Identity, Politics, Religion, Sex & Gender

"A compromise, not a victory…"

Jay Michaelson, author of God in Your Body and Director of Nehirim: A Spiritual Initiative for GLBT Jews, who was at the Conservative movement’s press conference today, wrote two timely and important posts on the MJL blog.
The first is a personal statement, full of faith and hope:

I know today’s action may cause some controversy. But if today’s ruling tells one of those religious men and women, or just one gay teen, or just one worried parent of a gay or lesbian youth, if it tells any one of them that God and love go together, then it is worth it.

The second is more toned down, let reality hit you in the face and look toward the future:

I’m hopeful that, beyond all the details, this decision will help a simple, banal truth take hold in the world: that even if you’re religious, it’s OK to be gay.

For further reading from Michaelson, check out How can you be gay and Jewish?, Hasidism and Homoeroticism, and last year’s Guilt and Groundedness. Or, just check out his website.

28 thoughts on “"A compromise, not a victory…"

  1. I’m hopeful that, beyond all the details, this decision will help a simple, banal truth take hold in the world: that even if you’re religious, it’s OK to be gay.
    And, of course, “If you are gay it’s OK to be religious”

  2. A nice shorthand for this switch might be ‘From “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to “Please Just not Up the Tusch.”

  3. Is there anyone out there reading who feels that it is particularly psychologically cruel and untenable to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis and do commitment ceremonies and YET say that a particular part of gay male sexuality is forbidden? I find it crazy-making. I don’t know a single straight person who would clamor to be married by someone who wanted to FORBID them to have sex in their marriage. Also, why get all excited about attending an institution that, in theory, wants you to live a life of total madness (which is what I think a gay male love relationship with one main form of gay male sex forbidden is)? What am I missing here?

  4. They’re not being forbidden to have sex; first of all lots of gay men don’t have anal sex at all. That’s not all there is to gay sexuality. Second, it doens’t affectlesbians at all. Third, heterosexuals are also forbidden from various things: you shouldn’t have sex while in niddah, nor until the woman has immersed. B&D as all as S&M ar forbidden. I suspect tht are probably het couples who engage in some or all of these practices, anyway – doesn’t make it right of course, but I rather doubt that these couples are tormented about it.
    It would be good if all our heterosexual coules ceasedto engage in forbidden sex, but ultimately rabbis are teachers, not police; when a person sins ultimately that’s between them and God.
    Is it difficult that not all forms of sexuality are available to gay men? Yes, I do believe it is. I also believe that this tshvah respects observant gay men who will, admittedly have to make difficult decisions about their sex life and their religious observance. Idon’t belive though that it’s so difficult that it can’t be lived with.
    I have that on the word of friends who would know.

  5. True that, KRG.
    Personally I feel that the only missing piece is some type of kedusha-through-prohibition for lesbian relationships: if straights have nidda, and gay men have mishkav zakhar, what about lesbians? It seems to me that a large part of Judaism is about setting guidelines and restrictions through which holiness (i.e. “dedication” “particularity”) can emerge.

  6. Question: is it wrong to have penetrative anal sex of the penetrator is a woman? i.e., ‘pegging.’
    I’d like this answered in the next 45 minutes if possible. Thanks.

  7. Actually, lesbian sex is a D’rabanan prohibition. I don’t think the law committee rolled it back, did they?

  8. Alan, I never thought about it that way but now that you mention it, yeah. That’s really interesting. Have you heard other people mention it/talk about the possibilities or is it all your own thought-process at this point?

  9. KRG, what makes you say that a lot of gay men do not have anal sex? do you mean because they are single, or do you actually mean they choose not to have anal sex with their lifetime partners?
    It may be the case that some make the decision not to (just as some married heterosexual couples could make the decision not to ever have penetrative sex), but I’m betting, a million to one, that those are exceptions to the rule.

  10. I’m told that statistically, about 30% of gay men do not engage in anal sex at all. Granted that’s a minority, but a large enough one that I would think that while it might be difficult for a gay man to make that decision, it isn’t asking the impossible.

  11. KRG–so what are you willing to give up about your sex life? I’m sorry but this is exactly why I still argue, and many of us still argue, that this is one step, but not a victory, and not a full acknowledgement of our lives, our full lives, as sexual beings–and while some in community may not engage in anal sex, many do, and this is about community, this is about changing lives for all, or at least that’s how I view the work of tikkun olam–reform is reform for a reason. Because more often than not, it still says we’re going to leave others out, we’re going to leave those people behind. Well, then our work is to still move that forward.

