ donor, a thrice-ordained Orthodox rabbi, a Masters graduate of Harvard University with a doctorate from Colombia University, an author of at least nine books and an animal rights activist.

Suffice to say, Yanklowitz is not your average Orthodox rabbi. He is one of America’s most influential rabbis with a potent message for global social justice and a burning yearning for social reform. 

And he’s in South Africa to speak, inspire and to teach. But only to those who are brave enough to stomach it and broadminded enough to digest it.

Rabbi Yanklowitz is not a conformist. He is a “freethinker” and his open support of gay marriage has landed him in hot water with traditional Orthodoxy.

So much so, he is often maligned. But this does not stop him from airing his views. He is a man on a spiritual mission and believes strongly that no matter what the outcome, “I need to say what I need to say”.

He openly advocates for inclusivity at every level. Speaking from his Johannesburg host family in Linksfield this week, he told the SA Jewish Report: “The Torah can only survive in the 21st century if we not only keep our Judaism rooted but also enable it to progress.

“We need to come out of the shtetl and embrace others and be more inclusive. Only by opening our minds and hearts to new opportunities can Judaism truly survive. If we remain closed we will alienate the next generation of Jews and will make it impossible to bring about the redemption of the world.”

The dynamic and good-looking Rabbi Yanklowitz, 36, believes that the Orthodox establishment is governed by fear.

“The Orthodox places enormous emphasis on taking care of fellow Jews, which is beautiful, but it’s to the exclusion of other members of society. We look after ourselves but we have a lot to learn from other communities of Jews and gentiles.

“The Orthodox today needs to transition from a fear-based mentality. We need not be afraid of other types of Jews or secular wisdom, but rather see that we have a lot to learn from modernity and a lot to contribute. To foster a just society, we need to view Torah as a vehicle not only to connect with G-d and build Jewish communities, but also to repair society.

The way to overcome this fear is through trust and relationship building, he says.

“Through our relationships with other types of Jews and gentiles and modern society at large, we will come to realise that the Torah can only be actualised by transcending fear into love.”

He said everyone he has met in South Africa has been “incredibly welcoming and keen to collaborate”.

“The Orthodox community here is eager to learn more about the type of Modern Orthodoxy that I’m involved with,” however, he said “the establishment” has “not engaged” with him.

At the time of going to press he said: “I have e-mailed the Chief Rabbi but have had no response.

“It is important that Orthodox rabbis go to places like Limmud and not be afraid to learn and ponder with other groups and initiatives. Rabbis should not be afraid of leading in their own way, should not submit to conformity but rather they should courageously bring their Torah that they’ve learnt to the Jewish community and lead in their own unique way.”

He said the South African Jewish community was “spiritually hungry for a more open, and inclusive Jewish culture”.

This week he has wowed small intimate audiences with his talks on a wide range of topics including:  organ donation from an ethical, spiritual, and medical point of view. He spoke on “ethical consumption” exploring the relationship between ethics and kashrut. And he spoke about Jewish social ethics in our time.

Rabbi Shmuly is the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, a Jewish organisation focused on combating social injustice through education, leadership development, and activism. The organisation covers so many issues from gun control, human trafficking, conflict-free diamonds to immigration.

 He is also the founder and director of Shamayim V’Aretz, a Jewish animal welfare organisation focused on animal rights that leads campaigns and educates leaders within the Jewish community about veganism and the way it correlates to Jewish morals and values.

He believes being vegan does not conflict with being religious, it “brings into practice religious ideals of compassion” he says. He went fully vegan with his wife, Shoshana, on their wedding day. Since then, they have been working to help educate others about the realities of the various exploitive industries, the suffering animals endure within these industries, and the various alternatives people can follow in order to avoid supporting atrocities inflicted on animals.

The animal kingdom is the most abused of all sentient beings. By protecting the most vulnerable creatures on earth, we return the holiness to our world by bringing Shamayim back down to the Aretz, by bringing heaven back down to earth,” he says.

Rabbi Shmuly, his wife Shoshana and their three children and foster child, live in Scottsdale, Arizona. 


  1. 7 Choni 10 Aug
    "For Judaism to survive it has to get out of the Shtetel"  ....and settle in Israel.
  2. 6 Zmira Cohen 10 Aug
    I support all Shmuly is saying and acting upon 100%.Yashar Koach 
  3. 5 Sam 11 Aug
    He finds it fun to promote himself by putting down others. 
  4. 4 RENE LICHTMAN 12 Aug
  5. 3 Antony 12 Aug
    refreshing modern and positive move away from many
  6. 2 Choni 14 Aug
    In my opinion this "Orthodox" Rabbi wouldn't make it into the top 1000 influential Rabbis in Israel.
  7. 1 Richard Schwartz 15 Aug
    Kol haakvod (kudos!) to Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz. If only there were many more like him.
    Because of his message of Orthodox Jews not being sufficiently involved in applying Jewish values in response to current issues, I have written my 2016 published book, "Who Stole My Religion? Revitalising Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperilled Planet." I hope it starts the kind of respectful dialogues that Rav Shmuly is promoting.


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