The tranquil New England lake, surrounded by forest, glistened invitingly. We assembled on the edge of the wooden dock to this natural mikvah. Each participant chose a group with which they were to share this experience—male-bodied, female-bodied, gender queer — according to their self-definition. After a few words of introduction, we shared an intention for the Shabbat and ritually cleansed ourselves. The approach of the Nehirim retreats was clear: Jewish ritual can be reclaimed and Judaism embraced as a way not only to affirm queer sexuality and gender identity but to encourage the individual to embrace their identity and overcome internalised societal homophobia and transphobia.
In God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality Jay Michaelson, the founder of Nehirim, the Jewish LGBT spirituality organisation, uses this perspective to explore both how religious values affirm lesbian and gay lives and how sexual diversity affirms religion. He uses a distinctly Judeo-Christian values-based theological vocabulary to argue a considered, articulate political case for gay rights in the USA.
Michaelson is well placed to do this. He is well known for his writing on religious, legal and LGBT issues through Zeek magazine in the 2000s and now through regular newspaper columns. While the content of this work is different, there is a stylistic similarity to his previous book, Everything is God, in that both interweave the personal and the theoretical in a logically-argued polemical treatise. Turning his oeuvre to the often unpleasant and peculiarly American religious debate about marriage equality is clearly of limited effectiveness if reserved for a Jewish critique. Luckily Michaelson’s postgraduate studies were on the Christian bible.
Michaelson intends this book to make a difference to the political reality. His assumption is that religious anti-gay rhetoric can be undermined by exposing its deep flaws and lack of scriptural grounding. Citing Martin Luther King’s harnessing of the force of religious rhetoric in the campaign for civil rights, Michaelson argues that religion has a similar potential in the campaign for sexual equality.
Before addressing the difficult texts he clearly states the principles that compel Jews and Christians to embrace gay rights. The usual suspects, including “Love your neighbour [sic] as yourself” and “justice, justice shall you pursue” are miraculously rescued from cliche through targeted real examples and clear argumentation. The most effective anecdotes are those that call attention to the pain of closeted anti-gay and so-called ex-gay leaders.
Exploring the commandment “Not to bear false witness”, Michaelson movingly discusses his own years in the closet. “I lied… Somehow, I believed that all this lying was in the service of God. From where I sit now, the proposition is preposterous.” Through reading this commandment and an assortment of other associated Tanach and New Testament texts, he draws from this experience that “religious people should support equality for LGBT people because more openness leads to more honesty, more holiness and more authentic spirituality.” The ground is thus prepared for Michaelson to challenge the homophobic readings of other parts of scripture.
Any discussion on the Bible and homosexuality must begin with the verse that dare not speak its name, Leviticus 18:22. Michaelson utilises not only the religious values he has established but the fundamental truism that our modern categories of sexual identity — the words “homosexual”, “gay” and “lesbian” — are just that: modern. To read them into ancient texts is therefore anachronistic. The following passage gives a flavour of his approach:
I think this literal reading of Leviticus 18:22 makes more sense than any other one. I think it “wins.” However, even if it only “ties” with the anti-gay readings, that is enough. The point here is that it is plausible, and that such a reading is necessary based on our fundamental values… But I don’t even have to do that. All I have to do… is read the verse closely, literally and attentively. Leviticus is a prohibition on male anal sex in the context of idolatry. Nothing more.
Michaelson repeats this methodology with other much quoted supposedly anti-gay texts. The Corinthians extract is “obviously…not about homosexuality, and certainly not same-sex relationships” whilst in the Timothy text “the issue is less the physical act itself than the context: sex outside of marriage.” Michaelson then turns his attention to possible examples of same-sex love in the Bible, particularly focusing on David and Jonathan. By ending on this note his logic is complete: positive religious values call on us to include gay and lesbian people; the readings of the text are misguided; examples of same-sex love can even be found in the Bible and Christian and Jewish traditions.
In the third and final section a different voice emerges, usefully broadening the potential scope of gay rights discourse. Instead of basing his argument on the liberal, individualist and rights-based philosophical basis that LGBT activism usually starts from, Michaelson turns on the family values that are usually the discursive domain of the right. He argues that equality for gays and lesbians will result in more shared ground, a greater value placed upon family and a more stable society.
The effectiveness of this book as a polemic and a toolbox for activists comes at the cost of limiting the discussion of key issues for religious gay and lesbian people. By co-opting a family values discourse from conservatives Michaelson appears to suggest (despite his assurances to the contrary) that the ideal religious expressions of gay and lesbian sexuality are monogamous, conventional relationships. A serious discussion of how religious ethics can dovetail and speak to the lived experience of lesbian and gay people in religiously unprecedented sexual and relationship arrangements is an outstanding project and Michaelson’s understanding of the gay and lesbian community and religious values suggests that he would be well placed to address that. It is a shame that he cannot enter that discussion in this piece.
Joy Ladin’s Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between the Genders contrasts with Michaelson’s book in its approach to the question that both self consciously address: how can the written word shift perspective and create empathy? For Ladin, a published poet, it is through her mastery of descriptive and evocative personal testimony.
Professor of English literature at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern orthodoxy in the US, Ladin accidentally experienced a short bout of international fame in 2008 when her story was sensationally plastered over page three of the New York Post under the headline “YE-SHE-VA”.
Judaism, and more particularly Ladin’s deep relationship with God — “when I look in the mirror, I see the mystery of God’s creation” — is an anchoring theme of this moving work. Ladin describes her years of gender dysphoria before she embarked on her transition. Jay Ladin felt uncomfortable in his male body from a young age. He married, had three children and still periods of gender dysphoria would utterly destabilise him. His marriage broke down as his wife felt that his desire to become a woman was selfish and destructive. Aside from the detail of gender transition, this is a powerful, universal human story. As Ladin says, “Transsexuals’ lives may seem strange, even bizarre, but the questions we face… are the questions life poses to us all: How can we become ourselves?”
Many people are not easily able to speak frankly with a trans person about their experience. Testimony such as Ladin’s is valuable and may help to encourage the cis (non-trans)-gendered reader to confront and challenge their own confusion, questions and prejudice.
In her review for the Forward Naomi Alderman perceptively and forcefully critiques Ladin for returning to “banal cliches about what it is like to be either a man or a woman.” Alderman notes with some sadness that “she’s no feminist”. The theoretical and political implications of gender transition are simply not Ladin’s concern here. Indeed, taking the form of poetic episodic reflections it is clear that the act of writing and publishing this work was deeply therapeutic.
Personal testimony and rigorous argumentation are vital tools for activists committed to changing our society. Readers will be challenged and have their perspectives broadened by Ladin’s testimony; Michaelson’s logical, clear argumentation and detailed notes and bibliography provide an essential toolbox for activist debates with social conservatives. Ultimately, both works use the experience of gender and sexual minorities to call our attention to the importance of living authentic lives. If Jewish tradition is speaking so resonantly to the formerly marginalised, then it can be transformed at the centre affirming each and every one of us.
Daniel Lichman is a Jewish educator. He is currently in his first year of the rabbinic course at Leo Baeck College. He was involved in creating Keshet UK, a LGBT advocacy group for the Jewish community.