18 Iyyar 5774
I grew up in a rule-bound religion, with the emphasis on following the rules, rather than understanding their intent or their spirit. In my experience, Catholicism doesn’t leave much wiggle room for people who don’t fit inside what is actually a very narrow rule set.
Every religious movement has its rules lawyers: the people who, when faced with a hard question, will check the rule book. Indeed, this phenomenon goes beyond religious groups to cultures, societies, and nations. It becomes more prominent when the rules are written down, but even when most of the law is unwritten, there will be people who push for strict adherence to it.
I will use the gay community and its norms as an example of this rules-lawyering. The modern gay male community, at least the one that is most prominent and visible, has a very distinct “look”: Young (under 30 years old), white, athletic, well-off. In recent years, “straight-acting” has been added to this list “what gay males are like.” Queeniness and effeminacy are no longer considered appropriate. In this most visible of all the gay communities, you are expected to work hard and play hard, be sexually active and attractive, find social activity to be extremely important… Well, you get the picture.
None of these norms are written down anywhere, except in books of comedy about the gay community. But they are enforced in dozens of subtle and unsubtle ways, including being part of the in crowd this week and on the outs next week.
However, adherence to these norms is only the surface of what it means to be a gay male. Being gay is not about following these norms; it is about being attracted to people of the same gender. As a mid 40s, heavyset, un-athletic, slightly queeny gay male, I don’t fit the “letter” of gay community norms, but I absolutely fit the spirit of them. Men are hot.
But even if you fit the spirit of the norms, if you’re attracted in any way to people who are the opposite gender, you are told that you’re not really queer, or to get off the fence. I still respond “gay” about half the time when asked what my sexual orientation is, because in the main I’m attracted to other men. My female partner is a rarity for me.
Some gay men can’t handle the idea that I have a girlfriend. In their heads that fundamentally makes me not gay. In their heads, anyone who is ever attracted to someone of the opposite gender cannot be gay. (I suppose they’ve never heard of the Kinsey scale.) But I’m still gay, for all that. I had to figure out which sub-community of the gay community I actually belonged to when I first came out. I found it–the bear community–but it took a while, and in the meantime I wondered how I would ever meet the standards set by those unwritten rules.
Finding out that I didn’t have to meet them once I found the bear community was a relief. But there will always be gay men who judge anyone who doesn’t fit those standard norms as “not really gay.” And I just have to live with that, while continuing on as the gay man that I am.
In the same way, there will always be Orthodox Jews who have decided that halachic orthodoxy is the only right way to be a Jew, and who will reject me because I do not fit the letter of their laws – they feel that I am not halachically acceptable. That still doesn’t make me any less of a Jew, however. They may never accept me, but I don’t need them to accept me. I just need my sub-community of Judaism to accept me.
I affirm that G-d is One. I affirm that we received the Torah at Sinai. But I also affirm that halacha is as much about the spirit of the law as it is about the letter of the law: to do what is right, to show mercy, and to walk humbly with our G-d, in the words of Micah. What “right” is cannot be solely tied to a narrow, letter-only interpretation of the Torah. There will be times when we must work on Shabbat. There will be times when we cannot keep kashrut. And many of the texts which do not let people live must be understood for what they are: a product of their time, written down by men who tried to understand G-d as best they could, and who ended up putting G-d in a box.