Author Archives: Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson

About Jay Michaelson

Parashat Vaetchanan: A Less Innocent Love

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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as 
parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Jay Michaelson imagines how LGBT people can fulfill the commandment to love God with all of our hearts, souls, and might.

Creative Common/philippe leroyer

Creative Common/philippe leroyer

A tension: We are commanded, in
Parashat Vaetchanan
, to love God with all our heart, soul, and might – v’ahavta et adonai elohecha b’chol levavcha, b’chol nafshecha, u’vchol me’odecha. But what about everyone else? Do we love our families and God “in different ways”? At different times? Do we love other people as God, in a pantheistic sense – as incarnations of the One? And if so, what of their particularity?

Love itself may be simple, but its articulation is not. (more…)

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It’s the Purity, Stupid: Reading Leviticus in Context

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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Jay Michaelson looks at the Levitical prohibitions around purity – including the ones related to homosexuality – and finds that ethics and morality have nothing to do with them.

Creative Common/sea turtle

Creative Common/sea turtle

For gay and lesbian Jews, parshat
Acharei Mot
contains some of the most infamous passages of the Torah, but the preceding two,
Tazria
and
Metzora
(usually read together as a “double portion”) contain some of the most obscure. In these portions, we learn about the laws of leprosy (actually
tzaraat
, a skin disease similar to it but different in various ways), seminal emissions, and menstruation; here we are told the detailed method of sin-offerings and wave-offerings, and the methods of purity and contamination. Few people spend much time poring over the vivid anatomical and biological details of Tazria-Metzora. And yet, how can we understand the meaning of the Levitical sexual prohibitions without a sense of their immediate context?

(more…)

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Parashat Vaera: Into Life

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Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Jay Michaelson looks to LGBT Jewish liberation as a demonstration of Judaism’s fundamental commitment to life.

Parashat Vaera. Creative Commons/Peter Pearson

Creative Commons/Peter Pearson

The exodus from Egypt has symbolized the movement from servitude to freedom for generations. Whether for African-American slaves or for our own gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender elders, the story resonates far beyond its Israelite particularity to any struggle for liberation.

There is another aspect to yetziat mitzraim (the Exodus from Egypt), though, beyond the move from bondage to freedom. After all, as many Jewish scholars have noted, freedom is the beginning of the Israelite quest, not the end of it. The parting of the Red Sea is a cinematic moment, but it is not the climactic one: the real point of the story comes at Mount Sinai. Egypt is the womb, and the Red Sea is the birth canal — but it is at Sinai where our people comes of age and begins its forty-year adolescence. (Only upon entering the land of Israel can it be said to have attained adulthood.) (more…)

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Demons, Dybbuks, Ghosts, & Golems

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What is the soul? Look for it, and it can’t be seen; define it, and it eludes description. And yet, for the ancients, the idea that life could exist without a soul was unimaginable. However, the talmudic and kabbalistic rabbis did not make a strict distinction between body and soul, either. Unlike, for example, Plato, most Jewish thinkers had a notion of life-energy that was quasi-materialistic. The spiritual world and the material world were interwoven, and actions in one could directly affect the other–for better or for worse.

The Power of Creation

The most important process in the material world, for most of the Kabbalah, is that of creation itself. This, after all, is what God does: creates the world and brings it into being. And it is what humans, in their deepest imitation of God, do as well. Sexuality, reproduction, differentiation, and the bringing forth of life were considered great cosmic mysteries and awesome powers bestowed upon human beings. Spiritual production, too, was important to the kabbalists: A person’s deeds create worlds, jewish demonorder the cosmic array, and participate in the divine process of destruction and repair.

That’s when all goes right, of course. But what about when the life-energies are misappropriated? What happens when something goes wrong?

The mythic structure of the Kabbalah provided many colorful answers to that question: demons and dybbuks, golems, and ghosts are all the results of misspent life energy. But the Kabbalah does not develop its ideas out of nowhere; they are part of a long history of Jewish speculation about shedim (demons, also a word used to refer to foreign gods) and demonic personalities such as Lilith.

As compared with other ancient Near Eastern texts, in which demons play a central role, the Bible is nearly silent about the existence of supernatural beings. But not the Talmud. The Talmud has a rich, though vague, demonology. Houses of study are described as being filled with demons when sexual energy is not properly channeled. Great rabbis are able to perceive demons sitting on the right and left hands of every person. They are able to harness the divine creative energies to create animals which can then be consumed for food. And, in the talmudic world, spirits are everywhere: They haunt dark places, homes, even the crumbs left on the dinner table. For example, consider the omnipresence and omnimalevolence of demons described in theTalmud in Berakhot 6a:

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Fasting From a Functional Perspective

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 Adapted from God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice.

