Toward a Queer Jewish Theology

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December 1, 2005
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Jay Michaelson

Notwithstanding the rhetoric of denial prevalent in some religious circles, sexual orientation is known, by those with firsthand experience of homosexuality as well as by scientists who study it, to be either genetically determined or so deeply developmentally ingrained as to be fundamentally unchangeable. For Jews, this reality of gay and lesbian identity presents a theological question: why does God make some people gay?

For many people today, the question is only the first half of a larger dilemma – namely how, if God makes some people gay, we ought to read the prohibitions of Leviticus 18 and 20. Quite a lot of ink has already been spilled on this subject. Most who maintain that the prohibitions extend beyond anal intercourse between men – the extent of the p’shat of the Levitical text – still insist that sexuality is not fundamentally determined (which is what I mean by “God makes people gay”), but is, in some way, chosen. This despite the lived experience of gay and lesbian people, the overwhelming evidence of neurological science, and, not least, shocking rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth (it’s odd to kill yourself for a choice, is it not?). Others, recognizing that sexuality is not chosen, feel compelled to take a more restrictive reading of Leviticus 18 in order to maintain our fundamental beliefs about God and the mitzvot: e.g., that God loves human beings and does not want them mutilated or distorted, or that the commandments are meant to govern responsible behavior, or that they are meant to be kept at all. Still others, of course, simply avoid the theological problem by denying the Divine origins of the biblical text and bringing our ancient holiness codes in line with contemporary thinking.

But homosexuality itself presents a theological question apart from how we read two verses of the Torah. Is being gay like having brown eyes – a biological quirk of no religious significance? Or, given the central status in Judaism of procreation, family, patrimony, and gender binarism, is there something more theologically significant about people who, because of their souls’ physiognomies, defy the traditional constructions of each?

Other religious traditions provide a wealth of possible answers to the theological riddle of homosexuality. For example, several Native American traditions believed that people whom we might call gay or lesbian possessed both male and female souls and assigned to them roles as priests, shamans, and healers. This is the phenomenon Europeans called the berdache , described at length in the work of anthropoligists Walter L. Williams, Will Roscoe, and others. Mirroring similar phenomena in Japan, India, Africa, the classical Mediterranean, and, in a perverse way, the campaigns against witches (i.e. lesbians) and fairies (gay men) in Europe, the berdache was seen as special, or kadosh – literally, set aside, in Hebrew. Not only was s/he set apart from ordinary life but s/he lived in a state of liminality, and that in-between-ness was itself regarded as a hallmark of the sacred. In such societies, gays and lesbians existed to be sacred priests of the liminal.

Within Judaism, we are warned against speculating why God creates or manifests in a particular way; to do so can lead to a dehumanizing reductivism and a dangerous claim to know the will of the Divine. But we can approach the question of homosexuality by observing some distinctive, theologically-relevant experiences of gay and lesbian people. The yield is abundant. On a spiritual level, how we experience love of humans shapes how we experience love of God. On an intellectual level, it colors how we conceive God. On a physical level, it changes how we manifest and seek the Divine in the world. And on an emotional level, it gives form and meaning to the yearnings of the heart. When I chant Yedid Nefesh , the moving, homophilic, medieval love song for God, I think of my relationship to the yedid , the (male) beloved that is distinctively flavored by my love of men. When I read of the receptivity of Isaac, the effeminate beauty of Joseph, or the love between David and Jonathan, I find a resonance between my own experience and these nontraditionally-gendered Jewish heroes. As described in Daniel Boyarin’s work on the “effeminate” Jewish man, this ideal resounds through the generations.

Theology – thinking rigorously about God – is necessarily impacted by such “queer” self-images, images of the Divine, conceptions of how Divine relates to the world, readings of text, and experiences of how love, religion, and spirituality manifest in the world. The point is not, trivially, that David and Jonathan were lovers; the point is that when a kabbalist imagines his soul to be a female entity uniting with the male godhead, ordinary assumptions about gender are disrupted, with theologically interesting consequences – kal v’chomer when that God is both male and female and is constantly shifting gender roles and attitudes. Both in our tradition and in the lived experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people, God/dess is not only male, not only transcendent; S/he is not only female, not only immanent; there is a unity of sames as well as opposites, and we are all God in drag. In other words, the conversation is about soul, not genitals.

