I read the blog hungrily. Here were the thoughts of a gay frum Jew, written by a man named Justin Spiro as he tried to find some sort of resolution to the apparent contradiction that his identities pose. Each post was populated by comments as interesting and thought-provoking as the author’s writings themselves. Many angrily voiced their disapproval of his lifestyle, and moreover, of his decision to write about it publicly. There were plenty of supportive voices as well, but these were generally from the non-frum community, and I wondered if their support fell lightly on the author’s ears in comparison to the harsh words of the Orthodox
Spiro’s blog intrigued me so much because it felt like my own story. His inner monologue was once my inner monologue, as it is the inner monologue of many gay Jews who seek to find a religious answer to what we consider a religious problem. I know that this conflict can breed a circular and obsessive way of thinking. It distorts one’s ability to truly participate in religious life. I cannot recall a bit of Torah or Talmud that I have learned that I did not first scan for some sort of hidden justification or condemnation of my lifestyle. This is no way to learn.
The very sight of Orthodox Jews sometimes fills me with envy. Theirs is a lifestyle I could never have. Though I never tried to be Orthodox, I found that even in Conservative Judaism (which is generally accepting of homosexuality) I still felt like I was existing as an exception to a rule, as an innovation to Jewish life. I never felt truly like a part of things, but rather felt myself to be standing in the fray of Judaism.
Justin Spiro wrote in one posting that it was not the two supposedly anti-gay Levitcal injunctions that disturbed him, but something else entirely:
“It’s not the attitude of Orthodox Rabbis. It’s not the social stigma. Nor is it the verses in Leviticus. Yes, all of those things bother me, but the toughest part for me is not having a Halachic framework to follow…So I’m left to make my own rules. But what are they based on? My personal judgment… exactly what the Torah lambasts as faulty and subjective. The Torah is so special because it gives us objective, G-d-given laws. ”
He was not born Orthodox. He had joined this community, given much of himself to it, studied in a Yeshiva, changed his life completely… and yet, he is still denied what he sees as a critical benefit of the lifestyle.
At some point in my own life, being gay and Jewish stopped being a problem for me. I had sought an answer for so long but I never found one that satisfied me. I don’t know where the problem went. It just took off one day and hasn’t really come back. It always puzzled me. For a significant period it had been all that I had thought about. I called it my “one-thought”. It buzzed about my head incessantly. But reading Mr. Spiro’s blog allowed me to understand where it had gone.
The general thought on the issue of homosexuality and Judaism is that we are dealing with a Halachic problem. Most of us don’t think that homosexuality is unnatural or evil anymore. Culturally, we are fairly comfortable with it. But no matter how we feel, the Torah forbids it. So we’re at a sticking point. The Torah is very clear on this issue, people say. Toeva. Abomination. How can we have a meaningful Judaism if we go about making edits and changes to Torah? Won’t this lead to the extinction of Judaism?
It now seems to me that we are not dealing with a merely Halachic problem. We are not dealing with one urge and one Torah commandment against it. We are dealing with something that all Jews, gay or straight, are dealing with in one way or another. We are dealing with the changes in modern society that have irrevocably changed what Jewish life is, how we think about it, and how we behave.
Gay religious Jews have are stereotyped as being casual or dismissive of the Law. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The very fact that we see ourselves in violation of the Law means that we are, in some ways, or at one point or another, obsessed with the Law. Justin Spiro himself has written a book in Hebrew of Halachic solutions that could be helpful to the gay community. Not too long ago the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards, the central Halachic authority for Conservative Judaism, worked out its own solutions to this issue.
What the CJLS came up with did little to change the fact that I felt like an exception and a Law-breaker. I can only assume that his book of answers had a similarly underwhelming effect on Justin’s inner conflict. After all, the book is written and yet the blog posts and their content of conflict continue.
The fact that a legal solution isn’t a satisfying solution tells me that it isn’t a legal issue. The fact that meeting Orthodox Jews who love me for who I am (and I have) means it isn’t about communal acceptance either. I had always assumed it was both of those things. But Spiro got it right when he said that the bothersome part, the heartbreaking part, is being denied the certainty that accompanies the halachic framework.
I always had envied Orthodox Jews their certainty. The modern American lifestyle is all about choice. So much of it, in fact, that we find ourselves completely overwhelmed and unable to deal with the sheer amount of choices we have to make every day. Orthodoxy offers the confidence that comes with walking along a carefully guarded path of tradition with its guarantees of peace.
I became what the Orthodox call a practicing Jew in norder to leave behind the world of uncertainty. Enlightenment, happiness, community, wisdom… all these things would follow my becoming more religious, because I would be living my life with certainty, with a framework, and without the painful necessity of going my own way and making my own choices. I would be, in the words of Hildegard of Bingen, a feather on the breath of G-d. You can imagine my frustration when I realized being gay would leave me forever in a place of uncertainty.
Jewish life has changed dramatically and quickly in the past few generations. At one point in our history, we were bound to our Jewish communities by law. Not Torah Law, though. We were forced by the reigning secular societies in which we lived into closed communities. We were feared and hated by those around us. These sound like rough times, but the history of exile and oppression is also a history of great creativity and beauty.
Exile gave us Talmud. Exile changed our religion from the place-based Temple rituals of biblical Palestine into a religion of the abstract and ineffable which can be practiced anywhere. Talmud is a radical document. The classic Midrash tells a story of Rabbi Joshua actually outsmarting the Lord. In a disagreement with R. Eliezer, a heavenly voice announces that Eliezer is most certainly correct. But Rabbi Joshua quotes Deut 30:12. “The Law is not in Heaven.” The Law was given to man, and if Joshua can make a Halachic case for his point of view, then no Heavenly Voice has the right to tell him otherwise. What does G-d think of this? He laughs and says ‘My children have defeated me!’
