Tag Archives: Jewish queer

Taking Back the Word “Morality” From the Right Wing

3 Tamuz 5774

Tell you what, friends and neighbors. I’m really troubled tonight. I’m going to come back to Epstein tomorrow, but tonight I need to vent.

I am tired of “family values” being a synonym for “keep women in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, and keep gays in the closet until they’re so far back in it that they can see Narnia.” I am tired of “moral” being a synonym for “repressed,” or “anti-sex,” or “anti-woman,” or “anti-gay,” or “Christian.” I am sick to death of morality being used as a bludgeon and one very small group of die-hard the-rules-are-everything people swinging it like a club at anyone who isn’t exactly like them. I have had it with “decency” being used to shame people for self-expression.

I’m not going to continue to support selfishness, or self-centeredness, or every-man-for-himselfishness. I’m not going to be silent when the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is considered the right way to live, even if you have no boots. I’m not going to let people say that the poor are just lazy, or that women should know their place, or that gays and lesbians are mentally ill or making a choice. I am not going to stand by while my brothers’ and sisters’ blood is shed.

Yesterday morning, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the right to the freedom of religion, and that this means that corporations can deny women certain kinds of health care if it conflicts with the corporation’s “deeply held religious beliefs.” This follows on from a previous decision, Citizens United, which held that corporations are people and so, as people, corporations have the constitutional right to free speech – which is considered specifically as money and political contributions. What’s next? Corporations having the right to bear arms? Corporations having the right to vote? Those are constitutional rights guaranteed to people, too, right?

Last I checked, people were born and had hearts, and blood, and bones, and brains. They live, they breathe, they die. They marry. They have children. They divorce. Last I checked, corporations can’t do any of those things.

The fact is, today’s decision – and the ones leading up to it – are a horrific marriage of corporatism and religious self-righteousness. The Christian right and the corporations got in bed together way back when I was in high school, in the 1980s. Today, that marriage has borne fruit that I cannot even think about too much without beginning to shake in anger. Corporations have used far-right religionists’ anger about difference and dissent, and their determination to make their religious laws the law of the land, to forward their agenda of corporations eventually ruling the country.

This decision harms people of faith as well as women – although in its instant effect it certainly harms women far more. This decision opens doors to make it possible to rescind rights for women, people of color, GLBTs, and anyone who is part of a religion that doesn’t conform to the Christian far-right agenda for my country.

It also makes religious people look like sex-centered jackasses. It reduces religion to moral policing, rather than what religion was originally supposed to be – the drawing-together of community. Religion was never supposed to be the world’s moral policeman, but more and more, people are seeing it – and using it – as only that.

The mentality of the Christian right is one of the main reasons I find Judaism so appealing and so right for me. You see, Judaism does not teach that only Jews have a corner on the world to come. Christianity and Islam both teach that their way is the One True Way – the only way – to get right with G-d. Of course, One-True-Wayists annoy me anyway, but when religion affects public life, it’s a special kind of NO for me.

I’m also sick and tired of the Christian right saying that I’m immoral for being gay, or that my female friend is immoral for enjoying sex and not wanting to have to worry about getting pregnant, while at the same time refusing to say anything about the immorality of how the homeless, the poor, and the disadvantaged are treated in this nation and around the world.

So here’s my response to the Christian right’s straw-man morality.

Yes, our current world is immoral.

It is not immoral because there were Pride parades all this past week and weekend. It is immoral because people who are gay get attacked by Bible-thumping bullies and the bullies get away with it.

It is not immoral because women can protect themselves from having a baby that they may not be able to afford to raise, or that they may not be able to cope with (not all women are cut out to be mothers). It is immoral because a dedicated phalanx of whited sepulchers can bend the law to deny women the ability to avoid pregnancy. Pro-life positions that do not allow for contraception are not pro-life. They are simply pro-birth. Unless you care about what happens to that child after it’s born, you have a lot of nerve telling a woman to have a baby in the first place. Your position on this is immoral.

