/ articles for review

The ‘Queer’ Orthodox Jew

One factor which contributes to the pain of Modern Orthodox singles is their position within the broader Orthodox community: Rarely are singles simply accepted without any caveats, or without the ‘nebich’ factor
A fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jennie Rosenfeld holds a Ph.D. in English from the City University of New York Graduate Center, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, and wrote her dissertation on “Talmudic Re-readings: Toward a Modern Orthodox Sexual Ethic.” Jennie recently made aliyah to Jerusalem with her husband and their baby daughter. Prior to making aliyah, Jennie was co-founder and director of Tzelem, a Special Project of Yeshiva University’s Center for the

By Jennie Rosenfeld  

There is a certain element of schizophrenia to it – biblical verses run through my head even during the sexual encounter – ‘I know this is wrong, I’m sorry God’ – but at a certain point those voices are silenced by the sheer physical pleasure of it. – Single Woman
We tend to think of "queer" as referring to homosexual orientation. But within the Orthodox Jewish community, the term queer can take on a more subtle meaning. As an Orthodox individual, any step I take outside of the mandates of halakhah, or Jewish law–whether in the sexual realm or any other realm – makes me queer.

Let me explain: In general society, which is heteronormative, "queer" is juxtaposed with "straight" in thinking about sexual identity. However, in the Orthodox Jewish community, halakhah defines the norm, or the "straight", and the acts marginalized by halakhah leave a large space open for the queer, including heterosexual individuals.

Most Orthodox communities interpret halakhah as proscribing all forms of sexual activity outside of marriage, from homosexual activity to heterosexual activity to autoerotic activity and even in many cases to sexual thoughts. That leaves a large queer space for almost anyone who is unmarried in the Orthodox community.
And though the character of the people and of the sexual acts that are marginalized may be different in the Orthodox community than in society at large, and though the number of people who inhabit this space may be larger, queer space is queer space – with all the un-pleasantries which accompany it, irrespective of which norm creates it.

A second factor in creating Orthodox queer space is what Alan Unterman writes about as the "nebich factor" which takes its place alongside halakhah in defining the queer:

Rarely is there a point when someone who is not married is simply accepted as someone who does not wish to marry. For traditional Judaism, all unmarried members of the community are nebich, not yet married. All childless couples are nebich, not yet parents. All parents are, ‘Please God by you’, grandfathers and grandmothers in the making. 1

One factor which contributes to the pain of Modern Orthodox singles is their position within the broader Orthodox community. Rarely are singles simply accepted without any caveats, or without the "nebich" factor. This social expectation, compounded by the halakhic norm, also contributes to the "queer space" which singles are forced to inhabit. While in general society compulsory heterosexuality is the norm and homosexuality is its other, in the Orthodox Jewish community, strict adherence to the code of Jewish law – which includes the mandate to marry and procreate – is the norm and any deviance from halakhah places the individual in queer space.

The "nebich" factor combined with the halakhic issues at play have negative repercussions on Orthodox singles, affecting both their self-perception and consequent ability to form meaningful relationships with others. Being forced into queer space creates a culture of silence, secrecy, and shame. It is a mindset that is hard to break out of, even when one marries and "graduates" to hetero-normative society…

But let’s think broader than just Orthodox singles. Every community and sub-community has its own set of norms (be they overt or covert) and those norms will always create different subsets within the group. In each and every group there is a norm and there is its other, which I call the queer. And in each group the queer gets marginalized and placed into a similar space of enforced silence, secrecy and shame. The modes of living and breathing shame and secrecy are – to put it mildly -psychologically and existentially detrimental to all those who find themselves relegated to queer space by their communities.

Despite the many negative ramifications of forcing individuals into queer space, I don’t want to focus or elaborate on those negative ramifications right now. As the new year begins on the Jewish calendar I am challenged to find something positive to write about queer space and how individuals can mobilize their being placed in queer space to their own advantage and to the advantage of the larger Jewish community this year. Judith Plaskow, feminist Jewish theologian, writes about the additional insight that the queer individual has over the "normal" individual, calling it the "epistemological privilege of the oppressed."

Plaskow writes that "those who have been marginalized or oppressed by a society or religious tradition often are able to perceive inadequacies in that society or tradition that are invisible, or much more difficult to see, to those who look from the dominant perspective." 2 By virtue of being placed outside of the norm and being forced to inhabit queer space, the queer individual is able to see things that those inside the system cannot see-those who are marginalized are uniquely situated to be able to launch a critique, in a way that those who are in the norm or mainstream cannot perceive. Being oppressed gives the queer individual an awareness which others lack.

The beginning of the year is both a natural and a mandated time for taking a cheshbon ha-nefesh, or soul-searching, on both the individual and communal levels. As individuals, if we feel that we have been forced into queer space, or put into the position of the "other" within our communities, let’s take some time to put the anger and bitterness aside, and use the unique perspective which our position has granted us in a constructive way. Let us use this insight of the epistemological privilege of the oppressed to both personal and communal advantage. Instead of lashing out in unstructured anger against the community, launch a critique of the norm from your perspective-as Plaskow so cogently argues, by virtue of being queer you can perceive things which those in the mainstream are genuinely unable to perceive, even were they to try to do so.

And to those who inhabit the mainstream or dominant perspective, take this season to get beyond the binaries and categories which keep society bifurcated. Try to open your ears and your heart to the critique being launched and then to think about how you can respond to it effectively. Real societal change needs to begin on the level of individuals, and if each mainstream, card-carrying person in society took a moment to listen to their queer neighbor and try to respond to their critique on a human level, society would move to a different place.

However, in reality I’m being a little artificial in my distinctions, since the line between the norm and the other is a thin line, and each and every person I know stands on the tightrope itself, in some situations personifying the mainstream, and in other situations being queer. That being the case, let us tap into to the spiritual energy of the new year, of Rosh Hashanah, to help us open our hearts both to the queerness and normalness inside each of us, and take a moment to both launch a critique from our own queer space, while simultaneously listening to the critique that others are able to offer us. Let us speak out and let us really listen to each other – and then as a community, let us be open to change and to improvement.
1) Alan Unterman, "Judaism and Homosexuality: Some Orthodox Perspectives," in Jewish Explorations of Sexuality, Ed. Jonathan Magonet (Providence: Berghahn, 1995), p. 68.
2)   Judith Plaskow, "Decentering Sex: Rethinking Jewish Sexual Ethics," in God Forbid: Religion and Sex in American Public Life, Ed. Kathleen Sands (New York: Oxford UP, 2000), p. 27.
Originally published in ‘Zeek’ Magazine on the ‘Jewcy’ website , Oct. 3, 2008

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Add a comment
Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics