F&A Series: ‘Queering Orthodoxy’

Orit Avishai is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Fordham University in New York. Her book in progress is titled Queering Orthodoxy: The Battle for Judaism’s (Straight) Soul. She is co-organizing an international conference of LGBT activists of faith to be held at Fordham in 2021.

When it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, conservative religious traditions are often seen as modernity’s boogeyman, and for good reason: such religious traditions—Orthodox Judaism among them—have racked up a long rap sheet of injuries inflicted on LGBTQ+ persons. So when young Orthodox[1] Israeli Jewish gays and lesbians announced in a 2003 group interview the impending launch of a movement promoting LGBT[2] tolerance within Orthodoxy, they were met with scepticism. The group imagined “a community in which two religious men could live…pray…study;” that such communities would be viable outside liberal hotspots in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv; and grounded their demands for empathy, love, and legitimacy in science—“homosexuality is immutable”—and in Jewish values: “my hope is that every religious hommo[3] or lesbian who reads this know that the Master of the Universe loves them.”

“No one took us seriously” one early activist reflected a decade and half later, but the sceptics were wrong. By 2007, this group would assume leadership roles in the nascent Orthodox LGBT movement—a network of organizations known as the “Proud Religious Community,” or Kadag in Hebrew.[4] Within a decade, Orthodox LGBT persons emerged from anonymous chatrooms and closeted lives. They forged social circles, organizations and communities; cultivated relationships with a network of allied Orthodox rabbis; developed workshops targeting Orthodox educators, therapists, and families; organized communal events celebrating the Jewish holidays; marched in Pride Parades; launched increasingly brazen public visibility campaigns; and crafted narratives through viral Facebook posts that proudly featured their faces, names, families, and stories. The growing presence and visibility of Orthodox LGBT persons within families, synagogues, neighbourhoods, schools, and on social media has forced open conversations about gender, sexuality, science, Orthodox Jewish authenticity, and tolerance and acceptance of Others. How this happened and what the movement’s success tells us about LGBT activism and lives on the one hand, and the future of Orthodoxy on the other, is the subject of my book in progress, Queering Orthodoxy: The Battle for Judaism’s (Straight) Soul in Israel.

Kadag success has hinged on strategic wisdom. Activists work simultaneously on multiple fronts, combining inward-looking, community-building, and individually empowering initiatives with public education, outreach, and visibility campaigns that seek to normalize LGBT identities. [5] Kadag also benefitted from fortuitous timing: the decline of collectivist agendas and traditional authority structures in Jewish Orthodoxy of the past two decades has been accompanied by decentralization and fragmentation on one hand and the and the rise of social media on the other. These processes have rendered the language of rights, self-determination, and identity accessible to Orthodox Jews: Kadag organizing principles include self-determination (“talk with us, not about us”); tolerance and acceptance; and an emphasis on gender and sexuality as immutable identities.

The movement’s success also hinges on claims to authenticity: Kadag activists come to the table not as LGBT activists but as religious LGBT activists. Their public narratives are grounded in shared Orthodox histories and experiences; there is a Jewish flavour to their mission, goals, strategies, and tactics; and they mobilize the language, sensibilities, and logics of Judaism to demand recognition and acceptance. Thus, while LGBT movements are typically viewed through the secular domain of human rights, Kadag activists frame tolerance as a religious issue and ground demands for acceptance in biblical imperatives such as “love thy neighbor.” Similarly, rather than rejecting rabbis as representatives of a homophobic and transphobic tradition, Kadag activists engage them on Judaism’s own turf. But the real kicker is this: Kadag activists use what Audre Lorde called the master’s tools to expand, not dismantle, the master’s house; the goal is to make space for themselves, their relationships, and their families. The seemingly innocent demand to accept same-sex loving and gender diverse, nonconforming, and fluid persons as authentically Orthodox is deeply threatening to traditionalists; thus, the mobilization of Orthodoxy’s registers, values, language, and sensibilities certainly tempers the threats of a home-grown LGBT movement. But invoking Jewish cosmology is not a strategic move to win over hostile foes—or at least not entirely so. Kadag activists mobilize Orthodoxy because they, too, claim to own it. In short, the Kadag case suggests that religion is not necessarily at odds with LGBT lives: a religious tradition and its institutions, religious language, sensibilities, and logics can advance the agendas of LGBT persons of faith.

Does religious LGBT activism count as queer activism? Religious LGBT persons do not necessarily subscribe to a range of queer ideas such as sexual experimentation and the dissociation of love, intimacy, and desire. Indeed, religious LGBT persons are perceived as somewhat of an oxymoron not only by their co-religionists but often by fellow secular LGBT persons as well. And yet, since the mid-aughts, religious acceptance movements have been on the rise across faith traditions. Religious LGBT activism also challenges the tension between revolutionary antics, disruptive, outrageous, mirthful public performances and more cautious strategies of social change; Kadag mobilizes all these tactics. The local, Israeli context, presents another challenge. Queering is typically associated with solidarity with other movements for social justice, but Orthodox LGBT activists are often mum about Israel’s geo-political conflict or subscribe to Zionist-nationalist politics. Do these allegiances disqualify Kadag’s queer bona fides? Not in the eyes of traditionalist foes, who view Orthodox LGBT persons’ claims to Orthodox authenticity as an existential threat.

In sum, Queering Orthodoxy sheds light on the relationship between religion and socio-political activism. It paints a rich picture of individual struggles and collective reckoning as it calls into question much of what we understand about LGBT activism. The key is to accept that activists of faith come to be the table armed with values, language, sensibilities, and identities shaped at the intersection of their faith tradition and gender and sexual identities.

Written By: Prof. Orit Avishai

Feature Image Credit: Ted Eytan @Flickr

[1] Refers to the Israeli rough equivalent of “modern Orthodox”, and excludes ultra-orthodox. The literal translation of the Hebrew term is “religious,” but “Orthodox” better aligns with the categories in English literature.

[2] I use “LGBT” in the context of Jewish Orthodoxy because the Hebrew acronym used in these circles typically does not include queer.

[3] Many Orthodox gay men in Israel identify as homosexual, not gay. While in English the term is read as a pejorative or indicative of internalized homophobia, in the local context it is subversive: mainstream Orthodoxy refers to homosexuality as “inverse tendency” and rejects the notion that it is an identity. Asserting “I am a homosexual” (or, in Hebrew, I am hommo) is an act of defiance of traditional orthodoxy that signals self-acceptance.

[4] Kadag organizations include Bat-Kol, religious lesbian organization founded in 2005 (http://www.bat-kol.org/english/); Havruta, a religious LGBT men’s organization, founded in 2007 (http://www.bat-kol.org/english/), and Shoval, founded in 2007, an outreach organization that promoted tolerance and understanding of LGBT people within Orthodox communities (https://www.shovalgroup.org).

[5] For example, see Our Faces Campaign (2015) https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4739138,00.html