5 Jewish Sufis You Should Know

You’ve heard of Jewish Buddhists — “Jewbus” — and secular Jews. You likely know Jews who favor yoga over synagogue — there are even Jews for Jesus.

But Jewish Muslims?

With a grim deadlock between the Israelis and Palestinians, which often takes on a religious dimension — and a rise in both Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in America — such a fusion might seem unlikely. But there is actually a long history of Jews embracing Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam.

One feature this week is an in-depth look at one group of Jewish Sufis (some call themselves “Jewfis”) who were the core of a close-knit community in Pennsylvania. They’re now three generations in and move between identities — Jews on one hand, Sufis on the other.

The Jewish-Sufi connection actually dates back centuries. Here are five other Jewish Sufis you should know:

Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon

Contemporary scholars typically begin the story of Jewish-Sufism here. Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon was the son of the revered 12 century Jewish author Maimonides. Maimon succeeded his father as a leader of the Egyptian Jewish community in 1204, when he was only 19.

One of Maimon’s best known works is “A Comprehensive Guide for the Servants of God,” written in Judeo-Arabic. In the book, Maimon praises Sufism and influenced followers to develop a type of Jewish-Sufi practice.

Maimon “embraced concrete Sufi practices,” scholar Elisha Russ-Fishbane notes, “and openly praised his Muslim counterparts, at times holding them up as a model for his own community.”

This early interaction between Sufism and high-profile Jewish thinkers would inspire later generations of Jewish Sufis in America.

Rafi Yahya Abdullah Sharif-Bey

Rafi Yahya Abdullah Sharif-Bey was born Yale Jean Singer to an Orthodox Jewish American family in 1940.

He entered Muslim circles in the 1950s and took on the name Rafi Sharif. He became involved in a number of Islamic groups, such as the black nationalist Moorish Science Temple of America (where he acquired the Bey moniker) and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. He even helped founded his own Sufi order, the Noble Order of Moorish Sufis, in 1957.

Sharif-Bey is notable for the number of groups he moved through — but he also maintained some sort of Jewish identity throughout. In the last years of his life he was exploring what, if any, historical links there could be between his own Lithuanian Jewish background and Islam.

Sufi Sam

Samuel L. Lewis, known widely as “Sufi Sam,” was an American mystic popular in counter-cultural circles in the 1960s and 1970s. Lewis was born in 1896 to a high-powered Jewish family — his father was a vice president of Levi Strauss jeans; his mother was part of the Rothschild banking family. In 1919 Lewis joined a Sufi community in California where he met a Sufi teacher named Murshida Rabia Martin (who, remarkably, also had Jewish roots). Lewis learned with a Zen teacher also.

In 1967, while recovering from a heart attack, Lewis said he heard the voice of God deliver a message: “I make you spiritual leader of the hippies.” So Lewis trained his own batch of students — first as a Zen teacher and then later as a Sufi. In 1971 Lewis formed an organization called Sufi Ruhaniat International.

Reb Zalman

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was born in 1924 in Poland to a Hasidic family of the Belz sect. In 1938 his family fled the Nazis — eventually ending up in New York City in 1941. Schachter received a rabbinic ordination through a Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva. Schacter also helped launch the havurah movement, in part a response to the counter cultural movement of the 1960 and 1970s, and is today considered the father of Jewish Renewal, one of the younger Jewish denominations.

At the same time, Schacter-Shalomi also studied Sufism in California and was made a sheikh in the Sufi Order of Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1975. In addition to his contributions to the mainstream Jewish world, in 2004, Schachter co-founded The Desert Fellowship of the Message, a “Sufi-Hasidic” group.

Netanel Miles-Yepez

The Sufi-Hasidic order founded by Schacter-Shalomi is still active today. It is known as the Inayati-Maimuni Order (Maimuni is a reference to Maimon, the son of Maimonides) and is helmed by Netanel Miles-Yépez. Miles-Yépez has a Mexican-American background and believes his family has “hidden Jewish roots.”

Miles-Yépez studied under Schachter-Shalomi and together they formed the Hasidic-Sufi order. Miles-Yépez now teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Email Sam Kestenbaum at kestenbaum@forward.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum

Author

Sam Kestenbaum

Sam Kestenbaum

Sam Kestenbaum is a staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at kestenbaum@forward.com and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.

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