As a child, I asked why a lot. I was one of those kids who wanted to unravel the world, to see how it worked, to break everything down into its smallest pieces, to see its hidden hinges and springs (both social and physical), to trace its circuits and decode its logics. I asked why a lot. When confronted with a barrage of why’s, which leads only to absurdities and unanswerable queries, most adults respond with “just because.” My father always responded with “tradition!” sung in his best Tevye impression.
There is something comforting about tradition as an answer. Traditions are contextual and historical rather than natural, immutable, or eternal. They differ across time and space, shot through with minhag, with custom. The patterns of the world are inherited, rooted in collective history; sacred, but also differential. Tradition signifies the sacredness of our differences, the holiness of our iterative agency. The traditions we create ourselves, the traditions of our families, our community, our people. They connect — even bind — us together in the same moment they distinguish us from others. For even the atheist Jews among us, traditions (at least some of them) can be compelling. I often try to explain to non-Jews that Jewishness is not only (or for some of us, even primarily) a religion in the sense of a system of belief; it is also a culture and a tradition, an approach and a memory.
Growing up oscillating between Conservative schools and Chabad shuls, I received only a part of this tradition (and very particular interpretations of it). It was not generally the anti-Zionist, Bundist, leftist, queer, or feminist iterations. I’ve long had a complicated relationship to Judaism, and much of that complication has been tangled with both my politics and my identity. I felt torn between pushing away a tradition that has often maligned me and my people and finding strength in uncovering the places that already include us. Queerness, feminism, and gender non-conformity have at various points in my life pulled me away from Jewishness and at others have found me giving Shabbat sermons about Audre Lorde. Gender, like Jewishness, is funny that way.
I wonder sometimes what it is we are trying to do or trying to find in the performance of such gestures as the sermons. Tradition can simultaneously feel like constraint and like power. I wonder sometimes if the power I feel in it is because of the constraint, not in spite of it. (Is tradition domming me? Is that a good queer dvar?). I cannot deny the pleasure in uncovering feminist, queer, and non-binary places in tradition and text. But I think at least sometimes we treat this Jewish gender archaeology as an obvious good, as something that doesn’t need explanation or justification. And this assumption is hardly unique to Jews: queering everything is often understood as the queer imperative par excellence. Rather than either critiquing or affirming this desire, I am interested rather in uncovering the why of it. What motivates us and what do we hope to find in the search for, or reconstruction of, queer Jewish gender histories?
Doing queer gender history is not only a way of relating to tradition but also a way of relating to gender, a way of doing and undoing and redoing gender. Gender, like tradition, is an iterative and repetitive process, a social relation of meaning that is made and shaped and changed through the relationship between collectives and individuals. Gender is both something imposed and something we choose and negotiate; it is both external and internal, collective and personal. We can find sometimes, even within our desires, the residue of our broken world; an intimate mark that cannot be removed, at least not by simply willing it. We can find sometimes, even within our desires, the residue of our broken world; an intimate mark that cannot be removed, at least not by simply willing it. We inhabit gender, like tradition, in the complicated and fleshy middle space between ourselves and others. It is perhaps this dynamism that makes gender a site of both power and vulnerability. In doing queer gender history, we might ask how we are doing gender in those moments. What are we asking from gender in this process? What are we asking from ourselves and our history? What do we desire? What are we desperately searching for and what are we praying not to find? In searching for non-binary histories of gender in our tradition, what we want is almost more important than what we find.
My aim here is to cultivate an honest conversation not only about what we are doing, but why, recognizing the often painful gap between what we want and what we wish we wanted. I think in public we spend a lot of time trying to close this gap, performing and refashioning ourselves in light of a projected desire. Our desires are thus a complicated and painful field, at once both ours and communal, simultaneously making us and stretching beyond us.
Talmud equips us in many special ways to pursue this project. Talmud is a labyrinthine text, in which no question is too small to pursue, no turn of phrase so self-evident that it cannot merit an extended hermeneutical exercise. In a certain sense, the entire Talmud seems a kaleidoscope of contradictory interpretations and opinions, asking our central texts and traditions, over and over again, why? One of the things that has always felt so queer to me about Talmud is its resistance to resolution. Rather than legislate clear answers, its mode of engagement is much more non-binary. It conserves multiple voices, multiple concerns, and multiple logics without necessarily resolving them. It is process-driven rather than results-oriented, less a document of answers than a guidebook for how to ask critical questions and how to answer them through community engagement and open-hearted debate. I am less interested in what the Talmud says about queerness itself and more interested in a Talmudic approach to discussing our desire for queer Talmud.
I am less interested in what the Talmud says about queerness itself and more interested in a Talmudic approach to discussing our desire for queer Talmud.
In response to centuries of queer desire being maligned as abominable, disgusting, unnatural, and harmful to ourselves and others, it has been a somewhat logical response to seal queer desire off from scrutiny and to even suggest that queer desire is always good, simply because it is queer. But desire can also reveal less rosy aspects of ourselves. Desire can be resentful, painful, harmful even. Desires can be dangerous and destructive. As queer people know especially well, desire can certainly be a site for empowerment but also a site of shame and violence. Desire can feel like a wound as easily as it can feel like a wonder, and often both at the same time. Systems of domination do not shape our collective infrastructure, our practices, our ideas, our persons and then magically stop at our desires. We can find sometimes, even within our desires, the residue of our broken world, an intimate mark that cannot be removed, at least not by simply willing it.
So when we think about finding or recovering or reclaiming a queer Jewish history and tradition, what desire are we expressing, perhaps even without knowing it? Why is our desire constituted so? Why are we looking here, in tradition for these answers? Why does finding them in Talmud mean something different than finding them in experience or community?
I sketch many provisional answers to these questions in what follows. I do not imagine that every answer will resonate with every queer person. We are, after all, not a monolith. But I would like to bring into relief the shifting kaleidescope of queer desire, to show us as we are, rather than as we try to be. This means treading softly when exposing the ways that desire both reveals what is beautiful in us and also what is broken.
I thus hope to lay aside the teleological impulse to conclude in advance that these queer desires are either good or bad, oppressive or liberatory. What follows is a (non-exhaustive) introspective inventory of queer desires for queer Jewish history. This piece is not an argument or a condemnation or an exposé — it is a love letter to my community. And, like all authentic love, it is offered in the spirit of radical honesty, which means uplifting the irreducible beauty of queer Jewishness and, at the same time, practicing deep trust as we talk through our darkest desires. It is also a confession (perhaps as all love letters are), but as Jewish tradition teaches us, confession and accountability are collective enterprises. To paraphrase Bikini Kill (who hastened my own queer realization), I believe in the radical possibilities of pleasure, babe, but also in the radical possibilities of critiquing it.
Perhaps the easiest place to start is the redemptive feeling that often comes in mining our traditions for hidden (in plain sight) subversion. The six legal sexes of the Talmud, for example, attests to a (queer) history of our (queer) people. Just as it sometimes feels calming to say the words you know your great-great-great grandparents would have also said, so it is calming to find that b’chol dor v’dor, in every generation, there were rabbis and scholars who recognized and knew we existed. We were here all along, and we have always been worthy of inclusion in our tradition, in our own right.
This might even elicit a comfort that the present gatekeepers of tradition are wrong, a kind of time-lagged vindication for every time heterosexist versions of Judaism tell us we are toevah, an abomination. No, we might softly say to ourselves, exclusion is the toevah. Even your text, your tradition, your insistence on what counts shows us that we have always been here, that we, like you, deserve recognition and life. For every time we were made to feel unworthy, excluded, less than, we can come back to those few, fleeting passages as a touchstone of how we know something that even our learned elders do not. Finding ourselves within these texts may be a soothing reassurance that our emotional and libidinal investment in tradition is not masochistic; tradition need not stand over and against us, no matter what family, rabbis, teachers, or peers may have told us.
In this sense, rediscovering our inclusion and our history sometimes opens a reconciliatory path, helps us see a way forward with the mainstream parts of the community. In radical queer circles, we often dismiss this desire for inclusion as reactionary. When we hesitate to reject those who have rejected us, the hesitation is often read as an incomplete exorcism of heteronormative values. Rejecting inclusion or reconciliation is, of course, an understandable and completely legitimate choice. But, when framed as imperative, it also has the effect of dismissing queers who, for whatever reason, want and need a connection to family or community members who don’t quite get it. Inclusion and acceptance may not be the most radical or subversive of our desires, but sometimes, some part of some of us just wants to be freed from the obligation to resist, to be able to enter into a world of restful being, at least for the length of a family dinner or a shacharit service. In essence, what is at stake is whether it will always be a struggle to love our people and to have them love us. Uncovering our history within the larger tradition can thus be a glimmer of hope that there may be some path that leads to a refuge beyond the false choice too often offered: your people or your people.
