Magazine article Tikkun

Gay Orthodoxy Revisited: The Constrained Halakhic Solutions

Magazine article Tikkun

Gay Orthodoxy Revisited: The Constrained Halakhic Solutions

Article excerpt

In the fall of 1993, an article entitled, "Gayness and God: Wrestlings of a Gay Orthodox Rabbi," appeared in TlKKUN under the pseudonym, "Rabbi Yaakov Levado." I plucked that name out of the biblical account of Jacob's return to Canaan. Jacob is returning from Ur to face his brother Esau. He crosses back over the Yabbok river and there, alone and defenseless, encounters a stranger who wrestles with him until the morning light. At the end of this dark confrontation Jacob pins his attacker and makes an unusual demand: I will not let you go until you bless me! The blessing that Jacob receives at the break of dawn is one of paradoxical power. His mysterious assailant calls him by the name Israel, which he says means "he who has wrestled with God and men and has survived."

Since my early venture out of the closet under the cloak of a pseudonym, I have been "wrestling with God and men." Ten years later, a book by that name is finally finished. Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition was published by the University of Wisconsin Press this past spring.

While much has changed in my life and in the world since 1993, the Orthodox community is just beginning to seriously address the question of gay and lesbian inclusion. The most important catalyst for change has been the documentary film, Trembling Before G-d, released in the fall of 2001, in which seven characters struggle with their homosexuality and their love of Jewish tradition. I was among the rabbis interviewed in the film and once the film was released, I accompanied the filmmaker, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, to hundreds of post-screening dialogues across North America and around the globe.

The film did for the Orthodox community what the throngs of out and proud gay people have been doing in the larger society. It told our stories to people who had never heard them, and it told them in a familiar way. It articulated not only the pain of its exiled subjects, but also their love of the tradition and their deep faith in God despite it all. Wisely, the film resisted the temptation to provide any answers to the dilemma that it posed, and in doing so lodged a profoundly disturbing question in the hearts and minds of many.

Nonetheless, the film flirts with despair in its refusal to provide any halakhic resolution. Without a way to put together a socially and religiously integrated life, the subjects of the him can seem naïve if not downright foolish lor their persistence. Why stay if the system will never respond, much less change? How does one ally with the tradition and not become a participant in one's own degradation? Four years before work on the film had begun, these same two questions gnawed at my soul and pressed me to begin thinking and writing.

In the book I offer two distinct sorts of resolutions. The first is a midrashic reading of the condemning text in Leviticus 18:22, "And with a male you shall not lie the lyings of a woman, it is an abomination." Basing my interpretation upon rabbinic traditions I suggest that this verse in Leviticus ought to be read in a way that prohibits sex used as a tool of domination and humiliation. I develop and support this rereading of Leviticus in order to demonstrate that it is not the biblical verse in Leviticus, per se, that stands in the way of sanctioning a life of intimacy and companionship for gay people. We might be quite vigilant in our fulfillment of the Torah by abominating the use of sex to abuse, debase, or humiliate and still celebrate the love between two men or two women.

However, having demonstrated that such a traditionally based yet permissive reading is possible, I then admit that for the foreseeable future, few in the Orthodox community will be willing to accept such a radical departure from the normative code. If I intended in my writing to provide gay Orthodox Jews with some realistic hope for inclusion, a midrashic rereading of Leviticus would not be sufficient. …

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