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Secular Humanistic Jews and my Bisexual Rabbi: Exporing Feminism and Sexuality in Modern Judaism

EG's picture


Secular Humanistic Jews and my Bisexual Rabbi


Exploring Feminism and Sexuality in Modern Judaism



            The way I emerged from my Jewish congregation as a Bat Mitzvah was similar, in more than a couple of ways, to what I had observed of the Jews with whom I grew up alongside: my West Coast family, my East Coast classmates, the daughters and sons of our family friends.  I stood, like them, on a sort of platform, on a Saturday morning well into my 13th year of life, with my rabbi beside me, and, following a 20-minute reading, I proclaimed myself a Jewish woman to my friends and family. In the years leading up to the ceremony, I attended Sunday school at Machar, a congregation in Washington, DC, for education on topics ranging from Jews in science, to unionizing, to Spike Lee’s influence on Jewish culture.  In the months before my mitzvah, I met with my rabbi and studied with my father by the fireplace, practicing the speech I would practice until I was satisfied.  I worked hard for the honor of becoming a Jewish woman, of entering adulthood, of celebrating my Jewish identity with the adults in my life.  But behind the big day, there was a twinge of regret, of dissatisfaction and of fear: that I was not a real Jew.  My Jewish peers in school looked at me and threw the word Jewish between quotation marks.  They smirked in remembering a ceremony that lacked a Torah reading, a cantor, or any Hebrew for that matter.  Instead of singing prayers at my mitzvah, we sang John Lennon’s Imagine.  Instead of reading a haftorah portion, I wrote my own speech; in English.  And did I mention: the ceremony was held at the most Goyish country club in Maryland.

I never learned Hebrew.  On Fridays, I went out to the movies with my family while my Jewish friends celebrated Shabbat.  I never learned those prayers.  My Jewish life was a point of frustration and inadequacy for me, especially when framed next to thetheologically and traditionally rich lives that my conservative Jewish friends led.  But it is upon reflection that I venture that in that upbringing, and as a newly emerged bat mitzvah, a feminist was born into me, one that perhaps I didn’t know existed until I had any formal feminist education in college.

            This is all to say that my Jewish upbringing was strictly secular, and totally humanistic in its approach to just about everything.  We could find our Judaism, we were taught, not in the Torah, but in our history, our culture, and our holidays.   I learned that, we, the people, were the hands of change for ourselves, for our neighbors, and for strangers; with God out of the picture, the justice of the people was our duty and responsibility.   And so it is in this essay that I hope to further explore the roles of feminism as well as sexuality in Machar and, specifically, in my rabbi, and suggest that the rejection of God, embracement of the power of people, and open declaration of sexual orientation is a feminist practice that breeds feminist mitzvahs from Machar.

I would begin by saying that my rabbi is an open bisexual.  He joined Machar after I did, while I was in the fifth grade class with my teacher Deborah, a secular humanistic lesbian and union worker.  It is no surprise then, that I felt somewhat unique in my Jewish education; traditional Jewish practices as I knew them frowned upon deviation from heterosexuality, and the Talmud names a tendency toward homosexuality – man-lying -- an“abomination” or “abhorrence.” (deLange. Freud-Kandel). Happily, progress in tolerance had been made since theStonewall riots, but I could not help but wonder how warmly our conservative neighbors would welcome such a spectrum of queer educators and mentors into their own synagogues.  Perhaps Liora Moriel, an Israeli lesbian and feminist activist and writer says it best when she writes that even today, “[…]In Judaism women do not count, andlesbians are invisible[…]” (Alpert). I knew, even at a young age, that this was no ordinary Judaism.

