THE BLOG
10/24/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Coming Out as Jewish

This is National Coming-Out Month, and I've been privileged to speak to several groups on the topic. When I bring in my own experiences, I often leaven the stories with references to Jewish law and tradition. In some respects, not only am I repeatedly coming out to these audiences as trans and gay, but I'm also coming out as Jewish.

Blogging here has allowed me to delve deeply into my past and bring Jewish ethics and tradition to bear on the issues of the day. To me it's a kind of homecoming, but it's particularly useful not only to make me feel even more authentic but to speak to people who were also raised in an environment of Jewish ethical culture. When I was growing up, the phrase "Judeo-Christian" was used by the WASP establishment to throw a bone to the Jewish leaders of the day; today we can proudly speak for ourselves and help others learn about the roots of their own traditions.

This past week we read the parsha (portion) of the Torah called Vayera, known as the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Akedah, or Binding of Isaac. It felt a bit strange reading the story of the near murder of Isaac by his father, Abraham, on a morning celebrated in my synagogue as new baby shabbat. For if we can agree about anything, it is that this story is not to be used as a manual for effective parenting.

And it struck me, as we read of Abraham returning home and Isaac not being mentioned (was he actually slaughtered, as some traditions suggest?), the sudden death of Isaac's mother, Sarah, after she learned of the events on Mt. Moriah, and Abraham and Isaac never again appearing together in the text, that this is also a story of the closet. Isaac was out as the son of the first Hebrew Patriarch, until he goes to his sacrifice and then disappears into a closet. One's father binding you to an altar and taking up a machete to cut your throat can be read as the ultimate rejection, and while most LGBT kids don't suffer such a violent rejection, the reality can be almost as effectively murderous.

Forty percent of homeless kids are LGBT, and the rate of trans child homelessness is much higher. This week we've been subject to the story of the Pacific Justice Institute exploiting a fictional event implicating a real trans child in Colorado to beef up its fundraising to oppose California's A.B. 1266, the bill that provides trans kids with equal rights in school. How different is this contrived attack on an innocent and her family from an old man taking his son to slaughter and ending up estranged forever, all because of some religious test being imposed by tradition?

And yet I find solace in that tradition, and strength as well. Judaism, like most religions, offers hope and despair, both a link to an ethical life and a cover to excuse cruelty and violence. It is the language of my ethical core and the moral infrastructure upon which I have tried to build a principled life, even when I felt rejected by my communal religious family.

And I have felt abandonment in the past, even though one can safely say that of the major religious traditions, Judaism has been the most supportive of the trans experience. An Israeli rabbinical authority, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, determined that trans women post-transition were to be welcomed into the community as full-fledged women. That's quite a different perspective from some of the radical lesbian feminist separatists these days who will have nothing of that and are at the forefront in opposing trans rights, in particular those of children as noted above with the Pacific Justice Institute story.

A remarkable aspect of Rabbi Waldenberg's decision was that it preceded the welcoming by the Reform and Reconstructionist denominations by 18 years, and the Conservative movement's affirmation 13 years after that. While some Jewish orthodoxies find his judgment repellent, they are finding themselves increasingly marginalized.

I've also found it eye-opening when I realized last year that while I did and would continue to tolerate transphobia and homophobia in my local political community, content to just keep showing up and slowing bringing people to a place of acceptance, my line in the sand was with an eruption of anti-Semitism. It was not expected. There had been undercurrents of anti-Semitism in my county for years, but they remained under the table until last year's Democratic primary between Sen. Ben Cardin and State Sen. Anthony Muse. Reminding me of the breakdown in black-Jewish relations in the '70s following the years of the '50s and '60s, when Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King, this public schism erupted and continues to this day. It had been allowed to fester in silence, but as some people began speaking out on the issue, the Jewish and political community began to mobilize, and we may be seeing the potential end of the problem. Next year's elections will be very telling, when we will discover if "diversity" is simply superficial or demands integrity, skill and experience at its core. We will discover whether diversity can encompass its own prejudice or will create a new generation of progressives of all types who can remake America.

Returning to the week's Torah portion, when Sarah was told of her pregnancy at age 90, she laughed inwardly at the absurdity of a seemingly impossible situation, a possibility she had eliminated from her mind decades earlier. This story, as retold by Biblical scholar Dr. Avivah Zornberg, highlights that anything's possible. Last year's reelection of President Obama gives me hope that we are seeing the birth of a diverse group of progressive activists and leaders. So does last week's election of the first African-American senator in a long time, and one who is arguably Jewish-ish. Cory Booker has been studying Jewish law and history for over two decades now and is in some respects more Jewish than many of his Jewish colleagues. So this newly elected senator gives me hope that the new generation is already arriving, and it looks much more like Cory Booker than Anthony Muse.

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