Queer Delicacy: An Ancient Approach to Halakhah

At the age of 10, I was presented with one of the greatest theological and spiritual challenges of my life. I was in my fifth-grade religious-school class at my Reform synagogue, and my teacher introduced us to Leviticus 18:22, a verse that has been used against LGBTQ people by Jews and Christians alike. While my teacher did his best to soften the blow of the verse in his own way, I couldn’t help but wonder what this meant for me as a Jew and someone who had the sense that this verse might be more about me than it was about most of my classmates.

This moment, while painful and troubling, set me on a decades-long journey of theological questions about the nature of Judaism and halakhah. Even as the word “halakhah” had not yet entered my vocabulary, I was still grappling with it. What authority did Torah have in my life? Could I follow some of Torah but not all of Torah? How would I relate to a verse from Torah that seemed to single me out from my peers?

Over time, I learned I was not alone in asking these questions. Neither the larger questions about the nature of halakhah nor the specific questions of what that verse in particular meant were only mine to hold. Scholars, activists, teachers, everyday Jews — many people have been wrestling with these questions in different ways for thousands of years. In my life, I have been fortunate to have as a teacher, as a rabbi, as a chavruta and as a friend, Rabbi Jacob Staub, who has been asking these questions longer than I have. I dedicate this essay, and my continued questions, to him and the many gifts he has given the LGBTQ+ Jewish world.

At some early point in my Jewish education, I learned about the concept of b’tzelem Elohim–the idea that every person is created in the image of God. While I found this concept helpful as I grappled with my queerness — it affirmed that I, and all people, are worthy of basic human dignity — I realized this is a low bar. If even the people in the world who have done things that I consider abhorrent are b’tzelem Elohim, this concept did not help me feel better about that verse in Leviticus. If mass murderers are b’tzelem Elohim, the idea that I was made in the image of God did little to assuage my fears of being a sinner in the eyes of my community, my tradition or God. The concept may have helped me stay in the Jewish conversation, but it did nothing to answer the questions that Leviticus left in my soul. Am I a sinner? If so, do I care? Is the sin of my queerness any better or worse than my many other transgressions of classical halakhah? In the context of a broader world that has considered people like me to be criminal and psychologically perverse, the particular question of my sexual sins left more at stake for me than most other areas of my Jewish life. There is no civil criminalization, demonization or pathologization of not observing Shabbat, but my sexuality was a matter of debate in classrooms, from the pulpit, in the halls of the legislature, and in genetics labs. I, as a person, am up for debate in today’s world. I wondered, was I good? Was I natural? Am I the way that God intended me to be? 

Some contemporary thinkers have delved into this question, imagining other ways of understanding the presence of queer people in the universe. While often well-intentioned, many thinkers fall short in their attempts. In Radical Judaism, Rabbi Art Green imagines one such possibility and writes a Divine origin story for gay people. Green places these words in God’s mouth as he imagines God creating gay people:

“I’ll count them off, and one in every 10 I’ll shape the other way around. I’ll make them love the same sex instead of the other one! That will create dissonance, contrariness, oddity. Yes, some people will probably hate them. But think how many artists, poets and philosophers they’ll bring forth! They will save My humans from boredom, and some day they’ll be blessed by all.” 

Green’s midrashic rendition of creation is troubling, to say the least. It reinforces the idea that heterosexuality is natural while gay desire is “the other way around.” Green also ignores thousands of years of Jewish wisdom that there are six genders, as detailed by the ancient rabbis, and instead refers to “the other [sex!]” Further, this midrash traffics in dated and classist stereotypes of what queer people do with their lives as “artists, poets and philosophers.” While some queer people have filled these roles, we have also been garbage collectors and physicists and homemakers and athletes, and every other thing that people do with their lives. Green continues by writing heterosexism and homophobia into God’s plan for us, “people will probably hate them,” implying that the suffering of queer people is Divinely ordained. Finally, and I believe most egregiously, Green imagines queer people as existing for the salvation of straight people, whom Green names as “My humans,” thus imagining straight people as the children of God while queer people exist to suffer and entertain God’s children. While it is clear that Green’s intentions are good in imagining a new origin story for queer people, his phobic imagining does more harm than good. Neither the standard liberal nod to the concept of b’tzelem Elohim nor Green’s midrashic imagining was doing it for me. 

