It was, without a doubt, an attention-grabbing headline: “Meet the jazz-playing, erotica-writing rabbi who planned a trip to Arafat’s grave.”
The headline was published by the Jewish news outlet The Forward, and refers to Austin Rabbi Neil Blumofe, who recently made news for scheduling a trip to the grave of former Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat. Blumofe is the senior rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim, a synagogue in west Austin.
Although it sounds exaggerated, the headline is not far from true–Blumofe does indeed play jazz on his tenor sax, he did plan the trip the Arafat’s grave (although not for the reasons many media outlets claimed) and yes–starting in 2013, Blumofe has been a fairly regular contributor to the website “Jewrotica.”
“Jewrotica” contains a compilation of various short stories, articles, and analyses centered around the theme of Jewish sexuality. The homepage is a hot-pink-and-black collage of suggestive or borderline explicit pictures, and the logo features silhouettes of a naked couple, their crotches covered by white stars of David.
While Blumofe’s articles on the site are generally PG-rated Q&A formatted pieces on relationship advice or detailed analyses of Torah passages, they rub shoulders with less appropriate stories—“The Spilled Seed Chronicles” is rated R according to the website, and “Jojo and the Amazing Technicolor Strap-on” is XXX.
None of the stories are what most people would expect from a well-respected conservative rabbi—so how did Blumofe come to write for this risqué website?
“It’s a simple answer,” Blumofe said. “The woman who was behind that initiative was a member of my community, so she was living in Austin, and she had asked not only that I write for her burgeoning site, but also to recruit others to do so as well.”
The woman who recruited him, Ayo Oppenheimer, now lives in Jerusalem, but still actively curates the site, which she said she designed as an alternative medium through which to encourage the expression of Jewish sexuality.
“A founding principle of Jewrotica was to bring Judaism to the world of sexuality and sexuality to the Jewish world,” Oppenheimer said in an email. “Jewrotica was created to be a platform for Jewish sexual expression and has been impactful and transformative for folks from a range of backgrounds.”
Oppenheimer and her fellow “Jewrotica” curators accept content from a wide variety of contributors.
“Our offerings include everything from erotica to sex education to Torah study to erotic poetry to personal essays and reflections,” she said.
Blumofe began working with Oppenheimer in 2013.
“I give [Oppenheimer] a lot of credit for reaching out to people who may not have the ability or capacity to engage with people in their own normative ways, but want to see how Judaism can speak in ways that they are interested in,” Blumofe said. “I think that is one of the important things about certainly Judaism and can be about religion—that it can be flexible enough to speak in ways that are not so closed.”
Blumofe said his main goal in contributing to the site was to promote healthy discussions about sex and relationships.
“The vast oral tradition of Torah speaks very honestly about relationships, and specifically relationships between men and women, and I know that is something that many of us don’t like to talk about so much,” he said.
Although the medium is not what Blumofe would have chosen himself, he said the website can serve as an platform to reach people who may not be receptive to other outlets.
“The surrounding things and the advertising for [the website] might not be sort of where I would choose to put my initial or my immediate efforts, but to support learning about Judaism in creative ways is, I think, very important,” he said.
Blumofe said he has received backlash from his decision to contribute to the website, especially in the wake of the recent media frenzy over his trip to Arafat’s grave. He said, however, that it’s obvious that many of these critics did not take the time to read the content he produced for the website.
“If you actually read it, you realize that it is very different from what you might assume it to be, that it’s not like rabbinic soft porn—it’s just something else,” he said.
Naomi Lindstrom, associate director of UT’s Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, said the Jewish view on sexuality is far different from that of other prevalent religions in the US—and on those terms, Blumofe’s contributions to “Jewrotica” are not as unorthodox as they might initially appear.
“I’m not an expert on Christianity, but my understanding is there’s sort of a feeling that sexuality is somewhat tainted by original sin,” she said. “In Judaism, it is a positive outlook on sexuality, but within boundaries, so there is encouragement of the expression of sexuality.”
Lindstrom said Blumofe’s participation on the site is far from the scandal it has been portrayed as by the media, but that it shows another way in which he is an open-minded leader.
“People who are used to him know that he is of a quite progressive outlook,” she said. “When you say “conservative rabbi” you have to know that people who are in the conservative branch of Judaism aren’t necessarily conservative.”
Blumofe said he hopes in the future, by his open engagement and willingness to talk about issues regarding relationships and sexuality, to spark more conversations about issues that may be avoided or overlooked.
“The Jewish tradition has deep-welled springs to launch us into a respectful conversation about each other and what our limitations are and what our needs and wants are,” he said.
Oppenheimer, for her part, said she thinks the website is playing an important role in the ongoing discussion of Jewish sexuality, and that she will work to keep it going, despite any negative feedback she receives.
“Many people didn’t understand the need and, given that I was primarily involved in Jewish education at the time [I started “Jewrotica”], I may have been passed over for award opportunities because of my affiliation with the site,” Oppenheimer said. “But there was and is a need, and Jewrotica fills it, so I have no regrets.”