The Chutzpah of Homosexual and Jewish Identity Intersection
“There is always a link [between homosexuality and Jewishness in popular culture]… there’s the ‘oy vey’ over-the-top Jewish mother and the over-the-top drag queen…there are a disproportionate number of gay Jewish artists out there. Jews have played a huge part in defining what gay culture is” (Schnoor 56)
Performance not only generates identity, but also informs our understanding of how identities are created as well as our understanding of how those identities relate to one another and why. Identities are formed by the performance of identification specifically, which then serves the expression and further expression of identity. Performance generates identification- which constructs, deconstructs, and makes fluid identities by the self in society. Identities like national, gender, religious, and sexual identities then intersect as they and because they are performed. This intersection generates relationships between identities that either situates identities within one another or hierarchically. Relationships can also be simultaneous which allows for identity integration- creation of something new from intersection. Interpretations of religious and political law, mutual interpretations of one another based on the larger orders informing them, and mutual experiences of minority marginalization further influence the formation of relationships between homosexual and Jewish identities specifically.
Depictions of sexuality in Judaism as a religious and theological institution inform expressions of sexual identity in Jewish culture that reinforce these terms of acceptable depictions of sexual identity. Performance of homosexuality as a sexual identity and Judaism as a ethno-religious identity generates these very identity conceptions, as well as informs our understanding of how and why these identities come to be and come to relate to one another. The intersection of homosexuality and Judaism as identities not only informs but also further reconstructs and validates these individual and individually performed identities.
Identities and/as Terms
Judaism refers to the theological and ideological institution of Jewish religion as it has existed historically as a site of education, expression, and reinforcement. This institutionalization manifests itself as synagogues and congregations, Torah and Talmud study or Jewish education, Hebrew language education, and social community building programs like camps and clubs. Depictions of sexuality in Judaism include the gender-enforced sexual ideals expressed and reinforced within these various institutions through religious discourses and social interactions. Jewish culture includes Judaism as religion but extends beyond theological institutions to encapsulate other aspects contributing to the Jewish identity. Jewish culture can involve practicing Judaism as a religion, as well as identifying as Jewish ethnically and socially. Jewish culture is thus an extremely broad and subjective site of identity expression based on geographic location, personal upbringing, formal education, and social demographic.
Sexual identity is based on sexual orientation as both a physical and social practice. Notions of sexual orientation rely on gender identification so the term sexual identity means to include gender-enforced and gender-informed sexuality/sexual orientation. Identity is based on the active and engaged sense of identification instead of being. Identifying as something implies a sense of agreement or engagement with that provides agency to the subject. It also embodies the personal and subjective realities of the human condition. Identification is the performance of identity, which contributes to the development of this sexual identity whether it is because of or in spite of Judaism and whether it is constructed or embodied from something more essential. Expression of this sexual identity in Jewish culture because of or in spite of Judaism reinforces and informs its own further development.
A variety of aspects of identity manifest in response to the intersection of Jewish and homosexual identities specifically. Homosexuality relies on terms of traditional gender roles, marital unions, and family units- many of which are established by religious institutions like Judaism. Religious institutions rely on linguistic discourse; in the case of Judaism, Hebrew especially informs the scope of communication about sexuality. Judaism situates itself physically primarily in terms of Israel, providing a national identity with undertones of religion. Place also heavily contributes to this national identity, juxtaposing the hypothetical site of Judaism with the physical site of the (often homophobic) Middle East. The establishment of the State of Israel is a direct response to the Holocaust as well as historical persecution of the Jewish people. This motivation came heavily from the desire to repopulate the world with Jews, a notion that enforces and reinforces the biological undertones of Judaism as an ethnicity. The Israeli Defense Force not only serves as protection of the country, but also capitalizes on the continued procreation of its Jewish citizens because of its national draft for Jews. Tel Aviv Pride, Jerusalem Pride, and Israeli drag are some of the sites of performance of this identity intersection. The contexts, as well as other performance art based context where the identity of artist is engaged, both utilize and further generate performer as an identity in and of itself.
