I have attended two Passover seders in my lifetime. When I was in college, a friend of mine (actually, a sorority sister, for you regular readers of “The Active Voice”) invited me to her grandparents’ seder in Charleston, South Carolina. I’m told it was very watered-down and a far cry from what a “real” seder should be. Frankly, this here Gentile didn’t know the difference. I thought it was fun – and, even in its watered-down state, the experience taught me a lot about the meaning of Passover.
About five years later, I attended my second seder, this time in Berkeley, California. Only two people at the table were actually Jewish. But everyone at the table was queer. We used the “Queer Pride Seder” that had been developed by the Berkeley Queer Minyan (of which one of the two Jewish attendees was a member). I was tasked with bringing three bottles of wine – and, knowing that my meager graduate student budget couldn’t absorb the shock of the $25 kosher wine option, I took my chances with Manischewitz. How bad could it be, anyway? I thought to myself. Apparently this transgression was worse than bringing a loaf of crusty artisanal bread.
There are obvious intersections throughout history between queer identity and Judaism. For one thing, both groups were targeted by the Nazis during the Holocaust (yellow Stars of David for Jews, pink triangles for gay men, black triangles for lesbian women). During the 1950s, both Jews and homosexuals were linked to Communism, and ultimately targeted and persecuted in the age of McCarthyism. Throughout history, Jews have been major forces in a range of activist efforts – Emma Goldman, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, and Eve Ensler are just a few examples – and that social justice ethos has at times spilled over into the LGBTQ rights movement. Harvey Milk, the slain San Francisco City Supervisor, was Jewish. Barney Frank, who was the 1st openly gay member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is Jewish. The overlap between the two communities is strong.
Even with those strong overlapping commonalities, there is still a tension that exists between Judaism and homosexuality, which has caused some division among the various Jewish denominations. At the most conservative end of the spectrum, Orthodox Judaism explicitly prohibits same-sex sexual conduct – in fact, certain homosexual acts are considered to be in the category of “die rather than transgress.” Over time, some Orthodox leaders have become more sympathetic, stating that although homosexual acts violate Judaic law, people with same-sex attractions should be treated with compassion and respect. Yet many Orthodox Jews who are gay have incredible difficulty reconciling their sexuality with their religious and cultural beliefs. To use a term coined by Tova Hartman Halbertal, many gay Orthodox Jews experience “identity pluralism,” meaning that their gay identity is maintained completely separately from their Orthodox Jewish identity (the film Trembling before G-d depicts this tension in a very poignant way). On the far end of the spectrum, it’s not uncommon for gay Orthodox Jews to try to change their sexual orientation – the best-known organization in the Orthodox Jewish community is JONAH, which stands for Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality. (As an aside, one of JONAH’s founders is Arthur Goldberg, who is the former secretary/treasurer for the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), the nation’s largest secular reparative therapy organization.)
On the more progressive side, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements do not prohibit homosexual sex, and they allow people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual to be ordained as rabbis and cantors. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) has endorsed same-sex marriage, and in 2003 the Union for Reform Judaism issued a resolution that calls for the inclusion and acceptance of bisexual and transgender communities. The Reform movement is the largest branch of Judaism in the United States.
And then we have this middle ground, in the form of Conservative Judaism, which has taken the most complicated stance on the issue of homosexuality. In 2006, drawing upon the Jewish tradition of pluralism, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) issued three different opinions, the most progressive of which lifted most prohibitions on homosexual conduct and allowed for same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay rabbis. By adopting multiple opinions, the CJLS essentially gave permission for individual rabbis, congregations, and rabbinical schools to choose the option that suited them best. Shortly after the CJLS issued this statement, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies started acccepting openly gay students into their rabbinical and cantorial programs.
So we have progress, and we have tensions. And, within both the Jewish and the LGBTQ communities, we have our own forms of intersecting oppressions. Homophobia exists in Judaic circles, and anti-Semitism exists in the LGBTQ community (and others). And various forms of oppression exist in both communities – racism, class oppression, and sexism, to name a few. While Jewish people have been persecuted for centuries, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rages on. While lesbians and gay men continue to experience oppression, there is tension within the community regarding whether to be fully trans*-inclusive. Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter), in her 1936 book The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, referred to this as “identification with the aggressor,” where the victim of oppression takes on the role of the oppressor by victimizing others. We end up coming full circle.
Politics is complicated. Overlapping oppressions is complicated. But I come back to the celebration of Passover, which is a festival of liberation, commemorating the Jews’ release from slavery in ancient Egypt. The foods that are eaten during Passover and served during the seder are reminders of that oppression. At the Passover seder, the youngest child asks “the four questions,” starting with, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” What an opportunity to reflect upon the devastating impact of oppression, however complicated it might be. And what an opportunity to invite everyone to the table (literally and proverbially) to celebrate the release from the bonds of oppression. Even those of us who can only afford Manischewitz.