I am a Modern Orthodox Jew. As a Jewish educator, I have written, spoken and taught about homosexuality and our need as a community to address this issue within the framework of Halacha, or Jewish law, for many years. I had already been an advocate for the GLBTQ community for decades when one of our four children, our daughter Rachie, came out more than four years ago.
Why? Because I feel that as religious Jews, we have a moral imperative to insure that all members of our community are safe, valued and healthy. We are taught to use the midah of compassion, as we do for so many other issues.
Four years ago when Rachie was twenty two years old, she called me and my husband, and in the course of our conversation, basically said, “Mom, I am seeing someone I really care about and this person is a woman. I am gay.” Neither of us were surprised.
As an educated person, I am certain that biology and “how we are wired” is just the way G-d makes us. Further, I am aware that 10 to 15 percent of any community is on the gay spectrum, and there is no exemption from this reality in the religious Jewish community.
My husband and I firmly believe that as shomrei mitzvot, or Torah observant, Jews, we have an obligation to accept, protect and value all human beings who are created in the image of G-d, BeTzelem Elokim. Halacha teaches us this.
Of course, many in our Orthodox community and extended family do not see it this way. I am deeply saddened by any community that judges and pushes our daughter away. Any community that does not fully embrace and value Rachie is the one that loses, for she is a gifted young lady and an observant and knowledgeable Jew. I often lament how our observant communities are sending away some of our exceptional people who could contribute so much and would — if only they would embrace and value instead of judge and exclude.
Rachie has not been able to see herself associated with anything “Orthodox,” though she is observant and engaged Jewishly in profound and meaningful ways.
However, this has changed recently, due to her involvement in ESHEL, the Orthodox GLBTQ community, named for the tent into which Avraham and Sarah invited all who came by. Rachie (and the rest of us) now have a home for her religiously observant, gay self, being able to interface various aspects of Halacha with the reality of her life. It is so critically important for us to have ESHEL and KESHET as spaces for our GLBTQ Jews both as safe spaces and to hold the anchor while hopefully more of our community realizes that Jewish law can often be more kind and understanding than we are too often led to think. Our wish as a family is that more of our community would learn to see and accept and value each of our children for who they are and the sexuality they were born with.
Sunnie Epstein is a member of the Keshet Parent & Family Connection, a community of parents and family members of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) Jews who are coming together for support, to hold events, and to advocate for change in the Jewish community. You can find a chapter or start your own here.
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, Rabbi Joshua Lesser tackles Parashat Vayikra and asks the gay men in his Jewish community to stand up.
I remember my first pair of rollerblades. More specifically, I remember the bloody mess I was the first time I gave them a try. I couldn’t figure out the brakes and there was a hill and a busy street—you can figure out where this is going. Never was I so grateful to hit a telephone pole. The second time I bladed I fared better, that is until a piece of rusty wire got caught in the wheels bringing them to a sharp halt. The rules of physics being what they are, I fell on my face. Slapstick being as reliable as physics, my fall brought me injury in the form of much laughter. The next time I was invited to go rollerblading, I stopped and stared at the skates. Were these skates nothing more than simple instruments of cruel pain? Could I give it another go? Or should I simply be done with them all together?
This week we begin the book of Leviticus with Parashat Vayikra, and although Leviticus begins innocently enough, with a listing of the various sacrifices performed in the Mishkan, as LGBT people, we all know where this book is heading. Much like my rollerblades just the title Leviticus inspires dread and fear in gay men that has caused us to disengage with the entire book, and for some, Judaism altogether. And so it is ironic that Leviticus begins with the word vayikra—”And God called.” Ramban cites a midrash that connects Leviticus with the end of the book of Exodus where we find a complete description of the Mishkan’s construction and that it was worthy of the Shechinah (God’s Presence). So magnificent and awesome was God’s glory within the Mishkan that Moses was terrified to enter. Thus, the call from God in this portion was an invitation to Moses and the Israelites to come inside—signaling to them that the Mishkan was built for their mutual relationship.
Similarly, Ramban also notes that the word for sacrifice is connected to the Hebrew word that means, “to draw close.” In this light the sacrificial system is one of the primary ways that the Mishkan was to be used to enhance the biblical human-Divine relationship, Ramban sees this sacrificial system as a ritualistic way to build a meaningful relationship with the Divine. In other words, when we discard Leviticus wholesale because of its foreign rituals or its later prohibitions, we risk missing the emphasis of how ritual can bring us closer to Judaism, community and God (or godliness).