Formation of Identity
The formation of ethnic, religious, sexual, gender, and national identity categories is not only interpreted in a variety of ways, but also contends with a variety of interpretations of the specific identities these categories generate. Identification as an action creates categories of identities that produce identity ideals that can then be categorized accordingly. Additionally, the process of identification- identifying- constitutes the very means by which identity categories and the identities categorized within them are made. The emphasis on identification as an action of identifying can suggest a taking on of something external. It also implies that the identity that is external also pre-exists the subject taking it on. In this sense, identity is first and constantly constructed externally by society. This is especially true of ethnic identities as constructed- and constructing- societal interpretations of the intersection between race and culture, for “ethnic identity in the social sciences rests upon a model of ethnicity as a socially constructed phenomenon” (Schnoor 45). Society situates biological factors against relational manifestations that enforce Judaism specifically as an ethno-religion. In considering society external to the individual subject, individuals then fill this construction so to speak- as well as further procure society as a unit made up of individuals obliging to the social constructions defining their individuality.
The individual is key even in social construction of identity. Society constructs identities, but the individual as self also enforces and reconstructs identity. Even before intersecting with another identity through performance, religious identity as an example of identity integrates a variety of hybridized components. Society offers these components through construction, but the presence of the individual informs the terms and timeline of identity reconstruction. The individual thus has agency as a member of society constructing its identities: “religious individualism… emphasizes the fact that… as ‘sovereign self’ [one] constructs his/her own personal religious identity by pulling together elements from various repertoires” (Schnoor 45). Emphasizing identity construction implies a sense of agency for the individual but fails to acknowledge the limitations of an individual’s access to formation of the terms of identification. An individual able to construct identity but only using the tools society provides to it. This societal influence establishes a sense of collectivism because societal parts of identity construction are only so varied and differentiable. The motivation and agency of an individual in constructing one’s own identity emerges as more important than the accessible terms and components. In the case of religious categorization specifically, “Jewish identities have gone through a significant transformation from an identity based on collectivism to an identity based on personalism and voluntarism” (Schnoor 46). Collective identity refers to the notion of categorizing a body of individuals, but it also suggests identification that yields a sense of collection among individuals. Personalism implies individualism but also referencing an individual as a person- a human subject whose identity is constructed with agency and thus voluntarily. Motivation, intention, and agency are thus all forces characterizing the societal collective while also promoting of further individuality.
An important characteristic of construction is the potential for deconstruction. This is true of identity construction, when identity deconstruction is actually re- construction- construction of something again and something new. Hypothetical liquification as a method of deconstruction holds the potential to further yield identity fluidity. Fluidity as a characteristic challenges both spatial and temporal frameworks by resisting through complete deformation and reformation: “identity construction can be temporary or situational” (Schnoor 50). This implies that identities as product, and identification as process as well as product of identity interpretation, are both fluid in space and time. Fluidity, when applied to identification specifically, suggests “queering” as an act- a making alternative as and while also making dynamic in space and time. Queering also directly references queerness, a sexual and gender identity (among other things) that this process generates. As such, “the conception of fluid and dynamic sexual identities where a strict binary division between the ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ no longer holds legitimacy” (Schnoor 46). “Queer” as an identity category suggests production from a process of “queering”; this process as it is reconceived through identity deconstruction as fluidity then applies to and further produces other identity categories unrelated to gender or sexuality. This is one example of how the interpretation of an identity informs not only the way it is perceived to come about but also the potential processes of formation of other identity categories.
Performance of identity on both an individual and societal scale constructs identity in and of itself- identity as performed and performative. Not only are all identities performed in a variety of ways that further constitutes identity interpretation, but also “performer” is an identity in and of itself that can challenge the very normalization of religious, sexual, gendered, national, and racial identity categories. An identity of performer and identification as performer offers the potential to not just resist these processes altogether but also redefine their application as well as their interpretation. This perhaps explains why so many performers, artists, performance artists, and activists use the very performance, presentation, and representation of their often stigmatized or loaded identities to resist the societal constructs that provided them with those very tools of identification in the first place. This also explains why the intersection of homosexuality and Judaism as charged and marginalized identities is often utilized in, through, and as performance: “there is always a link [between homosexuality and Jewishness in popular culture]… there’s the ‘oy vey’ over-the-top Jewish mother and the over-the-top drag queen…there are a disproportionate number of gay Jewish artists out there. Jews have played a huge part in defining what gay culture is” (Schnoor 56). Culture, or popular culture, as the site where the entirety of identities mutually expresses themselves and often intersect, is often the most real and most relevant manifestation of identity.