We see Talmud as a pillar of tradition. It is long, it is dense, it is legalistic. To some Jews it seems heavy and oppressive. But the Talmud is a thing of boldness. It is our only reminder of a lost spiritual path in Judaism: the path of Chutzpah.
Judaism hardly follows the Mosaic Law of the Pentateuch. Mosaic Law came down from Heaven and landed at the feet of men. It was a gift, but it was a gift designed to be used. There is a remarkable story in the Talmud about Moses, who is imagined as being a student, invisible, at the back of R. Akiva’s Yeshiva. Moses doesn’t understand what is being taught, but when a student asks where the Halachot come from, Akiva responds that it is Law from Sinai. Then Moses understands.
This is pretty wild stuff. What Talmud is asserting is that the Oral Torah is only a Law of potentiality. At Sinai, it was not yet explicit, not known even by Moses, for it didn’t yet exist as Law. The Law of the Talmud is thus not merely an excavation of hidden meaning, but is simultaneously a creation of meaning.
This Chutzpah is biblically backed. Who can forget Abraham, father of our religion, arguing with G-d to alter G-d’s opinion in the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah… and succeeding.
These notions are bold. They complicate the portrait of Judaism. It is at once a religion of fidelity and covenant, and yet also a religion of boldness, human self-determination, and freedom.
How is it possible that the Talmud, so filled with Chutzpah as it is, has become a symbol to so many people of a religion that is solely based on obedience and strict constructionism? Why was the Talmud closed? Why is today’s Orthodoxy so dainty with the Law when the sages of the past took it in their hands with conviction?
Well, the world was smaller. The Jewish communities were sealed. There was no fear associated with being bold with the Law. Today the world is large. Communities that aren’t closed face extinction. Any Orthodox Jew who has an active participation in the wider world might wander away from the flock and become an apostate. Any tampering with the Law could lead to a complete disintegration of Judaism. All of us, religious or not, feel these concerns.
Gay Jews feel ourselves denied the crucial certainty that we see in the religious lifestyle. We feel afraid of following after our hearts and eyes after which we might stray. But perhaps this fear is alien to our religion.
The Talmudists of the stories paraphrased above, of R. Joshua and of R. Akiva, see G-d as a father. And like any good father, he wishes to guide and instruct his children in reaching maturity. Maturity isn’t the ability to follow instruction. It is the ability to internalize one’s superego, to make moral decisions on one’s own.
If we continue to see traditional Judaism as a religion of certainty, then gay religious Jews will never have a place in it. We have found ways within the Law, unique and compelling Halachic solutions, that allow us to be both gay and religious, and yet this means nothing if we see our religion as one in which we cannot, like the Chutzpan R. Joshua did, boldly use the Law to make a case for ourselves.
Judaism exists in the modern world. It is time to face the fact that our people, our tradition, and our spirit will not be preserved forcefully from the outside like they were in the past. Our tradition will also not be preserved by trying to freeze it, to pin it down, as is happening now. Judaism is suffocating. The Judaism of Orthodoxy is too frozen, yet appeals to those who seek the serious, the dedicated, and the authentic. Conservative Judaism has made efforts to unfreeze things, but has failed to articulate to itself or to its congregations why it does so. Reform Judaism is the mirror of Orthodoxy. One too frozen, the other too melting.
If Judaism is to be vibrant again, it must give up fear of dissolution and extinction. These fears are the fears of the timid. If Judaism is to undergo renaissance we must be active participants in the Law, not merely cattle yoked to it. We must be Chutzpans with the Law, and we must venture into places where no framework has yet been built.
“And the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.’ ” (Gen 12:1)
Let us not forget this crucial passage of Torah. What does it represent other than the fearless venturing into what has yet to be established? This is what was necessary for Judaism to be born. Leaving the father’s house is symbolic of leaving one’s framework, and only in this void of meaning and precedent can something truly new be born.
Jews cannot fear what is new. As illustrated in the above story of R. Akiva, what is new is just a word of Torah that has not yet been spoken into being. What is new is actually something that has been hidden since the beginning, something that was waiting anxiously to come into being.
It is a natural fear that the future generations will allow Judaism to disintegrate. Countless articles and books have exacerbated these fears by asking, ad nauseum, “Will your grandchildren be Jewish?”
The fact is that they might be, they might not be, and then again, they might just be Jewish in a different way than we are. How did Moses respond in Akiva’s Yeshiva when he saw that Torah had so drastically evolved from what was revealed to him that it was actually incomprehensible to him? Did he shout? Did he condemn? No. Moshe Rabeinu, our teacher, sat down and tried to learn.
Justin Spiro writes:
“What do I do with the two verses in Leviticus? I still don’t know, but it’s becoming increasingly less important to me. The Torah tells us to בחור בחיים, to choose life. In order to do so, we must accept ourselves – our whole selves – for who we truly are.”
We must try to regain the Chutzpah of Abraham. Perhaps we will always have existential fears that the system will fall apart, that we will fall apart, that we will disappear. These fears, in some ways, have become as inherent to our cultural identity as a bagel with lox. But these fears are already realities, and mongering them has done little to stop the forces of assimilation and apostasy. What will stop these forces is a willful and passionate dedication to Judaism. It is the kind of dedication that is found in people like Justin Spiro, and I believe also in myself. As of right now, it lies in wait, anxiously desiring to come into being, but will never be a living force until we change the way we see our religion and walk bravely into the center from our outposts on the fray.
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