Our world is not immoral because poor people are lazy. It is immoral because poor people are demonized and we refuse to help them. It is immoral because we demand that the poor somehow produce miracles when we won’t even give them a helping hand. It is immoral because our elected officials cut food stamps, unemployment, and anything else that might help the poor get back on their feet.

Our world is not immoral because we have homeless people. It’s immoral because we do everything we can to make it impossible for them to live. It is immoral because instead of helping them get off the street and into housing, we put spikes on covered areas near buildings to ensure they have nowhere to sleep.

Our world is not immoral because capitalism exists. It’s immoral because the 1% have done everything possible to stack the capitalist deck in their favor. It’s immoral because we lionize the filthy-rich instead of shaming them for their selfishness and self-centeredness. It’s immoral because the Real Housewives of Orange County are looked at as role models.

Our world is immoral because it prioritizes financial success over personal connection. It is immoral because it prioritizes winning and competition over compassion. It is immoral because it prioritizes and rewards selfishness instead of kindness.

Last I checked, a Jew was required to show their morality through charity and kindness. I doubt there’s a Jew out there who supports this decision.

So don’t talk to me about morality, Hobby Lobby. Don’t even try to tell me that denying a woman the ability to be close to her partner with sex without the constant worry about pregnancy is moral. Don’t even try to tell me that letting the poor suffer instead of helping them is moral. Don’t even try to tell me that making it impossible for the homeless to live is moral. Don’t tell me that putting profits ahead of people is moral.

That’s not morality. That’s sin. And it has to stop.

 

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A Trip to the Fairfax District, and Shabbat/Oneg Friday Night

10 Sivan 5774

Friday morning and early afternoon, my Jewish best friend took me to the Fairfax district so we could do some Jewish-specific shopping. The night before we had identified a few shops we wanted to go to, including a Jewish thrift store.

I admit that even with a plan, I was kind of overwhelmed. Despite living in the Los Angeles area now, I grew up in a suburb. Crossing the border into Los Angeles makes my mind go offline as I can’t visualize the map, and in my head “Los Angeles” translates into “large undefined area that I can’t process.” It’s a thing. But this is why my partner or my friends drive when we go into LA instead of me. I’d get lost in a heartbeat, even with a GPS trying to tell me the way. As it was, we had some trouble getting to Fairfax because of unexpected traffic, but we did arrive where we wanted to be eventually.

I wore the borrowed cotton kippah that my temple had let me take home on Shavuot last week, and I found out that cotton cloth kippot are generally made of broadcloth. Broadcloth is so tightly woven that it does not breathe at all. So combine black color + broadcloth + Los Angeles midday sunshine and you get “very hot very fast,” so I was eager to find a few crocheted/knitted kippot that would breathe better. (Not to mention that that borrowed kippah was enormous – it covered as much of my head as a baseball cap would.

My friend drew my attention to the street when we got to the thrift store, our first stop. Up and down the street were two or three small kosher delis, a kosher butcher, a couple of stores that were obviously Judaica, a jewelry store, and a social-service agency that was aimed at Jews by the signage. Just standing on the sidewalk, I noticed that at least half the men walking by us were kippah-clad. Several had tallit katan showing under their t-shirts, as well. It felt like I’d come home – or as much like home as an urban area will ever feel to suburban-minded me.

We drove to a more upscale store after going to the thrift shop, and then a new kosher deli – Wexler’s – that opened up in the Grand Marketplace area of town for our lunch and that a friend of my friend’s had said was better than Langer’s (which she thinks is better than Canter’s, a deli that is known in LA for being “the best”). She wanted to confirm that Wexler’s really was better than either of those – and it turns out, it is. Go to Wexler’s if you’re in Los Angeles. Their pastrami is amazing!