For gay men in particular, this is a real danger in today’s Jewish world. In the rabbinic commentaries, much to do is made about the way the first word of this portion is written—the last letter of “vayikra” is an aleph, which in the Torah is written smaller than the other letters. While the rabbis speculate how this is connected to Moses’ humility, I wonder if the aleph might stand for the first call that God speaks to humanity, which begins with the aleph in question. In Genesis, God calls to his first human creations, “Ayeca?”/”Where are you?”
Indeed, I often find that I have the same question for gay Jewish men in Jewish communal life: Where are you? Having served in different LGBT communities, I have found that, while gay Jewish men aren’t exactly nonexistent, they participate in smaller numbers than lesbians, and additionally, it seems gay Jewish men wait until they are older to make affiliations within Jewish communal life. In one rabbinical school class, we were taught that, as rabbis, we could expect to attract members of our demographic most significantly. In other words, a married woman rabbi could expect to have substantial participation from other married women. However, at my particular synagogue, this has not occurred—instead, we have attracted large numbers of people from all demographics but my own (gay Jewish men in their 30s). While this may be too anecdotal to draw strong conclusions, I couple this particular piece of anecdotal evidence with the fact that I consistently meet gay Jewish men in social settings who seek me out to share their experiences of having been made to feel unwelcome in their synagogues, their families. Many express disdain for Judaism and God altogether mentioning the prohibitions in Leviticus. Intertwined in these discussions is often a sense of lingering shame.
Upon reading the list of sacrifices in Vayikra while considering Ramban’s theory that they served to draw people, within the context of their community, closer to a sense of the Divine, I conclude that somehow these sacrifices served to remove the barriers that kept people distant from a sense of the Divine. As a result of this reading, I have wrestled with the question of determining how the self-imposed barriers could be removed that prevents gay men from feeling more connected with their Jewish community and to God. In what ways could we engage ritually to enhance our Jewish spiritual lives? While I think this question is relevant for all people, I think for gay men the answers are different.
While it is critical that the larger Jewish community work to remake itself so that it is more accessible to gay Jewish men, it is our responsibility as gay Jews to undertake our own self examination. We have the ability to identify those things that have blocked our connection to God and to ritual. Unless the answer is utter rejection, we must do our inner work. Leviticus and its sacrificial systems are buttressed by a calling to take personal responsibility and cultivate vulnerability. Giving an offering, in particular the act of sacrificing the life of a sentient being, brings us face to face with the fragility of life moment to moment. Rabbi Kerry Olitsky points out that the sacrificial system demanded an entirely embodied process. One had to engage all of one’s senses to participate. Taken together this is incredibly vulnerable.
Moreover, even more intensely vulnerable is that the heart of the issue demands gay Jewish men to embrace their sexuality and acknowledge that not only are we holy as human beings, but our bodies are holy and our sexual connections can be holy. To wrestle with this is to also acknowledge when our sexual acts are not holy. As gay men can we make ourselves vulnerable enough to invite a sense God’s presence in our sexuality? To do so, is a sacrifice not in the sense of giving something up, but rather creating room for godliness to dwell.
Asking gay Jewish men to be vulnerable in order to read and engage with Leviticus, which is arguably the core of ritual Judaism and holiness, when it is the source of direct pain and alienation may be unreasonable. Certainly, there is some danger in this, and the possibility of re-wounding may even be likely. However, there is also much to be gained by making peace with this book that contains the infamous 18:22 and 20:13 verses because it also contains much more—Leviticus also includes some of Judaism’s most compassionate and beautiful teachings that can serve to awaken the desire to infuse our life with the awareness of the glory of God’s presence. As this portion reminds us, God’s perpetually call to us, despite fear and harm. The question that remains is, can we, as gay men make ourselves vulnerable enough to hear it? And if we do that, can we sacrifice the baggage that keeps us distant so that we may answer from the authentic place within us that longs for God in our lives.
Part Two of a two-part story of a gay rabbinical student in the Reform Movement. Yesterday Ari shared his place in the history of openly gay rabbinical students. Today Ari delves deeper into navigating his identities. You can also hear from Rabbi Elianna Yolkut on her journey from the closet to the pulpit on Rabbis Without Borders.
