Okay, honestly this unit is so multifaceted it might take several blogposts to say all that I need to say, but I will start off with the obvious: reactions to the documentary.
I felt my heart twist at some particular moments, certainly. Israel’s tirade against the God of an Orthodoxy that would deny him happiness and full spiritual health and connection, for example, was one of the most powerful parts of the film, in my opinion. And conversely, when David, our Jewish Englander, asserted that it was such a nice “present” just to be Jewish in the first place, I felt my heartstrings tug painfully. Each of these men is gay and desires to be close to Jewish culture (Israel), if not participate fully in Orthodoxy (David). But they chose such different routes to struggle through their sexualities and religiosities, and I can’t help but wonder who is happier. I know it is probably a facile question, since their situations in life are so very different, but I just wonder which is the less painful set of circumstances, assuming they feel this way: being repeatedly kicked out of yeshivas for “gay activity” while making honest efforts to be a full participant in Orthodox life, or cutting all ties with family and religious life in order to fully live out one’s life with a loving partner.
Then again, once a part of the tribe, always a part, right? When Israel closed his eyes and began to sing a traditional religious song in Hebrew, he still remembered the words after years and years of being separated from the synagogue. This seems to support the notion that once one incorporates halakhah into his or her life, it never truly goes away—after all, Jews return to the same words repeatedly, since no word is redundant. There is always potential for other meanings that can be wrung from the texts by which they live their lives, or once did.
Reconstructionist Jew Judith Plaskow, a lesbian feminist, helps illustrate this process by deeming it “Godwrestling”: a means by which Jews, particularly women and even more particularly lesbian women, can reinterpret halakhah in an attempt to understand the text in a way that is less heteronormative and patriarchal, and more open, modern, and accepting.
Of course, this is all very reductive and I’m probably butchering her argument, but in her book Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, she states that halakhah can “replace God as the center of religious life or lead to God as its purpose and meaning. It can be a wall between the individual and the world or a way to apprehend the world more deeply” (70).
I could quote Plaskow all day, and there was literally a period of about two weeks when I ran around telling all my friends how she had changed my life and how I finally UNDERSTOOD the way I felt about God/deity/etc. But all my personal feelings aside, Plaskow makes a great point: the process of interpretation and, in that vein, reinterpretation is the key to success as a queer Jew. As Aviv and Schneer note, “homogenizing” queer Judaism is riddled with its own set of problems, but as Jews, they pride themselves on straining the word and picking it clean for all new revelations and insights…and they are neverending. This ceaseless process, this Godwrestling and careful combing of religious texts, is just exactly what may save this unique sect of Jewish society.
Also, speaking of gay Jews: I was SO thrilled to come across the last line of “America” by Allen Ginsberg in our reading today! Talk about a Jew who branched out: Ginsberg became really “into” Buddhism, drugs (particularly marijuana and hallucinogenics), and a life of wild and artistically-recorded homosexuality. Here he is, for your viewing and listening pleasure, reading “America,” the poem from which the line was drawn. Enjoy!
PS- side note: my boyfriend’s mother, who is both Catholic and Jewish, purportedly gave up matzah for Lent. I laughed sooooo hard!