As a young queer femme, I developed many ways of signaling to others: an undercut, contrasting ring finger polish, unshaved underarms. Signaling is a way of hiding in plain sight, or perhaps more accurately, living openly and in full view, but only to those who know. A secret smile, a head nod, a sly wink, a glance of understanding. It is one way we make queer life, and not only when and where more explicit forms are impossible. We can and do make loud, proud, exuberant, explicit communities. In the US queer community, I think we tend to receive only one narrative about queerness: being out is better than being closeted (as if these were binary options). Visibility is life. But visibility is only one of many pleasures and many forms of community. There is a quiet elegance and bubbling excitement about signaling — even in a room or a world full of truly committed allies. There is a unique pleasure in the private circulation of queer dvars, innuendo, and titillating ambiguity in text and tradition. Queer readings open space for us to flourish as members of an initiate, those who can see what others cannot, even when it is right in front of them. And the moments in which queers get to hold a privileged or special relationship to one another and to text, the moment in which our queerness allows us to unfold and unfurl more meaning and more layers — when queerness becomes a secret scriptural superpower, when text and tradition become accomplices in this queer community project — we perhaps prove to ourselves something we always hoped was true: that it was better to be queer all along. Maybe we even need to prove it to others in order to really, truly believe it ourselves. It is not only that we have always been here, but that we too are, in our own and very special way, chosen.
But also maybe, rather than redemption, we seek absolution. Perhaps, what we find in uncovering the non-heterosexist parts of our history is release. The heterosexist world order must not have come from us. Whatever gender problems our community may now perpetuate, they must have come from outside. In a time where popular Jewish left discourse is grappling intensely with participation in various forms of oppression (settler colonization, Ashkenazi normativity, white supremacy, capitalism, etc.) at least this one, we might say, is not our fault. We have many sins to atone for and much to make right, but the ruling gender order is for someone else’s vidui. Rather than relief, offloading this problem may rather give us a sense of superiority, as if we (as queers, but also as Jews) are now somehow above the gender fray. This is a problem the goyim made and is a problem for the goyim to solve.
Rather than relief, offloading this problem may rather give us a sense of superiority, as if we (as queers, but also as Jews) are now somehow above the gender fray.
But whatever the origins of systems of domination, none of us — not even us queerios — are exempt from the effects of our complicity. Those of us who subvert gender, sex, or sexuality norms were and are still made in and through them, in a world structured by them. And we know that even as much as we desire it, one cannot simply pull a Bartleby and dismissively say “I prefer not” to the basic grammar of the collective social world. We can — we must — simultaneously feel relief or power in the places we resist or oppose domination and recognize that we always resist from inside, rather than from a sanctified or idealized outside. Which is to say that what we resist is also inside us, not only beside us. When we yearn so badly to do right and to be right in a world that is so deeply wrong, guilt can be suffocating.
Furthermore, we might find relief that the ruling gender order is imposed by white, European, Christian society through its colonial and neocolonial project of world domination. The ruling gender order, what philosopher María Lugones has called “the colonial/modern gender system,” is in fact another manifestation of Christian hegemony, another dimension of our oppression, whatever our individual gender/sex/sexual identities. That we as Jews live under this gender system in both secular and sacred space demonstrates the extent of Christian hegemony and infiltration; the Jews are, in a new way, but once again, the victims of Christian hegemony. This may even give us a perverse sense of satisfaction by invoking intergenerational trauma, revealing that we really were victims all along, that even after most (though not all) forms of structural anti-Semitism have faded away in the US, we need not release ourselves from the narrative of eternal victimhood.
And in a provocative way, we might find vindication. If Christian heteropatriarchy has imposed a gendered assimilation on Jews, then, at least traditionally, Jews have operated outside of the reigning gender regime. In the end, Jews are all queer. All Jews are like us. Join us, we know the way. The queers are the vanguard of a deeper and more ancient tradition than the minhagim of heteropatriarchy.
