When I tell my friends who are not Orthodox that I’m out of the closet and attending a Modern Orthodox high school, many of them do a double take. Why would I subject myself to that, they ask. One even asked why I hadn’t left and fled to the comforts of public school. Why would I choose to stay in a community where, my friends thought, I wasn’t accepted?
Those were the very same questions that I asked myself when I first realized that being openly gay was something that I wanted to do. To be fair, though, it wasn’t quite a realization that I wanted to be completely out, but rather, something that happened almost accidentally and that I realized ex post facto. I knew that my closest friends, the ones whom I had come out to first, wouldn’t have a problem with my being gay, nor would they out me to anyone with the intent to hurt me. I knew that the friends whom I had told at first had other friends who were LGBT, and who could — and would — be supportive of me as I proceeded to come out to my parents and more friends.
I had known that these friends would be there for me, but as I started coming out to people with whom I wasn’t particularly close, I headed into uncharted territory: outside of my circle of friends. How would I know that they wouldn’t run off, screaming at the top of their lungs? How could I know that my telling them that I am gay wouldn’t make them feel uncomfortable? After all, going to a Modern Orthodox school where I was the second student in the history of the school to have been out of the closet, there was little to no precedent for how people would respond. (The other out student graduated before my grade even entered high school.) For many people, I would learn later, I was the first out person they met.
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.
In January 2012, Keshet’s Director of Special Projects, Gregg Drinkwater, addressed audiences at Limmud Colorado, a conference dedicated to advancing new and innovative ideas in the context of Jewish learning. Below is an excerpt of a story Gregg shared about an Orthodox rabbi who recently came out as an ally of LGBT Jews. Gregg reminds us that while loving our neighbors is more important than judging them for whom they love, it’s still a big deal to hear that articulated in the Orthodox world.
Shmuly Yanklowitz, a liberal Orthodox rabbi in Los Angeles, recently wrote a blog post in which he recounted “coming out” during an interfaith panel discussion on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. During the panel, he “[came] out of the closet … as an Orthodox rabbi who is a proud ally with those of LGBT orientation,” as he put it.
Friends of mine shared and debated Rabbi Yanklowitz’s essay in emails and on Facebook. In one such Facebook discussion, friends commented how glad they were to see an Orthodox rabbi speaking publicly as an ally of the LGBT community. One friend wrote: “davening in a shul with an Orthodox rabbi like [Rabbi Shmuly] has made Orthodox Judaism possible for me.”
Others, though, asked why this was so important. A Modern Orthodox rabbi saying he’s an ally of LGBT people? No big deal. It’s 2012 and this rabbi is only one among many Modern Orthodox colleagues (and entire armies of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbis) known as supporters of inclusion of LGBT Jews. Some critics noted that his panel discussion and subsequent blog post took place in Los Angeles – not a place known as a hotbed of anti-gay sentiment. Where were the rabbis speaking out as LGBT allies in Monsey, one friend asked? Other critics noted that Rabbi Yanklowitz’s short essay didn’t tackle the halakha of homosexuality, or offer specifics about what being an ally meant to him.
The most striking comment came from a friend-of-a-friend who dismissed Rabbi Yanklowitz’s statement because, he argued, it’s already the case that anti-LGBT behavior is no longer tolerated in Modern Orthodox communities. And, he continued, most Modern Orthodox Jews today believe that Leviticus 19:18 trumps Leviticus 18:22.
Leviticus 18:22 famously forbids a man from “lying with a man as with a woman,” while 19:18 instructs each one of us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” In his comments on Rabbi Yanklowitz’s blog post, this friend-of-a-friend seemed to be suggesting not only that “love your neighbor as yourself” is, as Rashi has noted, citing Rabbi Akiva, the “great principle of the Torah.” But he was also arguing that in today’s Modern Orthodox communities, it is understood that it is not our place to judge our LGBT brothers and sisters, and that we ought to show LGBT Jews the empathy and support we ourselves would expect in the face of our own struggles and challenges with Torah and halakha, whatever they may be.
As an advocate for inclusive communities, I have personally engaged with Jewish communities around LGBT issues all over the world. I’m not sure that I can agree with this well-meaning friend-of-a-friend’s expansive suggestion that we’ve moved beyond Leviticus 18:22. I hear regularly from Jews worldwide who are eagerly seeking the support of people like Rabbi Yanklowitz. LGBT Jews regularly share stories with Keshet of demeaning, hurtful, homophobic and transphobic comments from their rabbinic and communal leaders. Too many Orthodox rabbis still do give voice to anti-gay rhetoric, sometimes actively maligning LGBT people – more often passively refusing to speak out when hateful sentiments are shared in Jewish communities or the wider world. Too few members of Orthodox communities see or hear from community leaders like Rabbi Yanklowitz.
It is still noteworthy for an Orthodox rabbi to publicly and in print “come out” as an ally. Very few Orthodox rabbis have done so. Many Orthodox rabbis (and many more non-rabbinic Orthodox leaders) speak privately to LGBT folks as allies, or make statements in workshops or conference sessions, or are known in LGBT circles to be allies. But public statements that are “on the record” are indeed rare.
This published statement from Rabbi Yanklowitz might be seen by a struggling gay or transgender Orthodox teen, or a closeted Jewish adult, or the fearful parent of a lesbian daughter, and it might give them hope or comfort. Private conversations and “in-crowd” knowledge about who is and who isn’t an ally are great but they aren’t visible to the vast majority of LGBT Jews, their families and their friends – people who need the guidance, support and affirmation.
As much as we aspire to live in a world in which Leviticus 19:18 guides our every thought and every action, we aren’t there yet. Until then, yasher koach to Rabbi Yanklowitz!
So, let’s get started. Featuring bloggers from many different parts of the resplendent world of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews and our straight allies, the Keshet blog will bring you a rich cross-section of ideas, narratives, arts and culture reviews, current events, and much more.
Here’s what you can expect:
• We’ll share a queer take on the weekly Torah portion in preparation for Shabbat, some taken from Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, some from other authors.
• We’ll spotlight synagogues and other Jewish institutions with best practices for LGBT inclusion. We’ll offer DIY queer Jewish events to bring to your own community.
• We’ll bring you fresh commentaries on Jewish holidays, as well as LGBT community holidays. Expect new resources and special readings for Pride month, National Coming Out Day, Transgender Day of Awareness, and for important dates on the queer calendar.
• We’ll invite activists, authors, and musicians to sound-off on the latest queer Jewish happenings in pop culture and the arts.
• We’ll feature posts on coming out, being LGBT and Orthodox, parenting an LGBT child, trans issues in the Jewish world, being in an LGBT interfaith relationship, marriage equality, queer clergy—plus lots more!
Know someone who would be a fabulous blog interviewee? Found a kosher bakery that sells rainbow challah? Have an exclusive scoop on Rachel Berry’s bat mitzvah? Discovered a trans connection to the Dead Sea Scrolls? We’re all ears and can’t wait to share new content. Shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re interested in writing a blog post yourself, let us know!