We must contextualize identity- often with and among other identities- to give it meaning in the first place. Because of context’s ability to apply and interpret meaning, “variability of identity performance is only amplified when examining the intersections of two identities” (Schnoor 58). Identity intersecting as an action, and identity intersection as a site generating and generated as a site different than the identity components making it up, thus are valuable themselves while also providing value to the parts contributing to their whole. The idea of performance not just as a product of identity but also as a process of identification contributes to the theory of identity construction. Performance also still expresses an internal and essential component of the human condition, reconciling larger conflicting notions of essentialism and existentialism. Perhaps we can and do create our selfhood through the act of identification, generating identities through performance, fluidity, deconstruction, and construction. Perhaps, however, this very need to act- to identify through and as performance, and perform identity as well as identity intersection- is an innate characteristic of humanity on both a societal and individual level. Acts of identification and creation of self through identity construction expresses the essential human need to act- to identity- at all in the first place.
Relationships between Homosexual and Jewish Identities
Once formed, identities relate to one another in a variety of ways. Specifically, the religious and sexual identities of Judaism and homosexuality have taken on a variety of relationships given the historical and social contexts of their interaction. The discourse surrounding these relationships informs the perceptions of their value, influence, and malleability. There have been many accounts of individuals privileging their homosexuality over their ethnic or religious identity of Judaism because of the focus on relevancy and political application: “…[they] insist that a heightened sensitivity to homosexuals’ calls for justice and liberation must take precedence over the traditional Jewish teaching” (Kahn 59). The civil and secular undertones to the efforts of sexual equality cause it to feel more accessible and understandable to a wider range of people. This also emphases the notion that homosexuality transcends any religious or ethnic characterizations in terms of the demographics it affects- regardless of the differences in how those religious demographics respond to homosexuality. Similarly, “secular Jews are the ones more likely to place strong emphasis on their gayness…Jewishness as a ‘religion’ that could be discarded at any time….gay identity formed the most essential part of core self” (Schnoor 50). This implies that it is a weakness or absence of religious influence that allows the homosexuality identity to flourish. Homosexuality thus tops the hierarchy, but only by default and as the lesser of two marginalized and stigmatized “evils”. Even though homosexuality is in some cases seen as a higher prioritized identity, it is only formed to be that way by a defect in the presence of religious identity, which in fact still gives that religious identity power over sexuality. It is important to consider that absence is just as influential as- and as a form of- presence.
In some cases, homosexuality is privileged but is still challenged because it is separated altogether as an identity from religious identity. Homosexuality remains intact as an active identity but perceived conflicts with Judaism cause it to become removed from attempted religious presence. This not only occurs on an individual level, but many communities create “spiritual home[s] for Jews seeking camaraderie and support for religiosity without having to deny their sexual orientation” (Cooper 84). While one might not have to deny homosexuality as one’s sexual orientation, homosexuality still cannot be truly reflected and honored in an institutionalized religious or spiritual context. The potential for separation between religion and sexuality both serves Judaism as an institutionalized religion and also allows it to serve in the hierarchization of religious identity over sexual identity. Distance between identity holds the potential for irrelevance but also for overt prioritization: many “become ultra-religious Jewish lifestylers in an attempt to purge themselves of their gay inclination” (Schnoor 49). Contrast thus poses homosexuality and Judaism as mutually exclusive to one another, which can be used to the detriment of both identities. Strength in identification serves personal and communal development but often comes at the cost of other identities. Both Judaism and homosexuality have historically been under a “nature verses nurture” debate and could be used to serve one another in how interpretation of this conflict informs the way the identities themselves are received- if they aren’t pitted against one another to begin with.
Focus on the similarities in Jewish and homosexual identities- in how they are formed and how they affect their subjects- encourages their mutual use in and of intersection. Religious and sexual identities necessarily intersect because of religious commentary on sexual behaviors as well as the use of sexual acts of procreation to reinforce religious existence. Identity intersection is an unavoidable phenomenon, but identity integration is active, purposeful, and often performative. Collectivism as informing of individuality enforces this identity integration: “groups promote the integration of Judaism and homosexuality as two central and natural aspects of personal identity” (Cooper 91). Intersection as integration not only honors and recognizes qualities of the conception and characters of each individual identity but also utilizes these aspects to serve the expression and development of the other.