In this sense, I wonder if perhaps when we do queer gender history we are also immersing ourselves in nostalgia. Unlike some others, whose pre-capitalist, pre-colonial, or pre-heteropatriarchal traditions are buried in an irretrievable past, we have an authenticity to which we can return. Beneath the veil of contemporary colonial and capitalist heteropatriarchy, we have something else, something older, something more true. For us, at least, there is something beneath the ideological veil in which we live; we have a clear pathway that avoids postmodern despair. Age becomes a cipher for authenticity, a seductive possibility of the duration and permanence of some real kernel of us-ness that the ruling powers cannot seize or appropriate. Tradition becomes not only an anchor to the past, connecting us to something deeper and truer than the depravity and domination of the contemporary; it is a preservative, a defensive armor that protects us. It is the chain that links us to a romanticized past. Here, the idyllic dream pacifies, at least for the moment, the ominous worry that everything that makes us us can in fact be appropriated by the logic of domination, or, worse, that it already has.
But perhaps we also find, in the revelation of our unique gender history, the ground for alliance or connection with other non-Jewish communities who, through colonization and imperialism, were forced to adopt a Euro-Christian gender system. Various communities across the world practice non-heterosexist, non-binary gender systems, and many more did so before Europeans attempted world domination. Some even, as Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí has traced in The Invention of Women (1997), did not organize society around gender at all. In uncovering divergent gender histories of Jewishness, perhaps we project and imagine an alliance in which Jewish tumtumim and ayloniyot join with Two-Spirits, hijras, muxes, mahus, fa’Afafines, and others in a transnational community of the resistantly-gendered.
This vision is seductive, and the importance of cross-community solidarity cannot be overestimated. We need community, we need each other, we need to remember that we exist in ways that are not wholly determined by the structures that destroy and oppress us. We need to feel the ways that there is something more, something in excess over domination. We live in a deeply binary, hetero, and patriarchal world that exposes gender-oppressed peoples to daily violence and vulnerability. In the fight against global systems of domination, loving and protecting each other is our only path toward survival, and often the only touchstone we have toward experiencing liberation.
But I wonder if the imagined community of the gender-oppressed functions sometimes in a more insidious way as well, or at least in a more ambivalent one. In a time when identity has become the vaunted anchor of so much social movement work and discourse, sharing an oppression may feel like firmer political ground than sharing an analysis or politics. What we may find when we discover our queer history is an opening for a kinship with other oppressed peoples, something that would go deeper than any allyship ever could. If we have all been victims of colonial Christian heteropatriarchy, if we share this experience, then being Jewish under Christian hegemony is (once again) a similar kind of oppression to racism and imperialism, ensuring a space for us in the coalition of radical subjects. Oppression can bind us, but I worry about this form of trauma bonding being constructed as the highest form of politics because it can falsely suggest that oppression, rather than its elimination, is the basis of political work.
Oppression can bind us, but I worry about this form of trauma bonding being constructed as the highest form of politics.
For the white Jews among us, I often notice a simmering frustration at not being seen as oppressed enough to be included with the wretched of the earth, a perverse desire to be seen and treated as more than mere ally. It is one of the places where even sympathetic white people tend to struggle most with identity politics. They/we chafe against practices aimed to decenter them/us. This decentering jeopardizes the public performance of politics, something many of us feel we need in order to assuage our guilt or complicity, to assure our place as better than those ignorant others with whom we (supposedly) share white skin and little else. Of course, the chafing is evidence that whiteness is more than skin deep.
In that sense, I worry that at least part of what is at stake when white Jews in particular hone in on our alternative gender histories is a disavowal of whiteness, a complicated and (often) unconscious desire to disavow one’s implication in the ruling regime. If we have been colonized by whiteness, so to speak, by the white gender order, if we are really more like those other others, what responsibility could we really have for the broader system of white supremacy? How could we really benefit from it at all?
This impulse assumes that coalition, solidarity, and co-resistance can only be based in a kind of sameness — the sameness of having experienced oppression, even if those oppressions are structured differently from each other. There is both power and comfort in mobilizing from a shared positionality, and it can be an incredibly healing and forceful tactic. But many of us who have lived such identity-rooted movements can tell you definitively that identity does not determine one’s politics in any direct or simple way and we aren’t even always safe with our own. Communities of resistance need to be built and nurtured, not just imagined and assumed. When we think that some historical analysis may open the door to membership in a transnational community of the oppressed, we are doing a disservice to all of those who know that community, both within and across identity, is always a struggle and always an achievement. When we (even unconsciously) hunger after a lower rung on the white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist ladder, we are really saying that we are not willing to do the hard work now of building community with other oppressed peoples, of humbling ourselves before their experiences, of learning from their wisdom, and of offering (invited) lessons from our history and our struggle.
