Yoseph Needelman-Ruiz
Maggid of Cannabis Chassidis, PopCartoonKabala

Frumkeit needs a better Torah for LGBTQ issues

How much is the Torah of traditional Judaism to blame for homophobia, and homophobic violence? How much responsibility should, or can, we as Orthodox Jews take for overcoming that violence, within our own selves if not our own communities, without compromising our commitment to The Covenant?

Hi, you might not know me at all. I grew up frum but associated that frumkeit with concern for the welfare of all people, especially ours. As I got older, the tension between those two priorities, frumkeit on the one hand, and human welfare on the other, began to sometimes feel more pronounced. Orthodox institutions tended not to take strong or progressive positions on things like Food Stamps, Welfare Benefits, Affordable Housing, overcoming Racism and Police Violence, Abuse etc.

But it was easy enough to experience this as a failure of the institutions commitment or knowledge to the “authentic” progressive religious tradition: Feed the poor, Love the stranger, don’t torture animals, justice justice pursue and so on. Easy enough for many religious people concerned about injustice and exploitation to find common cause with traditional religion, the Torah chief amongst them, criticizing slavery and abuse of all human kinds.

As a young adult, I wrote a whole book comparing and relating the suppression of Marijuana and natural plant medicine to the suppression of Israel and the Jewish people. It was easy enough of an argument to make: illegal and blamed because of, not our actual threat or danger, but because of our traditional healing and blessing capacity and tendency. History and modern culture have validated my conclusions and arguments, as marijuana, smoked and otherwise, has become incredibly uncontroversial and almost universally embraced by religious Jews and Jewish communities, only partially as an economic strategy, and more of a lean into being cool for cools sake, a way to appreciate and enjoy life and the avodah of the religious identity all the more so.  It’s easy to be cool with that which is both precedent within a tradition

Queer identities are not like that. Not for me, and so, as easy as it’s been to “be cool” and just love everyone personally despite their Sabbath violations and Immodest clothing, my public relationship to advocacy for queer rights and issues has been so much more limited than my public relationship to every other progressive issue, from Cannabis legalization to Refugee protection, from advocating for more free money and nutritious food for the poor and needy to a Woman’s Right to Choose to have an abortion, every other progressive value has felt –easy– and safe to identify with and advocate for whole heartedly within the religious tradition. Even advocating for Palestine! I’m not always so motivated to do it, but when I have been, it’s been easy and comfortable to do so in the name of Traditional Jewish Values, as Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum has long testified. Queer identity is so different.

Because the Torah, both written and oral, are relatively clear in their vilification of Gay Male stuff. Whether as ritualistic or recreational, the wall of homophobia that built traditional Jewish religious identity is pretty deeply imbedded. Maybe this became more pronounced in the context of Greco-Roman Hellenisms’ advocacy for a strong Gay Male supremacy and hierarchy, or maybe it’s just been a part of the existential criticism of exploitation, specifically of the most classically male and military form (anal rape) and maybe it just reflects the sublimated nature of the male-on-male love thing in the construction of Jewish priesthood and Torah discourse… it’s hard to know. Hard to know and thus hard to overcome in the context of the Torah’s own self-critical modality of exegesis into transformation of old norms and structures into modern, kinder and more humanistic forms that still retain the gravitas and weight of the ancient methods and priorities.

It’s different now. Queer Identity and queer discourse as we have it now is a special and redeemed thing, made of sensitivity to the fundamental nature of people and their passions, our feelings and needs, beyond urge and impulse, beyond power and ego. There is our essential selves, understood most fundamentally by that which we are into, drawn towards, excited and relieved by.  Traditional religion, even ours, the most flexible and adapted of orthodoxies, long divorced from it’s original context and only in the last hundred years or so returned to something resembling it, has not been enough.

If there is one thing from traditional religion that can help overcome whatever is most fundamentally wrong within traditional religion, it’s Moshiach.

