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For seven years, Babel’s Blessing has been London’s leading grassroots language school. We teach Yiddish, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish and Sylheti so that Londoners can communicate with each other. We run a bnei mitzvah programme so that Jews can connect with their traditions on their own terms. We provide ESOL classes for migrants to the UK, including working as the only teachers of English as a foreign language in arrival centres.
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I hope you don’t mind me calling you Judy. I know Lionel Blue used to call you Fred. I remember reading about it in one of those compilations of Thought for the Day segments he put out. He said we should talk to you like an old friend, with the same degree of familiarity. He called you Fred and addressed you like you were his conscience; a kind voice coaxing him to do better. I picture something approximate to Jiminy Cricket.
So I’ll address you as a friend and call you Judy. I want to call you Judy because I don’t know anyone who goes by that name, so I can invent an image from scratch without knowingly projecting my ideas of others onto you. I want to talk to you as a woman, maybe because I’m just sick of having religion dictated to me by older men. I imagine you queer, because Judy only you truly know how much I need my God to be non-conforming.
So I’ll picture you, if I may. Pixie dyke haircut and hooped earrings. Comfortable trainers. A flowing blouse. Sitting on one of the chairs in my back garden, any back garden I’ve ever had. And you smoke a rolled-up cigarette, or maybe it’s a joint, and you don’t offer it to me because you know I quit smoking a long time back. But you are immortal and immutable, so you don’t need to worry about what impact all that tar will have on your health.
Judy, I hope you don’t mind that I say “you” and not “You.” If I were writing high liturgy or biblical translations, I think I would have to capitalise you. But I’m following a theology that Rabbi Blue picked up from Martin Buber, who adopted it from German Protestants. I’m supposed to speak to you unguarded and as my full self, without illusions of grandeur, neither yours nor my own.
I have to ask forgiveness just for talking to you this way, because I know it is heretical. Even imagining you is an affront to who you really are. Maimonides long ago instructed us that you had no physical form nor anything resembling one. Like the Rambam, I admire the austere iconoclasm of philosophical Islam. It pushes us to realise that you are incomparable to a human being. You are more akin to a force, like gravity or entropy. You are like the moral vibrations of the universe. We only can say what you are by saying what you are not.
But I can’t talk to a vibration or an equation. I can’t make friends with an abstraction. The truth is, Judy, I need you, and I need you to be a relatable human being, because I depend on your guidance for change. I need to picture someone who believes in me and my capacity for goodness, especially on days when I feel like I have nothing to give. I try hard to be someone better than I am, I honestly do, and imagining a slightly stoned lesbian can help with that.
I’m writing this because I want to connect to you, truly and faithfully. I want to reflect on what you mean to me. I want to try and develop morally and spiritually. So I talk to you like you’re here.
I don’t need you to say anything back. I don’t have any illusions about what role you play in the universe. I just need to feel that somehow you are there; listening to me; encouraging me. I just imagine a warm smile and a gentle hand on my shoulder. Jonah’s God. Shechinah. Someone intimate and loving.
If I have to accept that you are beyond comprehension, I wouldn’t be able to talk to you. I would feel like I’m shouting into a silent void. Elijah’s God. The God who isn’t there.
And there are few things I find more frightening than silence. Part of what prompted this letter was a series of exercises where I had to keep quiet for long periods because it was supposed to be spiritually enriching. I get that it is supposed to be enlightening. That’s the popular image of Orientalist postcards showing gurus meditating on the Ganges and fully-robed Buddhist monks sat for hours in silence. It is a significant part of the imagination of Westerners who can’t connect with their own traditions.
That’s not fair. That’s not (the only reason) why it makes me so uncomfortable. It’s also part of English religious history. There is so much I admire about the Quakers. I normally find myself chiming with their politics; impressed by the way they turn anti-militarist protest into acts of religious service. I admire that. I have felt deeply connected to you when in their presence. In your queerness and hunger for justice, I imagine that you blockade arms fairs too.