Which means, honestly, that if we were invited in, we wouldn’t be willing to do the work of staying in. I think it is much more this lack of will that sometimes positions Jewish queers outside of other oppressed communities than having lost (or won) a pernicious form of Oppression Olympics. For white Jewish queers in particular, it is the practices and cultures of whiteness that often prevent us from doing this work in a constant, thoughtful, and committed way. Our inability to see our whiteness as an inherited mode of uncaring rather than a demographic identity (one we may or may not want) is what often impedes truly coalitional community with queers and gender non-conforming people of color, including with queer Jews of color. We need to grapple with how racialized desire haunts not only our gendered experiences, but our gendered desires and longings. If we are made in and through the colonial/modern gender system — made in it even as we oppose it or identify outside it — we cannot disavow the continued racial dynamics suffused with gendering. Gender and sex have not only religious histories but racialized ones, and these too are tied together irrevocably. When we invoke one, we invoke them all.
In this sense, I wonder if a subtle recognition of the dangers of allyship and the desire to repress our anxiety at failing the litmus test of radicality is also at play. Perhaps this is because we have all been betrayed by allies, even well-meaning ones, and we desire deeply to not repeat that pattern. Perhaps it is because it is most painful to admit that betrayal can come not only from allies, but from oppressed people them/ourselves. We often lack a political and emotional grammar to engage with moments of self-betrayal, and it may sometimes feel safer to deny its possibility altogether by retreating to an anemic version of identity politics that evacuates the most visionary and radical elements of this tradition of liberatory praxis. In my view, identity politics do not necessarily suggest retreating to the safety of a stable identity nor about valorizing oppression. Rather, they mobilize us to build vibrant communities of resistance through honoring the multiple and cross-cutting differences that make us in light of our particular histories. Doing so requires rooting in difference rather than sameness, and in the unshakeable truth that while our traditions and histories may be different, we all deserve to live in a radically different world, whatever our position in the present one.
The idea that we can only truly contribute to struggle if we are seen as victims rather than perpetrators of the system is based in an anxious logic of comparative pain in which oppression makes us worthy of liberation. This idea is tethered to a sacrificial logic that says only the worst off among us is worthy of being saved. I believe deeply in centering the experiences and the analysis of those who directly experience oppression, because I know that repair must begin there. But the work of building a just and liberated world cannot end there.
I have learned from abolitionists that we are all worth saving. We have all received harm and we have all caused harm. Harm is, of course, distributed in a highly patterned way that exposes some to much greater vulnerability than others. Without denying this uneven distribution of suffering, we must affirm that until all of us are free, none are. Once we submit to a sacrificial and actuarial logic, once we cave to the idea that some algorithm of suffering can determine who deserves violence and who deserves to be saved from it, we have already conceded to the ruling order its most central and unchanging commitment: that only some deserve freedom. We must roundly reject the idea that freedom in an emancipated world resembles privilege in the current one.
C.L.R. James once wrote, “We can orient for the future only by comprehension of the present in light of the past.” When we do non-binary and queer gender history, when we comb through our texts and traditions for the queerness within it, we engage, of course, in a political project. But not all valuations of queerness or connections to non-normative gender are emancipatory. The question for us, now and always, is not simply how the connections we make to the past orient us toward the future but especially toward what kind of future.
When we dream about the world to come, whether we envision that through redemption or revolution or both, ha-olam habah is, in a very real way, rooted in our desires. In particular, for what we want to be different and for how we want to be different. In both messianic and activist visions, I think we often underestimate the necessity of engaging with this latter part, how we want to be different. We often engage with the world as if we queers, we radicals, come to it from outside, with a vision for how we want others and the objective world to change. We too often forget that changing the world is always a project of also changing ourselves.
To be honest and loving in the project of constructing the world to come, we need to know both who we are and what we desire. We must account for our desires, critically interrogate them, and, perhaps most importantly, notice the places where our desires betray our values or expose the ways that we are products of a sick society (even if, perhaps especially when, we are engaged in resisting it). The existence of these desires does not mean we need to affirm them; nor can we, or should we, pretend they do not exist. Repressing desires is hardly a revolutionary posture, for our desire exposes the shape of what Robin D. G. Kelley names our freedom dreams. A Talmudic approach to a queer ethics of engagement, to borrow a phrase from Theodor Adorno, would require something of a “critique and rescue” operation: we must be critical of desire in order to save what is powerful and emancipatory in desire, in order to save what is powerful and emancipatory in ourselves. We must hold fast to our freedom dreams in the complex space that is both for us and from us.