I came home with two new kippot, a Mogen David, a chain for the Mogen David, and a few kippot clips. I’d originally intended one of the kippot for this Sunday’s West Hollywood Pride, among other queer-themed events where I want to be an obvious queer Jew-ish person, but I’m so tired tonight that I’m bidding my partner a good time and staying home tomorrow. (I’ll still wear the multicolor kippah tomorrow, though – it looks  something like the one on this page. Eventually I want to get one like this.) I put on the white-and-blue one as soon as I paid for it, and my head was noticeably cooler after that, although it kept sliding down the back of my head even with the clips, which frustrated me a bit. It looks pretty much like this one on this page. (I’m also looking forward to the sage-green-and-white one that a friend of mine in the South crocheted for me when she found out that I’m converting; that should be arriving sometime next week, I hope. I’m thrilled about that one too.)

The Mogen David and its chain were from the thrift store. My best friend bought me the star, and I bought the chain. She commented that it’s important that you not buy your own first Mogen David, and the shopkeeper’s face got a look on it that I couldn’t parse. My best friend later told me “That was the look of ‘Oh, this is a REALLY important purchase.'” I had thought it was disapproval – I’m glad I was wrong.

The Mogen David’s not especially big, but it’s bright silver and pretty obvious if I’m wearing anything dark behind it (which I do, most of the time). I keep catching myself playing with it, and grinning like a loon. This is what it looks like against my T-shirt:

2014-06-06 at 15.24.22

It’s about 3/4″ (2 cm) across from the tip of one star point to the one across from it. It’s very simple but it also makes the statement: Yes, I’m Jew-ish.

And after lunch, I got my very first anti-Semitic slur as we left the district on our way back to the car after lunch. The sidewalk was a little crowded, and a young woman simply shoved past me and said “fat k-ke!” as she did so. My friend was livid, but hey, apparently the bigots haven’t forgotten the classics. I was actually just annoyed. I guess I’ve taken enough abuse for being queer that being abused for being Jew-ish was just more of the same nonsense to me. Still, it’s a first that I won’t be saying the shehecheyanu for (although I did say that for the purchase of the Mogen David and of the kippot).

We intended to make Shabbat dinner before going to services but we left it too late; between Friday traffic and being tired, we bought but did not prepare any food for Shabbat dinner. Oh, well. I now have a good kosher red wine to use for a few future Shabbat dinners, at least. Instead, we had a snack and then walked over to temple to participate in Friday night services. And this time we actually got a minyan plus one extra! I noticed that the convert couple I met at Shavuot (husband is moving towards conversion; wife is born Jewish) was there and that the rabbi counted them both as part of the minyan, so I need to find out how he determines that when we have our appointment on Tuesday.

My friend knew most of the melodies that the rabbi used, but there were a few differences from her Reform services. The service was once again lots of singing and pretty informal; the oneg was fun even though I couldn’t eat anything (again – I need to bring a gluten-free contribution next time I think). The convert couple and I exchanged contact information and the husband said he would send me the rabbi’s booklist. When the rabbi overheard that, he said “Oh, this guy’s probably read all the books – I’ll have to think of something different for him to do.” (I’m still not sure if he was kidding or not.)

My friend will be coming over on Tuesday to go to my first appointment with the rabbi with me. I’m looking forward to it instead of dreading it, so I think that’s a good sign, right?

Next weekend both my partners and I are traveling on Shabbat so I won’t be able to observe it, but I plan to get right back to observance the week after. I’m sure HaShem will understand; I’ll still pray, but it’ll be alone instead of with a group this coming weekend.

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Kippah in Practice

Today was a busy day: my partner and I had to do laundry at the laundromat, and then hit Costco for our monthly grocery run, and somewhere in there we had lunch. But I left my kippah at home, because a) I felt conspicuous and b) I wasn’t sure he’d be comfortable with it, and the last thing I want to do is alienate him with my conversion by being that overt about it.