The practice of fasting evokes many of the worst associations with religion: asceticism, self denial, and fear of the body and its pleasures. Moreover, because most fasts in the Jewish tradition are associated with the destruction of the Temple (Yom Kippur being the most prominent exception), many liberal Jews see them as irrelevant or obsolete. Yet fasting has transformative potential, if we approach the practice from functional, rather than mythic, terms.

From Personal Rite to Communal Remembrance

Initially, this perspective was clearly the mainstream view in the Jewish tradition. The Bible generally regards fasting as a practice that works on the heart, usually as an individual expression of grief, prayer, or meditation. Yom Kippur is the most important of these spiritual fasts.

tisha b'av quizBut fasting also appears as a mourning rite (II Samuel 1:12, 12:16-23), as part of revelation or prophecy (Exodus 34:28, I Samuel 28:20), as preparation for an important event (Judges 20:26, I Samuel 14:24), and as part of petitionary prayer (I Samuel 7:5-6, II Samuel 12) or repentance (Jonah 3:5, Jeremiah 36:9). There is also evidence of a little-discussed discipline of women voluntarily fasting (Numbers 30:14 and the apocryphal Judith 8:6), and many later examples of fasting as a preparation for visions (Daniel 10:2-3, and several apocryphal books). And there are instances of fasting as, essentially, magic (Judges 20:26, Joel 1:14, Jonah 3:5-10). In all these contexts, fasting is regarded for what it does, not what it signifies or observes.

Later, however, the effects of fasts became secondary to their historical and social significance. In the “Zechariah fasts” that were later made part of Jewish law, that significance is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

As Eliezer Diamond has shown in his book Holy Men and Hunger Artists, talmudic rabbis often took up fasting as an ongoing discipline, but as Diamond also shows, mourning the destruction of the Temple was almost always provided as a rationale. Perhaps the Temple was but a pretext for an ascetic practice the rabbis wanted to take on; there is certainly evidence for that view, and fasting remains to this day a common practice among the pious.

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Hanukkah Meditation

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One of the great joys of Hanukkah is the beauty of the Hanukkah menorah, aglow with light. The menorah is a many-layered symbol. For some, it evokes the miracle of the Hanukkah legend; for others, the ancient rituals of the Temple. For others still, the menorah, like the Christmas tree, is a symbol of the Divine feminine–derived, also like the Christmas tree, from pre-monotheistic sacred trees, adorned with light in the time of nature’s greatest darkness. 

Apart from all of these symbolic meanings, though, simply admiring the menorah is a beautiful sensory experience. And like all such experiences, it is an opportunity for mindfulness of the body to provide a pause in the ceaseless march of the mind. This is how the spiritual search is actually a cessation of searching–for in spiritual practice, it is possible to let the soul rest.

Seeing Meditation

How to put these ideas into practice? "Seeing Meditation" is one way. Seeing Meditation is a very subtle practice, not because it is difficult to see, but because it is so easy. Our eyes automatically register light and color, and the brain’s processing is so speedy as to be utterly invisible to us. If you are looking at a book, you see "book," not white, black, light and shadow. Not even a book; probably you just see words. And not even words; rather, you immediately absorb ideas, leaving physicality behind.

This is actually much more than seeing. It is seeing, recognizing, processing, comprehending. But seeing is itself a subtle sensual pleasure, and in deeply concentrated mind states, when the mind moves slowly enough that it can interrupt even basic cognitive processes, it is possible to experience pure seeing without the cognitive apparatus of categorization. This, perhaps, is similar to what the kabbalist Abraham Abulafia described as the world without language: perception without categorization, substance without quite so much form. A blade of grass is not grass, but "green"–and not even "green," but rather, a dozen gradations of light and dark hues, like the movements of an analog clock which defy the compartmentalization of the digital.

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Gay History in the Making, I Guess

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Today was the day that we’d worked for all these years: finally the doors of the Conservative movement have been opened to gays and lesbians. So why didn’t I celebrate?

It was a thrill standing in the cold today, huddling outside the Park Avenue Synagogue as the news dribbled in over cell-phones. Yes to Dorff (the “compromise” pro-gay position)… no to Tucker (the more radical one)… law committee members resigning… Admittedly, the minutiae are only of interest to a few dozen people in the world, but as one of them, it was a thrill to be on the front lines.

Yet after the euphoria wore off, it somehow feels like less momentous than one might have expected. Part of the reason, I’m sure, was that my own personal stake in the matter has lessened with time. I no longer care that urgently about how a group of Conservative rabbis interpret a verse from the Torah. Not as a personal matter, anyway; I do still care very deeply about the closeted Jews I meet all the time through my work, and about the larger repercussions that this decision has — basically, as one more religious group remembering that homosexuality is not as big a deal to God as some people would have us believe. But now that I’m in love, and partnered, it feels less like personal salvation and more like some other people finally figuring it out for themselves.