In 2008, I made the decision to enter rabbinical school as an openly gay man. The decision was in some ways very easy and in some ways very difficult. My concerns centered on one main question: what would my gay and Jewish community be like? After my initial year at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Israel, I received some less than ideal news: my new home would be at the HUC campus in…Cincinnati.
This had not been my initial choice and I was none too pleased, having been born and raised in New York. But, I thought, “I am sure that I will not only be welcomed with open arms, but I will find a loving community who can help model for me being a gay rabbinical student, and subsequently a gay rabbi…right?”
I soon discovered, at least for my first year, I was the only openly gay student on campus; my therapist always tells me that it’s important to note openly gay, because you never know, and I do appreciate her optimism. Somehow by default, I became a halutz (a pioneer), the very identity I had hoped to avoid when I chose to be a gay rabbinical student in the Reform world, as opposed to the Conservative one.
In Cincinnati, I had to actively think about how to navigate all of my identities with a limited support network. In a conservative Midwestern city, I found myself working with even smaller–and sometimes even more conservative–congregations as their student rabbi. How would I come out to my student pulpits? Should I use them as bully pulpits to advocate for the causes that I find important and meaningful? How do I seek out a solid LGBT Jewish community outside of the school, when school takes up most of my life? And of course the biggest question: am I a gay rabbi, or am I a rabbi who is gay?
These two sentences may sound alike, but they could not be more different, as I discovered a few months ago in trying to craft a personal statement to send out to congregations to apply for possible rabbinic positions. In my personal statement, I told a story of building a relationship with a congregant in a community in Northwest Florida who was initially hesitant about having an openly gay rabbinical student; the fact that I had not yet mentioned my sexuality to that community, but rather had been outed by my predecessor is a whole other story. I wrote that over the two years I served there, we grew to form an incredible relationship, and that I hoped to have shifted his perspective if only a small amount.
The story I told for my personal statement was met with a resounding and near universal opposition. I was told that it foregrounded my sexuality too much: It showed me as “the gay rabbi” more than “Ari who is gay”…and also holds many other identities and traits, of equal value and import. While this is certainly true, it felt strange to hear from – mostly straight – friends, colleagues, and teachers that it would behoove me to “tamp down the gay.” In a recent article in Slate.com, gay writer J. Bryan Lowder lamented how some public figures have taken to coming out by stating that being gay is only but one small part of who they are, not their whole essence. Lowder believes, as do I, that this emphasis diminishes the value of coming out and acting as a role model to fellow LGBT people.
As I round the bases towards my eventual finishing of this program, I have no more answers to that quandary than I did when I started. I think sometimes you just have to be a halutz, taking the lonely road for the sake of those who will one day follow. It can be challenging, but at least it creates some pretty great stories.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
This spring, Rabbi Jason Klein was elected to lead the Reconstructionist movement’s rabbinic association, making him the first out gay man to hold such a national position in the U.S. Keshet caught up with Rabbi Klein to discuss his experiences in Jewish institutions, the next steps for inclusion at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association (RRA), and what it’s been like to be out.
You’re the first openly gay man to lead a national rabbinic association in the U.S. What has the response been like? Among Reconstructionist Jews, and also across the Jewish community?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive from Jews of all denominational identifications. I have been struck by some younger people’s feeling affirmed in their own identities as LGBTQ or allies and the responses of elders who have watched so much change happen around creating warm communities just within the span of their adult lives. Continue reading
As we’ve explored in earlier posts by and about Orthodox Jews who are also LGBTQ (including a round-up of blogs, a video from hip-hop artist Y-Love, what it;s like to come out at an Orthodox high school, and an interview with the first out gay Orthodox rabbi), being Orthodox and LGBTQ is complicated. Luckily, in recent years there have been a growing number people and organizations providing support, safe space, and resources for LGBTQ Orthodox Jews and their families. Eshel, dedicated to building “understanding, support, and community for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people in traditional Jewish communities,” is a prominent example of the work being done by, and on behalf of, LGBT Orthodox Jews.
In January 2013, the author of this post attended a shabbaton organized by Eshel. These reflections originally ran on his blog, Orthodox, Gay, and Married Jew. We’re grateful for the opportunity to share his powerful post.