When we got home, though, and got everything brought in and put away, I put it on almost without thinking about it while he was in the shower.

He saw it when he came out and said, with a bit of confusion in his voice, “You’re wearing your kippah?”

So then I had to explain to him why I was wearing it. What it boils down to is this: I am moving towards being a Jew, and part of what I need to do is follow the various Jewish practices to see if they fit me or not. And wearing a kippah is just – part of that, for me.

More to the point, it feels right. I feel right wearing one. Another blogger I’ve recently started following said that wearing a kippah felt like being under a blanket, safe and protected. That it was very lightweight but you still felt it on your head. You’re aware of it, and of what it means. Yeah. That.

Other Reform and Conservative Jews (either by birth or by choice) that I’ve talked to and read have expressed similar sentiments. Michael at Chicago Carless has said that he rarely if ever takes his kippah off, and one of the reasons why is that he feels it would erase the evidence of a Jew in the world if he did. My best friend does not wear a kippah, but her Mogen David is always on and always obvious, for the same reason.

As for me? This is a public symbol of my identity. It’s like wearing my rainbow bracelet to identify myself as queer. It’s evidence of a person with this identity in the world. Not to wear it is becoming more and more unthinkable for me.

Tomorrow my best friend and I are going to the Fairfax district, finally!, and I hope to come home with several kippot for different occasions so I can return this workaday borrowed one to the temple tomorrow evening. But in the meantime? I’m going to wear it because it comforts me, it feels right, and because I want to.

My partner said that he’s fine with me doing that, so I might pick up a rainbow-themed one for Pride on Sunday, too.

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My first Torah study session

So I went to the Tikkun Leil Shavuot at my temple tonight. I found out when I got home that the loaner kippah I wore is WAY too big for my head – ack. But that’s vanity, and minor anyway.

The lessons were interesting. First, of course, we studied the giving of Torah – and the 10 “Commandments,” which (we counted) are more like 17 declarative statements and four promises, depending on whether you count each separate “covet” commandment as a new commandment, but anyway. That part of the lesson dealt with two things – what are the declarations? and what is this thing about Moses going back and forth between the people and G-d?

The first part I don’t think I need to go into detail about, partly because we weren’t allowed to take notes and my memory is not wonderful. The upshot here included a fable that the rabbi told about Moses having to justify why humans needed the Torah and angels did not. It was pretty good, actually. I wish I had a copy.

The second part had several interpretations: Moses needed to have power over the people to be an effective leader; G-d only wanted to deal with Moses; Moses was acting as a buffer/ambassador between G-d and the people much as the Americans were acting as diplomatic go-betweens at the Camp David talks between Egypt and Israel; but the one the rabbi presented us with was interesting. Here it is:

We only pray if we’re actually speaking – whether under our breath or not doesn’t matter. Our mouths have to move for it to be prayer. It has to be deliberate action. What we think is between ourselves and ourselves – our own stuff, in our own heads. It belongs to us and it doesn’t have consequences until and unless we act upon it. Essentially, by making Moses a go-between, G-d was saying “Yeah, you all know I could read your minds – but I won’t. You get the privacy of your own skulls and minds.”

I REALLY like that interpretation, and I said so. The way I was raised? G-d hears everything you think, too.

Another point of the lesson was – human beings are not perfect. We are not angels. And we are not expected to be angels. We are expected to do our best and be honest about it.

Then we got into an interesting Babylonian Talmud reading. I’m not sure how to name it (because I can’t find what I thought was the name of the tractate it’s from) but apparently it’s Shabbath 33b through 34a. This tractate is long, and I’ll come back to it in future posts I’m sure, but the upshot is: two rabbis, a father (who spoke against Rome) and a son, paid for it for 13 years of being in hiding from the Roman emperor, who had sentenced the father to death. Their being in hiding is a little weird, and I’ll talk about that in depth in another post after I’ve slept on this, but when they emerged, they were furious that the regular people were not doing what they had been doing for the last decade-plus: studying Torah. It took a while for them to be convinced that it was okay that not everyone was studying Torah in the depth that they had been (because they were in hiding – what else was there to do?). They were judgmental and self-righteous until they realized that they had judged unfairly – and it took a while.

