Azriel Elul

Lo Zu HaDerech: On Queer Identity and (Orthodox) Jewish Culture

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Two steps forward, one step back . . . 

Such is often the way of political progress; such is the current state of LGBTQ inclusion in the Orthodox Jewish community. On one hand, we are now far from the reality in which LGBTQ Orthodox Jews were an unthinkable oxymoron. On the other hand, whether we look at the far-right homophobes in the current Knesset or the (now-multiple) controversies associated with Yeshiva University, it feels like this is only the beginning of a tidal wave of backlash and infighting. 

We can blame this dynamic on the so-called “culture wars.” We can blame it on the fact that homophobes and transphobes are now realizing, panicked, that there is no easy way to get rid of us; we are evidently here to stay, and they are reacting in the extreme. Whichever factors one might point to, it is increasingly clear that we must renew the call for acceptance and inclusion: what remains is the question of how. We have long mirrored mainstream American LGBTQ activists—but when their tactics no longer yield results (for us or for them), we are left essentially helpless. I do not think I am alone in sensing that we are at an impasse, unable to exit “survival mode” for something better. 

Moreover, we have also neglected to examine the deeper cultural—not just religious!—implications of the models of identity and community many of us seem to have embraced. Most Orthodox LGBTQ organizations use the term “queer” without addressing the normative cultural implications it evokes. I point this out not to malign Orthodox Jews who identify as queer, but rather to argue that queerness is not indeed a culturally-neutral framework for understanding and legitimizing the natural variations in gender and sexuality that occur in every human population. I am not asserting, however, that other labels in current use are unproblematic: while I use the terms “gay” and “transgender” to describe myself, even those feel restrictive more often than not. 

I write as someone who, all things considered, had a remarkably positive experience coming out: my immediate family was unconditionally supportive, we have a welcoming shul, and our little pocket of the Modern Orthodox community is overall very open-minded. It is not that I am lacking in adverse experiences as well, but it was made clear to me that my existence is not incompatible with the Torah or Jewish values—which is more than most LGBTQ Orthodox Jews can say. Yet at the same time, I feel that I am ultimately left as frustrated and directionless as anyone else, if for different reasons. 

Receiving support also meant being shoehorned into an identity that was, in retrospect, uncomfortable and unsustainable. Yes, I was encouraged to embrace my “queerness.” But that identity was grounded in a secular (that is, post-Christian) American subculture of which I was not part, and which I did not want to join. My attempts to syncretize those two identities felt forced and awkward. Despite everyone’s best intentions, I developed a double-consciousness: I was Jewish and I was queer, but not at the same time, not even in wholly supportive environments. I continued to feel that way until I dropped the label of “queer” altogether—but having an “integrated” sense of self comes at the expense of having the terminology or framework to describe myself and my experiences. 

* * * 

I have been considering how to talk about this issue without playing into right-wing talking points or simply saying something I don’t mean. I will begin by sharing specifically what I don’t mean, as it is likely easy to get the wrong idea. 

First, this is not a call for conformity to heterosexual and cisgender expectations. Some of us may appear outwardly to conform to these norms—save for the minor details of sexual orientation or medical history—but the existence of people who can “pass” should not define expectations for those of us who don’t or can’t. There will always be those who do not fit into the current system, and pretending otherwise causes such people a great deal of harm. 

Second, I am not referring to sexual ethics. (Or, at least, I am not discussing them here.) The gulf between queer sexual ethics and Orthodox ones—to wildly overgeneralize both groups, I admit—is wide. In general, queer perspectives on sexuality have not spoken to my sensibilities as an Orthodox Jew. And the lack of religiously and culturally sensitive resources dealing with sexuality has certainly had a negative impact on many of us. At the same time, I feel that this is an issue best left out for the time being; it is simply beyond the scope of this essay. 

What I am talking about is culture: the cultural norms that are assumed and upheld by the framework of queerness, and the ways that this negatively impacts Orthodox Jews who identify as queer. Again, I use the term queer because it best encompasses the phenomenon I am criticizing; those who use other terms for themselves and/or others are not exempt from this criticism simply because the terminology is different. I am talking about a widespread problem, and what I have to say arguably applies to all Orthodox LGBTQ organizations. 

I admit that I am being essentialist, perhaps unapologetically so. This discussion means to tackle “discourse” as much as it does reality—for the most part, it is an idea of queerness imported from white American culture specifically that informs the way Orthodox communities interact with queerness. From that angle, I am discussing not queerness per se (in the sense of all queer cultures and identities, which are many and varied), but rather queerness as it is understood and expressed in Orthodox spaces. That which is not significantly impacting the Orthodox discourse is not directly relevant to this discussion. I will be using the term and concept as they tend to be used in my own community; I write as an Orthodox Jew for an Orthodox audience. 