By this, I don’t mean anyone in particular: Shneerson or Jesus or anyone. I mean the traditional knowledge and rule that when redemption becomes closer and G-d’s truth more revealed, the things we may have thought were the most problematic become inverted to become the most redemptive. This is the (secular, unspecific) messianism that makes space for the divinity of the new, the righteousness of the unprecedented. “We” sometimes identify this with modern movements and frameworks, like Liberalism, Free-Market Capitalism and/or Communism, etc, any triumphal movement that offers to, and appears to suceed at, making the world at large a better place forever. Every particular movement and and system does seem to fail in its way, reflecting the limits of blind idealisms in the face of pragmatic realities when it comes to sustaining privileges, norms and stabilities, and this is certainly the aspect of the traditional failed messiah, Moshiach ben Yosef: every great movement inhibited by the limits of its own nature into a tragic cycle not unlike the archaic monomyth that began and begat all cathartic theater.  I have feared the impulse to misromanticize movements and identities that I don’t understand or identify with for this reason: it’s awful to be wrong in an idealistic way, mostly since what becomes validated is then the most cynical and unidealistic of conservative responses, usually mostly the violence.

This is why we need a better moshiach, and better messianic priorities ultimately: to make queerness kosher, so we don’t have to fear and hate our kids, our families, and ourselves, for what and how we love. This is something we mostly can’t do just from exegesis or hermeneutic, reason or rhetoric: it comes from the sort of universal clarity and shining of a light on True Virtue Right Now, from listening to where the pain is, and where the pain really shouldn’t be anymore.

R Avraham Kook, the founding theologian of Religious Zionism is quoted as saying: It used to be that people weren’t religious because they felt like the religion was too good, and they couldn’t be good enough for it. But as moshiach is coming, people will stop being religious because, at least, they’ll feel like the religion isn’t good enough, and needs to be better.

The irony of R Kook’s specific understanding of Moshiach and Jewish Messianism is self-aware: there is a tradition of trusting a moral secularism more than a pious and self-righteous frumkeit that tells us to distrust our children and families and selves. The Jewish religion is itself based on an act of ritual desecration, a “Toevah” abomination done purposefully to overcome the Egypt slavery that made such a thing as eating Muttonflesh into inconceivable taboo– this is what the initial Passover sacrifice was, and the story of it is our main story. This is part of why the founding moment and gesture of Rabbinic Judaism is the similarly taboo and forbidden Writing of The Oral Torah, justified by a Rabbi in a generation of Rabbis insisting that “It’s a time to do for G-d so… overthrow his law!” is the proper way of reading Psalms 119:126

It’s time for us to do this again. Not to win a war and defend our physical reality, like in the founding of modern Zionism, itself a revolt against a taboo that no longer seemed to help us. But to win a war against our own repressive impulses, and our own piety, extended outwards. A better piety is rarely violent, and does not project impurity on others.

What is the problem with being Gay according to the Torah? If it was clear, it’d be easier to recontextualize, and make clear how much modern queer and even trans identity is so much an expression of how genuinely different the world and its dynamics are and might be nowadays. It’s not so clear, and this is the nature of “toevah”, long clarified by Rabbi Steve Greenberg as a word for, not inherent “abomination” but more like regional taboo and hang up: it’s never clear what it’s about, which is what makes it taboo, rather than just “law”

This knowledge, these ideas, these arguments, made by R Greenberg and others since, have been impactful in many spheres– but the heart of Orthodox religion lives unexamined in the hearts of people outside of these discourses, explanations and justifications. And in defense of whatever orthodoxy “we” identify with, it’s easier to be angry with people for bringing these issues and the moral crisis implicit within them to the surface than it is to integrate OUR frumkeit with our moral and natural love and support for Each Other.

Maybe we don’t have time for that anymore: equivocating or negotiating around “kosher” enough forms of social engagement. Justifying of religious identities and conceits for their own sakes, amidst people being murdered by strangers because of what bar in what small town they are in. The violent modern legacy of homophobic violence points a finger towards that one pasuk in Leviticus that codified and justified so much of what Christianity and Islam used to repress the perceived queer and feminine within the worlds they controlled and animated.  The core justification for all of homophobia, ultimately, is just us: Jewish traditional values.