In college, I gradually found my way to the emerging canon of queer theory and did my best to immerse myself in these theorists who explained my life to me in ways that were simultaneously gut-wrenching and empowering. As I read the works of queer theorists and began to immerse myself in queer community, culture and politics, my relationship to the question of being a sinner started to shift. As secular queer theory celebrated the transgressive nature of queerness, I began to delight in the ways in which queerness was a potential site of transformation for me personally and for the world. Judaism seemed outdated, and most of the Jewish institutions I encountered were not keeping up with the times. My Hillel rabbi was not willing to officiate at same-sex weddings, and like so many other queers, I found sacredness on the dance floor and in the complex web of queer relationships that were anything but “normal.”

In my early 20s, I hit my first wall in embracing the transgressive nature of queerness. I had recently started dating a guy who was a self-identified, “lapsed Catholic,” and while my religious practice was far from devout at the time, attending synagogue on the High Holidays was still part of my life. On erev Yom Kippur, he and another non-Jewish friend decided to go to a gay club. I decided to go with them, telling myself it would be a subversion of a holiday, on which many Jews read Leviticus 18. As I got on the train, I tried harder and harder to convince myself that this was the “queer-thing-to-do.” By the time we got to the Park Street stop on the Red Line and were about to transfer to the Green Line, I couldn’t bring myself to make the transfer. I couldn’t bring myself to go party on the holiest night of the year. There was something calling me back. My boyfriend and his friend continued on. I got back on the Red Line and returned home.

I felt confused about my relationship to Judaism. There was still something there that I felt a part of, that I needed, that was mine. And I didn’t know how to be part of a religious tradition that also called my most intimate desires and connections sinful. My secular, Marxist analysis wanted to call this “false consciousness,” the idea that I was ignorantly participating in my own oppression. I knew it was more complicated than that.

Gradually, the religious and spiritual elements of Jewish life spoke to me more and more. I started wearing a kippah regularly. I started observing Shabbat more and more strictly. I started a kashrut practice. Meaning and connection seemed to flood in from every point. There was something for me in Jewish practice.

At the same time, the deeper I stepped into my classical observance of halakhah, the more questions about my queerness rose to the top. If I was willing to accept Jewish laws about what I did and did not do on Shabbat, what made laws about my sexual life any different? How could I accept certain bodies of Jewish law but not others? It wasn’t as if my life were fully halakhic except for my queerness. There were plenty of areas of my Jewish practice that were still transgressive from a classical Jewish standpoint, but I knew my queerness was not going to change, while tefillin could still be part of my future.

In my first year as a rabbi, I found myself studying Mishnah Brakhot with two of my students on the college campus I was working on. We came to a section of the Mishnah that explores the recitation of the Shema and when one is exempt from reciting it. Mishnah Brakhot 2:5 states:

“A bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema on the first night until the end of the Shabbat if he has not performed the [sexual] act. It happened with Rabban Gamliel who recited the Shema on the first night after he had married. His students said to him: Our master, have you not taught us that a bridegroom is exempt from reciting the Shema? He replied to them: I will not listen to you to remove from myself the Kingship of Heaven even for a moment.”

At first glance, Rabban Gamliel may appear as a pious man, strictly dedicated to spiritual practice even on his wedding night! But Brakhot 2:6 then jumps in the extremely limited narrative from their wedding night to the night after his wife’s death.

“[Rabban Gamliel] bathed on the first night after the death of his wife. His disciples said to him: Master, have you not taught us that a mourner is forbidden to bathe?! He replied to them: I am not like other men. I am delicate.”