Now the interesting thing here is that these were tied back to the original Torah study, which I guess is the point. Yes, study Torah – but yes, do the real work of life, too. One of the minyan present talked about a poster he’d seen in Israel which directly challenged the Orthodox haredi (who rarely have jobs outside of Torah study, apparently) that listed all the important rabbis and their worldly professions (vintner, doctor, cobbler, etc.), making the point that they were not just rabbis – they did their Torah study in their spare time.

After the study was over, I got to chat with E, one of the other gentlemen there, who is also converting. He encouraged me to come to daytime services when there were going to be a lot more people – and he cautioned me that when and if I do, to be sure to borrow one of the tallitot that the temple provides for people to wear during services, because that’s expected. He also said that he couldn’t find a non-Orthodox mikveh anywhere in this area, which makes me sad and stressed, but that he wasn’t in a hurry to take his dip, either. I am, but that’s me.

When I first got there, I introduced myself to the rabbi and the one other person who was there, and said “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m borrowing one of your kippot.” He said “Eh. Take it home, it’s fine.” So I did. And I felt conspicuous and completely right at the same time.

I like this temple. I hope that the rabbi and I click as well as we seem to have, tonight, when I talk to him on Tuesday.

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My Jewish Reading List: Books I’ve Read So Far, and Questions I Want To Ask

I’ve seen other Jews-by-choice make lists of the books they’ve read or are reading as part of their conversion process, and it occurs to me that it’d be a good idea if I had a booklist ready when I met with the rabbi next week – especially since there’s a very good chance I’ll actually meet him tonight at Shavuot services. So, here’s what I’ve read so far.

  1. Jewish Literacy, by Joseph Telushkin
  2. What is a Jew?, by Morris Kertzer and Lawrence Hoffman
  3. Becoming Jewish (A Handbook for Conversion), by Ronald H. Isaacs
  4. Why Be Jewish?, by David J. Wolpe
  5. The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, by Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin
  6. To Life! by Harold S. Kushner
  7. Living a Jewish Life, by Anita Diamant
  8. The Everything Judaism Book, by Richard Bank (this is not an especially good reference, in my opinion, for converts)
  9. Choosing a Jewish Life: A Handbook for People Converting to Judaism and for Their Family and Friends, by Anita Diamant (this is an excellent book for converts!)
  10. Read Hebrew in Just 90 Minutes, by Chaim Conway (still working my way through this one)

Other books that are not about Judaism and conversion specifically, but which have informed my understanding of Jewish life and practices because they have characters or important people who are either ethnically or religiously Jewish (or both), include:

  1. The Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank
  2. In The Presence of Mine Enemies, by Harry Turtledove
  3. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden, by Joanne Greenberg
  4. Just about any kids’ book by Judy Blume
  5. Any book that has a Jewish character in it

Other things that have informed my understanding of Judaism and conversion include several really excellent blogs on the topic, including Coffee Shop Rabbi and Chicago Carless.

There are other sources, mainly people, that have informed this journey as well.

I also know that if I’m going to meet with the rabbi, I should have some questions ready for him. So here’s a few that I’ve got lined up so far:

  1. What do you feel are the main requirements for a person to be a sincere convert to Judaism?
  2. What is your philosophy about converts and conversion?
  3. What is your understanding of tikkun olam?
  4. I will be in an interfaith, gay relationship. Does this pose problems for you, either personally or professionally, with taking me on as a conversion candidate?

Because, you know, I’m not asking any really risky questions or anything, right?