Service to another enhances the self and creates a union anew. In terms of religious identity serving sexual identity, individuals can “use their sense of ‘Jewish values’ to help guide them in their everyday gay lives” (Schnoor 52). This situates Judaism as a function within a larger sense of homosexuality as an identity informing the practice of sexual relationship to others. Religious and spiritual practices of Judaism can also be celebratory as well as informatory: one can “acknowledge and celebrate through Jewish ritual and observance essential aspects of what it means to be gay or lesbian” (Cooper 91). Religion’s emphasis on connection, collection, and community allows it to support personal development through union to a larger source of motivation and intention. It also offers multiple perspectives and points of accessibility to development of all aspects of identity, not just that of sexuality.
Formation of Relationships between Homosexuality and Judaism
A variety of social and political aspects inform the variety of relationships between homosexual and Jewish identities. Interpretation of laws, politics, and civil rights often exists within a framework of separation between church and state- a concept that extends to Judaism as an institutionalized religion. A majority of both religious and secular forces encourage this separation for the mutual benefit of Judaism and American government. Interestingly enough, the shared desire for separation actually brings Judaism and homosexuality together: many have “voted to support the legalization of any private sexual act between consenting adults…this vote reflected the conjunction of an American social value, the right to personal privacy, with the historical Jewish concern to keep the state from imposing laws based on religious doctrine” (Kahn 57). The desire of Judaism to remain separate from government in the United States specifically causes it to in fact support the right to engage in private sexual acts of any kind, even though these acts may directly go against Judaism itself.
Judaism encourages privacy as a civil right, which subjects Jews to the personal benefit of secular legal protection- regardless of their sexual orientation. Homosexuals are recognized as Jewish- but Jewish law as a religious framework prohibits recognition of Jews as homosexual: “although the right of the homosexual as person to enjoy civil rights is readily granted, the validation of the person- and Jew- as homosexual is withheld” (Kahn 58). The interpretation of civic law by Judaism and the application of Jewish law onto homosexual individuals is one factor informing the relationship between Judaism as a religious identity and homosexuality as a sexual identity. It is interesting to note that this separation between Judaism and homosexuality manifests much differently in Israel than in the United States; though based on its own secular civil laws, Israel is a country whose national religion is Judaism. This puts into question the ability for Judaism to separate itself from civil law or government because Israeli government is practiced by a majority of Jewish individuals on a local level. The separation between church and state- or in this case, synagogue and state- can thus provide the distance between religion and nationality needed for religion to support the privacy to manifestations of sexuality independent of the national presence of that religion in the first place.
From a rhetorical standpoint, the relationship between Judaism and homosexuality comes directly from the Traditionalist interpretations of the text of the Torah as well as of traditional Jewish law as it is transcribed in the Talmud. Specifically,Jewish texts on marriage and procreation insinuate that “the historical prohibition of homosexual acts is grounded in a world-view that views heterosexuality as natural and heterosexual marriage as the only route to religious and personal fulfillment” (Kahn 47)- or at least the only route to procreation and the continuation of Judaism as an ethno- religion in the traditional and biological sense. This calls into question the relationship between gender and sexuality as this relationship is put into practice for the benefit of Judaism. Jewish discourse comments on these practices directly through interpretation of behavior and actions: “the prohibition on homosexual relations in halachah (traditional Jewish law) is based on the explicit prohibitions of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13” (Kahn 49). Thus, contemporary Jewish discourse cites traditional rhetoric as the root of Judaism’s prohibition of sexuality. Rhetoric that is rooted in text and textual interpretation thus stakes claims in the historical distance and religious stigma attached to texts interpreted as “holy” and superior to contemporary manifestations of sexual discourse.
