In the past week, two high profile Orthodox rabbis have come out, in writing, in support of LGBT Orthodox Jews. In Gay and Orthodox: An Oxymoron No More Ysoscher Katz, Chair of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, argues that it is not impossible to be both gay and Orthodox, arguing that today it is “no longer the case” that gay Jews leave Orthodoxy “in droves.” In his Washington Post op-ed written after the Orlando attack on a gay bar frequented predominantly by queer persons of color — on Latin Dance Night, nonetheless — Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld (the congregational leader of a large Washington D.C. synagogue) writes of visiting a black gay bar in an act of “solidarity,” to show how he and his congregation were “in tremendous pain.”
As an ex-Orthodox Jew, a gay man, and the son of lesbian women—and thus someone who has experienced oppression in the Orthodox community as both a queer person and the son of queer women—I find both Katz’s and Herzfeld’s articles not only self-congratulatory, but false and harmful.
Two common strands unite the articles: first, a sense self-awareness, on behalf of each writer, that they are an ally to LGBT people and Orthodox Jews; secondly, that their brand of Orthodoxy is ready for, and accepting of, LGBT people. Katz and Herzfeld are not alone in this line of thinking; the two are part of a growing community of modern and open Orthodox Jews who self-identify as LGBT allies, and who publicly speak out for an atmosphere of “acceptance” and “love.”
Katz and Herzfeld’s words ring false because they ignore a crucial reality: acceptance can only come with structural and halachic change to a system that actively marginalizes queer people and their identities. In a different context, this same reality is being proven in debates about racial oppression in America, particularly regarding the oppression of black Americans. It is now increasingly clear to white Americans (as it has always been to people of color) that racism will only end when the structures of white supremacy have been dismantled, and when the barriers that have kept black Americans out of jobs, education, homes, and opportunities have been removed. What this broadly means is that inclusion is more than platitudes of love and acceptance; inclusion is removing the mechanisms that cause oppression and marginalization in the first place.
Leaving the issue of queer sexuality aside for a moment, Katz, Herzfeld, and their fellow colleagues have yet to put forth any pieces of writing that seeks to address structural or halachic changes that could be made to lessen the oppression and marginalization that queer Jews face. These men call themselves allies of “LGBT” Jews, but I wonder: are they, their synagogues, and their colleagues prepared to handle trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people, especially regarding issues of pronouns in Hebrew and English, and matters of ritual such as aliyot, mikvah, and mechitzah? Are they prepared to handle the experiences of Jewish lesbians, whose identities create an experience of double erasure for being both queer and woman? Are they prepared to handle the experiences of the children of queer parents, especially those, like myself, who were conceived using semen from an anonymous donor, as they navigate a system that is hostile to non-traditional families? Are they ready to really contend with what the “B” in LGBT means? The list goes on. And, even if these two rabbis are prepared, can they say the same for their colleagues and the movements they align with?
If we are going to speak of queer sexuality — as we should — Katz’s article can be used as a particularly insidious example of an attempt to police gayness itself partitioning off gay sexuality from gay identity. Katz essentially calls for a gayness devoid of sexuality or a distinct culture; a gayness of complete assimilation and asexuality. What Katz does not understand is that it is absolutely not the place of an ally to dictate queerness to queer people; if a queer person wants to live a life of celibacy and assimilation, that is their choice. But it is not one that should be proffered on them by straight allies under the banner of “progress.”
Judaism is a religion concerned with the sexuality of its followers; one has only to look at the laws of Mikveh, Shomer Negiah, and the “duties” that a man owes his wife to see that sexual expression is written into the very fabric of Jewish law and culture. Why, then, should it be any different for a queer Jew? As a human being and as a gay man, sex is an important part of my life experience. What I need, then, are allies that are willing to follow the lead of men like Steven Greenberg, who have, for years, argued for ways in which queer Jews can be sexually active in a halachic manner. What I need are allies that accept all of who I am — my sex life included.
I do not personally know Katz and Herzfeld, but I am sure that they are well intentioned, good people. But that does not change the fact that their brand of allyship is harmful. It purports to accept and love queer Jews while leaving them to suffer at the hands of a system that erases them. These men, and other straight Orthodox Jews, need to understand that they do not get a gold star for welcoming queer Jews; they do not get to call themselves allies while still refusing to remove structural barriers that queer Jews face; and they do not get to dictate what queerness and queer experiences look like. These “allies” need to know that treating queer Jews with “love, dignity, and acceptance” should be the baseline act, and not because of the oppression that queer Jews face, but because all human beings, regardless of sexual orientation, deserve to be treated that way.
Towards the end of his article, Rabbi Katz alludes to the halachic prohibitions on queer sexuality as the “herculean task” facing queer Jews, but then abandons queer Jews to face that sisyphean task alone.
What I need are allies who won’t stop there, but will treat that “herculean task” as theirs to face as well.