 

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A Talk With My Partner, and Shavuot

My partner had expressed interest in Judaism after the Seder we went to, but for him that faded, while for me it’s grown stronger. Instead, he’s renewed his interest in neopaganism and appears to be following that path as eagerly as I’m following the Judaic one. So I’ve kind of been on eggshells the last few weeks about a number of things, including my conversion and how it will affect him when he’s not going to convert as well. Today, we had a long talk – one of those ones you have every three or four years – and hashed it all out.

Although I’m not going to share the other things we talked about, because they’re not relevant, he told me, “Honey, I think that your conversion is wonderful. You’re so much happier now that you’re not hating G-d. I think this is totally the right thing for you to be doing, and I support you in it.”

He probably won’t come to most services with me, but he’s even fine with a mezuzah on the doorpost of our apartment, me saying the brachot at meals, and having Shabbat here on Friday nights. He and I are going to go shopping tomorrow to see if we can find a replacement for the broken candlestick so that I’ll have two again by the time Shavuot rolls around. (On a more pragmatic note, he also approves of my grain-free challah and hopes I make it more than once a week; I’ve ordered grain-free flour mix for that purpose and I still need to get more xantham gum.)

He works the swing shift on both days of Shavuot, so I will go to services one of the two days, probably on Wednesday morning. I’ll bake challah on Tuesday morning so I can bring a loaf of it with me to services for the Tikkun L’eil Shavuot, and I’ll attend services on either Wednesday or Thursday morning as well.

I’m trying to find dairy-heavy dishes to make for the first day of Shavuot, and I think I’ve found enough: potato kugel, cauliflower gratin, an egg-and-cheese frittata, and some hard cheeses just as they are (which tend to spike my blood sugar a lot less than dairy-with dishes, of course). I’ll leave cookie-making to those who know how to make them, however, so there won’t be rugelach or sweet kreplach on the table on Wednesday night, even though I’ve found gluten-free versions of the recipes – they intimidate me! Thursday I was planning a beef stew anyway, so the idea of “dairy on the first night and meat on the second” works out fine.

I’m just relieved that he and I had that talk. It’s going to be much less stressful now, going through my practices without thinking that he’s annoyed by them. There’s more than one way for a partner to be supportive when you convert, even if he doesn’t share your beliefs. He’s doing that, and I’m very, very lucky to have him.

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Ch-ch-ch-changes… and an appeal to my readers.

24 Iyyar 5774

So my partner told me today that he’s a little worried about my conversion changing me or making me want to leave him.

It’s a normal fear, I suppose. I just don’t quite know how to address it. And this isn’t the usual fear that converts face: my partner and I are queer. That does make it different, because there’s so few resources out there for people like us.

Now, I can’t imagine a future where I would leave him, for any reason. From my conversations with the people at the local temple yesterday, I don’t think that they would make him uncomfortable, or me either, just for being GLBT or for being an interfaith couple. When I brought it up last night, the rabbinical student said, “You will not be the first ones here.”

He was also worried that I was going to start keeping kosher, but I reassured him that that’s not going to happen, because of my own current dietary restrictions. But I can see his point. I will be praying a lot more than I have been, which up until I decided that conversion was right for me, was zero times per day.  I’ll be wearing a kippah most of the time, so it will change how I look. And those are mostly just surface changes.

Frankly, I think that he will enjoy some of the other changes – like the fact that I won’t feel the need to talk religious people down (although I still reserve the right to call certain religious people out on their bad behavior, but that’s a different thing). I’m already calmer than I was, and I think I’m happier. And I think he sees that. He’s already said he thinks this is a positive change for me.

I’m sure that part of his worry is: what will me being Jewish do to our sex life? And I’ve been wrestling with that in my own time, with a few trusted correspondents. Let me put it this way: I’m not going to let it damage our sex life.

But I think most of what he’s worried about is just the changes he can’t predict. The unknowns. And I can understand that.