But I don’t feel your presence when in their silences. I feel anguished and frustrated when I’m forced to contend with silence. I once walked into a retreat happening in the home where I lived. The people weren’t talking or engaging with each other. It reminded me of hospices and retirement homes I had visited where the patients were so drugged up or afflicted by dementia that they had no idea what was going on. I left instantly.
Later, I returned to sleep. While the more enlightened sat in the living room experiencing their quiet contemplations, I washed the dishes with a friend. She talked about her own discomfort, that these practices were stripped from their original contexts of social justice movements and anti-colonial practices, then re-packaged into the medicalised language of “wellness” or the neoliberal politics of “self-improvement.” I had not considered that such a practice could be radical, because I understood silence to be entirely isolating and alienating.
That comes from my own experiences. So much of being gay has, for me, been about deciding what to share and when. In nearly new spaces I wonder whether I can be camp, or if it will put people off. I wonder if I can tell the stories of who I am and who I love and the small queer family I am building, or whether it will invoke new anger from people. In most circumstances, I have to kill part of myself in order to fit in. Coming out isn’t a one-time event, and nor is being in the closet. It is a constant process of ascertaining whether somewhere is safe, and how much. That is why being coerced into silence affects me so much. It’s why I need to be able to talk to a God like you, Judy; someone who is an outsider too.
When I construct my own gay deity, I don’t feel like my queerness is the problem. I feel like it’s part of the solution. Growing up in a world made by other people to suit their own hierarchies has made me empathetic to the struggles of others. I don’t claim to understand what it is like for black men in Chicago or Palestinian children in Sheikh Jarrah or women working in Bangladeshi sweatshops. But I care about it because I know how I have felt when faced with injustice. And that burning rage against oppression feels holy.
It doesn’t just feel like endless anger when I’m with you, Judy. It feels like it means something so much bigger. It is not just politically expedient solidarity or, worse, bleeding heart liberalism. The combined grief and anger of all persecuted people feels like it is deeply spiritually meaningful. It is the foundation for divine justice. It is proof that all of humanity is connected by something bigger than ourselves: a sense of righteousness in resisting iniquity. I think that is what the Latin American liberation theologians are getting at. I feel like they have sat in the back garden with you too.
Judy, it matters greatly that you are there at those barricades and back gardens. Without you, as a real and personal presence, all my fears about the world and desires to change it are misplaced. There is no right and wrong. Oppression is just something that happens. We are alone on a burning planet in an empty universe. There is nothing we can do to change that and, even if we did, it wouldn’t matter. I have to believe you are real. And that you are really real, not just as a story that I have chosen to believe, like existentialists who are nihilists with self-deception. I have to believe that moral statements mean something and a greater tomorrow can come. I have to believe you are real or life will not be worth living.
There are so many who want to treat you like you don’t exist. Some of them claim the Holocaust as a reason to deny you. God abandoned them at Auschwitz, so they will abandon God in turn. Or: if God were real, God would have intervened. I was asked this last year by Shoah survivors at a Tu Bishvat seder. I just listened. I told them they did not have to believe anything. Because my instinctive reaction is to say: what did you think would happen? Did you imagine God would strike Hitler down with a thunderbolt from the sky? Did you think God should just swallow up the camps into pits before they piled the Jews into the gas chambers? How would that work? But, faced with living survivors, I had nothing to say. Albert Friedlander taught that any theology had to be able to be repeated in front of a million murdered Jewish children. Faced with them, I had no answer.
I think that’s why I have to imagine you silent, just listening, and refusing to intervene. If I thought you could respond or intervene, I would be so angry at you. So I imagine you calmly reflecting, nudging me on, reminding me with your eyes that you did not kill all those people, Nazis did. You remind me with your smile that human beings are responsible for our own actions. Above all – that I am responsible for mine.
