What does it feel like to be gay and Jewish, after the Supreme Court affirmed same-sex marriage? It depends on what being gay and being Jewish means.
If these identities are like teams (or tribes) to which one belongs, then this last week was a glorious time to be gay, and a basically irrelevant one to be Jewish. The LGBT team, after all, won a huge, historic victory.
If, however, these identities are not teams, but bonds of solidarity with all those who are oppressed, then the news has been mixed at best. Because the same Supreme Court which affirmed LGBT rights eviscerated affirmative action, and decimated the Voting Rights Act.
This is how I understand both my Jewish and my LGBT identities. Yes, I cheer for my family’s good news, but more importantly I recognize that both identities mandate a solidarity with those who are marginalized — whether by forces of economic injustice, racial discrimination, fear of the Other (immigrants, Muslims, whomever), sexism or nationalism, including, of course, Jewish nationalism. And so I cannot celebrate in the streets when African Americans are denied the right to vote, when Texas’s electoral map is being gerrymandered to suppress Latinos, or when affirmative action is slowly relegated to the dustbin of history.
Truthfully, the Jewish tradition has both tribal and ethical iterations of identity within it. There are clearly particularistic tendencies within Judaism: the notion of the chosen people, the Biblical command to occupy all the Land of Israel and outrageous teachings like the one forbidding a Jew to save the life of a non-Jew on the Sabbath. Yet there are also traditions which are, if not “universalistic,” at least ethical in general application: to remember that we were all slaves in Egypt, that we are all children of the same God, that we must fight injustice wherever we find it.
The LGBT community likewise has both modes of identity within it. There are those who are dancing in the streets as I write these words, because “we” won — as long as this “we” excludes queer people of color, of course. And yet there are others of us for whom queerness is about resisting marginalization, hierarchy and domination. We don’t know whether to dance or to mourn.
And within the LGBT Jewish community? Here, we’ve seen these two forms of identity battle to the death, around the question of Israel and Palestine. Tribal identifiers support Israel, which after all is good to the Jews and the gays. Solidarity-identifiers tend to criticize Israel’s repression of Palestinians, and protest when its support of gay rights is exploited for political gain; we may feel more solidarity with the marginalized from the other group, than with the marginalizers from our own. Unfortunately, both camps, the “my team” side and the “my values” side, accuse the other of disloyalty — or at least of missing the point.
But these two “sides” aren’t missing the point; they have different points entirely, different understandings of what it means to be gay or Jewish or both, different values which we are called to uphold.
Likewise, many of my straight Jewish friends are celebrating with the LGBT community, and grieving with the African-American community, because of their Jewish solidarity with the oppressed and Jewish yearning for justice. Whereas there are many other Jews who are unmoved by same-sex marriage, or even — in the cases of the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America — positively upset by it.
These Supreme Court decisions made history. Their primary impacts are on millions of LGBT families who are more free, and millions of African Americans who are less so. Our lives have been changed. Yet personally, they also have asked me to reflect on what kind of LGBT person I am, and in so doing, on what kind of Jew I am as well.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.