By Aaron White
In this day and age, many college students have to grapple for the first time with what really defines them. One of the most important aspects of college isn’t necessarily the education, it’s the discovery of one’s identity. As many students leave home for the first time, they discover the beauty of independence and the ability to think and do without the concern or constraint of home. Some find their sexuality (others just engage in sex). Other students, myself included, turn inward and seek what is familiar to us: Judaism. A problem occurs, however, when sexuality and religion come into conflict. It comes as no surprise to know that not all branches of Judaism accept homosexuality. If they did, I would be shocked. It would be the first time, in my knowledge, that all Jews were able to agree on anything.
More important than religious approval of homosexuality is how GLBT Jews see themselves within Judaism and how they feel about it. Emma* says of Judaism, “It’s what I grew up with and my mom and dad were supportive of me when I came out. I don’t know so much of how they [the congregation] feel about my sexuality but then again, I don’t think any of them know.” Her story is a positive one but for many other Queer Jews this simply isn’t the case, depending on which branch of Judaism they grew up with.
There are three main branches or movements of American Jewry: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox2. Many temples are independent or iconoclastic, but I am concentrating only on the largest organizations within each movement and their stances on homosexuality. The Reform Movement, often seen as the most liberal and open of the three major branches, does accept queer Jews. In fact, the two largest reform Jewish organizations, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), not only accept Queer Jews but also openly support gay marriage both religiously and civilly.
The Conservative Movement takes a more traditional stance on interpreting and adhering to the Torah and halakha, or Jewish Rabbinic law. The flagship organization for the Conservative Movement, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), recently issued paradoxical papers declaring: “Conservative institutions may continue not to permit commitment ceremonies and not to hire openly gay or lesbian rabbis and cantors. On the other hand, rabbis, synagogues and institutions can perform or host those ceremonies and are free to hire openly gay rabbis and cantors. The halakha of the Conservative movement, as voted by the Law Committee, now allows both positions. Both are considered valid.”3
The Orthodox Movement strictly adheres to the halakha. It is disappointing to see that the largest orthodox organization, the Orthodox Union (OU) doesn’t accept homosexuality nor any ceremonies of commitment and is not open to GLBT rabbis4. Another movement that is important, even as a cursory look, is the Chabad movement. Chabad is active on the UCSC campus and around the world, and accepts queer Jews but does not accept homosexuality because Jewish law unconditionally prohibits the homosexual act. Just as the heterosexual act is prohibited outside of marriage, regardless of personal desires, attractions or inclinations, the homosexual act is also forbidden5. This is acceptance akin to “hate the sin, not the sinner.”
Aside from the main branches of Judaism, there is also the Secular Jewish community. Sarah*, another Queer Jew, spoke of her experience with religion and identity saying simply, “I am the daughter of two Holocaust refugees who did not tell me they were Jewish, so I did not grow up in the Jewish community at all. I found out I was Jewish when I was 17. But after I came out, the Jewish feminist community was very supportive.” Despite the brevity of the statement, its impact is clear; though small in number, Jews are extremely diverse and while some are more “Conservative” (in the scary right-wing fundamentalist, “I Like Guns/Killing Small Animals and I vote,” kind of way), many others are open and accepting of the Queer community.
Growing up with and around the queer community in Palm Springs, I’ve always been a strong ally of the queer community but sometimes allies aren’t what someone needs to feel comfortable in their own skin. Sometimes people need faith even if it’s something they can only hold loosely around themselves. As society (arguably) progresses, so too does religion; maybe Judaism can pave the path to acceptance, which is the most anyone can ask for.
*Names changed to protect identity of source
1. Q stands for Queer, which is becoming a more accepted umbrella term for the GLBT community.
2. Please be aware that I am writing about certain organizations and not the entire movement.
Published on page 17 of the Winter 2011 issue of Leviathan.