Contemporary discourse on homosexuality as a sexual identity constructs the Progressive view that sexual morality should be a primary focus of Judaism, there are many means by which humans can procreate, and personal fulfillment is the ultimate goal of any religious identification. This contextualization allows for that “Progressive Jewish teaching about homosexuality considers the historical Jewish sources, beginning with the Torah, in light of new insights about human sexuality” (Kahn 69). Putting Jewish texts into contemporary contexts engages with the history tied to these texts by making them relevant to the present moment as a part of their larger historical trajectories. These contemporary Jewish interpretations “emphasize the dynamic and changing nature of Halachah and argue that more discussion and debate is necessary to develop new Jewish understandings of same-sex attraction” (Schnoor 53). Jewish law has the potential to be very flexible and applicable to a variety of manifestations, which keeps the Torah as the original “holy” text relevant through contemporary interpretation. It is important to note “formal discussion of Judaism and homosexuality by scholars and Jewish leaders has been isolated” (Kahn 48). This implies that sexuality itself isn’t formally addressed in the traditional Jewish texts- or that any discourse on sexuality is assumed to be heterosexual because of the lens through which these interpretations have historically been made. It also suggests that any discourse surrounding Jewish interpretations of homosexuality are informal and less than legitimate or appropriate to larger sexual-religious discourse.
Identities inevitably intersect, but they miraculously integrate. It is important to recognize that while one can intersect and integrate identity, one also should intersect and integrate identity because of the possibility for growth, union, and generation of newness that this integration holds. Jewish gays and gay Jews now experience – and are encouraged to experience by religious institutions and the LGBT community- that they “[are] made up of multiple attributes, where no one social identity assumes a role of ‘master status’ ….[and] perform both their gay and Jewish identities throughout all their social interactions” (Schnoor 52). The difficulty of this identity integration reflects the value in truly utilizing the presence of multiple identities to generate an intersection bettering each individually: one must recognize and respect “the complexity and variability of negotiating the intersection of gay and Jewish identities” (Schnoor 47). Successfully understanding the nuances of various Jewish and homosexual identity manifestations enables a proper engagement with both identities as they relate to an integrated whole. It is through the very mutual performance of homosexual and Jewish identity that allows one to be both gay and Jewish, allows one to queer one’s practice of religion and make spiritual, ethnic, and cultural one’s practices of sexuality. The similarities between Judaism and homosexuality engage them both enough independently to allow their differences to truly shed light on and benefit one another.
While identity performance holds this potential for intersection, identity as performance- as the content and explorative medium of performance instead of just its product- actively engages with processes of integration that not only enhance qualities and effects of identity but also create a combined identity that is greater than the sum of its parts. This Identity, this integration of identities through identification as performance, best reflects the unique potential each individual holds based on the contexts of their identity manifestations and integration. Artists, creators, and performers have only just begun to scratch the surface of the capacity Judaism and homosexuality have to influence and enhance one another both in understanding and in practice.
Israeli drag performance, most of which takes place in Tel Aviv, is one such site where Jewish, national, gender, and sexual identity not just intersect but collide and integrate into a form that offers a perspective on all of these identities individually that would not be had without the contextual points of reference of the others. Israeli drag performance is also a rich venue where identity performance and performance as identification is used to not just comment on the interactions of these identities but also put into practice identification as performance. It is through these performances as such that individuals have been able to address the discrimination tied to identification- a feat that only seems to increase with identity intersection: “ this type of parellel of minority status was connected to issues of oppression and the Holocaust… also raises the theme of the parallels between the dual oppressions of anti-Semitism and homophobia” (Schnoor 55). It is in this case that mutual marginalization leads to union of identity even before integration of identity.
Identity intersection is inevitable but identity integration is miraculous; performance is unavoidable but identification is engaged, engaging, and creative. Religious institutions and sexual discourse often advocate that bringing children into the world is an ultimate act of creation; performance of identification is one of the ways we can righteously manifest the identities of our selves as those very children- fulfilling an even more ultimate act of creation transcendent of our alleged biological or moral capacities.
Adler, Rachel. Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics. Philadelphia:Jewish Publication Society, 1998. Print.
Cooper, Aaron. “No Longer Invisible:.” Journal of Homosexuality 18.3-4 (1989): 83-94. Print.
Kahn, Rabbi Yoel H. “Judaism and Homosexuality:.” Journal of Homosexuality 18.3-4 (1989): 47-82. Print.
Schnoor, Randal. “Being Gay and Jewish: Negotiating Intersecting Identities.” Sociology of Religion (2006): n. pag. Web.