I mention my rabbi’s sexual orientation specifically so that I might examine bisexuality exclusively, for a moment, and the ways in which naming this specific orientation is “feminist” or not, or, “humanistic” or not, and also to address a counterargumentthat might find Biber’s orientation an unjust declaration.  I call on Cherrie Moraga, a Latina feminist and lesbian writer who speaks to the “bi-” prefix of sexuality andrace in her essay The Breakdown of the Bicultural Mind:


I have always hatedthe terms “biracial” and “bisexual.” They are passive terms, without political bite.  They don’t choose.  They don’t make a decision.  They are a declaration not of identity,but of biology, of sexual practice. They say nothing about where one really stands.  And as long as injustice prevails, wedo not have the luxury of calling ourselves either. (237)


By Moraga’s definition, then, my rabbi has taken the “luxury” of lingering on the sidelines of orientation, and, because there certainly is prevailing injustice, he has gone against his own congregation’s policy of humanistic, hands-on work towards a more just world.  We might break that down this way: had my rabbi used his straight identity to define himself, he would be part of the culprit of gay injustice and responsible for doing something about it; had he chosen to embrace only his homosexual tendencies and name himself accordingly, he would be only the victim of the injustice, and have to face the consequences of being gay. But what my rabbi has done, in his open declaration of bisexuality, is owned both roles.  In his bisexuality, he has become part of the cause and the victim of injustice.  He owns both the responsibility of repairing the injustice that his queer brothers and sisters face, and has, on the other hand, claimed to be one of them and part of their struggle.  He has perhaps not slipped through the crack and freed himself of injustice and responsibility, but done just the opposite because of his active involvement with the humanistic approach to Judaism: charities, political education, etc.

            This might seem a moot point were it not for the fact that my rabbi, is, in Hebrew, the “master” of the synogogue, or, in this case, the small congregationthat meets at an elementary school. He is the spokesperson for not just Machar, but also of Secular Humanistic Judaism, and his interpretations, motives, and actions in his own life perpetuate an understanding and following in his community.  It is in this way that he perpetuates a humanistic approach to Judaism and life outside of Judaism in our congregation.

            It is important then, to visit feminism as a practice in Judaism and to examine how Machar has stayed consistent with, or derailed from their coexistence.  In his book On Women and Judaism, Blu Greenberg notes the apparent dissonence between feminism and Judaism:

There is much to be learned from the women’s movement that can enhance the quality of our lives as Jews. […] Yet at this point the possibility of a positive relationship between the two seems improbable, if not impossible.  


It is necessary that I define my “feminism” in this essay because study of the subject has taught that no two definitions are truly alike.  I have always seen “feminism” as a response to injustice.  In an ideal world, then, feminism wouldnot need to exist.  That is simplified but adequate for what I will try to argue here: that because of its aims, Machar, and similar Secular Humanistic Jewish congregations, are feminist organizations in that they aim to repair injustices through a focus on modern history, current politics, tzedakah (charity) and equality.  That is not to say that these ideals are not ingrained in many Jewish synagogues and congregations around the world, because that would be utterly false.  But it is in its name that Machar rips responsibility from a god, and throws it into the hands of the people in order that justice might prevail.  And it is in that emphasis that I find feminism to be, however subconsciously, very rooted in Machar and the leadership of its rabbi, and in the mitzvahs who chose to, or not to, continue their secular humanistic practices. 


Anne Dalke's picture

World Repair


You begin with the classic movement of feminist theorizing: you start with personal experience, of a paradoxical nature--first proclaiming yourself "a Jewish woman," then reviewing your sense that you weren't really one, because your education had been that of a secular humanist. What you work your way towards, by the end of the essay, is a reclaiming of the term "Jewish feminist"--for yourself, for your rabbi, and for your synagogue.

Quite a feat, and one accomplished somewhat adroitly, by taking on both Moraga's dismissal of "bi-" terms as indecisive, and Greenberg's doubts about the possibility of a positive relation between the women's movement and Judaism. Making the "aim to repair injustice"--a key teaching in Judaism--the definition feminism allows you to claim them both.

So here's the question: your essay makes quite a striking pairing with another one, written by one of your classmates, about the ritual gender segregation practices of Orthodox Judaism, which provides such a strong foil and contrast to the beliefs you outline here. What unites those practices (which by the author's own account demonstrate "considerable social and emotional stakes in maintaining the status quo") with your own? In what ways might they (or might they not) be reconcilable?