“There is no new thing under the sun,” declared King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, the literary, somewhat world-weary distillate of his lifetime experience. But if the wise old king were catapulted into our new gender-relaxed world, would he still opine thus? Would he stick to his guns if the Sunday Times landed on his breakfast table, the “Vows” section filled with the nuptial announcements of gay couples? Or if he were to glance at the cover article of a recent issue of The Atlantic entitled “What Straights Can Learn From Same-Sex Couples,” positing the higher level of fulfillment enjoyed in many homosexual unions?
Although legally sanctioned anti-Semitism ensured Jewish cultural separatism and prevented full participation in the larger world for much of Jewish history, Jews living today are, for the most part, free to design the parameters of their dual citizenship. This is not much of an issue for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are largely self-insulating, or for relatively assimilated Jews at the other end of the spectrum, who are unburdened by the yoke of religious Jewish authority. Ultimately, only traditional and Modern Orthodox Jews, who aspire to inhabit and integrate two worlds, confront serious challenges at points where the values of the two cultures clash with each other.
One of the most powerful cultural forces in recent decades has been the widening scope of gender expression–a designation including feminist initiatives, as well as the demands for freedom of expression and inclusion by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Within the traditional Jewish world, the first rift in the established gender-ordered system was sparked in the early 1970s by the protest of feminist Orthodox women against the use of Jewish divorce law to constrict women’s freedom (agunot), and, more generally, against the exclusion of women from the realms of higher Jewish learning and participation in synagogue service.
From the outset, the women’s issue was, and continues to be, a catalyst for arguments about what is divinely (Torah) decreed and seemingly immutable versus rabbinic ordinations stemming from perspectives that might be considered to reflect the influence of cultural bias and anachronistic codes–and, therefore, potentially subject to reexamination. Tzniut, or modesty, is a cogent example that is often resorted to as the rabbinic rationale for discouraging women’s public participation in certain roles. It brings to the fore the question of changing standards and mores, especially as the gulf between the participation of traditional Jewish women in the secular and Jewish worlds expands. The graduation this past June of the first class of Yeshivat Maharat, self-described as “the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as Spiritual leaders and Halakhic authorities,” signals that the struggle is alive and well, at least in the liberal Orthodox sector.
Feminist claims can find a leg to stand on within Orthodox Judaism. But what about the next level up–or, arguably, down the feared “slippery slope”–of advocacy for the rights of gay, bisexual and transgender people who seek public recognition and legitimation of lifestyles that are based on a realignment of conventional gender roles and distinctions? Within the larger world, LGBT people are rapidly gaining representation and rights via civil legislation, but within traditional Judaism they encounter obstacles that are seemingly insurmountable because the Torah expressly forbids homosexual behavior–the Biblical template for prohibited non-heteronormative practice–and upholds explicit gender distinctions and definitions.
Not surprisingly, the roots of this contemporary dilemma in traditional Judaism can be traced back to the Torah’s own multiple frames of reference. Based on the acceptance of divine authority, the Torah establishes a system of legal dictates that govern all aspects of life. In parallel, it constructs an unprecedented ethical and social justice foundation grounded in the recognition of our common humanity. We are enjoined not to mistreat foreigners, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt; we are cautioned repeatedly not to abuse the widow, the orphan, and the poor. Deep within our shared memory bank lies the knowledge of powerlessness, oppression and marginalization, and Jewish ethics enlarge our experience of empathy, responsibility, and community.
Nowhere are the two tracks–of Biblical edicts and ethical principles–more in opposition in contemporary Jewish life than in the predicament of non-heteronormative Jews who seek acceptance by the traditional community. Adversity is a noted stimulus for creative expression; in 2001, Sandi Simcha Dubowski’s film Trembling Before G-d, which depicted the struggle of gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews to reconcile their sexual orientation with their devotion to Jewish tradition, reached a wide audience. Many of the protagonists had attempted in vain to redirect their sexuality and, as a result, were estranged from their families. The intensity of their spirituality and dvekut (cleaving to God), however, seemed to grow in direct proportion to their personal pain and search for resolution–a crisis of the soul at the heart of much of Jewish liturgy, reaching back to the Psalms of King David.
In 2004, Rabbi Steven Greenberg published Wrestling With God & Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. He too found himself unable to disclaim either his sexual orientation or his dedication to traditional Judaism. He assembles evidence for the existence of homosexuality among prominent Jews in history and advances socio-psychological explanations for the bias against homosexuality that spur him to formulate alternative interpretations of the biblical prohibitions against homosexual practice.