  12. Kol Ra’ash, you said “It would be good if all our heterosexual coules ceased to engage in forbidden sex”
    Why would that be good?

  13. Cole,
    As a JTS student who has been at the very least somewhat active and informed on what has been happening this past week (I was honored to participate in Keshet’s day of learning this week), I want to point out that what I’ve witnessed is that very few people view this decision as a victory, just as you’ve expressed. We all know it’s a small step of progress, and in many ways handled in a way that has been offensive, if not hateful (i.e., the Levy teshuvah). I certainly don’t want to use the term “better than nothing”, but this one step, as complicated and potentially painful as the CJLS has chosen to make it, is a start, and a positive one. As someone who has worked in Ramah and USY, and watched as friends have almost literally been shoved into the closet at points, I am delighted to see that United Synagogue will be revising its ridiculous policies, and to hope that as we move forward, my friends who absolutely should be rabbbis will be able to do so, and that the conservative movement, (which in all honesty made me who I am today, whether I am observant or not), will ultimately, if not immediately, continue moving towards becoming a community in which all people can feel safe, respected, loved and included, be they lay leaders, congregants, rabbis, hebrew school teachers, youth group advisers, students, camp staff, educators, and last but not least, clergy.
    But like we all can see, it’s a step, and a pretty messed up one at that, even if it is technically progress. It’s hard not to be ambivalent about it if you feel a certain way, as one of my classmates and dear friends expressed.

  14. I need to revise that rambling. Of course many people view it as a victory, per se. But as I mentioned above, the victory did not necessarily take the form that we were hoping for.
    I’ll probably revise this a bunch of times today too. damn ritalin…

  15. Wait, KRG, how is BDSM forbidden? Under what statute? Also, i’m curious about the pegging question. Once we are having a public conversation about the the intricacies of butt-sex, we cannot leave anything out.

  16. BearsforIsrael you said:
    The Dorff Nevins Reisner Tshuvah permits female homosexuality on the grounds that ‘drabbanan’ prohibition are at a lower status than anything titled kavod ha’briut, and the reality that gays and lesbians are the way they are and are unable to change what sex they are attracted to essentially invalidates the d’rabbanan prohibition. But don’t take my word, read the tshuvah.,%20Human%20Dignity%20and%20Halakhah.pdf

  17. I hear you Balaam, I hear you. I know many have mixed feelings. I’m more responding to this idea that KRG is offering that it’s ok to ask people to not be full sexual beings. To that I strongly, strongly disagree.

  18. Cole–not to make this specifically about KRG’s personal life, cause that’s just awkward. But halachic, heterosexual couples give up any and all sex ~50% of the time (or 25% for those who’ve scaled back to deoraita), hence the parallel Alan drew above.
    As for BDSM, I’ve never seen a good halachic argument against it, though I suspect there is a great deal of rabbinic discomfort on the subject.

  19. EV wrote: “Kol Ra’ash, you said ‘It would be good if all our heterosexual coules ceased to engage in forbidden sex’
    Why would that be good?”