Even the non-normativity of GLBT identity can be a productive contributor to theological discourse. Most Jewish theology, philosophical and mystical, tells us that the more we upset familiar assumptions and ways we think about God, the closer we are to God. Labels that come from our own experience – God is male, God is just, God is the source of wonder – are projections. They can reduce the ineffability of the transcendent and flatten our experience of the immanent into categories shaped by desire and aversion. In this light, to “queer” (invoking that term as it is used in the academic discipline of queer theory: i.e., as rejecting the notion that binary gender and normative sexuality are natural categories) theology helps to undermine normative tendencies in theological thinking. Removing assumptions of Divine gender, reading Kabbalah as positing a Divine hermaphrodite hiding in the closet of the world, denying that categories of gender even exist ultimately at all – all move us closer to the Infinity and Divine Oneness. The farther we get from our preconceived notions of what “identity” is supposed to be and the more open we are to categories beyond our imagination or experience, the closer we are to realization.

Or, moving from negative theology to positive experience, there is what Franz Rosenzweig called the “first primary word” – love. All Western mystics express their relationship to God in erotic terms, and it is no mere metaphor; in the Oneness of the One, the mystics report a great knowing love. To be holy, the Kabbalists write, is to be on fire with love for God. Thus, on a superficial level, if a gay man experiences love of “like” rather than love of “unlike,” this changes how he conceives, embraces, and loves God. On a deeper level, if he experiences unity not as union-with-an-opposite, but of an internal embrace of his own masculine and feminine natures – which is what the Zohar calls the essence of mystical practice – that, too, reconfigures (in a provocative, nondualistic way) what unio mystica is really about.

Another aspect of love: to be a self-accepting gay or lesbian person, one generally must go through a certain process of negation and affirmation. In homophobic societies, gays or lesbians are told that how they love is wrong. Yet at some point, to live a full live, they must learn for themselves that these statements are wrong and that love is right. This inversion forms a moral conscience and teaches what it is to love God b’chol levavcha, b’chol nafeshecha, u’v’chol me-odecha , with the whole heart, body, mind, and spirit. The result is a distinctively complex, self-aware mode of religious erotic consciousness, which resonates in the queer mysticism of Rumi, Hafiz, and Judah Halevy; the poems of Whitman, Wilde, Sappho, and Shakespeare; the art of Michelangelo and Da Vinci.

The process of relating to sacred text, liturgy, and teshuvah is indelibly colored by the same process of “coming out” morally, intellectually, and spiritually. At first, the religious lesbian or gay man loves religion and thus hates him/herself. Then, s/he may either affirm the self and hate religion, continue to repress the self and “love” religion, or, somehow, reconcile religion with the reality of love and sexual expression. Even if the third option is chosen, though, gay religious consciousness is necessarily distrustful, because it has seen – and more importantly, felt – how rules, codes, and even the operation of conscience itself can actually be tools of oppression and self-repression. Of course, straight people may come to this realization also. But religious gay people must.

Images of the ineffable are always projections, and relationships to the transcendent always carry the character of myth. Yet to the extent that we conceptualize the One at all, we have no choice but to do so from our conceptions of love, self, and world; tradition, text, and tribe. Questions of boundary, models of the soul, ideals of human behavior, experiences of love, and relationships with sacred text – these are but a few of the areas in which sexuality matters to theology, and I have stated them here only by way of a prolegomenon. Really, if theology is thinking about God, the only way sexuality couldn’t matter would be if we really believed that how we love has nothing to do with how we think, imagine, dream, and create. What an impoverished life that would be.

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Jay Michaelson is a doctoral candidate at Hebrew University and a recent Adjunct Professor of Jewish Studies at City College. He is Chief Editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture (www.zeek.net), Director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for GLBT Jews, and author of God in Your Body.

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