FOUNDER OF PUNKTORAH TALKS CHALLENGES, SUCCESSES
Body adorned with eight tattoos, Patrick Aleph is not your typical Jewish leader or rabbinical student. Instead of conforming to the norm, he sought his own Jewish community, and today Aleph has created an expansive internet-based community who together learn, pray and offer support.
PunkTorah has grown from a series of YouTube videos to a worldwide community with dedicated members and scholars who create a space where everyone can embrace Judaism. In an interview with the Atlanta Jewish Times, Aleph explains his role with PunkTorah and his own personal thoughts on Judaism and spirituality.
Jessie Miller: What is Punk Torah?
Patrick Aleph: Punk Torah is a non-profit Jewish multimedia company dedicated to independent, non-movemental Jewish spirituality. Our philosophy is that you matter, that your thoughts and opinions matter and that you matter to G-d. G-d’s world is a place of infinite peace where everyone belongs.
JM: What kind of projects does the PunkTorah community do?
PA: We build websites; have podcasts, articles, blogs and books; as well as pray together in our online synagogue, OneShul, where we teach classes and have holiday events.
JM: Where did you come up with the name “PunkTorah”?
PA: PunkTorah started because I went to a synagogue event in Atlanta, and I was so angry. I had such a horrible experience. I went home and I was complaining about my experience, so I went on YouTube [and recorded my own] d’var Torah on Parsha Tetzaveh.
You have to have a name for YouTube, so because I am a retired punk musician, I called it “PunkTorah.”
JM: What is your mission with PunkTorah?
PA: To let people know they matter. We live in a very divisive world and in a time where people are dealing with so much stress, anxiety and depression.
What I’ve always viewed the synagogue and community as is being spiritual and intentional. [We are p]roviding an experience that is transcendent and – unfortunately, I think – really missing in some places. I think that a lot of people who are interested in having a spiritual experience come up against things that stand in the way, like communities with more social intentions and issues of accessibility.
One of the great things about all of our projects is that we are available to anyone online with a computer. No synagogue will ever replicate that.
JM: What makes you different from other communities?
PA: We call ourselves an “online synagogue,” but we are pluralistic. In any given week, you could have an Orthodox rabbi teaching kabbalah and then a transsexual person teaching queer theory and Jewish history. We really run the spectrum of Jewish practice and identities.
There’s just Jews, G-d and Torah and all of the many beautiful, different ways we try to reconcile those three things together.
JM: In your opinion, is it okay to use electronic devices on Shabbat, as opposed to traditional synagogue services?
PA: Absolutely, I believe so. There is actually an article on the PunkTorah website in which we talk about this.
Jewish innovation has existed since we existed as Jews. The old synagogue of Alexandria was so huge that when they would do different blessings, they actually had a flag system to tell people when the blessing had begun and ended. It was a way of using the technology of the time to facilitate spiritual experience. And so, if they can do that, then I think we are just a new flag system.
There are people who disagree, and that’s fine. They can come to our classes. If we start a Shabbat service before the official candle lighting time, we’ll have Orthodox and conservative Jews praying with us who leave when it is time for Shabbat.
JM: What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced since starting PunkTorah in 2009?
PA: Convincing people that they matter. That is the hardest thing in the world to do.
I have this idea of “post-traumatic Jewish disorder,” which is this idea that people have been traumatized by their Jewish lives. They’ve been told they don’t practice Judaism correctly; that their conversion wasn’t good enough; that they are not Jewish enough.
The second issue is people who cannot access Jewish resources, whether they are homebound, have learning disabilities or were told that they are not able to be a part of a community. It turns them off of Judaism.
When you meet someone, and you are trying to help them spiritually connect, you have to help them undo so much damage – failed relationships, family problems, spiritual issues. You have to help them reconcile all that baggage, and that is the hardest thing in the world to do. But the greatest thing about it is that it is the most fulfilling thing to do.
I’m grateful for the emails that say, “thank you for giving me a community and letting it know how important my role in it is.”
JM: What does Torah mean to you?
PA: I believe that anyone can be holy.
If you look at the patriarchs and matriarchs, they were all fundamentally flawed people. There is not a single person in the Torah that I would want to completely emulate. We think about people like Moses as these great, holy leaders. It wasn’t because they were perfect or did everything right, it was because they were flawed that they were so great.
A lot of religions try to prop up the archetypical person we need to be like, but Judaism says that you are perfect in the screwed-up way that G-d made you.
JM: If you could take away one overall insight or lesson from the entire process of creating PunkTorah, starting at that first YouTube video, what would it be?
PA: When the first bank of Italy was started, the founder said that the only legitimate business was serving the needs of others.
We, as a community, need to humble ourselves to the point that we can serve the needs of others. It is the number-one most important thing. It transcends religion, national and political anything.
It is about being able to see what I would call the image of G-d in other people.
Editor’s note: For more information on PunkTorah and to get involved, visit punktorah.org; while you’re there, click on “The Tattooed Rabbi” for Patrick’s own blog.
By Jessie Miller