Judaism and Queerness

When I was in High School a number of my classmates and I were convinced that one of our teachers was gay. We didn’t dislike him at all because of this, in fact we loved him having nothing to do with our thoughts on his sexuality, but we just thought he was gay because he was single, middle aged, and had an effeminate way about him. He always dressed in classy turtleneck sweaters, and held his hands at a 90 degree angle to his arms, which would offer lazy lilting gesticulations when he either had an impassioned point to make or when he dismissed something with disgust, pointing but not really pointing away from himself, as if explaining any further was just not worth the bother. He would go on long winding rants in the middle of class amusing himself by dropping a curse word into the middle to an unsuspecting circle of 10th graders, always with a finesse, always with style. We never questioned our diagnosis of our beloved teacher, he was gay, he was different. That is we all thought he was gay, until he got married to another teacher a few years after we graduated, a woman.

I find it so interesting that we immediately assumed that our teacher was gay simply because he was different. We were so ready to perpetuate the norms that were imposed on us from the society all around us, straight is normal, gay is different. So much of our world told us that gay was different that took it on without thinking. Why do we take something like sexuality or gender and draw lines? Straight, gay, man, woman.

Our identity, the way we describe ourselves, the attributes we associate with to give ourselves form, is bigger than life. We give ourselves over to identity because, among other things, it lets us be part of something that is bigger than ourselves. We will all someday no longer be here, but by attaching ourselves to something that lives on beyond our bodies, an identity that gets passed on, we circumvent that, we live on past death. This is one of the reasons that family is so important, the identity of our family is passed down from parent to child, and part of us continues on. And we even let our identity take a higher importance than our lives. This is how soldiers bring themselves to war, they lay down their lives for the survival of their country. Nationalism allows them to feel a part of something bigger, their lives a part of the bigger whole. They save their nation, they save their identity.

One of the things that I love about Judaism is its ability to be so mired in nuance and at the same time maintain profound clarity when it comes to values. All types of carefully delineated laws and guidelines are thrown out the window when a person’s embarrassment, for example, is at stake. One story tells of a sage visiting someone’s sukkah during the holiday. After his student makes a comment about the ritual hut he quietly rebukes his student noting that more important than fulfilling the mitzvah of sitting in a sukkah is the importance of not embarrassing. Better to break a written law during the holiday, and spare the host’s feelings. When it comes to safety and life, laws are ignored with due abandon, sick people eat on Yom Kippur, Shabbat is broken to take someone to the hospital.

Which is why it is so peculiar that our laws also state that our lives do not take precedence in the case of idolatry. For the same things that would easily be broken in order to keep a person healthy or even to avoid embarrassing someone, we dig our heels in, we completely refuse to budge with when they have to do with idolatry. Countless times in Jewish history great figures were taken into town squares and ordered to forsake their Judaism and reject their tradition. In those cases one after the other of our forbearers chose death over a simple action, because to do that thing they would have been participating in the killing of something greater than their own life, experiencing bigger than their own death, they would have been participating in the ending of their identity. And so they chose it over their own selves.

There is perhaps no greater part of an individual’s identity than our gender. It’s one of the first things we learn about a person. Before we know their hair color, or their favorite food, we learn their gender. Often even before they are born. Even language forces a binary of male or female, him or her. In Hebrew, there is no such thing as a word at all without male or female forced onto it.

This is perhaps why we are so charged when something or someone presents something different than the gender identity we’ve known and affirmed for ourselves for our entire lives. It challenges more than just us, it challenges our membership and the fraternity of all people to one gender or another. So we other.

Anything that forces a change to this shakes up something that is so powerfully deep, so fundamental in our lives and our sense of who we are as we take on this identity of male or female from before or during our first breath. This thing, that can allow us to carry membership to a club that is second only to that of all of humanity, the club of male or female, also boxes us in, forces us to be one or another and often imposes a hierarchy on our daily lives, men groomed to confidence and dominance, women repressed into subservience. Many people in our world have found that they do not fit the category that they were cast into from birth but that they live in a world that will not let them out of it.

But a movement has begun. The letter Q, in the LGBTQ acronym usually stands for “queer.” A collection of individuals who have rejected not only the idea that they have to continue in the vein that they were first prescribed, but who see a path outside of the need to relegate to one side or the other at all. A queer person rejects the notion altogether, and says that they are neither male nor female exclusively, liberated from the structure that shackles men and women in the first place.

Gender is often described as having three parts. First our physical sex, second how we want others to see us, and third who we are attracted to. Queerness rejects norms for all three, not only saying that any person can have masculinity and femininity, but saying that our bodies do not dictate our identity, that there are more options for dress than “man” and “woman,” and that only our hearts should draw us to another human being, not societal norms of being attracted to one gender or another.

To be queer is to be in a state of in-between, to not be one or the other but to stake home in the space in the middle, drawing up a new map that writes over lines and recognizes the interconnectedness and uncertainty of life and therefore the uncertainty of identity.

And what could be more Jewish than that? A people who have wandered from one place to the other for generations, not quite citizens and not quite foreigners of the places that we have both affirmed and not affirmed as home. A people tolerated but hated, given a unique place in society while being barred from it. We are the people of in-between. Queerness is an essential part of the Jewish experience. May we continue in all of our queerness, growing, blurring lines, and knowing that our home, truly is a home for everyone. Shabbat Shalom.