“‘Gay Judaism’ and the Struggle for Inclusion” by Joshua Lesser

Reference: Jewish Reconstructionist Movement

I was tutoring two girls in preparation for their b’not mitzvah when one of their mothers interrupted, explaining that the Supreme Court had just ruled in the Lawrence v. State of Texas case (June 6th) in favor of abolishing all sodomy laws. “I think I’m going to cry!” she said.

I was not able to process my feelings about the magnitude of this decision because the two twelve-year-old girls looked at me and asked, “What is sodomy?” There, in front of a parent, I chose careful words to explain what sodomy is, and I explained the decision as meaning that being in a gay or lesbian relationship was no longer a crime anywhere in the United States.

The full impact hit me later, at a celebration held by Lambda Legal, the gay civil rights organization. Listening to the speakers, I realized that Georgia, the state in which I had grown up and still live, was the American cradle of sodomy laws — and that Judaism was their universal cradle. At the Hebrew Academy of Atlanta, my Orthodox day school, the topic of the evils of sodomy had come up more than once. I recall studying Leviticus in the seventh grade and being lectured about the forbidden sexual acts. Skipping from incest to homosexuality, we arrived at bestiality, which our teacher explained was an unspeakable averah (sin). I raised my hand and, in what I’m sure was a case of misplaced anxiety, asked her with a smirk, “Even goldfish?” She began to reprimand me, but after only two words she giggled and the entire class burst into uproarious laughter. Despite my successful joke, however, I knew deep inside that the true joke was on me: This good Jewish boy was a religious criminal.

The negative impact of sodomy laws has been immense, even beyond the thirteen states that still had them on the books as of this year. Cases involving gay adoption, child custody, divorce, employment discrimination, civil rights and hate crime legislation have all been argued against gay and lesbian interests based on the fact that sodomy was illegal and that the Supreme Court, in Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), had declined to extend Constitutional privacy protections to same-sex sexuality. Beyond their octopus-like legal impact, sodomy laws encouraged hatred directed towards gays and lesbians — and fueled self-hatred for many of us. The very notion of “sodomy” became a significant piece of evidence that the very being of gay folks was innately flawed and repugnant. The law said we were criminals — and Judaism said we were abominations.

How was I able to bridge these gaps and become a rabbi? How can any gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered Jew make peace with Judaism?

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