Because of that, I do look upon some atheism with cynicism. There are people whom it suits very well to deny that there is a God or that morality has any meaning. The world created by Thatcher and Reagan is one where everyone is an individual atom, compressed to its smallest form, seeking nothing but the maximisation of its own wealth and happiness. If there were some great force holding us all together, their entire project would be at an end. If there were such a thing as love or justice or retribution, they would have nowhere to turn. So they pretend not to know you. When they sit down and feel your presence beside them, they shut off the part of them that knows what it means. They are no different to those who thank you for their success, as if you would ever hand out rewards like cookies to children.
I think I heard you once. I was in intense pain and struggling with life, around seven years ago. I was standing on top of a roof, smoking a cigarette. (I wasn’t looking to kill myself instantly, just slowly with tobacco.) I looked up at these overpowering grey clouds and I asked what I should do. And I heard this voice saying “forgive yourself.” It said “forgive yourself” over and over again, quietly at first, and then louder and louder. At that time, I felt like I had always been hearing those words; I’d only just paid attention to them for the first time. I felt like you were there with me, and that was your message for me. And once I’d heard it, truly heard on it, I no longer heard it, because I no longer needed it. Suddenly, I felt ten stone lighter and like I had a message for the whole world.
Judy, you might be imaginary. I might have had a moment of insanity. We might be alone in a meaningless universe. There are so many scientific explanations, and I’m sure there could be so much wonder in the world even without faith. Maybe justice doesn’t matter as much as I think it does. Maybe. Maybe all kinds of things. But I’ve chosen a story that makes sense so I can live a life that feels right.
I have to believe. So I talk to you and write to you and call you Judy. I only ask one thing of you, Judy. Please don’t answer. Please don’t tell me what you think or what I need to do. The only thing worse than silence would be to hear your voice. I couldn’t bear your judgement, or your love. Either would be too much. Let me remain in doubt, that’s all I ask.
You take the last drags on your roll-up. You stub out the fag end on the ground. You put a hand on my shoulder and use my body to lift yourself upright. And you leave me again, for a while.
I am not making any claims about how God made me or what plans God had in store. I have no idea whether my personality was predetermined. I do not have any opinion on whether I am gay because of nature or nurture. I stopped caring about that a long time ago.
But I still say that God is the reason I am gay. Because God is the reason that, if I were given the choice whether or not to keep being gay, I would stay exactly as I am. God is the reason I am proud to be open.
Growing up, there were many reasons I ought to have felt shame. In the 1990s, there was widespread public panic about gay men. I remember as a child opening up a ‘dictionary of new words.’ On one of the first pages was AIDS, whose entry redirected to ‘Gay-Related Disease.’ News stories proliferated about gay men grooming children, having sex in toilets and ruining families. The public image, only 20 years ago, was that gays were dirty, lived in sewers, and spread disease.
Synagogue was a place where I felt safe. In the small shul in my provincial town, I found serenity. And I heard religious leaders and cheder teachers speak about the innate dignity of all human beings; the Divine spark that permeated through everyone; the obligation to protect the stranger and the vulnerable.
The first time I ever heard an adult defend gay rights was in a community member’s living room. I must have been 11. Recently, a local parliamentary candidate had been outed after he was found having sex in a public toilet. Someone said something homophobic – I don’t remember the details.
A middle-aged Jewish woman leapt to the gay man’s defence. She spoke with absolute passion. She laughed when one of the homophobes said he had a gay friend. She was a grown-up telling off a bigot, and she rallied the rest of the room behind her.
As a young queer boy questioning who I was, I looked up to her and thought that was what Judaism looked like in practice. That was what it meant to defend the marginalised. I had permission – from her, and from the God in whom she believed – to be gay.
Gradually I came to realise that I was one of the people that the Jewish woman in the living room had been defending. I didn’t meet many other people like me until I got to university. When I did, I heard from many of them how religious hatred had hurt them and made them reluctant to be open about who they were.