When I say that queerness is not culturally neutral, I mean for one thing that the assumed (or idealized) relationship between queer people and their communities of origin seems to be based on highly individualistic foundations. For all the emphasis on “queer community,” people’s communities and families of origin are being de-centered in our conversations. This is an understandable choice if it is truly not realistic to remain within the fold of one’s original community or family as the result of bigotry and discrimination. However, even those of us whose families and communities are entirely supportive are actively pushed to seek out distinct queer spaces and communities nonetheless! We are not being offered a path to meaningful self-actualization without at least some degree of separation from the families and communities that raised us. 

Further, there is the very formulation of queer community itself. I don’t mean to deny the meaning and solace queer frum Jews can find when creating community together—but there comes a problem when this is seen as an inherently necessary feature of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender existence. The idea that we are an inherently united social collective (or that we should be) does not reflect the reality of how we live and think about ourselves. Some of us are indeed part of queer communities, and many others use the term to imply a shared political struggle; ultimately, however, the use of the term “queer community” in Orthodox discourse has come to imply a reality that does not exist. 

These are not ideas that arose organically within the Orthodox community; they directly parallel ideas about queer identity and community in American culture, in which the collective demographic of all LGBT individuals is referred to as a “community,” regardless of actual social affiliations. Many people, especially in the younger generation, consider themselves to be part of a community based on identity alone: communal membership becomes not the product of one’s experiences or social ties, but rather of one’s immutable, ontological nature. In my experience, this has led to many (non-Orthodox and/or non-Jewish) queer people speaking for or over LGBT Orthodox Jews—after all, how could our experiences, identities, or values possibly differ from their own? The idea that LGBT people from different backgrounds may have different needs or different priorities than their own does not seem to register with them. 

Similarly, this real-world diversity and decentralization does not prevent the proliferation of a narrow definition of queerness within Orthodox communities—we seem to have internalized the idea of a universal “queer culture,” even when it does not necessarily reflect our own lived cultural experiences. It is not merely our own invention, of course: I am referring to queer culture as it is most widely understood in the United States and around the world. But despite the increasing globalization of queerness, certain norms and attitudes may not be universally well-suited for LGBT individuals of diverse backgrounds. Queer culture, even as it is brought into Orthodox spaces, has not shifted to suit our needs: it has more power to change us than we have to change it. 

Outside the realm of sexuality alone (which is a significant part of it), queer culture—as it is generally accessible in an increasingly globalized context—can be characterized by specific modes of self-expression and an irreverent, self-referential attitude. Dramatic self-expression ranging from drag performance to theatre is a typical feature. Pride parades are another very notable form of such self-expression. Additionally, there is a vast expanse of art, literature, and music which explore a diversity of queer themes. These are important ways for queer people to express themselves, make their presence known, and resist a world that frowns on nonconformity. 

But what are we as observant Jews meant to do with a subcultural identity that defines itself largely by irreverence? Queer culture is notable for its rejection of “respectability” and disregard for what mainstream society holds to be sacred. On one hand, this is an understandable response if society’s definitions of “respectable” and “sacred” condemn one’s very existence. On the other hand, this pervasive attitude makes genuine, serious engagement with mainstream religious ideas difficult if not impossible. To merely subvert religious bigotry would be to uphold it. To oppose something is to maintain it; walking backwards in the same direction can hardly take us anywhere new. 

* * *

This attitude impacts even those of us working squarely within the context of Orthodox religiosity. Sometimes this influence is subtle, other times less so. A somewhat recent instance comes to mind: last year, Rabbi Steven Greenberg published an essay on his Times of Israel blog suggesting that Purim be utilized as a “national coming out day” for Jews. He argues that the themes of Purim—with its hidden identities and revelation of secrets—make it a perfect candidate. More to the point, it would “assur[e] LGBTQ youth that the Jewish tradition recognizes their experience.” 

I dismissed his points when I first read the essay, and I later realized what had bothered me: Greenberg’s case implicitly leans into the aesthetics and norms of queer culture, even when they don’t align with those of Jewish culture. That is, Purim is generally viewed as our least “serious” holiday. It can be likened in some ways to Mardi Gras or Halloween: two holidays traditionally favored by queer communities, which I suspect is part of why Greenberg chose it. Additionally—like the two aforementioned examples—it is a holiday where open expressions of gender nonconformity are not uncommon. But the reason people can get away with that on Purim—as with the other two—is precisely because such expressions are not meant to be taken seriously in that context. 

For all Purim’s themes of subverted expectations and hidden identities, the “queer” identity must be the costume—with the authentic, safe, cisgender, heterosexual identity hidden just below the surface. We would ordinarily be anxious about a Jew doing what Esther did, hiding her Jewish identity and intermarrying: that would stoke the ever-present fear of assimilation. But we know from the start that her story is a subversion of such expectations. Unlike our day-to-day reality, there is no true danger. And despite the revelry and humor of our celebration, everything returns to a safe, secure, well-established norm once Purim is over. That is, in fact, an inherent feature of the holiday: it cannot be an agent of social change. And given that many consider it a mitzvah to drink ad d’lo yada, we should be glad of that! 