“The prophet Ezekiel wrote about the sin of Sodom and her daughter Gomorrah. Interestingly, Ezekiel never mentions anything about sex – homosexuality as an orientation wasn’t even on Ezekiel’s radar when discussing the sin of Sodom.

Ezekiel wrote that Sodom “and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen” (16:49-50)

The warning of the Sodom and Gomorrah story has nothing to do with homosexuality. The story never mentions two men living in a committed same sex relationship. It’s about the men of Sodom refusing to show hospitality to strangers and refusing to meet the needs of the poor and the marginalized.

Indeed, the story of Sodom is a warning. It tells us that when we unite against vulnerable people we are going against the will of God.

Our LGBTQ siblings are vulnerable. If they are anyone in the Sodom and Gomorrah story, they are the angels in our midst.

The above quote is from a Christian anti-homophobia website, and they make what is ultimately a very Jewish argument: Sodom and Gomorrah were never about attesting the evil of Gay impulses, they were about the evil of exploitation, and there is not, nor can there ever be, a genuinely kosher form of exploitation. This, in the traditional narrative, was the entire sin of Sodom: a prohibition on poverty, where the poor were meant to be exploited by the rich and powerful, and this was understood as nature. This is the sodomy that longs to be annihilated, not some happy young people in a club, dancing and holding each other closely.

It feels strange to say these things “out loud,” because this feels like a deeply understood truth. But it’s not. Even as the horror that happened in Colorado this week, where a trans dance club was targeted and 5 people killed, shocks people, I notice how much of an issue homophobia has been in the last two Israeli elections, quietly making the wedge between one group of racist Jewish fundamentalists and another, between one group of relatively progressive Arabs and the less progressive ones who could not unite to make coalitions in the end.

Between the hope and possibility of a genuinely positive religious fiat and authoritative movement in Israel, and the reality of the petty and disquieting standards that an Orthodox Jewish Taliban would actually prefer to impose, given actual control and power, not to just feed the poor and prevent exploitation but probably more just to control the public display of women, queers, and anyone else on the gender spectrum. How much of the horror of the World Cup celebrations in Qatar function as display of a slave state that worked literally 6500 people to death over the last few years to build a hosting apparatus that also forbade displays of rainbow armbands, as well as alcohol and, oh yeah, maybe kosher food and public Jewish prayer.

Essentially: it’s way past time we had more than a heter, but an embrace and identification with the Gays, Lesbians, Bi-Trans-Queer-Intersexuals and Asexuals as קופרי עבודה זרה, as repudiaters of the lie that people shouldn’t be trusted to love who they love and build lives around that love.  It’s obviously a challenge for traditional peoples to integrate that into our theologies and general concern, but the more people are blamed for the problems in the world, the more people are disenfranchised and hated as an excuse to not point fingers at the actual people in positions of actual exploitive authority, the more we, as traditional frum Jews, really should identify with them, rather than the other angry conservatives we might naturally feel more affinity with, in our shared fear of a future and love based world we can’t begin to understand or trust. This is the moshiach i’m waiting for, committed to, and alive with: the one that loves love, and builds everything around that.

About the Author
Yoseph Needelman-Ruiz a.k.a. Yoseph Leib Ibn Mardachya is the author of "Cannabis Chassidis: The Ancient and Emerging Torah of Drugs" (Autonomedia press, 2012) an epic devotional study of Cannabis and other ethneogens in Judaism and its heresies throughout history, into super-modernity, in the hopes of passing on a useful counsel with regards to their use beyond "do" or "don't." He is currently working on a book about Pop Cartoon Kabbalah, and alternates between leading services and sermons in Williamsburg Brooklyn at Cong. Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom, and living in Israel's Elah Valley.
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