I was grateful that I had known the true God. Progressive Jews worshipped the Source of love and justice, the universal God who did not judge, and who always stood beside the oppressed, and never sided with the oppressor. I thanked God for making me gay.
Later still, I looked around for role models. I wondered what gays could become. I knew a few celebrities existed, like Graham Norton, Elton John and George Michael. But my greatest comfort was knowing that there were gay rabbis. Rabbis like Lionel Blue.
As I looked for purpose in my twenties, I had an inspiring lesbian rabbi. I realised how much strength and joy a synagogue could give, especially to future LGBT kids. I decided I had to create that safe space for others. So God made me gay and, in turn, being gay made me seek out God.
That is the power of religion. Done right, it can affirm people when they are weakest. It can give hope to children that people like them deserve defending. It can be the champion of all who are suffering. It can be the cause of their liberation.
And that power can be profoundly abused. There are those who wield religious power to scare gays into submission. There are those who sit down with queer children and tell them that they need to seek forgiveness for their sinful thoughts. That they have been brainwashed by transgender ideology. That they are mentally disturbed. That they are possessed by demons.
Apparently it is called ‘conversion therapy.’ In this practice, authority figures tell LGBT people that they can stop them being trans or turn them straight. They convince them that if they suppress their personalities, conform to rigid gender roles and only love who they are told, they will be healed. And they do so in the name of God.
And this practice is legal. In Britain. Today.
It is even practised within the British Jewish community. Recently, LGBT people have come forward to share their traumatic stories of how they were manipulated into believing they could be ‘cured’ of non-conformity. They were convinced that if they failed, they would lose their family and community for having let down God.
If queer-affirming religion can make me the person I am today, imagine the damage it can do to teenagers struggling to work out who they are.
As the possibility was raised that this cruel practice could be stopped, a coalition of evangelical churches comprising thousands of members published an open letter saying that banning conversion therapy would effectively outlaw their religion.
At Easter, Labour leader, Keir Starmer, went to one of those very churches to give his festive address. In response to the consternation this provoked from LGBT people, Stephen Timms, a Labour MP, tweeted in support of the homophobic church.
The two most recent prime ministers, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, had both visited this church too, causing outrage. The former Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, recently accepted a donation of £75,000 from an evangelical church that lobbies in defence of conversion therapy.
When politicians spend their time and take money from homophobic religious institutions, they send out a clear message. They tell religious lesbian, gay, bi and trans people that they are, at best, indifferent to homophobia.
When public figures choose to attend these places of worship that claim they can cure gays, rather than any of the mainstream faith houses that embrace gays, they send a message about what they consider to be proper religion, and which God they think matters.
But it is possible to send a different message. We can say that conversion therapy is unacceptable. While banning the practice won’t stop it happening, it lets everyone know that it is not OK. Young people will still talk to their rabbis about how they’re feeling, but religious leaders should not be able to answer LGBT children by promising to take away their gayness or transness.
Instead, they can give them a better message. Young LGBT people can grow up to see that their lives are sacred and deserve to be protected. They can know that they are wonderful as they are and do not need to be changed.
God is the reason I am gay, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have had my first ever academic article published. It appears in the Spring 2020 edition of European Judaism. In it, I compare the experiences of Rabban Gamliel in the bath houses of 2nd Century Akko with those of Rabbi Lionel Blue in 20th Century Amsterdam. I argue that these bath houses form important points of cultural connection, with sexual and spiritual implications.
When the news came in, I was sitting on the sofa watching the TV with my mum. I was in my late teens, back home from my first term at university.
The government had just legalised IVF for lesbians. It was the crowning glory of a raft of legislation passed by a Parliament that permitted gay adoption, created civil partnerships, and outlawed discrimination. Each law had been loudly and publicly debated, and there was no guarantee that any of the laws would pass.
