Reactions to the dvar Torah I gave at KOACH Kallah were overwhelmingly positive. The rabbinic leadership of the United Synagogue enjoyed it, a few of the participants called it “amazing,” and the scholar in residence talked about it during his afternoon session before getting into his own teaching. I was, however, troubled by this response for one reason. I expected that after identifying myself as a gay Jew, any other LGBT conference attendees would have approached me and self-identified as well. This didn’t happen. That could mean a lot of things, but I’m leaning toward the interpretation that I was the only person “out” at KOACH Kallah.
I find it terrifying to consider being the only person “out” at the only conference for Conservative Jewish campus leaders. At a conference attended by about 150 people, that percentage is way off. It’s unclear whether 5% or 10% of the population is gay, but it’s certainly more than 0.66%. It may be that Conservative Judaism is still not a comfortable place for most people to be openly gay.
At first, I was troubled because what I’m doing didn’t seem like it should have been new to this crowd. Being gay in Conservative Judaism is totally fine now. The responsa allowing for the ordination of gay rabbis is a complete mess, presenting an unsatisfying sexual ethic and relegating bisexuals back to the closet. And not all Conservative Jews have become gay-positive overnight. But from a religious standpoint, for the past six years there has been ample justification for living a Conservative-flavored observant life and being gay. The gay-marriage appendix to this responsa, approved in 2012, was the final factor that led to my own comfort in coming out.
And yet, I know only one observant gay couple in Philadelphia, the fifth largest city in America.
Home for my brother’s bar mitzvah, I idly opened up the Plaut Torah commentary (the Reform standard) to Leviticus 18, where the most difficult verses regarding homosexual intercourse are found. In my middle and high school years I had never looked, or been encouraged to look, at these verses or their commentary. We didn’t read this section on Yom Kippur afternoon (the Reform movement began opting for an alternative, selections from Leviticus 19 focusing on ethical elements of the holiness code, in 1996 or earlier). I honestly don’t even remember being told these verses existed. What I read last weekend in this commentary, which is still very much in use in my synagogue, surprised me.
. . . [I]n the last few years, homosexuals have been identifying themselves as such, instead of trying to conceal their “infirmity.” . . .
We do not know why some people have predominantly homosexual personalities. No identifiable glandular disturbance is involved. Homosexuals are not necessarily effeminate in appearance and manner; nor do they display any consistent or significant pattern of abnormality in other respects. The Freudian theory of arrested emotional development seems to fit some cases, but not all. In some instances, homosexuality appears to have resulted from maternal domination and the absence of a vigorous father figure; but some homosexuals insist they were such from earliest childhood. The effort to transform homosexuals into heterosexuals by psychotherapy has had only the most limited success . . .
Our greatest need at present is for more knowledge on the subject, to be sought objectively and without partisanship . . . Though restraint and tolerance seem to be called for, we should not be stampeded into endorsing and approving these practices.
I could have no honest reaction to this but to laugh. In 1999, my synagogue hired a lesbian rabbi, and she and her partner were a full part of Jewish family life there. They fostered an unabashedly gay-positive environment. They taught from this Torah commentary. The single negative reaction I registered as a nine-year-old to Rabbi Cohen’s hiring was my 70-something year-old great aunt complaining, as she complained about so many other things. It’s intriguing to me how much faster social norms in my synagogue moved than the Reform movement’s Torah commentary publishing cycle.
This book was published in 1980. (A 2005 edition has since replaced it; my synagogue has understandably not rushed to purchase hundreds of new chumashim while also buying new siddurs) I was born 11 years after its publication. This apparently makes me a member of the first generation of Reform Jews to never be raised with the assumption that being gay is unnatural or incompatible with living a Jewish life.
Coming to this understanding that my upbringing was “new” in some way tempers the terror of realizing that what I am currently doing with Egalitarian/Conservative Judaism is also new. (For the record, Etz Chayim, the standard Conservative chumash published in 2001, comments on this verse, “Conservative Movement resolutions call on congregations to welcome gay and lesbian congregants in all congregational activities”.) But this understanding doesn’t make the problem go away, because delays in changing these social norms are wasting years of people’s lives. Consider what I would have done as a 21-year old reading the Plaut Torah commentary 33 years ago. I probably would have left organized Jewish life when I came out, deciding that anything less than full ideological acceptance, which I couldn’t even find in the most liberal denomination, was not worth putting up with.
Debating politics during October, a friend told me that I needed to move past gay rights issues and think about the economy. “Social change comes slowly,” he said. “Eventually, gay marriage will be legal everywhere.” While true, this argument didn’t work for me, because I’m at the age where I might have wanted to get married during the potential 8-year Romney presidency.
The same goes for social change in observant Judaism. There is no time to waste in making these communities supportive to gay people, and that support will depend largely on the gay communities that must grow within them. Being called “amazing” was nice for about a day after the speech, and then the loneliness of being “amazing” came crashing down around me. I have no doubt that this is the feeling which leads many of those “frum gay Jews” I know of to become “formerly frum gay Jews.”
So, to anyone questioning their sexuality or languishing in the closet who happens to stumble across this blog: take the time you need to figure out what label you want to assign to your sexuality.
This took me eight years.
But then, come out.
I need your help in building the future.