Joy Ladin, who was hired and tenured as a male instructor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University and retuned from leave as a female professor, recounts her transition from male to female in Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders (2012). Her transsexual journey is stirring on many levels; she conveys the anguish, beginning in childhood, of feeling trapped in a body whose sex conflicts with the perceived gender of the psyche or soul. She is not a traditionally observant Jew, but her rootedness in Jewish tropes and rhetoric is as strong as her conviction of being essentially female. Ladin’s journey begins in mid-life, and she invokes Hillel’s celebrated interrogative polarity: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, what am I?” to capture the clash between her need for authenticity and the imperiled stability of her family.
Rabbi Chaim Rapoport’s Judaism and Homosexuality: An Authentic Orthodox View (2004) presents the enlightened and scientifically informed Orthodox position. Rapoport does not contest the actuality of an inborn homosexual disposition and concedes that encouraging marriage as a cure–common rabbinic advice for many years–is unrealistic and may actually do damage. Although he urges compassion regarding a homosexual orientation, homosexual practice is expressly forbidden for both men and women–which means the adoption of a life of celibacy and childlessness for Orthodox homosexuals. Rapoport advocates inclusion of gay and lesbian people in all areas of Jewish life, to which they are encouraged to contribute their talents and energies. Implicit in Rapoport’s argument is the Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God) that is manifest in the renunciation of sexual and emotional intimacy, as well as normal family life, by devout gay and lesbian people, who on this score alone deserve respect and recognition from the mainstream Jewish community.
The traditional Jewish attitude to homosexuality –and by extension, the LGBT spectrum–runs counter to contemporary civil and psychiatric perspectives. The repeal of DOMA by the Supreme Court this past June indicates the direction of civil legislation regarding the widening scope of sexual orientation and expression. Although homosexuality has endured an equally fraught psychiatric history, in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness. In recent decades, the American Psychoanalytic Association has worked to eliminate long-standing institutional homophobia and bias that resulted in the rejection of gay candidates for training and professional discrimination against openly gay psychoanalysts. Within the secular orthodoxy of psychoanalysis, the new gender fluidity unsettles and creates confusion about the melding of the axioms of the original theory with new information and a changing reality–but windows are open to review and even revision. Can the same be said for the encounter of traditional Judaism with the widening scope of gender expression?
If freedom of expression is an indication of shifting winds, then judging by literary works and social media support for LGBT Orthodox Jews–the prevalence of websites, blogs and Facebook groups–the answer is a tentative yes. In The Jewish Week’s “36 under 36 Upcoming Community Leaders,” 17-year-old Amram Altzman, a student at the Modern Orthodox Ramaz School, was cited for his success in convincing the school’s administration to create a club that would combat homophobia and air such topics as coming out and transgender identity. In the same issue, Ramaz ran an ad congratulating Amram Altzman, stimulating, perhaps, some confusion: Was it simply applause for the inclusion of one of its students on The Jewish Week’s honor roll, or was it also affirmation of the cause he advances and his insistence that this contested issue in the Orthodox Jewish world be given a voice?
LGBT traditional Jews share some similarities with traditional Jewish feminists; like them, they press against established gender boundaries and norms in their quest for more equal representation and involvement. Jewish feminists, however, confront a biblical terrain in which their absence is notable but from which, in most instances, their inclusion is not explicitly proscribed. In contrast, the biblical laws about sexual behavior and presentation appear unequivocally opposed to homosexual practice and cross-dressing. But although the Torah upholds the humanity of the disenfranchised in society and espouses the dignity of the individual, as a system of religious governance it legislates by divine decree and prioritizes collective and communal welfare over individual needs. Within Judaism, sexuality is sanctified as an essential expression of human intimacy, but if its expression obviates procreative aims–as in homosexual practice–it is forbidden.
Our enlightened secular worldview promotes the goals of self-realization and personal identity–values that undergird identity politics in general, and the search for greater freedom of gender and sexual expression in particular. In an age of individualism, the authenticity and integrity of the self are not so readily muted, and for many otherwise observant Jews, the suppression of these aspirations may exact too steep a price. There is, however, power in numbers and collectivity–as the achievements of Orthodox Jewish feminists demonstrate–and perhaps some possibility that the growing number of traditional Jews who are out of the box of conventional sexuality and gender expression will find a more harmonious reconciliation of their personal truths with those of the Torah.
Dinah M. Mendes, Ph.D., is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York City. She is interested in the intersection of gender issues, psychology and Judaism.