Find Your Queer

[Dvar Torah on Parshat Chukat, delivered at Mishkan, Friday, June 14, 2013]



[Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to thank the fabulous and very wise Mary Otts for helping me think through this talk; it is virtually impossible to tease out Mary’s Torah from mine here, and too cumbersome to say: this was my idea; and that was Mary’s idea, from line to line. So: what you like…that’s Mary’s. What you don’t…that’s mine.]

It’s Gay Pride Month, of course, so I wanted to be even a little Queer-er than usual tonight! So here goes… 

I’d like to begin by acknowledging and recognizing those visibly queer members of the Mishkan community—they are on the board, make the food, lead the davening, greet you at the door, and are such a big part of what makes Mishkan such a welcoming, loving, safe place to be Jewish. These are the folks on the front lines of not only the battle for sexual and gender equality, but who are, I believe with all my soul, in the vanguard of what it means to embody Jewishness. 

My talk tonight is an attempt to tell you what I mean by that. I’d like to begin to workshop some ideas I’ve been playing with toward the development of a queer Jewish liberation theology. So, please do stop me at any point with questions or comments. That will, honestly, help me think…plus, it’ll be more fun.

So…Miriam Grossman recently turned me on to a Black Christian minister and theologian named James Cone, and he is totally blowing my mind. He is the creator of the first black liberation theology.

Cone’s basic thesis is that 1) our understanding of God cannot be separated from our lived experience in the world, 2) that God stands with the oppressed and is always on the side of the victim, and 3) that liberation of the slave, the poor, the oppressed and the powerless is what God is all about. 

Cone roots this claim in the Exodus from Egypt. It is precisely what we, in the Jewish Tradition, call the “ethics of Exodus”—the notion that our morality is rooted in the formative experience of having been slaves in Egypt and it is that experience which renders us empathic beings, and out of which all Jewish ethics—in fact, our very humanity—grows. 

[That we were slaves in Egypt is mentioned nearly a hundred times in the Torah, and is the explicit reason given for dozens and dozens of mitzvot—from befriending the stranger, to leaving unharvested crops in the fields for the poor, to not taking interest on loans, to having fair weights and measures, to the observance of Shabbat, sukkot, pesach, kashrut, the making of sacrifices, and the building of the Mishkan itself.]

For Cone, in order for you, if you’re a white person, to be authentically Christian, you have to become conscious of how your whiteness informs your understanding of God, Christ and scripture, and to be committed a) to dismantling that lens and b) to so deeply live from that place of empathy with the oppressed and the powerless, that you are—ontologically, if not physiologically—black.

To quote Cone: “…an authentic understanding [of the true word of God] is dependent on the blackness of [the white person’s] experience in the world.” 

Let me repeat that: “…an authentic understanding [of the true word of God] is dependent on the blackness of [the white person’s] experience in the world.” 

He goes on to say: “There will be no peace in America until white people begin…asking from the depths of their being: “How can we become black?”

When I read this, I felt a deep resonance between his ideas about blackness and my own ideas about queerness. 

OK, so, first of all, what do I mean by Queer. Some of you have heard me talk about how I understand the word Queer. There’s Queer #1, Queer #2, and Queer #3. It basically goes like this: Queer #1 means what most people understand it to mean—you’re something other than heterosexual or the way you express your gender is something other than the typical male-female binary. You’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, transgender, or differently gendered. 

Then there’s Queer #2. you’re also queer if you’re, let’s say, “queer-headed”—if you “get it” so deeply that, for you, anyone who’s Queer #1 is no more different from you than someone with a different hair color—yet, while you understand that you can never fully experience the depth of what it means to walk through the world as a queer person, you can empathize with them in a very deep, and informed way, you’re perfectly comfortable with them—and the ultimate litmus test is: we’re perfectly comfortable with you. 

Queer #3 is the way I talk about the Rabbis, for example. It has no direct connection to people who are sexual or gender minorities—but refers to those who are outsiders themselves and use the insights and perspective of the outsider to critique the majority culture. 

