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.
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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.
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, Igael Gurin Malous examines the verses of Leviticus, read during Yom Kippur, most troubling to LGBT people.
Growing up I used to go to shul (synagogue) religiously, every Shabbat, every chag (festival), and every holiday. I prayed three times a day at yeshiva, got to services right when they started, and left only after they ended. I didn’t know a different way to behave.
It was around the age of 18 that I started realizing I was different from the other people around me, small things at first, the usual, really: how I interacted with other men, what I dreamt about, the kind of partner I wanted, etc. What it meant was that during Mincha (the afternoon service) of Yom Kippur I was confronted with the pasuk (Biblical verse) in Torah that hurt me the most. Leviticus 18:22:
ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אישה תועבה היא
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.
I feared it like nothing else. Unable then to articulate the complex relationship I had with God and Judaism, my reaction to it every year was visceral: nausea, anger and pain. I tried reading other passages. I tried services that skipped the offending verse. I tried reading a book during the service. I tried stepping out of shul in protest right before the service. Eventually, I stopped going to shul altogether.
And then, a few years back while reading the brilliant work of Saussure, I realized that there is another way, a different way of reading things. Ferdinand De Saussure distinguished between two elements of language. He called them synchronic and diachronic. The diachronic element is chronological by its nature. A diachronic investigation of the word ‘man’ in the sentence ‘all men are equal’ will reveal the historical meanings of the word separately from the sentence and the other words around it. That way we can discuss how the word evolved, where it came from, its meaning and its relevance. A synchronic investigation of the word examines the word in relation to the sentence and the other words around it. The content and message of the sentence comes from that word in relation to the other words.
So I would like to offer a diachronic reading of this infamous verse rather than a synchronic one. I’m not rejecting it, I’m infusing it with another layer of meaning. I’m reclaiming it, making it my own. I am fully aware that Saussure deconstructed sentences in order to reconstruct them at the end and I understand that I should consider the syntactic life of the pasuk, but I am leaving the reconstruction of the pasuk to you, the reader, as I would like to offer each word its own life. This is a way for me to be a member of the larger Jewish community that still reads this pasuk on mincha of Yom Kippur and yet allows me to feel that it has something to teach me, too.
ואת – ve’et – and: – is a word of inclusiveness, of joining together ideas, people and values. Giving them the same value of importance. Like me AND my partner, like my love for him AND his love for me.
זכר – zachar – male/ man/ men – is an aspect of God, it’s my sex and my gender, it’s who I am and also who I love. It’s a powerful word that reminds me to always be who I am. To be strong and yet not hard, to be giving but not a martyr, to feel I can do anything but know my limits.
לא – lo – no – is the word that I use to reject the ideas I cannot live with, it’s a mantra reminding me that I can change the world!
תשכב – tishkav – lay / sleep with – from the Hebrew root ב. כ. ש (shin, kaf, bet) reminds me of the pasuk in Kings 1, 2:10-11 “Then David rested with his fathers and was buried in the City of David, He had reigned forty years over Israel—seven years in Hebron and thirty-three in Jerusalem,” reminding me that life is short and that Yom Kippur is an awesome day, one filled with God’s presence. It’s a chance to reflect on my year and my actions, to make new resolutions and to challenge myself to be a better person.
משכבי – mishkavei – sex – again from the Hebrew root ב. כ. ש (shin, kaf, bet) But this time I interpret and use the root and the word differently. This time it does not just evoke laying down. I’m reading this word as I would in modern Hebrew, pointing me to sex. I’m reminded of the midrash in Bereshit Rabba (9:9) that says that without yetzer hara (in this case meaning sex drive) a person would not find a partner and build a home and family. This amazing midrash allows us a glimpse into the ancient rabbis world and how they viewed things that frightened them and were challenging to them. Those rabbis, even with that fear, knew that they must embrace the yetzer hara, that it’s a life force, a necessary “evil.”
אישה – isha – woman / female – is an aspect of God, a sex and a gender. It’s a powerful word that reminds me to always be who I am. To be strong and yet not hard, to be giving but not a martyr, to feel I can do anything but know my limits.
תועבה – toeva – abomination – Latin, From ab (“of, by, from”) + ōminor (“forebode, predict, presage”), from ōmen (“sign, token, omen”), teaching us that what is described in this chapter is a sign from God. All actions have God in them! These are omens, tokens that remind us of God in this world.
היא – he – it is so – I read it as a command to define each of those words, to deconstruct them and find new meaning to verses and sentences, to challenge myself always with the words of Torah. Even if these words make me feel uncomfortable. To wrestle with it, to truly be Israel, wrestling with the angel in the night.
As someone who is involved in Jewish LGBT work, I am often surprised people tell me that they had no idea that we Jews have queer clergy. Not only are we very proud of the work they do, but they’ve also been around (openly, anyway) for over a quarter century !
With this post, we’re launching a new column spotlighting a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender rabbi or cantor. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy will cover both those who have paved the way, and those who are the up-and-coming trailblazers. It can be hard to come out, and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very excited to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories.
In 1999, Rabbi Steve Greenberg became the first out Orthodox rabbi. Five years later, Rabbi Greenberg published Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, a book that is not only an new look at depictions of same-sex relationships in Jewish sacred texts, but also examines these relationships in Jewish poetry and case law.
We’re proud to partner with Rabbi Greenberg in his work to bring full inclusion to the full spectrum of the Jewish community.
How has being gay informed your work as a rabbi?
I’m not sure being gay informs anything. It conditions things. It conditioned my growing up in a way that was sometimes scary, and very often confusing and alienating—as in making me feel like an alien in my own family and community.
For some people the experience of alienation leads to spiritual searching, for others it does not. For me, it did. Seeking a haven in ancient books, in a “child of a survivor” historical consciousness, and in God made perfect sense when I didn’t feel so at home in the world. While it was not the only cause for my budding interest in Torah study, the promise of a world very different from the All-American hyper-hetero teen world of the 1970s was surely part of my story.
My decision to become a rabbi was all about my love of the learning and the living realities of a religious community. I was able to sublimate and not really attend to my inner life for years. When I was twenty and in a yeshiva in Israel I could no longer deny the power of my feelings. Confused and scared, I went to a Haredi rabbi, the recently passed posek (high-level decisor of Jewish law), Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashuv. Quite surprisingly, he calmed me and gave me hope by describing my illicit desires as a power of love. I felt at the time I was bisexual enough to make a life with a woman. For fifteen years I dated women hoping this is what would happen. Once the fantasy of this way out evaporated, I realized that my gayness was either going to end my rabbinic career or shape it. I chose the latter.