The DCJCC is hosting an epic, 10-day Jewish Literary Festival beginning this Sunday and it just so happens that Jay Michaelson, author of God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality is kicking off the festivities. So what does BYT do when we want to preview this bastion of queer Jewish literature? Call in the queer-Jew cavalry from her new home in Brooklyn, of course!
Jay was kind enough to sit down with me in Harlem prior to a reading for Collective Brightness, a collection of LGBTIQ poets on faith and spirituality (check it out – there are a few DC poets you’ll recognize!). It was a treat share a few quiet minutes before he stood to read such gems as “Yes I am checking you out on Simchat Torah” and referenced Jacob as Isaac’s “twink son.” Not only was he warm and articulate, but he also proceeded to admonish me like a proper yenta when he discovered I had not yet checked out all the queer-Jew friendly offerings NYC has to offer.
So this Sunday, take your hangover on over to the DCJCC to have it soothed by Jay’s voice like oil anointing King David’s lithe body. And to prepare, get educated:
Jay: I prefer dilettante.
BYT: How did you go from law school to dot com-ing to a PhD in Jewish studies?
Jay: There have been some threads that connect everything but I think some of my earlier stuff – I was in the closet for most of my twenties. And for me, the way I experienced most of that was not just the sexual thing but I was separated from all of my desires. To be a writer, to strike out on my own. So I don’t regret having gone to law school but I don’t think I would have made that choice if I had been in touch with what I wanted to do and be at that time. And since then I’ve been fighting back from that decision.
BYT: What’s your Jewish upbringing?
Jay: I was raised a nice Jewish boy in a Conservative household. Went to Camp Ramah. It’s funny actually. I think I enacted my queerness there unconsciously. I was kind of one of the weirdos. I was on staff and definitely interested in alternatives to what that social structure was supposed to be.
BYT: So did that manifest as you questioning Judaism?
Jay: Just being the ultimate Frisbee coach and the person the camp director yelled at and all that stuff. I saw Dead Poets Society and said ‘I want to do that’ which makes sense because there’s all that repressed homoeroticism in that movie. I did question a lot in college and I got interested in meditation, Buddhism. Then I discovered what I thought was Kabbalah but what was really a lot of 20th century baby boomers interpreting and synchronizing Kabbalah with their own interests and so I was like “this is great. All the spirituality I wanted elsewhere I can find in Judaism”. I ended up becoming Orthodox for several years and really taking that path very seriously. I thought that coming out was going to be the end of my religious life but actually it was the beginning. Because it only afterwards that I could be honest about who I was, what I wanted, how I understood spirituality. One of the advantages of the Orthodox Jewish system is that not a lot depends on your subjectivity. So you can just postpone all those questions for a while.
Jay: That’s right. But I find it a freedom from rather than a freedom to. And the things you’re free from are things like “Is this spiritual stuff working for me… what would working for me mean…what am I looking for out of spiritual practice?” Those are the kinds of questions that I encouraged myself not to ask. It wasn’t imposed on me.
BYT: So can you tell us a little about how you were inspired to write God v. Gay?
Jay: I was inspired in two steps. One was my own process of coming out and coming to terms, not only with who I was as a sexual being, but as a spiritual being. And then the second step was repeating that hard, difficult, soul-searing conversation about a hundred times. You think that it’s 2011 and we’ve come some distance over the last 10 years but the fact is it’s still square one for a lot of people. I’m not sure that the suffering of LGBT people in the U.S. is any more important than other suffering but it’s where I find myself and there’s a lot of pain around this issue. The book is actually more mainstream than I am. It’s an attempt to reach folks who are really struggling with this issue. I’m not trying to convince the far-right – what I’m trying to do is reach folks who are sincerely concerned and if they have a person in their family or community who’s queer and they just don’t know what to make of their religious tradition. The point of the book is that people should support equality because of their religion not despite it. And there are literally 5 verses which may or may not have something to do with some kind of homosexual behavior, but there are hundreds more teachings that have to do with love and dignity and compassion and empathy and honesty and integrity. These are the values that openness, inclusion, diversity promote. And they’re directly opposed to the kind of enforced closet of certain interpretations of religion.
BYT: Being a queer Jew myself, I’ve found that there’s a pretty vibrant Jewish queer community and I have a sense that my queer Jewish friends don’t reject their religion as quickly or fully as other queer friends. Granted it’s my only personal experience of a subgroup within a subgroup but I feel as though we’re pretty lucky that way and I wonder if there’s something about Jewish teachings or our emphasis on questioning that has helped foster this community.
Jay: Yeah, we in the Jewish community are comparatively lucky. All of these traditions have anti-gay pieces but the Jewish tradition doesn’t have as many anti-sexuality and anti-body teachings. It’s a lot easier to fit affirmation of sexuality (and gender actually), however that manifests, within a Jewish context than contexts which have historical roots in subjugating the body to the spirit. And sociologically, non-Orthodox American Jews are pretty liberal. When I was coming out fifteen years ago, liberals were still pretty homophobic. They’re still pretty transphobic today. But I think it just fits normal, American garden-variety liberalism. And third and finally, the Jewish tradition is queer in and of itself. The construction of masculinity within Judaism is very different and very queer. There are explicit manifestations of that in Yiddish theater where there’s cross-dressing and “masculine” women and things like that. That’s a little obscure but you don’t have to look that far to find the queerness in Judaism.
BYT: What’s the queerest Jewish holiday? Beyond Purim (ed. note: essentially Halloween for the Jews)?
Jay: I’m going to go with the one we just finished – Sukkot – because it’s by far the most Pagan Jewish holiday. It retains the kind of pre-monotheistic, agrarian, symbolic, ecstatic, embodied pieces that are there in the Jewish tradition that have been covered over deliberately for so long. I studied Kabbalah for a while so I know they’re actually almost omnipresent but on Sukkot it’s just so obvious – we’re waving this magic foliage in six directions. That for me is queer. I think one of the pieces in the book, from a mainstream perspective, is that one of the prohibitions on male anal sex in Leviticus which is called the toevah (taboo), is most likely connected to ancient cultic religious practices. You would visit a Canaanite temple and either a male or female prostitute would enact the role of the god or the goddess. So you would have a sort of sexual, erotic, spiritual experience – kind of fun to be an idol worshiper in Canaan – and that’s actually what’s being targeted – the self-definition of the Israelites against the Canaanites. So anytime there’s a recovery or a remnant of that more earth-based past to me lines up with queerness in all its forms.
BYT: What was your favorite part to research or write?
Jay: My least favorite was going over the same ground of Leviticus, Romans, Corinthians. It had to be done – it’s still the number one question I get from most people. But I think my favorite part was making the argument at the end that just as the inclusion of women’s voices in Judaism and Christianity has transformed these religions for the better, so too the inclusion of queer voices. I got to read this great queer theology from a lot of different, fantastic people – almost entirely Christian. But just great stuff. And there’s new stuff coming out of transgender folks in religious communities. And Noach (Dzmura)’s book, Balancing on the Mechitza, that’s a radical re-envisioning of Judaism and claiming that the gender binary is the source of all our Jewish problems. I get really excited by that. Just as when I was reading feminist theology 20 years ago in college – it blew my mind that we would talk about God in feminine terms. That’s when it gets really exciting. Not in saying gay is ok, in saying more than that. That queer is actually going to enrich everybody’s spiritual experiences.