Tag Archives: LGBT and Jewish

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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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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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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Yisrael Means “Wrestling with G-d”

Surprise! New blog. If you’re interested in someone who has wrestled with G-d his whole life, you’re in the right place. Read on.

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