“Good Gays” vs. “Radical Queers”: a Reaction to Jay Michaelson

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

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Is New York the Promised Land?

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.

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Wherever You Are

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.

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The Straight Marriage Tisch

עוד ישמע בערי יהודה ובחוצות ירושלים קול ששון וקול שמחה קול חתן וקול כלה

May there be heard again in the cities of Judaea and the streets of Jerusalem the sound of joy and the sound of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.

I have to admit that Jewish marriage announcements make me wince. This language is an ultimately inconsequential barb that says, “you’re different.” It’s poetry and it’s tradition, and it shouldn’t go away, but it’s one of those little elements of this religion that I want the people I am praying, eating, and learning with to recognize as problematic even while accepting its durability.

This line comes from the sheva brachot, the seven wedding blessings recited for the bride and groom at the wedding ceremony itself and, in traditional circles, for the week after the wedding.

The idea behind this language, that the voice of brides and grooms is the epitome of the sound of joy and gladness, isn’t a problem for gay positivity.

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The Coming Out Problem I Created in the OCP

The Orthodox Community at Penn (OCP) has developed a sort-of ritual for gay Jews coming out. People who have been living in the closet, perhaps out to a few friends and family members, will invite the ~200 person community over for a Friday night tisch. Tisches and onegs usually involve food and singing, but these consist of someone telling their personal story in a speech about their decision to reconcile being observant and being gay. People are met with overwhelming support, there are lots of hugs and accolades, some tears are shed, and the conversations continue into the evening and throughout the weekend.

Two people at Penn came out in this way before I did. Their stories are not mine to tell, but I’ll talk a little about the decisions I went through as I tried to figure out if I needed to come out in the same way.

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Coming Out to Strangers at Shabbat Lunch

Two weekends ago, I went to Yale for the Ivy League LGBT conference, IvyQ. It was a fun weekend, great especially for meeting people in the Penn queer community. I discovered a long time ago that the best way to get to know new people at Penn is to leave campus with them, which held true. However, I had just as interesting and meaningful of a time at Yale doing Jewish things as gay things.

On Friday night, there was a Shabbat dinner for conference attendees, but I welcomed Shabbat not really knowing what I was doing for lunch. I found Egalitarian/Conservative services on Friday night, and was then excited to hear that minyan was davening in the morning as well.

There was a huge blizzard along the East coast that weekend, happening Friday night into Saturday morning, which actually worked out well because I didn’t feel like I was missing out on much by staying inside on Friday night and reading a book. Saturday morning, I woke up and trekked through the completely snowed-in campus to Hillel, where I joined the six people who had already arrived at the Egal minyan during psukei d’zimra.

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Hello world!

On Christmas morning, 2012, I woke up to an email from a friend, responding to an email I had sent in June. In that June coming-out email, I had announced my intention to live as an Orthodox Jew and a gay man. It’s amazing how much things can change in six months, as one way that I make sense of Fall 2012 is as an extended break-up with Orthodoxy.

But my first thought on reading that second email was “hmm, maybe this is not an entirely hopeless enterprise.” It’s taken two months (or six months, or eight months…) to finally start the blog because I’ve been busy having life experiences to write about.

There’s a repeating pattern with Jewish rituals and identifications in my life. I gave a sermon in my Reform congregation during high school in which I discussed why I always remembered, but never expected to keep, Shabbat. Three years later, I was keeping Shabbat in college. When I started constantly wearing a baseball cap, in order to cover my head without wearing a kippah, I said “I would never wear a kippah under the baseball cap. That seems like overdoing it.” One week later I was doing just that, and two months later the baseball cap came off. When I came out to my parents in June and they expressed concern not for my sexuality, but for the difficulties I was sure to face in my adopted denomination, I told my mom “I am gay, and I am Orthodox, and that’s not going to change.” In November, I told them at Thanksgiving “I doubt that Orthodoxy will become gay-positive enough in the next 50 years that I’ll feel comfortable raising kids with that label, but I’m comfortable with this level of observance and I’m working on finding halakhic egalitarian spaces.”

I want observant Judaism in my life, and I look forward to finding the spaces that I’ll feel comfortable. If those spaces don’t yet exist, I look forward to building them. I’m starting this blog in order to join the conversation about Judaism and homosexuality on the internet and to share my experiences. Welcome!