So, since there are so few resources out there for queer people in this situation, I could use some help from my readership. Is there anything that you can think of that might make him really uncomfortable, that I can address now, to make it less scary? Any ways in which I can help him so that he doesn’t feel so threatened? Any heads-ups I should be giving him now?

And, while I’m at it: does anyone have any advice for me? I don’t mean just about my partner’s worries, but about my own coming out process as I begin to tell friends and family members what I’ve chosen to do. Really, I think one of the things that is stressing me out the most is that so few people that I care about know that I am moving towards conversion to a religious path, after being so vehemently atheist for so many years. When I came out as queer, there was one friend who was very dear to me that completely rejected me and never spoke to me again. That still hurts, and it’s been 14 years since it happened. And just in the last week, reading Facebook and another blog site that I’m part of, I see my atheist friends running down religious people simply because they’re religious, making really nasty and hurtful comments, and just generally being as intolerant as fundamentalist religionists are of anyone who isn’t exactly like them.

It took me over 20 years to understand that I can’t measure spirituality using the same tool as I used and still do use for the material world. I can’t expect my atheist friends to make the same shift as I have.

But it occurs to me I should probably document why I have.

I’ve mentioned the helicopters before. One of them was an article about near death experiences. What convinced me that they have to be the real thing – which means there has to be a soul or something beyond what our material self produces by electrical flashes in the brain – was that the people who went through the NDE could independently verify things that happened while they had absolutely no brain activity. Their lack of brain activity is a matter of medical record, and yet they knew things that they could not possibly know, if the “personality and self are entirely made up of electrical flashes in the brain” school of thought is true.

I am a scientist. At this point, the only explanation that fits the evidence is: there is a soul.  It is independent of the body. And we don’t understand anything about it.

Another helicopter is one I’ve talked about at length here: the fact that I equated my mother’s abuse with how G-d operates. When I realized that my view of G-d was based largely on a faulty filter system, that changed everything for me.

But do I expect these helicopters to mean anything to my friends who are atheist? No. I will be pleased and surprised if they do, but I expect to lose quite a few friends when I come out and say, “Hey, guess what? I’m converting to Reform Judaism.”

My partner is much more understanding than my atheist friends will probably be. For one thing, he believes in G-d. But he still has fears and I can understand that. So please, give me some ways to help him deal with the fears that he’s going to have.

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Hagah #3: The Law – Spirit and Letter

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.

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Filed under Conversion Process, GLBT, Hagah, Identities, Judaism

Hagah #2: “Coming Out” Has Many Meanings

16 Iyyar 5774

There are many guides on the web about how to tell your family or friends that you are converting to Judaism. Really, they’re very similar to guides about how to how to tell your family or friends that you are gay.

Most of those guides tell you to expect two things:

1. People will be shocked. Usually they will be shocked because this is a change and they didn’t expect it.

2. People will be upset. The upset usually comes because this change feels like a rejection of who you were to them, who they were to you, or both.

The usual suggested methods of dealing with their shock or upset are to remind them that you’re still the same person you’ve always been, and that this change has nothing to do with them, and it’s not a comment or a judgment on how they live their life.

That’s all well and good, but for people who have no prior experience in coming out, it can be terrifying. For many people, declaring that you are different from your parents, or your best friend, or your grandparents, or your coworkers, can feel like putting yourself on an island that no one else can really reach.

Also, I’m not entirely sure that it’s honest to say that you will be the same person you have always been. For example, being gay might mean that you choose a different church (being Jewish almost certainly means that!). It might mean that you no longer find certain jokes appropriate. It might mean that some of the topics of your conversation will change. Depending on which movement of Judaism you are converting to, it might mean you’re no longer available on Saturdays to mow lawns, hang out, or go to football games. It might mean that you have to be more picky about where you go out to eat if you are keeping kosher. Family holidays might become problematic.

