A Watershed Year for Gays of Faith

With Legal Equality in the National Dialogue, Activists Shift Focus to Public Acceptance

By Jay Michaelson

Published January 02, 2004, issue of January 02, 2004.

Last week, more than 200 Jews gathered in downtown Manhattan for New York’s annual gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community Chanukah party, pausing to look back at a watershed year and looking ahead to the challenges of the next. Although the party was at the same place and time as last year’s, there was a sense that much had changed in 2003 — both within the Jewish community and without.

In June, the Supreme Court overturned Bowers v. Hardwick, the 1986 decision that had upheld anti-sodomy laws and effectively sanctioned the criminalization of homosexual behavior, changing in one day the status of gay Americans from potential criminals to citizens whose private behavior is protected by the Constitution. Then, just a few months later, the Massachusetts Supreme Court held that, under the Massachusetts constitution, same-sex couples had to be allowed to marry. Suddenly, gay rights became legally as well as culturally mainstream. This change was reflected in — or perhaps initiated by — popular culture, from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and the “Angels in America” HBO movie to an increased visibility of gay celebrities, television characters and the like.

The GLBT Jewish community also flourished in 2003, moving from the fringe to the mainstream across denominational lines. The World Congress of GLBT Jews: Keshet Ga’avah boasts 65 member organizations, from Yachad-Deutschland in Munich to Shalom Amigos in Mexico City. In New York alone, the list includes the Gay and Lesbian Yeshiva/Day School Alumni (GLYDSA), Jewish Queer Youth, OrthoDykes and Nehirim. Last year saw the first-ever Pride March in Jerusalem, same-sex Jewish marriages announced in The New York Times and Sandi DuBowski’s “Trembling Before G-d” evolve from a documentary about the challenges faced by Orthodox Jews into a cultural phenomenon in which hundreds of synagogues, Jewish community centers and other Jewish groups have screened the film and held frank conversations where there had once been only silence.

Synagogues have, in large part, responded. In addition to GLBT synagogues such as New York’s 30-year-old Congregation Beth Simchat Torah and San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, mainstream synagogues such as the New York-based Congregation B’nai Jeshurun and Rodeph Shalom now have active gay/lesbian programming and committees that are increasingly prominent and successful. Last year, for example, Rodeph Shalom’s community Sabbath dinners began drawing more than 100 attendees each.

“What’s been called the ‘gay year’ has turned out to be very much like when a close relative ‘gets over’ the fact that her niece is gay and embraces it,” said Gabriel Blau, director of the God and Sexuality Conference, an annual academic conference at Bard College. “At least, that’s the case in the U.S. media. In the Jewish community? Well, we’re not so far behind.”

One of the prominent battlegrounds in 2004 will likely be the Conservative movement, which does not condone same-sex unions or ordain gay rabbis (as does the Reform movement) but does have a vocal, organized constituency agitating for halachic change (which the Orthodox movement does not). In March, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards agreed to re-examine the status of homosexual acts, and people, under Jewish law. This could lead, among other things, to the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis at Conservative rabbinical seminaries.

“The mood at JTS is almost unrecognizable,” said Jeremy Gordon, chair of Keshet, the Jewish Theological Seminary’s student group advocating for social and religious equality for Jews of all sexual orientations. “When I first got to New York [five years ago], the feeling was that homosexuality was an unmentionable issue and even talking about it would get one in trouble. Over the last year, it has become one of the most important issues for the movement and the seminary and something [that] leadership from across the movement feel[s] needs to be readdressed.”

Gordon also noted that when Keshet held a “Day of Learning” to coincide with the law committee’s meeting, more than 400 students, staff and faculty members attended.

At the same time, there is staunch opposition within the Jewish community to some of the changes sought by gay-rights advocates. The chancellor of JTS, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, has reportedly said that the school will not ordain gay rabbis under his chancellorship. (There are a handful of gay Conservative and Orthodox rabbis, but they “came out” after ordination. The Reform movement has been ordaining gays and lesbians since 1990.) Several Orthodox rabbis have recently restated their view that Jewish law prohibits not only the narrow set of sexual acts specified in Leviticus 18:22 but also a much wider range of behavior on the part of both men and women. And several rabbis joined a recent clergy petition in opposition to same-sex civil marriage — until it was disclosed that a number of imams who had also signed had links to terrorist organizations.

Blau is dismissive of such voices. At this point, he said, “anger and rage at anti-gay sentiments in the Jewish community have in many ways given way to disappointment and disregard for the leadership…. Don’t want to accept my partner and me in your shul? You’re nuts!” Blau said that the changes wrought by 2003 in American social mores, and their attendant consequences in what people expect from their religious institutions, are showing that “Judaism, in religion and culture, is a product of its people.”

If a previous generation struggled for “gay rights” and rights to privacy, the current generation of gay Jewish activists seeks public acceptance.

“We want to be accepted as normal for what we are, not because we are hiding who we are,” said Mara Benjamin, one of the founders of New York’s Kehilat Hadar, and a member of OrthoDykes, adding that “difference is not only not threatening, but is an actual asset in creating an interesting, rich Jewish community.”

Articulating just what that difference is — i.e., what distinguishes gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Jews outside of the bedroom, and what distinctive contributions they can make to the Jewish community — is seen by many as the “next step.” Blau’s God and Sexuality Conference, for example, is in the middle of a three-year study of the intersection between homosexuality and world religions. The Nehirim Initiative is creating a spiritual community for Jews who may differ from the broader Jewish community in the way they envision God, conceive of families and read texts; its March 2004 retreat at Elat Chayyim in Accord, N.Y., is expected to draw more than a hundred participants. And innovative events, such as New York University’s Queer Urban Retreat last month, have begun focusing on the unique perspectives and experiences that Jews who identify as queer — the formerly derogatory term has now been reclaimed by some, who find it more inclusive than “gay/lesbian” and less awkward than “GLBT” — can bring to issues facing the Jewish community as a whole.

Most in the gay community, though, see marriage as the defining issue of 2004 — for better or for worse. With polls showing a majority of Americans opposing same-sex marriage, and with Jewish law fairly clear, many are skeptical that same-sex unions will receive sanction outside the Reform movement. Yet Blau urges a focus on what marriage is really about, and asks why “two loving people that have a Jewish home and a commitment to community can’t form a bond in the eyes of God and the community.”

In a way, these three core issues in the coming year — the halachic status of gays and lesbians, the meaning of “queer Jewish identity” and the question of marriage — reflect the Jew’s relationship to God, to self and to community. The rapid change in the status of gay people within the Jewish community owes as much to “Queer Eye” as it does to novel interpretations of Leviticus. Yet the changes of 2003 and challenges of 2004 are fundamentally about these core issues, and how a community bound together by tribe and faith responds to new conceptions of each.

For all the complicated legal and moral challenges, though, many believe that the struggle for acceptance is really a basic, humanistic one — less about rights, and more about love. Hadar’s Benjamin said that, for her, the most significant milestone of the past year was not a Supreme Court case or television show, but when “people who heard of my partner’s and my engagement just before a Hadar meeting greeted me with ‘od yishama’ as I walked in.”

Jay Michaelson is the director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for GLBT Jews and the editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture.



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