OK, so now that we know what it means to be Queer, what does it mean to have a Queer Community? A Queer community is a community of people in touch with, aware of, and unafraid to speak from, and about, their queer experience—people who understand that it is that queer experience which gives them their svara, their compassion, their insight, their humanity. They understand that it is that uniquely queer truth about them which is the missing puzzle piece that they need to be whole.

And they come out of the closet not only for their own survival but because they know that they have something that is essential for the survival of the rest of us. [That’s pure 100% Mary.]

OK, now: What does Queerness have to do with Judaism? Judaism is an enormous system of technologies designed for one and only one purpose: to help each of us become FULLY HUMAN, HUMAN BEINGS. What does that mean? What do we think a fully human, human being looks like? It is a person who, among other things, is empathic, self-aware, and profoundly connected to other human beings. This is why Judaism is interested in creating people who are QUEER. Because that’s what Queer people are like.

I would like to suggest that you cannot be FULLY HUMAN until you have “found your queer”—until you have located that place within you which is spurned, rejected, misunderstood or simply not valued by the majority culture, by your family, by your partner, the place where your lived life story reveals some part of your inherited story to be a lie—that place that causes your world to crash. It is something you likely have been taught to feel shame about, some aspect of yourself that you are shy or reluctant to share. It is something that you experience as separating you from your Tradition, or your family, or your peers—and, until you come to embrace it, from yourself. 

When you find your queer, you can speak with passion and conviction, but also with humility and empathy. Your queerness teaches you about the world, about life; it becomes a lens with which you see everything—and while it may seem, at first, that this lens would cause you to see the world as us-and-them, it is, ultimately, what allows you to connect to others, to form community. It is what allows you to see not just yourself in others, but others in yourself. To paraphrase Mary here: It is not that you come to know a gay person, or a black person, or a disabled person and realize “they’re just like me”—but rather, when you understand: “I’m just like them!” 

I am queer because I’m a lesbian. I met a middle-aged man the other night who looked like the straightest guy in the world—but once we got to talking I found out that he has a transgender son whom he loves deeply, accepts completely, and is struggling to understand. He’s queer. My friends in recovery are queer. My non-Jewish friends who’ve found a home in the Jewish community are queer. My women friends who grew up Orthodox and now wear pants are queer. If you are intermarried you are queer. If you are Deaf, you are queer. If you are adopted, you are queer. Our special-needs kids are queer. Their queerness makes us, their parents, queer. 

But, there’s a big IF here. It is not simply the fact of these aspects of ourselves that makes us queer. We are only really queer if we use these aspects of ourselves, if we live from those places, if our queerness profoundly influences our choices, our actions, and our alliances…if we allow ourselves to be visible, and transparent, in our queernesses.

That’s what it means for a white person to be black, and for a heterosexual person to be queer. And if “blackness” and “queerness” can be mobile in this way, then the same is probably true for Jewishness as well. We are entering an era in which some Jews will be Jewish #1, some will be Jewish #2, and some will be Jewish #3.  Jewishness will not be limited to those who are born of a Jewish parent or who have converted halachically, but those who join us because they deeply share our Jewish queerness. 

So…in the words of the Rabbis of the Talmud: If you’re straight, Zeel batar svara! Find. Your. Queer! 

[Literally: Go after your svara; go after that unique moral insight informed by the queer experience of your life.] And gay folk: you’re not off the hook here. Turns out, you can be LGBT and not be queer at all! You can be gay and absolutely conventional and straight-minded. 

And, watch out, all you already-queer folk! —even if you’re queer now, you can lose your queer! You can be so comfortable in the power, privilege, and acceptance you’ve acquired that you’ve lost touch with that place of queer empathy, and those more fringy than you become troublesome, annoying, and other. The more you gain acceptance, the more likely it is that you’re going to lose your ability to critique from the margins. 