Part of the reason, too, was that this was a compromise, not a victory. This is probably how it should be — if activists like me are thrilled, it means that folks on the other side are infuriated. This way, my side got a ruling that will let gays into rabbinical school, and their side got a ruling that maintained the ban on at least one kind of (male) homosexual activity. Functionally, there is no real difference, since the opinion makes “don’t ask, don’t tell” the law of the movement. But since the opinion equivocated, our celebration is muted as well.

And of course, it really has been long in coming. I am enormously grateful to the immense amount of volunteer work by the rabbinical students in Keshet, JTS’s advocacy group on this issue. But even they seemed to feel like the decision was inevitable. Only an eleventh-hour procedural maneuver — which did derail the Tucker opinion — threatened what has, for several months at least, seem like a foregone conclusion. Yes, Virginia, there really are gay people in the world.

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My Statement

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STATEMENT BY JAY MICHAELSON, DIRECTOR OF NEHIRIM (A NATIONAL JEWISH GAY & LESBIAN ORGANIZATION), FROM PRESS CONFERENCE ON CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT DECISION ON HOMOSEXUALITY

Good afternoon. My name is Jay Michaelson, and I am a gay religious Jew. I observe the traditional sabbath laws, I keep kosher, and I share my life with my partner, who is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston. I am gratified that, today, the Conservative movement’s law committee has recognized what those of us who are gay or lesbian, or who have gay or lesbian relatives, have known for a long time: that homosexuality is a trait, not a choice; and that a God who loves God’s children could not possibly want them to hate themselves, to lie to everyone they know, and to destroy a fundamental part of themselves, the natural, God-given gift of sexuality.

“The closet” is a rather cozy metaphor to describe what lying about your sexuality really is. I should know — I lied about mine for fifteen years: to myself, to my girlfriends, to my family, and to everyone else. And I can tell you: it’s not a closet — it’s a tomb. Sexuality isn’t a preference, it isn’t a choice, like choosing vanilla ice cream instead of chocolate. It’s part of who you are — and shutting it down shuts down the heart.

My relationship to God, to holiness, is among the most important things in my life. And I can tell you firsthand that lying and Godliness do not go together. The more any of us denies this basic truth about sexuality — that it is natural, inborn, and God-given — the more repression, the more scandals, the more fear, the more hatred of self and others.

Yet today we breathe a bit of fresh air. Because our age-old traditions are wiser than passing prejudices. Because they take account of new information, like what we now know to be scientifically true about sexuality. And because, slowly, deliberately, perhaps even haltingly, the Jewish halachic system sometimes works.

Today’s decision does not mean that the sky will fall. All the rabbis in that closed room did today was say “There’s a verse that could mean a lot of things, or it could mean the one thing it says. We think it means just one thing.” And we think that not for expediency, not for political correctness — but because it is inconceivable that a loving God creates gays and lesbians only to have them mutilate the gifts that God has given.

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Shabbat and Meditation: Just Be It

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Shabbat is a day of being, not doing. As interpreted by the rabbis, the day’s multitude of do’s and don’ts are essentially about not making anything, not destroying anything, and simply taking the world as we find it–for one day. The rest of the week, we Jews are exhorted to improve the world, better ourselves, and provide for our extended families in whatever roles in which we find ourselves. But this day: just be. Serve God not in changing the world, but in relaxing into what’s already there. 

Waking Up

In a deep sense, this is the practice of meditation as well. There are many forms of meditative practice, but their essence is to see clearly into the truth of what is — like Shabbat, it’s not about not making or changing anything, or feeling a special way, but just waking up, in a focused way, to what’s already here. Most classical Jewish meditations do this by contemplating a particular object — a phrase, a sense-perception, even an idea–and focusing thought so resolutely that distractions drop away. In other traditions, attention is drawn to the barest perceptions of breath, or movement–not so much for the purpose of contemplation, but simply to slow down the motion of discursive thoughts. In both approaches, what one finds when distractions and thoughts are slowed down is that an important illusion is released: that the world matters only to the extent that it pleases me, my ego, and my desires.

Suppose a bit of food isn’t to your liking, or a sound is harsh, or grating. If you’re like me, your immediate reaction is to want to push it away–in other words, to change the momentary conditions of your life, in order to make them better. Meditation slowly trains the mind to be a little less centered on what in Jewish tradition is called the yetzer hara, the evil, or selfish inclination. As with Shabbat, the practice is simply to let it be. It’s not that the food will get tastier, or the sound will shift in quality, but your relationship to it can change.

All this may seem a bit irrelevant when talking about foods and sounds, but it’s not so irrelevant when working with sickness, or suffering, or people with whom it’s hard to get along. What it would be like to bring a little Shabbat–a little “let it be”–into such difficult places?

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