This wasn’t just any trip to Israel, you see. We spent much of our time in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv meeting with local activists and community leaders who are working hard to bend Israeli society towards greater justice and inclusion for LGBTQ people, Jews and Arabs alike.
Oh, To Be Orthodox and Gay.
Or trans. Or a woman passionate about prayer and study. Or anyone else whose body and soul don’t fit in the neat containers of halachah. This word — literally ‘going’ or ‘walking’ in Hebrew — refers the code of law that governs an observant Jew’s every action, from getting dressed to peeing and pooping, eating, and especially sexual intimacy.
The Orthodox posture on homosexuality in particular emanates from Leviticus 18:22, for which I’ll give you a mostly literal translation suggested by Rabbi Steve Greenberg in his trailblazing 2005 book, Wrestling with God and Men.
And a male you shall not bed as in the lyings of a woman. It is abhorrent.
Over the centuries, the rabbinic tradition has built a tall fortress around this verse, encompassing all forms of same-sex intimacy. Some parts of the halachic world, particularly the far-right ultra-Orthodox, have been quite vicious about it.
By itself, this part of halachah might be reason enough for a gay Jew to close the book entirely. Stay in the closet, say. Or move to Tel Aviv and leave Judaism behind.
For decades, that’s mostly what happened. It wasn’t until the 1990’s, really, that the first cracks started appearing. Most people think a big starting point was the opening of military service to out LGBT people, which happened without much fuss at all in 1993 and added another ingredient into the great social blender that is the Israeli Defense Forces.
Religious Jews, including many living in the closet, started serving alongside out LGBT people and learned to trust their experience of them.
Things Started Happening Fast After That.
In 1997, the Jerusalem Open House, a walk-in community and support center, started out in the dingy, courageous little office building it still inhabits. Since 2002, the community has staged — or tried to, at least — yearly pride celebrations, the condemnation of which gives conservative leaders of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian sectors a rare opportunity to make a show of unanimity.
At the 2005 march, the one the city’s ultra-Orthodox mayor tried to ban altogether, an extreme right-wing Jew stabbed three people.
And still LGBTQ Jerusalem gathered, and organized, and marched. But then a funny thing started happening.
“Mama, why is Papa wearing sackcloth and screaming at people?”
That, apparently, was the question out of children’s mouths in ultra-right-wing religious families amidst all the demonstrations and riots. Leaders of Jerusalem Open House held secret meetings with ultra-right-wing rabbis, and an uneasy consensus was hammered out — tone it down a bit, and we won’t protest. Keep the parade route away from our neighborhoods, and we won’t urge the faithful to attack you, at least not in public. Whatever it takes to stop our children from asking questions about things we’d rather not talk about.
Something else, more difficult to define, is going on at the margins, out of the headlines. GLBTQ Jews are, even in some very ultra-right-wing circles, no longer demons in disguise, infected with spiritual cooties that foul anyone they touch. Meetings and conversations are happening — off the record and away from public view — that would have never taken place even a few years ago. One of the JOH staff spoke to us of meeting a Haredi rabbi who showed her the black candles he had been burning at midnight to curse her, just to prove, I suppose, that there were no hard feelings.
So Life Goes On
The JOH staff who met with us had many stories. Stories of the lounge filled with ultra-Orthodox Jews sitting next to Palestinians, the library of books in Hebrew and Arabic for people who can’t access the Internet. There’s the transgender Haredi woman who comes in about once a month, puts on the women’s clothing she keeps in the office. She has tea, chats with people in broken Hebrew — like many Haredim, her native language is Yiddish — then puts her black hat and black coat back on and returns to the Haredi world as a man. Then there are the Palestinian kids who come in from East Jerusalem and villages outside the city, wondering if anyone knows how to stop the feelings they have for other boys.
And the hundreds of people who come every year for free, rapid, and anonymous HIV testing, which the Ministry of Health is working hard to shut down. They want to track each and every test by name and identity card.
Why Don’t You Just Move to Tel Aviv?
That was a question the staff reported hearing often, both from people living in the freedom of “the Bubble,” as it’s called, and from religious Jerusalemites uncomfortable with this openly LGBTQ presence in their midst.
“It’s hard to live in Jerusalem,” one of them told us, echoing observations from people in our own group. There’s scrutiny. There’s tension. Bared shoulders and tattoos generate stares. On average, Israelis are not shy about staring, and Jerusalemites even less so. Women who wear kippot or tzitzit, the head covering and fringes of a religious Jew, get stared at and jeered at.
The people we met with spoke of Jerusalem as the focal point of a slow-motion population transfer — very religious Jews moving in, secular Jews moving out. But nowhere did I sense a break in the resolve of the people who are committed to staying.
“Everything that’s a challenge in Israel is a challenge in Jerusalem,” one of the JOH staff told us. “If we don’t face it here, we’ll face it somewhere else.”
Besides, so much is happening in a country used to sudden, convulsive changes. Especially in the center-to-left parts of the Orthodox world, long-sealed doors are beginning to be pushed open by LGBTQ Jews who refuse to shut up. In the the past few years, open and affirming prayer communities have sprouted up, started by organizers who timidly put the word out, expecting a few dozen stragglers and seeing hundreds instead.
And that’s the sense I left Jerusalem with. If positive change can happen here, it can happen pretty much anywhere.