 [This is happening to us as Jews as we’ve become assimilated into the majority culture, and it’s happening to those of us in the gay community as well who, more and more, enjoy privileges of the heterosexual majority, at the expense of our ability to explore the “less acceptable” aspects of a queer ethic. Think the [very wonderful] rise of same-sex marriage and the [not-so-wonderful] decline in conversations about a queer sex ethic.]

 So, losing one’s queer: I think that’s exactly what’s going on in this week’s parsha. The Jews are in the middle of the dessert, have no water, and are gathering together against Moses, complaining bitterly that they are thirsty and angry, and why did he lead them out of slavery only to die in the dessert? Moshe goes to God for advice and God says, “Take your staff and assemble the people, and then speak to the rock and water will come from the rock so that the people and their animals will have water to drink.” Moshe takes his staff, and angrily addresses his people: You ingrates, you rebels, you want water? Here! And what does he do? Right. He hits the rock two times and water springs forth from the rock. And then what happens? God says: You know what, Moshe, you came to me for advice, I gave it to you, and you didn’t follow it. I told you to speak to the rock and you didn’t listen. You were angry with the people and you hit the rock. I think you’re done. You’re not fit to be leader any more. And, PS, you’re not going with them into the Promised Land.

 The age-old question is: Why such a severe punishment? Why is Moshe no longer fit to lead the people? 

 My answer? He lost his queer! “Shim’u-na HaMorim!” Listen up, you ingrates, you rebels, you miserable people, he says. All of a sudden, the hungry, thirsty, discouraged Jewish people are no longer connected to him, they’re no longer his people; they’re Other. His sin isn’t that he hit the rock; it’s that he lost his empathy. He lost touch with that place within himself that allowed him to empathize with these former slaves. 

 Remember, the Jewish people had all been slaves; they were queered by that experience. Moses had never been a slave. Being enslaved is the primordial queer Jewish experience, the experience we try to relive every Pesach, and through a hundred different mitzvot (the ones I mentioned earlier) in order to re-queer ourselves. But Moshe had not been a slave. He was not, Jewishly, Queer #1. 

 Moses doesn’t share their fundamental queer experience of being a slave. He doesn’t know what it means to yearn to be free, to need to be free, to be constantly denied freedom. He doesn’t understand their underlying terror that they’re going to be slaves again. [Isn’t that what is so painful about every vote in Congress, the Supreme Court, the Boy Scouts—when we lose, we’re thrown right back into the reality of Mitzrayim?] 

 He was Queer #2, though—he’d come to understand that he was not, in fact, Egyptian, and realized he resonated with the Hebrew people and their fate and (re)claimed it as his own. But in that moment in the dessert, he lost his queer, and, with it, his ability to lead the people. 

 I used to hunger for and dream of a certain kind of queer community—Queer #1. Where everybody shared my particular flavor of queerness. Where you knew who was safe and who wasn’t. All of us gay people had been hurt by the insanity and violence of the straight world, and I was no exception. Gay space was the only space I ever felt safe or relaxed in. As some of you have heard me say before, I became profoundly heterophobic. 

But in the last six months, I’ve been able to envision a different kind of queer community. A TRULY QUEER COMMUNITY—a  community in which everybody gets it, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender expression. In a truly queer community, it’s immaterial—and increasingly difficult to tell—who’s LGBT and who’s heterosexual. And in such a community, it doesn’t matter.  The bet midrash that we’ve created together is this kind of community. It is extraordinary. It is powerful. It is rejuvenating. It is deeply relaxing. It is a spiritual home. At least that’s what it’s been for me. And I just want to thank you all, from the bottom of my heart, for that. It has changed my life.

In many ways, Mishkan is a community of outsiders. You are probably here because you did not feel that mainstream synagogues—“straight synagogues,” if you will—reflected who you really are. You have found a community of many queer people—queer in dozens of different ways—I think our question is: are we willing to be-in-community from that queer place?  

THAT will determine whether we stay a community of outsiders or a truly queer community…which has the potential to help every one of us become fully human human beings, and become a model for the rest of the world.


Thank you, and Shabbat Shalom.