My point here is that mimicry of queer culture will not take us where we need to go. LGBTQ Jewish youth will most likely not feel affirmed by what Greenberg proposes. When we are operating almost exclusively within a framework borrowed from a non-Jewish subculture, it is likely that nothing will make us feel like we have a place in the Jewish tradition (much less the Orthodox community). The sense of disconnection from the Jewish tradition that so many of us struggle with is not the product of homophobia and transphobia alone, but indeed also the product of the identities we are made to adopt. 

I do not mean to imply that frum queer Jews universally or even typically conform to the norms critiqued above. (While I no longer identify as queer, my boyfriend still does.) But I also cannot ignore the larger trends taking hold within Orthodox communities, especially in our activism and advocacy. Cultural mimicry cannot be a solution to our problems, especially when we still face accusations that our desire for acceptance and inclusion is merely a product of non-Jewish cultural influence. Creating a comprehensive, inclusive framework for dealing with issues of gender and sexuality must mean addressing the cultural conflicts we’re experiencing as well as the religious ones. 

When gender and sexual minorities around the world are importing (Western, American) queer identity into their own cultures—adopting the same labels, the same aesthetics, the same (sub)cultural attitudes—we must understand that this is not an issue affecting Orthodox Jews alone. It is a global issue, and a longstanding one: people want their own societies and traditions to evolve, but are made to believe that this is only possible on the terms of Western culture. Thus progress takes on a characteristically Western (and, in our times, American) flavor, even among those who would reject making needless concessions to a culture and value system not their own. 

I cannot express the extent to which I am indebted to Jewish organizations and activists that have (for better or for worse) played by the rules of modern American LGBTQ identity categories, aesthetics, and narratives. I would not have the life I do without them; that much is undeniable. But I must now explicitly break rank: there will come a time when this approach does more harm than good, and it is on the horizon. I admit that I do not have the answers; I have only the will to search for them, to search for new words, new ways of thinking about these issues, new ways of existing. 

To invoke Greenberg once more, I must conclude with a renewed call for Orthodox Jews who are gender or sexual minorities to take up a kind of halachic satyagraha: the transgression (formally speaking) of normative halacha only for the sake of its own moral expansion, the adherence to truth at all times, and the rejection of coercing in favor of convincing. One must also keep in mind that Gandhi’s original conception of the satyagrahi was a person who followed all other areas of the law not begrudgingly, but enthusiastically. The ends, after all, will be determined by the means; I seek an end in which the halachic system remains fully intact without remaining static. The fact that I believe halacha should change does not mean I believe that it already has changed; halachic innovation takes time, and I willingly submit myself to that process. 

Understanding the systems of power to which we are subject—within our communities as well as outside of them—is our next step in moving forward. Where precisely that will take us is not yet clear, but in that uncertainty is freedom: we are not beholden to the choices currently presented to us, and may very well be able to chart a course that takes us further than anyone ever imagined. 

* * *


Ad d’lo yada – “until one cannot distinguish” (between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai); see BT Megillah 7b 

Cisgender – identifying with the gender one was assigned at birth; not transgender 

LGBTQ – acronym meaning lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer

Lo zu haderech – “this is not the way”; see Ahad Ha’am essay of the same title 

Queer – of, relating to, or being a person whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual and/or whose gender identity is not cisgender; here, used in relation to the larger identity category and subculture to which it may also refer 

Satyagraha – concept coined by Mahatma Gandhi, most accurately translated as “truth force” but often seen as synonymous with civil disobedience 

Satyagrahi – one who practices satyagraha 

Transgender – identifying with a gender other than that which one was assigned at birth 


Greenberg, Steven. “Between the hidden and the revealed: Purim as a Jewish National Coming Out Day.” The Blogs at The Times of Israel, 14 March, 2022.

Greenberg, Steven. Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. University of Wisconsin Press, 2004. 

Hajdenberg, Jackie. “Transgender woman who lost yeshiva job is excluded from YU-affiliated Orthodox synagogue.” The Forward, January 11, 2023.

Hernandez, Joe. “Yeshiva University cancels all clubs after it was ordered to allow an LGBTQ group.” NPR, September 17, 2022.

Keller-Lynn, Carrie. “Netanyahu puts extremist homophobic politician in charge of Israel’s Jewish identity.” The Times of Israel, 27 November, 2022.

This essay was originally published in V’eilu: A Zine for Progressive Thoughts and Ideas in Orthodox Judaism. Republished by the author with permission from the editor-in-chief. 

About the Author
Azriel Elul is a student in New York.
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