conservative judaism and sexual orientation
This talk was presented on March 5, 2003, at the Jewish
Theological Seminary of America
as part of Keshet's Day of Learning about Judaism and Sexual Orientation. You are welcome to
print and circulate it as you wish, but I would appreciate notification of any publication or
circulation to more than a few dozen people at a time.
So, I’m not qualified to add to the many insightful and scholarly speakers whom we’ve been so lucky to hear from today about the halachic issues surrounding today’s topic. What I am qualified to do is speak to the consequences of those issues. As we’ve heard, the halachic reasoning is there for both sides of this issue: the halacha can be interpreted to permit all but a very narrow subset of acts, on the one hand, or to exclude all gays and lesbians from leadership roles on the other. So, what we bring to the table – our motivations for reading the halacha narrowly or broadly -- are very important. That means that we need to understand deeply the real consequences of these halachic decisions.
And that means that this is a very difficult talk for me to give. So I want to begin with just a short kavvanah. I want to remember why we are here. We are here because of God, or because we have some relationship to Ultimate Value, however we think of it. For some of us, the Jewish path leads us to God, to a close, even immediate, relationship to God’s presence. For others of us, the Jewish path is a response to God – or from God – a way in which we translate our amazement into the mundane, bring the ‘shamayim’ into the ‘aretz.’ We may not even do this consciously, or we may participate only as part of a holy community in holy covenant – or we may even regard the Infinite as irrelevant, and just look to the moral consequences of that covenant. Even so, we’re still imprinting some idea of the Good on the world. So, we are here because God is here, and our souls thirst. In that sense, this is a very beautiful thing, because it is l’shem shamayim, an expression of our love of God and of truth.
It’s funny, if we think in this way -- if we remember that we are, now, in the immediate presence of God’s Infinite love, our activities today seem almost trivial. We are debating legalistic angels dancing on pinheads, when God is present, all around and through us. But it’s not really trivial, because what we are talking about today is something which causes great suffering. It causes deep and ongoing pain – in my case, pain so deep that it endures even today, even after I have spent years wrestling with it, and even though I have adopted a public rhetoric of acceptance and confidence. Conservative Judaism made me hate myself, in a powerful and fundamental way. It hurt my family, which is why some members of my family aren't here to hear me speak today. It legitimizes and supports deep pain.
So the issues we’re talking about today do matter. They are not abstract. For many years, knowing that I was gay and believing that there was something fundamentally wrong with that -- and no theoretical niceties, no subtleties of “hate the sin, love the sinner,” and no equivocations of halachic reasoning disguised the heart of Conservative Judaism’s message for me -- knowing these things made me want to die. Nothing less. I tried in my own impotent ways to kill myself. I failed. I experienced, for about ten years, a self-loathing that I hope none of you ever know, a wish to disappear and destroy myself that was too intense for tears and which cut me off from everyone I knew. This pain is why I am now “lost to the movement,” for ultimately, thank God, I chose life over death. Choosing life meant leaving the Conservative movement.
I often get asked why I am not a rabbi. On meditation retreat this winter, after sharing a few drashes on the parsha and davening. By parents of my Prozdor students. By my campers at Ramah, who told me I changed their lives, some of whom came to the joint program because of teaching they received through me. And by teachers of mine, who look at my law degree, my master’s in religious studies, and wonder – why is it you can’t seem to settle into one career, yet all the while you’re teaching, learning; you’re writing books about Jewish theology and meditation. Why don’t you see that your calling is to be a rabbi?
I never became a rabbi because I have self-hatred ingrained in me, had it driven into me for twenty years by Conservative Jewish teachers who told me that something essential about myself was in direct opposition to God. It’s not that JTS wouldn’t let me in. It’s that the policies it stood for made me never want to apply.
The Conservative community was my community – I grew up the Conservative poster child. I went to a Conservative shul almost every shabbat, was a USY regional officer, went on Wheels and Pilgrimage, spent ten years at Ramah (five as a camper, five more on staff). I staffed Wheels, davened at the Conservative minyan at Columbia. So this was my community. If I were to be a rabbi, obviously JTS is where I would go.
But my community excluded me without even knowing it was doing so. I didn’t come out until a couple of years ago, so my rabbi had no idea that by telling me that being gay was a sin – and I don’t remember if he said being gay, or having gay sex, but I know what I heard – he was cutting me off from the community. He did it without even knowing, and I’m sure this goes on all the time today. Hearing these words just pushed me further into the closet, because I loved God, and here were God’s representatives telling me – not even able to know before whom they stood – that God hated this. It wasn’t only self-hatred; it was intense fear also. For years, I was horrified that my secret might be found out – by some of the people sitting here today – and that everything would be ruined.
