An anonymous listserv for observant LGBT Jews has lately been having some security issues. Spammers have been emailing out unpleasant words, including the standard diatribes against homosexuality. Some of the content of these messages, however, is funnier—a word-for-word copy of an invitation to the NYC pride march, except with incorrect meeting locations noted. A solicitation for an “orthoprax friend with benefits” (what would this relationship entail, talking to each other?) that came complete with a nude photo. I’m sworn to secrecy about what happens on the listserv, but these emails haven’t actually come through the listserv infrastructure, and that’s why, after talking to the moderator, I feel comfortable revealing their content. This situation illustrates the problem with the quasi-anonymous space that gay Jews have constructed as our “community” online.
Certain reagents used in chemistry are called “pyrophoric,” for a unique property they possess: spontaneous reaction with oxygen or water vapor to ignite. These reagents are strong bases and are extremely useful in synthesis, but their inherent danger demands an absolute focus on the task at hand whenever they’re being used. When I’m working with pyrophoric materials, I’m thinking of nothing but the pyrophoric material in front of me.
Prayer experiences with this same intensity are rare but incredible. Lately, a major distraction of mine in trying to get to that state are structural issues with prayer that come from being gay. Thinking about my sexual orientation is the main distraction which infringes on my religious life in a way that it doesn’t in my life in the lab, and one of the main things that causes me to think about my sexual orientation while praying is the mechitza. It can cause certain distractions of attraction.
Full integration of queer people into observant Jewish life will require unique restrictions as well as unique leniencies. The presence of one without the other doesn’t seem to align with Jewish thought. In every area where Jews set ourselves apart, privilege comes with restriction. Shabbat is reserved for princely rest, but controlled with a long list of prohibited activities. Observing kashrut while traveling is costly and sometimes difficult, but rewards those who do with community wherever they may find themselves. Heterosexual sex has the potential for holiness, but only if the biological restrictions of niddah are followed.
The idea of fighting for unique leniencies for queer people (loosening restrictions on same-sex sexual contact) without also fighting for special restrictions also opens up queer people to the criticism that we’re just ignoring or denying certain parts of halacha. I can’t think of what I’m doing in that way, and if the most satisfying answer that can be given for the parts of halacha that conflict with a queer identity is to ignore them, then I don’t understand how anyone can claim that it is now possible to live as observant and actively queer. I don’t want to ignore halacha; I want to figure out how halacha applies to this category of people who aren’t addressed in the Hebrew Bible: men who are predominantly attracted to men and women who are predominantly attracted to women.
I’m back after an end-of-semester hiatus. Some thoughts upon my college graduation one week ago:
On Monday, I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few weeks about how I felt during the first weeks of college four years ago. Specifically about NSO, New Student Orientation, the week of activities that precedes the start of the fall semester. People meet their freshman year friends during NSO, go to parties, check out extracurriculars, and start to get their footing where they’ll spend the next four years.
There’s a lot of drinking during NSO, a lot of meaningless socializing, a lot of worrying that time spent alone is unproductive time. I didn’t exactly enjoy NSO–or, I didn’t ever have the impression that I’d experienced freshman NSO in the same way that other people had. The “right” way. My freshman NSO was quiet. I didn’t hang out with a lot of the people I met during NSO for much longer than the first month of freshman year. People who I met anytime during freshman year, even, are rare among the people from Penn whom I consider significant in my life.
So many things have changed since then. Continue reading
As a part of Penn’s Sex Week, Jay Michaelson spoke here last Wednesday. I’d read his book (God vs. Gay?: The Religious Case for Equality) over the summer and knew that he had a similar background and world-view to my own, and I was thrilled to find that his talk exceeded my already high expectations. The title was “Reclaiming Pleasure: Constructing a Non-Oppressive, Non-Repressive Sexual Ethic in the Shadow of Religion.” A lot of the subject matter was directly linked to sex, sexual energy, and the ways that religion tries to control sex, but the biggest takeaway for me was a distinction that he drew between “good gays” and “radical queers.”
The labeling is something that had never occurred to me, but the issue that it raises is something that I now realize I’ve of course been dealing with since I came out. What it comes down to is this: “good gays”, now that they are largely being admitted to the metaphorical “country club” of straight society, are happy to exclude or are at least complicit in excluding others from the club. “Radical queers”, on the other hand, recognize and remember the oppression that they themselves dealt with when seeking admission and want to use their new-found power to improve the system. A conflict arises when you’re someone who recognizes oppression, remembers the struggle, and wants to change the system while also being informed by tradition: a religious “radical queer.” Continue reading
Modern Orthodox college students (and now egalitarian/Conservative college students, after the founding of Mechon Hadar,) speak of moving to New York after college as if it’s a necessary step toward attaining life satisfaction. New York is the only place where you’ll find a wide variety of kosher food. New York is the only place where you’ll have a vibrant community on Shabbat and holidays. New York is the only place where you’ll have a dating pool and meet your b’shert. Everywhere else is like גלות, exile.
Last summer, I went through this thought process and came to the conclusion that there was only one acceptable graduate school to go to, and I had better want to work for people there. At the time, it was comforting to realize that all of my Orthodox friends felt the same way. This was one of the few things I spent time thinking about that didn’t feel like a uniquely queer issue.
Whether or not New York is currently the best place in the country to be an observant Jew is of less interest to me than this question: do we want to perpetuate this perception (or reality) for the next 20 years? We have an opportunity to stop the madness. I can only offer my perspective as a queer Jew, but I’d imagine that many straight Jews feel the same way.
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.