On the other hand, this also gives you new topics of conversation. Who knows? Your parents might be absolutely fascinated about Pesach or Hanukkah. One of your friends might want to go to a Pride parade with you just to see what it’s like. So it’s not necessary to approach conversion conversations like this with fear.

Still, you will need to take into account the beliefs and practices of the person to whom you are coming out. That’s where it can get a little tricky.

Since starting this journey towards Judaism, I have realized that many of my friends may not be okay with me becoming religious. After 13+ years of being an atheist you tend to collect a lot of atheist friends. Many of my atheist friends are quite vehement about their position on Deity: that there isn’t one.

Part of the reason why I write this blog is to work through the objections that I expect from many different sides. I’ve mentioned my Christian correspondent, as well as my Gentile partner, as people whose concerns and questions I’ve already had to respond to. I’m sure that my atheist friends will have concerns and questions as well.

Answering their questions is very much like coming out as gay always has been. In a sense, I’m “coming out” as a Jew. Yesterday, I made my first foray into non-theist territory by telling one of my research partners, a non-practicing Jew, that I was converting.

He is not precisely atheist, but he is areligious. Culturally, he’s Jewish, but he doesn’t practice Judaism in a religious sense. And that turned out to be okay when we talked about my conversion. He said, “it shouldn’t be about whether we care if you convert. It should be about what works for you.”

Still, I know that some of my atheist friends may not take it very well when they find out that I am converting. But then again, I’ve handled this coming out process before, and I know that most people may be surprised, but very few of them will leave. I’ve already worked out many of my responses to the questions that I know they will have, just by posting here.

So I know what it’s likely to be like when I do come out. The friends I’ve told already are largely people of faith of some kind: Christians, pagans, other Jews. They’ve all been happy, so this has been a good start for me. My research partner’s reaction is also heartening. But there will probably be two or three friends who say, “How ridiculous. I can’t believe that you would be this weak-minded.” And I’ll lose those friends. It’s just part of what you get used to when you come out.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Hagah, Identities, Judaism

Wrestling Match #6: The Verses That Won’t Let People Live

15 Iyyar 5774

Please excuse any typos I don’t catch in this post, and probably the next few that will follow it. I sprained my wrist quite badly yesterday, and I am on doctor’s orders not to use my right hand for anything including typing and writing. Since I’m a professional academic who does a lot of typing and writing, this is a very frustrating situation for me. I am using a dictation program that really likes to insert random capitals and incorrect words, as well as putting ‘s after just about everything that should be a plural. This means I’m still doing a lot of left-handed correction by hunting and pecking on the keyboard.

So this won’t be a long post. But it occurs to me that as a queer man, there are some verses and texts in the Torah that won’t let people like me live. So this begs the question: why would I convert to a religion that has those verses in its scriptures?

The best answer that I’ve found so far has two main points: first, Reform Judaism leaves it up to the individual person which mitzvot they will follow. But that seems like too easy of a solution, doesn’t it? This also seems to be one of the Orthodox community’s biggest gripes about non-Orthodox Jewish traditions: if you can pick and choose, then what’s the point?

For me, part of this first point is that Judaism is not just about following every single rule to the letter. It’s also about walking with G-d. It’s also about how you treat your fellow human beings. It’s also about cultivating a sense of reverence and thankfulness. It’s also about mindfulness. If being Jewish were just about following the rules, then I would not be drawn to it.

But the second point, to me, is equally important, and that is this: part of our job as Jews is to interact with the Torah, and part of the interaction is interpretation and re-interpretation of what those texts or verses mean in today’s world. The best discussion of this issue that I have yet found is this drash from Rabbi Rachel Adler, Ph.D., at Beth Chayim Chasadim in Los Angeles, so I share it for you here:

Today, with my hand in the condition it’s in, this is what I can offer you. Rabbi Adler does a much more successful job of wrestling with this particular question that I could do on my own.

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Filed under Conversion Process, Drashot, Judaism, Wrestling Matches