Religion: Separation of “Church” and Self?
“Gella, I have a question, but it’s probably too big a question for right now, so maybe I shouldn’t bother asking.”
“Well, ask anyway, and maybe I’ll answer later.”
“Why do you think that Judaism is a good place to express your feminism and your queerness?”
You know those questions that just kind of smack you in the face? Not because they make you realize something about the way that you think, but because they make you realize something about the ways other people don’t think. It took a moment to sink in that my friend saw these three categories — Judaism, feminism, and queerness — as separate and independent entities, and believed that my combining them was a chosen path, one I could just as easily eschew.
I answered in that moment in the simplest terms I could: my Judaism, my queerness, my feminism, they are not discrete from one another. I cannot separate the part of me that is queer from the part of me that is Jewish, or separate the part of me that is feminist from either of these. All three of these things encompass the entirety of my being, and therefore must be integrated.
It has been bothering me though. This question, thinking about it, makes me tired. It reminds me, despite the advances of the past few decades, of how little has actually been accomplished. How can someone, even a heterosexual man, not understand that feminism is not a whim; that it is essential? That queerness is not just in my left foot, it is who I am? That Judaism isn’t just what I study in school or what I do in synagogue, but is the medium through which I see and understand my world and my life?
Perhaps I should have asked in response, “Why is it that you think Judaism is a good place to express your heterosexuality?” Of course, there is a simple answer to this question: because Judaism has developed in such a way to anticipate the lives of heterosexual people, especially of heterosexual men. Why do you think that Judaism is a good place to express your European heritage, as you do every time you use a Yiddish word or pronunciation, or pray in the forms that have come to us through Eastern European Jewry, as distinct from Middle Eastern or Spanish? Because mainstream American Judaism is rooted primarily in the culture of the European Jews who, because of their numbers and sometimes affluence, became the dominant voice in the religious expression of American Jews. But a Jew of Moroccan or Algerian or Ethiopian descent will express their own distinct heritage through their Judaism. One may as well ask why they think Judaism is a good place to express their cultural identity through differing customs, distinct forms of prayer, unique rituals.
Again though, despite the hardships of being a minority within Judaism, these categories of Jews still have a Jewish history, a story of ritual development, a narrative for how their Judaism shaped to their culture and vice versa. For queer and feminist Jews, we have no such advantage. At least, not yet.
The development of queer and feminist Jewish culture began only very recently in the grand scheme of things. From the ordination of the first female rabbi of the Reform Movement in 1972, to the Queer Jewish wedding ceremonies I witnessed a few weeks ago outside the New York City Clerk’s office, to the still emerging body of liturgy developing to meet the ritual needs of those who experience the lifecycle event of a sex change, the whole of self-identified queer and feminist Jewish religious expression has only been in existence for about 40 years. And yet, when one of my professors wondered aloud why his class on Jewish Feminism had been under-enrolled and therefore cancelled, we heard a woman respond, to our amazement, “Well, that problem’s been solved, hasn’t it? I mean, there are female rabbis!”
The development of the heteronormative model of Judaism has been underway for over 3000 years, and is still developing. Yet there are people who believe that two score years of development of feminist Judaism has been sufficient to declare the problem “solved.” It’s like being told “But, we installed women’s bathrooms! How can you still claim that there is sexism at The Seminary?” Even more so, the development of queer Judaism suffers a dearth of development and attention. As much as “classical Judaism” has diminished women’s visibility, at least throughout Jewish history, it has been acknowledged (even if grudgingly) that women do in fact exist, and are an essential part of a Jewish society. Non-heterosexuality on the other hand, while acknowledged through condemnation or else vaguely alluded to, has been persistently hidden and swept under the rug.
Religions develop in response to peoples and their lives. We as a species have a need for ritual to process the reality of our lives, to acknowledge moments of change, to order our experience into a coherent picture. Unfortunately, religions can also be hijacked. Even a religion whose core prophetic principles are to address the needs of the weak and underrepresented individuals of the society, can make itself blind to certain elements of a population that those in control wish not to see. Judaism as a religion has only just begun to open its eyes to the existence of a woman accustomed to freedom and equality, and to the existence of non-heterosexual and non-gender-normative individuals who will no longer stand for invisibility, will no longer take condemnation for granted.
Religion is not a place where we may or may not express elements of our selves and our lives, religion IS the expression of ourselves and our lives. It is a communal expression of who we are – as members of that religion, and as people. I am a person who is a woman and who is queer. I am a Jew. My religion must respond to who I am, to who we are, or else it has no relevance, and a religion with no relevance is dead.
And so this is my response to my friend’s question. Why should I express my feminism and queerness in my Judaism? Because a Judaism that cuts off Jews is a Judaism that hacks off its own limbs.
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