In the almost three years that I’ve lived in Israel, I’ve found that being gay here isn’t so different from being gay in America. Though there are differences in the status and rights of the LGBT community in each country, for the most part I’ve been accepted and challenged to the same degree here as I was on the other side of the Atlantic. The one significant difference I’ve discovered is that in Israel my private navigation of a dual gay-Jewish identity seems to be a topic open for public debate.
Growing up in America, I was frequently the only Jewish and openly gay person in a room which, while often isolating, allowed me to live according to my own narrative. When curious friends at Greenhill asked me if Judaism permitted homosexuality, I was able to answer that the Judaism that I practice absolutely does. Given that my knowledge of Jewish laws and history usually exceeded that of my gentile peers, my response went unchallenged. Even in predominantly Jewish spaces like BBYO, those who may have otherwise contested my liberal interpretation of Halacha kept their opinions to themselves.
In Israel, I haven’t been afforded the same luxury. In stereotypically assertive fashion, Israelis ask me- almost immediately upon finding out that I’m gay- how it is that I am a practicing Jew.
Sometimes I’m asked by religious people who want to know how I reconcile my sexual orientation with what they as a clear Halachic injunction against homosexuality. Other times I’ll be asked by secular acquaintances who are perplexed by my embrace of a faith system that, in their eyes, doesn’t embrace me in return.
No matter who’s asking, Israelis are uniform in their belief that they deserve an answer. Day after day I’m asked to explain the intimate details of my ongoing theological struggles to complete strangers. For as citizens of a nation state, people here feel a collective ownership of the Jewish narrative, so any individual’s personal practices can be construed as an affront to other’s beliefs.
The truth of the matter is that there’s no one way to reconcile homosexuality with traditional Judaism. Though over the years different movements have tried to adapt their theology to be more welcoming, in the end each LGBT member of the Jewish community has to define our own relationship to our faith. In Israel I’ve encountered two main approaches: the secular LGBT Jews who don’t abide by Halacha and live openly gay lives; and religious Jews who spend their lives cowering in shame behind the closet door, committed to marrying opposite sex partners despite their innate orientation. Those of us who identify as both openly gay and proudly religious are therefore in a peculiar position, committed as we are to a faith system that on the surface seems to oppose our existence.
Many prominent rabbis and organizations, committed to redefining Judaism’s relationship to homosexuality, have broken new ground in their interpretation of Halacha. Many have contextualized the Leviticus 20:13 prohibition against homosexual relations as an injunction against the cruel rituals of neighboring pagan tribes; most have struck down the law, along with Halacha permitting slavery and rape during wartime, as completely incompatible with the core values deeply imbedded in Judaism- namely, that all human beings are created in the image of a glorious God.
I’ve personally been struggling with my relationship with Judaism since the night I realized as a sobbing eleven year old that my wedding wouldn’t be the traditional one I’d always imagined. In the years since then I’ve prayed and struggled a whole lot more and I’m not much closer to an answer. Since moving to Israel, however, I’ve been forced to confront as never before the inconsistencies of my complicated heritage.
Most days I wish I didn’t have to deal with the exhausting interrogations of curious Israelis. But I’ve realized that their unwarranted queries stem from deep within the national psyche; after so much struggle, Israelis are determined to hold one another accountable for the choices we make. For while fighting every day for our survival, it would be true heresy to live anything but intentional, proud Jewish lives. We all get a say in what that means.