What I learned from my rabbis and teachers was that something was essentially evil about myself. I would try to deny the compulsion I felt, or suppress it, but I knew it was there: evil, inside of me, impossible to eradicate. Imagine that: Something fundamental about yourself is evil. It’s not the yetzer hara and yetzer hatov that straight people know; it was a deep sense that it is impossible for me to be fully close to God. This is what I learned in Sunday school.
I also learned that this one impossible shortcoming was somehow worse than all of the lashon hara, theft, usury, dishonesty, sectarianism, racism, sinat chinam, hypocrisy, all of the self-satisfied contentment with an anti-theological and anti-philosophical Jewishness that we see – we know we see – at so many Conservative synagogues around the country. I might rail against these things, but I was worse. You know, there are a lot of gossiping people who go to rabbinical school, and a lot of rabbis who engage in sinat chinam pretty openly. They have their smicha. But not me.
And I was told by my rabbis that sexual orientation was a lifestyle choice. That if I wanted to, I could be straight, or at least celibate. This I knew was false, because if I could have done anything – anything – to stop being gay, I would have. I hated being gay. I contemplated suicide virtually every day of my life for almost ten years. And I tried everything. Abstinence, negative reinforcement, fantasizing about women. I was even in a loving relationship with a woman for over a year, trying all the while to be straight. I tried immersing myself in ahavat hashem only, focused only on Torah and learning, sublimating my sexual tension, I was a kovesh et yitzro – and I was miserable.
What do you wish for when you blow out your birthday candles? I wished only to be straight. What do you pray for when you pray to God? I prayed to God, for ten years, with a broken heart, which our tradition teaches is the purest prayer there is: to make me straight.
You cannot change your sexual orientation. You cannot. I tried. You cannot.
This pain, this torture – this isn’t the Torah, whose ways are netivot shalom. But that’s what the closet is. That’s what self-denial is. That’s the consequence of growing up as a Conservative Jew and without the amazing courage of some of my fellow speakers here who were able to come out a lot earlier than I was. I bow to their courage, I really do. Because the closet is a pain no one should force on anyone. The worst is what it did to my ahavat hashem. Why would God make me this way? How could I be so evil? I couldn’t make sense of it. One thing I know -- and I know other people have other opinions, but, in my experience, from ten years of what I have lived: it is impossible to love God in denial. You hate yourself, you hate God for doing this to you, and you see the world as fundamentally, irreparably broken. Tikkun olam is impossible, leaving only misery, denial, and fear.
You know, I tried to think of an analogy – to make this comprehensible to you. I don’t think I can. I thought, well, imagine you’re a Jew in an antisemitic society, and you hide it, and you’re afraid of being found out, every day. But then, that’s not quite right, because growing up gay in the Conservative movement, it’s like if you believed that you really did kill Christ, really did poison the wells, really were going to burn in hell forever. And of course, you can change being Jewish if you want to. So really, there is no analogy that I think you can understand. You have no idea the pain the Conservative movement causes, every day. The intense suffering. There are closeted people in this room. They are suffering. And this ideology is making them suffer.
All this, when we could read Vayikra narrowly – only one kind of sex, only between men, maybe only in the context of avodah zara. You know, we have halachot that construe some mitzvot d’oraita narrowly simple to avoid ordinary unpleasantness, or to avoid compromising the most trivial compulsion. Yet here we are causing some people to kill themselves, to hate themselves, and to turn themselves away from God, for one particular interpretation of two verses. Can this possibly be the right reading? Is this really the emes? That some people should be shut off from Hashem, and enclosed in self-hatred?
Chazal knew many things that I do not know, but they didn’t know about sexual orientation. It’s a very new category – 200 years at the most. Chazal thought that homosexual acts are just something that everyone can do, or can not do. They didn’t know this truth: that because of the way some of us are, intrinsically, that this kind of love is the only way we can love. And thus the only path to fully knowing and loving God. This is the essential difference between Judaism and so many other traditions: that we know love of God through and manifested in love of humanity. This is our precious gift! Not denial, but love! And so, being gay is holy. And acting on it – not being celibate, not repressing itl, but being loving and open and ready to see God’s love in the love of another man: this is holy. Loving a man is holy because it brings me closer to God.
Ten years ago, I didn’t know that truth. To repeat, it’s not that that I never became a Conservative rabbi purely because JTS wouldn’t let me in. I could have lied my way through, I think. I didn’t become a Conservative rabbi because JTS and its policies made me hate myself. There was no way I could be rabbi – I was evil. Even though at that time I was hardly ever having any sex at all, with men or women, I knew what I desired, and I knew that what I desired was wrong. I hated myself, because I loved God, and this pushed me away from God. How could I ever be a rabbi when I was so utterly cut off from Hashem?
