Recently, there has been increased awareness of queer Jewish experience within Judaism, as well as rapidly growing communities of queer Jewish people. While there is limited anthropological work about the relationship between Judaism and queer identity, there is significant and profound documentation of personal experiences and perspectives by queer Jewish individuals about this intersection. The following explores the relationship between Judaism and queer identity through blog posts, authoethnographic works, interviews, essays, and memoirs.
Every individual who identifies as queer and Jewish has a unique experience and subjective understanding of these identities. However, there are many common narratives and perspectives unique to this intersection of these identities, and many people see them as not a separate sexual/gender orientation and a religious or cultural heritage, but experience them as inherently apart of each other.
Reimaginging and Reorganizing: Queering Judaism as a Religious Institution
Judaism is a very gendered religion, and mainstream Judaism does not recognize gender or sexual categories outside of a traditional cisgendered, heterosexual binary. However, there are many queer (and some straight) Jewish scholars and activists who are making efforts to create dialogue about gender with a distinctively Jewish perspective. They are reorganizing their religion in a way that embraces gender and sexual diversity, and trying to use Judaism as a space for support rather than oppression.
The mechitza is a physical barrier that separates men and women in an orthodox synagogue. Some Jewish scholars also conceptualize the mechitza as the social and psychological boundary that creates a dichotomous gender structure within Jewish tradition, as well as Western culture as a whole (Dzmura, 2010). The anthology Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community is a text that focuses on simultaneously utilizing a Jewish structure to understand and experience trans identities, and using trans perspective to reorganize Judaism. It describes alternative ways to access Judaism for transpersons, and engages in the act of queering Judaism in a radical and unique way.
“It is untenable for a Jew who wants in to be locked away from the beauty of Judaism, to be barred from the joy and solace of family, communal ritual, or social activity. There should be no gender-based physical or psychological barrier to the Divine or to the synagogue or to any other human collective expression of the Divine… other options are possible both within and outside of those traditional boundaries.” (Dzmura, 2010)
Rituals and Spirituality in Queer Judaism
“In a tradition deeply structured by men’s and women’s roles, how do we, as transgender Jews, fit? What does a Judaism that celebrates transgender lives look like?” – Max Strassfeld, Marking Gender Transition in the Mikveh
While many rituals and spaces in Judaism are segregated by sex and gender, there are some queer Jewish people who are using these to redefine themselves on their own terms, and reorganize dichotomous sexual and gendered ideals. Taking gendered rituals and “queering” them (using them to explore and challenge gender or sexuality norms) assists in reclaiming an historically patriarchal faith and heritage. While some queer people find their Jewish heritage to be at odds with their gender or sexual identity, reclaiming these rituals to explore that tension and find an intentional and positive relationship between the two is increasingly being used by many queer Jewish people.
This is spiritual relationship between gender, sexuality, and Judaism is explored by many trans Jewish individuals and communities, especially in times of transition. Trans men have used Jewish perspective and rituals to mark transition to manhood. Top surgery is a procedure used by many trans and genderqueer people to physicalize the gender they identify with, and Max Strassfeld describes how his Jewish perspective made his top surgery felt like a bar mitzvah. Strassfeld also describes how ritual is utilized (with or without transition surgeries) to mark gender transition. Strassfeld used the Shehechiyanu -a common prayer- at the mikveh of a friend about to go through top surgery. He says that it felt “both radical and appropriate.” These rituals can enrich and further solidify a gender transition, and heal an individual’s past gendered experience.
“As transgender people, some of us have complicated relationships with our pasts, particularly the ways or pasts are used against us to undermine our gender self-identification. I wanted to incorporate this tension between the Shehechiyanu and our complex relationship to our pasts into a section of the ritual” (Strassfeld, 2013).
Using rituals in gender transitions is an example of using Jewish ritual and spirituality to understand and deepen queer identity, as well as to complicate and queer Judaism. Queering judaism becomes a spiritual practice in itself, connecting heritage, tradition, spirituality, and identity.
Queer in Relationship to Jewish Heritage and Cultural Affiliation
While Judaism is a religious tradition, many people also experience it as a cultural heritage, and sometimes identify as Jewish in a secular context. Understanding Judaism as a cultural affiliation, as well as a spiritual or religious experience sheds more light on the relationship between Jewish and queer identity.
Jewish history is a central aspect of Jewish spirituality, theology, and cultural awareness. Much of this history is grounded in stories of oppression and revolt, exodus and wandering. These narratives are told through the Torah, folk stories, and in many high holidays and rituals. People who grow up engaging with Judaism or with Jewish families are instilled with the legacy and awareness that comes with these stories, and they are often central to their spirituality and worldview. Dan Fishback is a musician and performance artist who travels with a lecture called “You never get to make out: Why I can’t tell the difference between being queer and being Jewish.” His experience of Judaism growing up was grounded in radical politics and awareness of power and oppression, and he feels that being gay is an extension of his Jewish identity because both positioned him in opposition to dominant culture. “When you grow up jewish you hear all the time about being slaves and being systematically killed by various governments, and being under duress.. and my sense of being queer was like the same thing.” The stories of oppression and exodus that are present in Judaism are also very familiar to queer people, and Jewish socialization is often experienced as a precursor or inherent part of queer experience.
Thea Hillman also describes a similar complex and interconnected relationship between her understanding of her body and sexuality as a queer person, and her jewish experiences as a child. Hillman writes in her memoir about the film footage of Jewish genocide during World War II she was shown in religious school, and how it was formative in how she understood her body, desires, and location in history and Western culture.
“And I watch, horrified, guilty, thinking, Those are my people. Those are Jewish people, just like me, from where my grandparents and great-grandparents are from. I wondered why I escaped that fate, why someone from my family escaped somehow, because here I was today watching this from far away. Why? And guilty and ashamed too, because I was titillated. I was in grade school and these were the first naked bodies I’d seen–dead or alive–besides my family. The films were the most perverse things I’d ever seen… After seeing the films, I was marked, the invisible yellow star emblazoned on my flushed face. And the shame and the recognition and the fascination would return to heat my face every time I saw images of Jews from World War II…all these images made me aware of my body as a Jewish body… So there I was, in second grade, thinking about stacks of naked bodies, torture, deprivation, hiding, and shame about my identity. Being Jewish gave me a sense of my body as being unsafe, or more accurately, as dangerous, as the thing that gives me away–as a Jew, and also as someone with desires that come from unspeakable places.”
These uniquely Jewish childhood experiences made her locate her body and identity in terms of power, oppression, and history. As a queer intersex person, she experiences her body, desires, and social identity in opposition to dominate culture. But it was her childhood experience as a Jewish person that first gave her an understanding of her body, desires, and cultural heritage as being in opposition, and placed in a legacy of oppression and danger.
The legacy that is attached to being both Jewish and queer is expressed throughout her memoir. This connection between heritage and body shows how her jewish socialization and resulting awareness of herself in a historical context directly affected her sexuality and understanding of her own intersex body.
Strassfield, Max. “Marking Gender Transition in the Mikveh: One Transgender Jew Writes a Ritual for Another.” The Jewish Daily Forward. n.p. 09 August 2013. Web. 16 August 2013.
Hillman, Thea. Intersex (for lack of a better word). San Francisco: Manic D Press, 2008. Print.
Dzmura, Noach. Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2010. Print.