In the previous Mishnah, Rabban Gamliel made the decision to be more machmir, more strict in his observance of Jewish law on his wedding night. In this mishnah, we see him act more meikil, more lenient in his observance. In both cases, we see an embodiment of (possible) d’veikut, cleaving to God and Torah, even amid major life-cycle moments in Rabban Gamliel’s life. At the same time, I wonder about his choices of piety that seem to distance him from his unnamed wife. In studying these mishnayot, I was reminded of an essay by the late Performance Studies scholar, José Muñoz, “Ephemera as Evidence.” Muñoz writes:

Queerness is often transmitted covertly. This has everything to do with the fact that leaving too much of a trace has often meant that the queer subject has left herself open for attack. Instead of being clearly available as visible evidence, queerness has instead existed as innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments, and performances that are meant to be interacted with by those within its epistemological sphere — while evaporating at the touch of those who would eliminate queer possibility.

I began to wonder if Rabban Gamliel was offering us the “innuendo, gossip, fleeting moments” of a an ancient queer rabbi. The plot thickens in the following mishnah, 2:7.

“And when his slave, Tavi, died, [Rabban Gamliel] accepted condolences for him. His students said to [Rabban Gamliel], “Have you not taught us, our teacher, that one does not accept condolences for [the death of] slaves?” [Rabban Gamliel said to his students,] “My slave, Tavi, is not like all the rest of the slaves, he was fit.”

In the previous two mishnayot, Rabban Gamliel made choices that seemed to distance him from his unnamed wife in favor of devotion to God and Torah. First, insisting on reciting the Shema on his wedding night and then choosing to bathe while mourning his wife — an act that limits his state of mourning in a classically halakhic framework. Now, when his male slave dies (a complicated relationship, to say the least), he chooses to receive condolences — an act that extends his mourning more deeply than he is supposed to, given what their relationship seems to be. This is queer ephemera.

Gamliel twice insists on human difference shifting his practices. First, he says, “I am not like other men — I am delicate.” Then he insists that Tavi “is not like the rest of the slaves, he was fit.” While the queer ephemera point to the possibility of an erotic and/or romantic relationship between Gamliel and Tavi, I am less interested in that question than I am in Gamliel’s bringing forth of their difference as a way to deviate from the halakhic norms. His own “delicacy” and Tavi’s “fitness” become sites of transformation in his halakhic practice. Not being like other people, for Gamliel, is grounds for practicing Judaism differently. He is different, and therefore so is his Jewish practice. He is delicate — he is not like other men. Tavi is fit — he is not like the rest of slaves. And so, Gamliel’s practice must follow suit. It must be queer.

In his commentary on parashat Hukkat in the collection Torah Queeries, Jacob Staub writes, “Queering the Torah thus involves more than questioning the received text; it also involves digging beneath it for echoes of suppressed ancestors.” In this series of mishnayot, we can make out some of the “echoes of suppressed ancestors.” We can hear the ephemera and know that it is evidence. It is evidence not only of queer voices and lives, but it is also evidence of a different relationship with halakhah — one that holds respect and reverence for it, and acknowledges that sometimes our individual differences, like Gamliel’s delicacy, mean we need something different. Taken to the extreme, this could result in absolute individualism, but utilized thoughtfully, Gamliel’s queer delicacy could offer a new, ancient approach to halakhah for contemporary Jewish life. This approach would go beyond the notion of b’tzelem Elohim and dive into the Jewish legal questions that animate the lives of LGBTQ+ Jews, and all Jews, today. It could open doors for us to maintain a relationship with halackah while not being fully bound by all of it, recognizing that there may be parts of our lives, of our selves, of our souls that are fundamentally in opposition with the tradition, and make compassionate room for those contradictions.

In thinking about my own current relationship with Leviticus 18:22, I imagine myself declaring, like Rabban Gamliel, “I am not like [most] other men — I am delicate.” I am not like other men; I am like Rabban Gamliel — delicate, queer and striving to locate myself in this ancient tradition.

When I learned these texts with Jacob in our Talmud chavruta, the queerness struck him immediately. Jacob knows how to listen for the echoes of our suppressed ancestors, to feel into the ephemera, and to bring forward new forms of Jewish life that are grounded in the ancient. I conclude with gratitude to Gamliel, Tavi and Jacob, for offering delicacy, fitness and difference, as sites of religious transformation, then and now. 

Rabbi Alex Weissmann discussed this piece and its themes in an Evolve web conversation on January 18, 2022. You can view it here: https://vimeo.com/668707349/55072c2653

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