So, I did everything but. I got a masters in religious studies, learning Kabbalah in Jerusalem. I went to Pardes for a year. I taught Hebrew high school, taught Jewish Mysticism at Yale, I became a nice Jewish lawyer instead. And I watched my friends go through JTS and become really impressive rabbis, some of whom are here today. I envy them. I envy them because they have the legitimacy I could never have.
Instead, perhaps perversely, I affiliated with Orthodoxy. I was excluded from Conservative Judaism anyway, so Orthodoxy wouldn’t be any different on that front. And all the serious Conservative Jews I knew were becoming rabbis. There were no shomer mitzvot Conservative laypeople. If I wanted community, it would have to be elsewhere. So I went to Israel, became more frum. I preferred to daven Orthodox, because Conservative davening was spiritually dead. (This was before Hadar came into existence, by the way.) Orthodox Judaism offered a spiritual path to Hashem, which Conservative Judaism never did. I came to see the Conservative movement as conservative with a small C, as a kind of Judaism best practiced in the suburbs by people who don’t want to really be disturbed.
And I learned my lesson of acceptance the hard way. I lived with the misery of its opposite for many years. It was only when I came to know God more intimately and directly, through davening, learning and meditation practice, that I came to know in my bones that repression is not what God wants. God wants love.
So eventually, I came to leave the ‘Orthodox’ label behind too, even
though I still daven Orthodox most of the time, and strictly keep shabbos,
kashrut, and so on. I don’t want the burden of the label, or the
neuroses of the people who patrol its boundaries, and as I have grown in
my real, personal ahavat hashem, I don’t need the label. Most importantly,
after I finally came out of the closet, just a couple of years ago, I stopped
wanting to be part of a club that wouldn’t have me – all of me – as a member.
So where am I now? I have begun to affiliate with Jewish Renewal, which “gets it” spiritually and ethically more than the Conservative movement seems willing to allow itself, and I practice Jewish meditation on twice-yearly weeklong silent retreats. I teach Sunday school. I have recently completed a book about Jewish theology and the Ashrei, called Sitting with God. And I’m teaching a weeklong course on “Embodied Judaism” this summer at Elat Chayyim. I am even considering, in fact, becoming a Renewal rabbi – something I haven’t told my friends until now, but which I have been discussing with my rov for some time.
From where I stand, Conservative Judaism seems almost... quaint. Conventional. And, of course, the dark side of all that convention: the pain of being told for about twenty years that being gay is the worst thing in the world. Now, I know, Conservative Judaism doesn’t really say that. But lay people don’t know the ‘middle roads’ and the position papers. Most Jews I know believe that, according to Conservative Judaism, there is something wrong with being gay.
This is a moral issue. Usually people on the “left” are afraid of saying that, and so we only hear it from the right. But I’m not giving up the moral ground: inclusion is the only moral choice. So, if I am lost to the Conservative movement, I have to say, the Conservative movement is lost to me. Judaism is supposed to be the source of our morality. But on this issue, Conservative Judaism – the one movement which has the hashkafa to accommodate the change, but which doesn’t make it -- is the source of immorality, of intolerance, and of hatred. That is the reality.
(You know, sometimes I hear people worry about losing their ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of the Orthodox. How will we ever explain this to our friends from YU? I have news for you: you’re too far gone already. Women are putting on tefillin. It’s over. Okay?)
I’ll conclude by admitting something that is hard for me to admit, and something I’m working on changing about myself. Even now, I don’t want to be gay. I’ve had homophobia ingrained in me, and all things being equal, I’d rather be straight. I envy my straight friends, who can get married and have families that are not scrutinized and delegitimized. I envy my sister for being able to have a baby, something which, for me, will require much unconventional work. This is not about sanctioning an act that I freely choose to perform, like you decide whether you want to eat treif or kosher. I can only eat treif. The alternative is starvation.
At a certain point, this movement is going to have to decide whether it wants to be a moral leader or a moral follower. People on the “right” say that if JTS changes its policy and admits gay rabbis, it will be just following the whims of contemporary morality. I think the opposite is true. To retain any sense of its moral leadership – to regain it, in my view – this movement must understand that the borei olam, meshaneh et habriyot created some people gay and lesbian and that to deny them Judaism's great gift of ahavat olam is contrary to our fundamental principles; we must be reading the verse wrong. Today, when I grow closer to God, I grow closer to accepting who I am. I return to the Now – to the reality of God in this moment, in this place. And I remember that God made me perfectly, and that loving a man is a pathway to loving Hashem. Particular love to universal love. That is my fundamental truth, and it is beautiful and it is holy, even if sometimes it is laced with tears.
What the World is and What to Do About It an experiential account of the nature of Being, and how to perceive it (from zeek.net)
Loneliness and Faith the interrelationship between loneliness and religious experience. (from zeek.net)
Constriction doubt, skepticism, limit, and illusion (from zeek.net)
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