Sunday, August 12, 2012

Jerusalem the Gay?

First, some housekeeping:  This should be my last substantive post before I arrive in Israel (although I could always change my mind).  In my previous post, I shared some hopes and expectations about spirituality.  In this post, I expected to share expectations about being gay in Jerusalem, but it turned out a bit differently than that.  Instead, it's more of an explanation of why I (or any LGBT person) would ever want to spend time in a conservative city like Jerusalem.  It also includes a rather harsh takedown of Ultra-Orthodoxy.  Enjoy.

I have considered myself a part of the traditional-egalitarian Jewish community for the past 10 or so years, since I was old enough to make religious decisions for myself.  For about 6 of those years, I have been openly gay (keeping in mind that coming out is a process, and not everyone has known for that long).  And not once in that time have I experienced any hostility from anyone in my community regarding my orientation.  This is a remarkable fact.

And yet, it may not be as surprising as it seems.  It's true that my community is a traditional one, committed to many Jewish observances that our ancestors have kept for generations.  But despite the apparent contradiction, this community is very liberal as well.  After all, it consists (mostly) of people who have consciously rejected Orthodoxy, particularly when it comes to the separation and unequal treatment of men and women in prayer.  In fact, I would say that this tension between traditional observance and liberal worldview is the defining feature of this form of Judaism.  And since LGBT rights falls under the "liberal worldview" side of things, my experience of universal acceptance is to be expected.

Jerusalem, though, is a whole different story.  The Chareidi (Ultra-Orthodox) community there is very large, and views itself as a bastion of tradition beset by dangerous, secularizing enemies on all sides.  And none of these enemies are more threatening than the LGBT community.  The LGBT community represents everything that the Chraidim reject:  Sexual freedom, gender equality, rejection of tradition, and the mere idea that change can be for the better ("Everything new is forbidden!" is the Chareidi rallying cry, despite the fact that they have adopted many new stringencies unheard of in the not-so-distant past).

No wonder, then, that Chareidim react with anger each year when Jerusalem Pride rolls around.  I do not mean to defend them; I would gladly march in the parade myself.  Nonetheless, Jerusalem pride has special meaning to Chareidim that other pride parades (such as time much larger and rowdier one in Tel-Aviv) do not.  This is their city, their island in a sea of licentiousness.  The parade is nothing less that an enemy invasion.

So why would I want to go to this place?  First of all, I'm not going to be hanging out in the Chareidi community.  My friends will mostly be students from the English-speaking world (mainly the US), with similar religious backgrounds and worldviews to my own.  So don't worry about me.

But more importantly, Jerusalem cannot be the city the Chareidim want it to be.  The Chareidim are treated as if they have a certain moral high ground in the Jewish world.  They are the most "traditional," the most "religious," the most "observant."  The Jewish world cedes these titles to them without putting up a fight, despite the fact that they are plainly untrue.  The Chareidi prohibition on change is itself a huge change, and the Chareidim regularly adopt non-traditional practices in the name of tradition (read this if you need convincing:  Ultra-Orthodoxy is not defined by tradition; it is defined by the rejection of modernity.

We should not concede that the Chareidi approach is traditional.  It is not.  And likewise, we cannot concede Jerusalem to the Chareidim.    An honest, traditional approach to Judaism would view change with caution rather than outright rejection.  It would seek to engage the world rather than shut it out.  And we have to make sure that Jerusalem is likewise open to change and open to the world.  Every LGBT person who walks the streets of Jerusalem, proudly claiming to be Jewish, is helping Jerusalem be the city it ought to be, rather than the city that the Chareidim want it to be.

And that should be reason enough to spend a year there.


  1. Even liberal Anglo Jerusalem could use some more exposure to approaches other than the established "orthodoxy." Shira Hadasha is about as liberal as it gets in terms of major presence, even though many people have no problem with full egalitarianism. Good luck with your year, and I hope you and Jerusalem can each influence the other for the better.

  2. Rock on. You take down that wall.

  3. Zach, it's a fair point, but Shira Hadasha is not the problem.

  4. No, no, I don't think it is. I think it's part of the solution. I just think it's unfortunate that that seems to be the fringe of acceptable, main-stream Judaism, rather than the center.

  5. It's true, and I certainly wish that fully egalitarian options like Kehilat Kedem were a larger presence on the Jerusalem minyan scene. As it is, there's a large (although not entirely empty) gap between Shira Chadasha and Kol Haneshamah.

    The reasons for this, though, have little to do with what I was complaining about in my post. It seems to me that Shira Chadasha simply has such a large gravitational pull (at least on its left side) that it's hard for any other minyan that fills a similar space to do very well. Most Jews who like traditional-egalitarian minyanim are reasonably comfortable at Shira Chadasha (You and I are good examples of this, although we have the advantage of being men). Shira Chadasha's success breeds further success, and draws people like us away from fully egalitarian minyanim.

    True egalitarian minyanim also have another problem: People like you and me would be happy to attend them, but many Orthodox Jews who attend Shira Chadasha would not. It's simply not very easy for Kedem (or similar minyanim) to compete.