February 25, 2010
Gay Jews, Straight Jews, and the Torah
“Out on the Bimah” is a remarkable opportunity to see the Jewish world from a fresh and, for many of us, unfamiliar perspective. Co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal and Hillside Memorial Park, the event brings together five gay and lesbian rabbis in conversation with Susan Freudenheim, managing editor of The Jewish Journal. The event takes place at the Writers Guild Theatre in Beverly Hills on March 2, 2010, at 7:30 p.m.
Other voices in the same conversation can be heard in the pages of two books that approach the question of sexual identity in Judaism by approaching the Torah from opposite directions. On one point only do these two books agree: “Turn it and turn it again,” the Pirke Avot puts it, “for everything is in it.”
The case for the open embrace of Jewish men and women of every sexual orientation is made in “Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible,” edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Rabbi Joshua Lesser and David Shneer with a foreword by Judith Plaskow (New York University Press: $29.95, 337 pages).
The book offers commentaries on 54 weekly Torah portions and six Jewish holidays, each one contributed by a gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender or “straight-allied” writer, including some of the leading figures in contemporary Judaism, both straight and gay. The goal of “Torah Queeries,” as Jewish feminist historian Judith Plaskow puts it, is to establish the “Jewish legitimacy” of “formerly marginalized groups” by “enlarging the circle of former outsiders who now claim the authority to participate in the process of expounding on Torah and by demonstrating the fruitfulness of reading through queer lenses….”
A very different approach is taken by Arthur Goldberg in “Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality and the Power to Change” (Red Heifer Press: $36.00, 600 pps.). Goldberg is the co-founder of an organization called “Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality,” and he looks to some of the same Jewish texts that are studied in “Torah Queeries” for support in his mission of “help[ing] people affected by unwanted same-sex attractions.”
Goldberg rejects the spirit of tolerance that can be found in a book like “Torah Queeries,” and he argues that “the compass of right and wrong bequeathed to us by ancient wisdom” points only in the direction of heterosexuality. “[T]he Torah . . . condemns the homosexual act as a to’eivah — an ‘abomination’ to Hashem (G-d),” and he offers “Torah-based resources” for “the Jew seeking liberation from his/her homosexual fantasies and arousals” and “for those gay and lesbian Jews struggling to free themselves from a lifestyle they know is inconsistent with their inner spiritual voices.”
Tragically, no real meeting of the minds is possible between these two kinds of Judaism. On one side are Jews who respect and celebrate the differences in sexual orientation that have always been a fact of life in human civilization and who seek to understand those differences by reference to Jewish texts: “Reading the Torah through a bent lens opens up new insights and allows the text to liberate rather than oppress,” explains David Shneer in “Torah Queeries.”
On the other side are Jews for whom “tolerance” is itself a dirty word. “The moral relativists, in league with the gay rights movement and the ‘politically correct’, have done much to hide or misrepresent the answers, to obfuscate the issues, and, indeed, to smear traditional religion — especially Judaism — as hostile and discriminatory toward homosexuals,” argues Goldberg in “Light in the Closet.” “By doing so, they have not only fed the new antisemitism and antireligionism, but, with tragic irony, have placed many of their own in situations of unbearable ambivalence, conflict, suffering and mortal danger…”
Arthur Goldberg will never convince Judith Plaskow that she is wrong, and I fear that Plaskow will never change Goldberg’s mind. But I know what kind of Jew I am. For me, “Torah Queeries” glows with the compassion and lovingkindness, as well as the love of learning and the willingness to discuss and debate, that I regard as the enduring core values of Judaism and the keys to the survival of both Judaism and the Jewish people.
“We have, among other challenges and opportunities, the momentous task of understanding the contours of a society and its individual members who transcend binary gender identities,” writes Rachel Biale in her contribution to “Torah Queeries.” “Let us hope it will take less than forty years of wandering in the desert.”
To which I say: Amen.
Jonathan Kirsch, author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road” and “The Woman Who Laughed at God,” is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.