I was overwhelmed with joy. “This is it,” I turned to my mum. “We’ve won so much. They can never take it away from us now.”
“Yes they can.” She said. “They can take it away whenever they want.”
She wasn’t gloating. She wasn’t sad. She was just stating a fact she’d learnt from bitter experience. She had joined the labour movement in its heyday, before workers’ organising rights had been curtailed and union membership had started its slow decline. She had given herself to the women’s movement and successfully fought for domestic violence shelters, women’s representation committees and helplines, only to see them all shut down.
She knew, in a way that I was too naive to understand, that what the powerless took a century to win, the powerful could take away in a day.
A fortnight ago, we read the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad. Five women from the tribe of Manasseh brought a petition before Moses and the elders, requesting that they be able to inherit their father’s estate. They argue that their father was loyal to Moses and, having no brothers, they are his proper heirs.
Moses agrees. He says their cause is just. He sets a precedent and introduces a new law: that whenever a man dies leaving daughters but no sons, his daughters will inherit him.
It is a favourite story of progressive Jews. In pulpits across the world, rabbis will have given sermons arguing that this text shows that we are right. Halachah can change. We can advance the rights of women. Judaism can progress.
This week, we are less triumphant. Cushioned at the end of the book of Numbers are the terms and conditions imposed on the daughters of Zelophehad. The men who head up the tribe of Manasseh ask Moses to revisit the case. If these women marry whoever they like, the tribe’s portion will be smaller.
Moses agrees with them. The daughters of Zelophehad must marry men from the tribe of Manasseh. The estate they inherited must become part of their husbands’ wealth. That will be the law. All women who inherit their father’s estates must marry men from the same tribe and hand over their wealth. What they won one week, they lost the next.
What does it mean for progressive Jews? The clue is, after all in the name: progressive Jews are supposed to believe in progress. Judaism can progress. We can change to become more inclusive and equal.
Our faith in progress is a response to Enlightenment and emancipation. Jews were granted citizenship. Science advanced and the age of reason prevailed. Mendelssohn called us out of the ghettos, promising the Jews of Germany that the world was waiting for them. The Jews would enter into history. If humanity was going to advance, we would lead the charge. Progress was unstoppable.
History had other plans. What rights we won, we lost in greater measure. After citizenship came the death camps. Progress could be stopped after all.
How can we possibly continue to have faith in progress after the horrors of the Shoah? How can we hold onto our hopes when we know how easily they can be dashed?
The answer is simply that we must. We hold onto our values because they are right. To be a progressive today does not mean believing that the victory of the oppressed is inevitable, but that it is necessary. We do not know whether justice can win, but only that it must.
The moments of victory are not just short-lived achievements. When we win the right of women to inherit, or lesbians to have IVF, or gays to adopt, we do not just win a legal right. We are glimpsing what is possible. We gain strength as we realise that progress we once thought impossible can be achieved. The realisation of a dream only calls for more dreams.
Today, pundits warn us of the great fragility of progress. In a tear-filled speech to Parliament recently, Angela Eagle MP told the Commons: “We know that the motivations of some of those involved in this are reactionary, and they are to return us to an era where LGBT people should get back in the closet and hide and be ashamed of the way they are.”
The progress that gave us lesbian IVF, gay adoption and the Equality Act is proving vulnerable once more. Those who had never quite felt included in Britain are feeling more alienated than ever, and those who assumed Britain would always be their home are having doubts.
But we should not despair. Whatever progress we have made has not been given to us by an invisible hand of history that oscillates between liberalism and fascism, but by people making the choice that progress is worth fighting for. We win rights not because of the generosity of politicians but because of the insistence of those who believe in justice.
Recognising that progress is fragile, all we can do is ask ourselves whether it is worth fighting for. And because it is worth fighting for, we will fight. And if we fight hard enough, we may win.
I wrote this sermon for the weekly newsletter of Leo Baeck College, for Parashat Masei, 3rd August 2019