    I’d think that would be self-evident – why would it be good for het couples to stop engaging in forbidden sex? Because it’s forbidden (just to be clear, I mean Jewish couples, of course). They’re sinning.
    Cole wrote: KRG–so what are you willing to give up about your sex life? I’m sorry but this is exactly why I still argue, and many of us still argue, that this is one step, but not a victory, and not a full acknowledgement of our lives, our full lives, as sexual beings…
    I already did. When I became observant, I gave up sex during niddah, I gave up a few other things which I’ll not go into, but which are forbidden by Jewish law in my understanding. Does that mean that thereis not recognition of my full acknowledgement of my full life as a sexual being?
    Well, you could certainly make that argument. In fact, as a woman, IMO, it’s easier to make that argument than it is even for a gay man (if I were a lesbian, all the more so) as a woman my perspective is actively invisible – and no, that’s not an oxymoron. My perspective is discounted by the rabbis, and my sex life only interesting insofar as it enables men’s and their production of male offspring.
    On the other hand, I could also offer a different perspective: look, historically, my voice was rubbed out, but now we’ve come to a place where women are able to join in the process of interpreting law (except for the ultraorthodox communities, of course), given the strides we’ve made, I’m able to help shape the future. However, I can’t get ridof the past, because that past is also holy, and that law is divine, even if the ways we’ve interpreted it haven’t always been so felicitous.
    Does that mean that I should say, well, men made the laws, so I don’t believe that I need to bother with them? No. I still need to refrain from (for example) sex in niddah, because the Torah is clear about this.
    The Dorff/Nevins/ Reisner tshuvah does the same for the gay community: The door is now open for your voices to join into the conversation – openly. That may result in further changes, but it also may mean that there are some limits that we have to live with beause they are holy – even if we don’t like them. The hard part is figuring out where the boundaries are.
    IMO, The N/D/R tshuvah is probably as far as one could go and still be within the boundaries that God set for us. Do I know why? No. I also don’t think it’s that big a deal (and often quite useful) to have sex during menstruation. But whenI get to the great beit midrash in the sky, or when Eliahu comes and solves it all for us (bimherah biyameinu) then I’ll know. In the meantime, we move the limits to the places where we can include as much as is possible, given the constraints of halakha. We have to be willing to challenge the status quo, because it may not be what God intends for us. On the other hand, sometimes we can’t do more.
    YOu wnat to keep fighting the good fight, kol hakavod, but I don’t think that we can go any further halakhically. Of course, I’m happy to be proven wrong.

  20. I definitely wasn’t trying to make this about KRG’s sex life, so apologies that it came across that way. The point is I don’t think anyone should have to be asked to not be full sexual beings. And again, I do still challenge the interpretation people even have of halacha around leviticus. There are so many examples of laws, of halacha that today we say we would never agree to. KRG do you really think there’s no inherent sexism in the law about not having sex while you have your period, to think that it’s dirty to menstruate. Lots of people have sex when people menstruate. There’s nothing dirty or wrong about it. So, to me, no you don’t say I won’t bother with the laws because of who made them, but one should ask oneself the limits of their framework because of who has made them, and who is maintaining power because of them.
    I have to say, the comment I’ve loved the most thus far in all of this has to be daniel’s over at jvoices.

  21. Hey folks – just chiming in… First, interesting conversation — it’s so relieving & gratifying to see people wrestling with these issues in a mature and intelligent (if also emotional, which is also ok) way.
    Second, I agree with KRG and BD that (1) no one sees this as an absolute victory, yet at the same time, (2) what’s now being asked of gay men (not lesbians or straight couples — anal sex in those contexts would not be “mishkevei ishah” done to a man) is not entirely different from what is asked of straight couples: to curtail their sex lives. Cole is right to note that this means our full “sexual beings” are not being acknowledged. However, that is normative Judaism. For better or for worse, it doesn’t endorse anyone’s full sexual beings — anyone except really boring people, anyway. For almost everyone else, of any gender or sexual orientation, normative Judaism limits sexual expression. It’s not how I’d design a religion, but it is definitely the case for normative (by which I mean not “the Judaism we should all practice” but rather “a Judaism which tells us what to do”) Judaism, for straights and queers alike.
    What Cole seems to be arguing for in the last post is a questioning of the normative-Judaism system as a whole — which is quite fine with me, but not fine with the Conservative movement. (Incidentally, there’s plenty of good feminist non-apologetic writing about the laws of niddah — I can even plug my book here, which has a great chapter by Holly Taya Shere on alternative menstruation rituals.)
    Having said that, there is some distinction between no-sex-during-niddah and no-anal-sex-ever. Even though only 30-40% of gay men engage in anal sex, according to statistics, for that 30-40% the ruling takes off the table forever an important mode of sexual expression. So this is a harsher restriction than straight people face – different in degree, if not in kind.
    I’ve met a lot of straight JTS students who are really outraged at the compromise – but I think we at Jewschool should remember that it is still a radical opinion for many people, and that tactically, it is probably a better result for the gay side than an all-out “victory,” which would really alienate a lot of people and which would call into question the halachic nature of the Conservative movement. As a queer man, I don’t feel the opinion denigrates my personhood or sexuality any more than vast swaths of normative Jewish thinking already do. Personally, I live outside of that framework (although my shabbat and kashrut looks orthodox to many). But Dorff’s opinion aims to be inside of the framework, and within its categories, it makes sense to me.