Like angels in the sky
in a garden full of glory
the galaxies so brilliantly related
on that first page of our story
The shabbaton started with davening on Friday night. I had been to support groups in the past, both for JQY or Jewish Queer Youth (an organization based in NYC whose primary objective is to give support to young men and woman struggling with issues related to being LGBT; please see www.jqyouth.org for more information) and a non-religious (and non-agenda driven) support group for gay married men (if you would like information about this group, please email me). When I went to these groups, which had about 10-20 people, I was scared and overwhelmed. Continue reading
Creating inclusive Jewish spaces is a great goal — but how do you do it? While the answer is likely different for every synagogue, school, and youth group, it’s helpful and encouraging to hear about others’ successes, triumphs, and their lessons learned. So we’re running this regular column, called “The Tachlis of Inclusion,” to spotlight practices and policies that have worked for Jewish institutions all over the country. We hope they inspire you. Drop us a note if you have a story to tell and you may end up as next month’s feature! You can read the inaugural post in this series, on the Israel Center for Conservative Judaism, here.
Here, Elise Richman of Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, New York, shares what happened when they invited writer gay Jewish author Wayne Hoffman to speak at the synagogue for one of their first LGBT events. Special thanks to Rika Levin for sharing this with us. (Westchester County, where New Rochelle is located, is the 7th largest Jewish population in the country and one of the the fastest growing Jewish populations!)
On a recent Sunday, we all woke up a little more tired than usual. After all, we had to change our clocks and lost an hour of our precious time. Time means different things to different people, but this Sunday the large group of people gathered at Beth El Synagogue Center learned even more about the value of time as we “spring forward.” I refer not to the changing of the clocks, but to an effort to change perceptions, as Beth El strives to communicate a message of inclusiveness to its diverse Jewish community. More than 70 individuals, including over a dozen teens, gathered to hear the gay Jewish author Wayne Hoffman speak about his experience integrating these dual identities in his own life and work. Continue reading
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, Amy Soule looks to Genesis — B’reishit — to truly understand how we are all created in God’s image.
So God created humankind in God’s own image; in the image of God humanity was created; male and female God created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Perhaps my friends laugh at me when they hear that B’reishit is one of my favorite Torah portions because so many times strict religious people look toward certain segments to judge me as gay, but it’s easy for me to explain myself.
Look hard at the holy, loving statement above. Genesis 1:27 states all of humankind was created in God’s image. Although it mentions sexual difference alone, it’s easy to extrapolate and thus explain that God created an array of sexual orientations, all of which are loved by God and holy. Continue reading
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, Tucker Lieberman looks at the lesser-known holiday of Shmini Atzeret.
Gay and transgender people often feel like foreigners within our own communities. We sometimes feel as if we are treated with a double standard or altogether shut out from religious practices. Similarly, as Jews, who are a minority in every nation except Israel, we often feel as if we are foreigners in our own homelands. We understand the meaning of exclusion.
Yet in this week’s portion, in which the Jews are still wandering in the desert (Deut. 14:22-16:17), foreigners are excluded from the Jewish community in three distinct ways: they are not explicitly invited to the consecration of the first harvest (the festival of Shavuot), their debt is not forgiven, and, when enslaved, they are left unmentioned in regards to the gentle treatment and the eventual redemption to which Jewish slaves are explicitly entitled.
Thus, while the portion encourages the Jews to literally “come out” of the settlement to worship, celebrate freedom, give ceremonial charity, and cement our own identities, we are, at the same time, encouraged to use identity labels to divide us from others. What might we create if we apply the Torah’s vision of Jewish freedom and prosperity to all our neighbors, regardless of their identities?
The High Holidays are nearly upon us, and while it’s wonderful to carve out time for reflection, contemplation and community, the holiday season can also be stressful (dealing with family, long days in synagogue, confronting a challenging year). For LGBTQ Jews and our families, there is the added element of stress: during the Torah service on the afternoon of Yom Kippur we read from Leviticus. This reading includes the verses from the Torah frequently used as a religious prohibition of homosexuality.
So this year, Keshet’s providing you with a little extra High Holiday reading. Whether you make good use of these resources at home or slide them into your machzor (High Holiday prayer book) — we promise we won’t tell — we hope they enhance your understanding of the holidays, and add layers of meaning to your experience of them. You can find many more resources for the holidays in our Resource Library.
