Religion: My Struggle to be Jewish and Queer
I am a Jewish queer woman. Or maybe I am a queer Jewish woman. Or a woman who is Jewish and queer. Labels and definitions are always difficult when applied to holistic human beings, and become even more problematic when they seem to be pitted against one another within the same person. I’ve been observant and engaged in my Jewish identity since early childhood. My Judaism has always been one of the most essential elements of whom I understand myself to be. I was a public school kid, but attended Hebrew school from kindergarten through my senior year of high school. I was Jewish. I am Jewish. And then I realized I was bisexual.
I became certain of my attraction to women during the first semester of my freshman year of college, during which I was studying in Burgos, Spain. I was 18, approximately one year after I’d become certain of my attraction to men.
Fundamentally, this shouldn’t have posed too much of a problem or conflict for me. I came from a liberal family and a liberal community, and I knew I was lucky in this respect. I wasn’t going to face anything close to the sorts of discrimination or bigotry about which I’d heard so many horror stories.
There was one snag though. I’d realized when I was 15 that I wanted to be a rabbi. More than this, I felt very sure that I was supposed to be a rabbi. It’s difficult to explain, but my life seemed to keep pointing me in the direction of the rabbinate. It was as though God would not let me go on this one. When I graduated from college, four years later, The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Rabbinical School, the flagship institution of my movement of Judaism, the place where I’d attended Hebrew school since my Bat Mitzvah, the institution where I’d met the teacher who started me on this path, was still not admitting openly non-heterosexual students. So I got a job, and I waited.
I worked a retail job in Chelsea, while I waited for God to provide a path for me. During this time, I made many queer friends, most of them a few years older than I was. They “adopted” me, and made it their mission to get this shy girl out of her shell and into the queer world. What that meant in Chelsea was going to clubs and bars after work, drinking, dancing, making out with strangers. It was fun in its way. Of course, it was exciting and felt good to have women’s hands on me, to feel desired and desirable, to freely feel and express my attraction and let go of some inhibitions. Something, though, always felt a little wrong about it. It just wasn’t me. This was not who I was. Not that I wasn’t queer, far from it. This was the time during which I felt the most certain about and validated in my queerness. But in this world, as it was shown to me, what I encountered on those nights —drinking and dancing and feeling and kissing — was only other people’s bodies, their sexuality. I wasn’t encountering people’s souls.
The fact is that I was at heart a religious person, and the experience of being shown the queer world in this light told me that the two identities were fundamentally incompatible — not because religion condemned my queerness (though of course at least on the books it did, preventing me from pursuing my intended path, which weighed on me), but because the concerns of the two worlds seemed ultimately to be very different. More than that, my religiosity was viewed with suspicion and a degree of condemnation in queer circles —understandable given what has been, and continues to be, done and said to queers in the name of religion. Still, it was hurtful to have my religion, as I had come to understand and embrace and love it, dismissed as archaic or barbaric in what I was now being told was “my community.”
Eventually I left my job in Chelsea and went to Israel to study at The Conservative Yeshiva for two years. During this time I did a lot of thinking about my religion and how I understood my relationship to Jewish law. JTS Rabbinical School, meanwhile, had changed its policy to allow openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to be admitted and ordained. The actual religious law on the books still did not, and does not, allow for true bisexuality to be lived freely and honestly, but I applied nevertheless, and was accepted.
I did not by any means go back into the closet at this point, but I sort of put my queerness on the shelf. I didn’t hide it, but I didn’t really engage it unless it came up explicitly. I decided that if my bashert, my intended, turned out to be a woman, I would not fight it, but as far as actively looking, I was looking for a male partner. My queerness was a part of me that would never go away, I knew, but my Judaism was so much more important, so much more relevant, so much richer an experience and identity for me, that I let the one take over my being and let the other slide.
For a number of reasons, I had a very difficult year emotionally in Rabbinical school. After a bout with debilitating depression and an eating disorder, which left me emotionally raw and ragged at the end of the spring semester, the school and I needed to take a break from one another, to put it diplomatically. I enrolled in a pluralistic women’s Yeshiva, determined to devote this year to truly figuring myself out, to focus on my emotional and spiritual wellbeing rather than continuing to push myself to gain the approval of others. Early on in the year, I was invited by a queer Jewish friend of mine whom I’d met in Jerusalem, to attend a queer Shabbaton at the JCC in New York organized by Nehirim, the GLBT Jewish culture and spirituality organization. Despite some misgivings, I decided to attend.
In short, it changed my life. For the first time I felt able to be truly and fully myself. I had never realized how much was missing from my life holding back from talking about the experience of being queer, and relating to other queer-identified people. I had feared that the weekend would be all about folks trying to hook up with one another … more of what I’d experienced in Chelsea. What I experienced instead was a kind of community that was entirely new to me. We prayed together, ate together, sang together, learned Torah together, and all in a queer paradigm. I saw queer Jewish families, I saw religious queer Jews having religious queer lives, holding the same priorities I did while not compromising who they are, without putting any part of them on the shelf. I talked and learned with queer rabbis and I finally felt like my readings of scripture, which are of course informed by my experience of the world through queer eyes, had some legitimate basis. There is no Torah like queer Torah. It was so delicious.
We had a dance party in the Beit Midrash after Shabbat was over. We danced together in dimmed lighting to pulsing music among holy books. Lesbians danced with bisexual men, who danced with gay men, who danced with trans women, who danced with queer folks. All together we let go and celebrated each other on the dance floor, sometimes in pairs, often in circles, turning to one another, smiling, laughing, enjoying each other’s company, some romantically, others in friendship, as family. All of us in that room were dancing with the divine spark we’d all found in one another over the weekend. When we danced together that night, we danced with God.
We come to understand and integrate the disparate elements of our identities from many directions. I have met many queer Jews who came to embrace Judaism and Jewish identity by encountering it for the first time through the lens of their queerness.
I know many, too, whose understanding of their queer identity is always filtered through the prism of their Judaism, and who learn from their Judaism to embrace their queer selves. No human being can be neatly defined and categorized, and no one should have to feel that they must choose one identity box to the exclusion of others, which are just as integral to our beings. However, we come together with ourselves, there is perhaps no sweeter reconciliation than finally learning to embrace two sides of our identities which have been placed in opposition, when all along they should have been complimentary, intertwined, perhaps inextricable.
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