  22. Interesting comments Jay. Thank you for those.
    Now that I’ve heard this from not only a conservative rabbi but a gay man, I’m gonna have to investigate the claim y’all are making that only 30-40% of gay men have anal sex. (Dan Savage, anyone – he knows the experts). I find this hard to believe. I have family and friends who are gay men. This is not the impression I have gotten from them, though I have not heard about their sex lives in detail anymore than they have heard about mine in detail.
    I believe what you all may be saying is that some gay men are not having insertive anal sex? (sorry I’ve been a public health researcher for a few years and we have terms for just about everything). I just find it damn hard to believe that a majority of gay men do not, in a lifetime, choose to engage in anal sex. To me, that is like claiming that a majority of straight couples never, in a lifetime, have penetrative vaginal sex. I’m not saying it’s the center of every couple’s sex life, but it tends to have some role in lifetime partner’s sex lives, or so I am told (I’m not married, so I don’t have lifetime partner experience to comment on.)
    All I can say, is that lesbians are exceedingly lucky not to legislated by these new decisions. I hope no one tries to apply niddah to lesbian couples, and certainly have not heard that suggested.
    I have not personally experienced the limits or positives of niddah and do not know if it would be an option for me, in a marriage, but I do not think it IN ANY WAY compares to the lifetime ban on anal sex for gay male couples. I don’t even know how to argue this – I just don’t think something which limits the timing of an act (which is still considered beautiful and sacred by the tradition) is in any way analogous to something which outlaws a specific act.
    All that said, my main point is a new point. The very first thing I was taught in my doctoral program (psychology research) is that method dictates findings, much of the time. So, if we say, we are going to use the traditional halachic method, the findings are not necessarily going to be liberatory. In this method, ethical considerations are, seemingly, not paramount. That is what bothers me. It’s not the “practical outcomes” or the happenstance gains, but the fact that the ethical imperative to treat gay jews as fully healthy humans, capable of making their own spiritual, sexual, personal, and religious choices, is not a part of the methodological approach. Maybe I’m a reform Jew when you come down to it, because for me, there is no kavod if there is no autonomous relationship to halacha. So, for me, choice (as long as you’re not physically hurting others) is vital.

  23. one thing to add – while we discussing the topic of niddah: I just read an article on the “shefa list” which noted that two weeks of niddah results in many women ovulating prior to going to the mikveh…. ie ovulating when they are not allowed to have sex. This results in something a ob-gyn interviewed in the article called “halachic infertility” – women who get treated for infertility which is simply a result of 2 weeks of niddah. Or stay infertile.
    Just another example of why I don’t think we can make decisions about keeping halacha outside of our particular, individual life experiences. I think we are ultimatley the only ones who can weigh the pros and cons of any religious decision.

  24. It’s not a compromise but a mess. The movement has adopted contradictory, mutually exclusive positions because they both have the minimum number of votes.
    It’s certainly no victory when the most distinguished member of the Law Committee resigns in protest over such an absurd outcome. The C movement’s Halakhic process is no less chaotic and confusing as the traditional one, and the resulting halakhah is no more uniform. In the frum world, the standard advice for resolving a question is CYLOR (Consult Your Local Orthodox Rabbi).
    The three t’shuvot that endorsed this hillul hashem were not accepted on their merits or on the basis of their author’s scholarship, but politics, plain and simple. Rabbi Roth points out homosexual the notion of “committment ceremonies” (wedding and marriage in all but name) is beyond the pale of halakhah. There’s a huge difference between reading a text liberally and reading completely foreign material into it. The source of halakhah always has to be the Torah, the Talmud and the corpus of case law responsa that has accumulated over many centuries. Taking positions that originate in secular humanism and decorating them with Hebrew platitudes — positions that have no basis in an honest, authentic approach to halakhah — doesn’t make them Jewish. Roth and the others who resigned did the right thing — not because it opens up the Law Committee to further absurd rulings by (self-styled) “progressives” but because with these positions the Law Committee no longer has any intellectual integrity or moral authority.
    Whether the Conservative movement will collapse and merge back into the Reform remains to be seen. Institutional inertia will certainly keep some form of the branches around for a while. It is clear, though, that the foundations of the Conservative movement are crumbling. Ultimately, I believe this unfortunate, misconceived decision will create a deeper rift than Reform’s patrilineal descent. Conservative Judaism will continue its decline into irrelevancy even if its institutions persist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.