Days of Awe: Turning to Do Good
Dr. Joel Kushner, the Director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, examines the Al Cheyt prayer, used in the High Holiday liturgy, to look at how we deal with LGBTQ inclusion. The prayer lists all of our sins and Dr. Kushner uses them as a focus for how we are culpable for — and how we can fight against — transphobia and violence against transgender people.
Plus…You’ll never look at Leviticus the same way again:
Interpreting Leviticus: Contemporary Voices
One of the most challenging aspects of Yom Kippur for LGBTQ Jews is the portion of Leviticus read for this holiday which includes the injunction against men “lying with other men as with women,” and which is cited in several faiths as the textual basis for prohibitions against homosexuality. In this excerpt from the Hineini Curriculum Resource Guide, six scholars – Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dr. Rachel Adler, Thomas Herz, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, and Rabbi David Greenstein – provide close readings and interpretations of Leviticus. Through historical context and interpretive translations, these scholars reveal a number of fascinating Jewish values and ancient prohibitions, none of which would condemn LGBTQ people in our time.
Homosexuality: An Insider’s Look at the Conservative Movement’s Halakhic Process
Another way to look at Leviticus: Yom Kippur is an excellent occasion to examine how one major Jewish movement has dealt with the Levitical injunction from a Jewish legal standpoint, and Rabbi Michael Beals’ sermon from 2006 — just before a major change in the Conservative Movement’s treatment of gay and lesbian Jews — shows how that thinking has evolved.
A Kavanah — Directing our Hearts and Minds: A Declaration of Intention that we bring to the reading of Leviticus 18 on the Afternoon of Yom Kippur
In a different examination of these same troubling verses, Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Congregation Nehar Shalom (a long timefriend of Keshet and host to many Keshet events) redirects our kavanah, or intention, in reading them, transforming them from a condemnation of homosexuality to one examining unequal power dynamics within a relationship. (You might remember Rabbi Reinstein from an earlier post featuring rabbis who spoke out for the Transgender Equal Rights bill in Massachusetts. You can read his beautiful testimony here. It’s the second one from the top.)
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, Joshua Lesser looks to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah to find a more expansive vision of Judaism.
“Folks, in a moment we are going to hit the birth canal,” the leader of our spelunking trip chuckled. I felt the air thin as the 20 of us, mostly strangers, gasped at his description. Up ahead in the cave was a narrow tunnel that would require us to get on our bellies and contort and wriggle our bodies to make it through to the other side. Already muddy, I did not relish this part of the trek. I imagined spiders lurking in the dark. Taking deep breaths, I proceeded in line on hands and knees. Our headlamps provided little help as we moved forward, feeling the sides narrow. I imagined being trapped and buried under the earth. I heard the grunts and whimpers of those around me, straining to make it through, as we all lost any remaining sense of grace or composure.
My brief time in that cave is exactly how I feel about Leviticus, particularly when the texts of Leviticus are used to constrict Judaism and to squeeze people out of faith communities. I am frequently asked to speak about Judaism and homosexuality and how to reconcile Leviticus, its prohibitions, and its declarations of abominations. Recently I came to an important realization: using Leviticus as the starting point or the end game to talk about Judaism and homosexuality is a trap. By doing so, we buy in to a fundamentalist view that there is a narrow path to God and only a limited few can get there. Using Leviticus this way is to agree that Judaism is a religion of narrow laws that do not always have meaning, and that we have to contort and squeeze ourselves to make it through, often leaving our sense of dignity behind. I reject this Judaism because it is faith described as a weapon. I reject this kind of Judaism because it says blind allegiance to law is more important than people, and thus, misses the entire point of being Jewish.
Those who see Jewish law as an end in and of itself, and not as a means to a wider purpose, would subject us to a labyrinth of narrow places, with only the tool of a dimly lit headlight to look for cracks and fissures in order to breathe. Searching for breathing room in the legal loopholes is a stimulating intellectual exercise, but too often it can remove meaning and even God’s presence from the text. But the greater trap for us is to get completely caught up in railing against and rebelliously rejecting this Jewish way of living. Doing this we allow our “religion” to be reduced to what we don’t believe in, what angers us and what seems unfair. This may keep us out of the labyrinth, but it is not nurturing and does not support spiritual growth. It is a negation of faith, not an affirmation of God’s presence in our lives.