Behind my bolt locked door
The eagle and the serpent are at war in me
The serpent fighting for blind desire
The eagle for clarity
Months ago there was a young man in a Jewish group I participate in at times who was struggling with how to match his sexual identity to the Orthodox branch of Judaism that best fit his spiritual perspective. Despite an unabashed loathing of all things Reform (made abundantly clear whenever possible), he was in the process of converting with a Reform rabbi.
Understandably a lot of people just didn’t get it, to a degree, myself included. I mean, if you believe in an Orthodox perspective on everything, why is there an exception for your sexuality? What do they get wrong there, and how do you square that with believing they get everything else right?
I saw a lot of myself in him. Orthodox Judaism appeals to me at times, and I think if I’d been raised in it, I would have made my way back there by now already. Orthodoxy offers the stability of tradition in a world that often feels like it is barely being held together. Orthodoxy offers more certainty and less wide open frontier to question everything — comforting if you’ve ever caught a disappointed sigh in your lungs realizing that Reform has flung open the door to a Judaism that looks more like being a Methodist than the Judaism of your distant ancestors.
But of course, there’s that other quirk of biology that young man and I share. And it’s stuff like that which makes other branches of Judaism, including Reform, relevant. We aren’t living in the dark ages of thinking homosexuality is demonic, politically or socially imposed, or transmitted by sexual abuse between adults and minors. Neither are we anymore living in a fledgling civilization hoping to increase its numbers and cement its moral identity apart from its neighbors where pederasty, slavery, and sadistically violent kings rule the land. In some ways better and in some ways worse the Jewish people today exist in a world different than it was even a century ago, and different certainly than it was for the ancient Hebrews. I understand the desire to seek more contemporary meaning and to re-evaluate tradition in light of those differences. Branches like Reform make room for Jews like that young man and I who both love tradition and also find ourselves innately enraptured by the beauty G-d bestows in men.
“So it’s just ‘fuck everyone else’ now that you’ve gotten yours, huh?”
So often that was the response he got from others in the group, of course, more often in reference to his politics than his religion. The line of thinking there was that as a gay or bisexual man (I can’t recall which he preferred now), he had already achieved equal status and now owed it to others still fighting for theirs to politically align with them.
The irony is that he hadn’t actually achieved equal status. He was still struggling to be a gay Orthodox Jew, and settling for a branch of Judaism he disagreed with spiritually and politically because it accepted his sexuality. The discord between sexuality and religion remained for him; there was no resolution. But contemporary leftist ideology in the West can’t conceptualize that — it can’t conceptualize “white” men as ever not being at the absolute top of the food chain, having “ours” and telling everyone else to fuck off.
This infection of woke hierarchical identity politics is my major qualm with Reform and Progressive Judaism. Because these aren’t just movements creating space for modern Judaism in the modern world, but they’re also movements where Jewish identity itself can be sidelined if we aren’t careful, whether we’re rejecting the authority of halakhah, using country-first identity language, or now increasingly allowing Western liberal norms (not scripture, not tradition, not any of the rich Jewish cultural heritage regarding race or gender) to lead how we even understand and talk about ourselves.
But that’s the impulse of progressivism, right? Whether we’re talking about social politics or religious trends, progressivism pushes outward from the status quo. Conservatism contracts inward around tradition.
In a nutshell, I’ve found myself needing to conserve a lot more lately. Maybe as far back as the last five or six years.
No, I didn’t get mine. And no, I don’t think “fuck everyone else.” I still wrestle with G-d and with the home of Judaism against my sexuality — no, that’s too gruff — against the dilation of my eyes in the company of men, the soothing of my nerves after nights spent wrapped together, and the impulse of my heart to hunt perfect little gifts, entomb loving moments in his mind, to fill his spirit with my belief in everything he dares, and to ferociously protect our life together. I haven’t ruled out meeting a nice Jewish girl. But you have to hear me, G-d gave me eyes and hands, a voice and a heart that thrive in fellowship with my brothers too.
I don’t know what “mine” looks like. I understand traditions around marriage, and I know I want a loving partnership one way or another. I understand the commandment to be fruitful and multiply, and in my head I hear Isaiah’s addendum to that — let me not cry out that I am but a barren tree. I’m not so modern or so secular that none of this matters. Maybe that is my first conservatism. I’m a Jew, I’m not LGBT.
Politically, no, I have not achieved mine either. Unfathomable financial powers lay claim to the countryside, to Appalachia, to the South — there will be no leftist climate adaptation strategy that gives us a snowball’s chance in Hell, so poisoned is American culture to humanizing the people who live here. Somewhere along the way, I (and we) have become the enemy of every leftist faction right now demanding its seat at the ideological table.
The difference between now and several years ago for me is that I’ve stopped fighting it. I’ve accepted that there’s nothing I can say or think or do that won’t elicit the ire of anti-racists, anti-Zionists, feminists, Democrats, and all the rest. My fight for equality is undermined at every step by the movement for gender ideology and its mission to erase the meaning of sex and to transition children who would otherwise likely grow up to be gay. I’m not even certain that I ever wanted equality. I think I just needed a few good conversations with my family and a rabbi instead.
I’m not going to cut off my family for having a difficult time or struggles of their own. I’m not going to “believe” minorities simply because of their minority status. I’m not going to ever believe that abolishing the police is even remotely an intelligent idea. I’m not going to stop understanding that being Jewish is a racialized experience, (that being Polish is racialized too, that whiteness is not a monolithic or scientific category), and I’m not going to call grown men “she” or “them” or memorize a bunch of made-up and constantly changing words for every single individual I meet.
I suppose it makes sense. Anyone with a reasonable need that progressivism answers is going to reach that point where it’s their limit. Just because we share a similar relationship to the status quo doesn’t make us allies, doesn’t mean I owe everyone else solidarity — no more so than being homosexual makes a group of gays into a community.
I’m not sure what I got from progressivism. Perhaps a starting point in religion and in culture. I feel an intense need to conserve now. To conserve disappearing single-sex gay spaces and a real bond between men. To conserve my family, despite our differences in opinions on certain issues. To conserve Judaism against anti-Jewish extremists inside and out. To conserve this country and its small town hollers. ….
I’m growing a right wing. And boy does that make a lot of folks upset. But if there’s one thing I do owe others, owe myself, this world, and G-d too — it’s to be true to who I am and how I feel.
This is where I am on this journey.
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