Judaism, Gender and Queering

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Judaism, Gender and Queering

Judaism often is understood as a religion that institutes particularly rigid gender roles, with Jewish men cast as "patriarchs" and Jewish women as "matriarchs" whose sphere is limited strictly to the domestic sphere. That understanding reflects some aspects of traditional Jewish practice, in which the crucial public religious roles (being included in the minyan [a quorum required for communal prayer], reading from the Torah, leading the congregation or serving as rabbi) are reserved for men and women's religious participation takes place largely within the home (lighting Sabbath candles, preparing ritual meals, keeping a kosher home). Traditional Judaism also emphasizes marriage and procreation as the foundations of family life, and unlike Christianity, Judaism does not privilege particular religious statuses associated with virginity or celibacy; rabbis, unlike Catholic priests, are expected to marry and have children.


The view that Judaism is essentially patriarchal and relegates women to a subordinate status, however, depends not only on actual Jewish practice but also on persistent Western, especially Christian, stereotypes of Judaism that have never corresponded completely to fact." Along with acknowledging that Judaism—with its sister religions Christianity and Islam and Western culture generally—has been for much of its history masculinist, one must recognize the ways in which particular understandings of Jewish gender rigidity have served anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic ends. Feminist and queer rereadings of Jewish history, texts, and practices move beyond those stereotypes and allow a rethinking of a concept of Jewish traditionalism in which stable, rigidly normative gender roles and traditional, heterosexual family life are all that it is necessary to know about Jewish gender and sexuality (Rudavsky 1995, Peskowitz and Levitt 1997, Frankel 2000, Boyarin, Itzkovitz, and Pellegrini 2003).


Jewish religious belief and practice have always been complex. As the Hebrew Bible makes clear, there were various and recurring disagreements within ancient Judaism, and those debates continued into the period described in the New Testament and beyond. European Judaism, however, diversified most radically in the wake of the Enlightenment, in large part in response to a general secularization of society and to the movement across Europe toward Jewish "emancipation" and citizenship. In a way that had not been possible previously, Jews could remain Jews yet participate in mainstream society, and Jewish religious belief and practice began to grapple with finding ways in which Jews could practice Judaism and still be part of a modern, secular Europe.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries three major institutional alternatives to orthodox Jewish practice developed—the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements—all of which were committed to dealing more fully with secular society. Contemporary Orthodox Judaism is itself complex, ranging from Chasidic Judaism, which maintains dress and social practices dating to its foundation in the eighteenth century, to Modern Orthodoxy, which, although maintaining a traditional relation to Jewish law, recognizes that Jews live in a secular society.

The elaboration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of new forms of Jewish religious practice more directly concerned with negotiating a relationship with secular society entailed more radical changes in the relationship of Judaism to gender and sexuality than was the case in earlier eras; in general, such changes have reflected broader shifts in European and American societies. Thus, the first push for the ordination of women rabbis within Reform Judaism began in 1889, corresponding roughly to "first wave" feminism; the first official Reform ordination of a woman, Sally Jane Priesand, occurred in the United States in 1972, corresponding in a general way to "second wave" feminism.

As has occurred more generally in Western society and religion, the move to accept lesbians and gay men as full participating members of Judaism has lagged behind progress toward gender equality. Although, as in many religious traditions, closeted gay men have been active in a wide range of Jewish activities, including the rabbinate, on the condition that their sexuality not be made public, institutional moves to acknowledge lesbian and gay lives began only in the 1970s.

Some Reform rabbis started officiating at same-sex commitment ceremonies in that decade, but as recently as 2000 the Reform movement passed a resolution giving individual rabbis the choice not to officiate at those ceremonies. Reform Judaism officially sanctioned the ordination of openly gay and lesbian rabbis only in 1990. Though the Union for Reform Judaism claims, following a statement on "the absolute equality of women," that "Reform Jews are also committed to the full participation of gays and lesbians in synagogue life" ("What Is Reform Judaism?" 2005), that participation remains controversial in ways that women's involvement in Reform Judaism is not. Recon-structionist Judaism began ordaining lesbian and gay rabbis in 1984 and endorsed officiating at gay marriages in 1993 (Alpert, Elwell, and Idelson 2001). As of 2006, Conservative Judaism did not ordain gay or lesbian rabbis, continuing—despite disagreement among Conservative rabbis and theologians—officially to view homosexual relations as violating religious law. The prohibitions of Leviticus against a man "lying with a male as with a woman" (18:22, 20:13) still are given full force within Orthodox Judaism. There has, however, been increasing attention to gay men and lesbians living within Jewish Orthodoxy: Steven Greenberg, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, came out as gay, and his book Wrestling with God and Men (2004) argues for a rereading of traditional Jewish texts that would open up a space for gay and lesbian experience. Sandi Simcha DuBowski's film Trembling before G-d, released in 2001, focused attention on the everyday lives of Chasidic and Orthodox Jews who identified, openly or not, as lesbian or gay.

Outside formal religious circles Jews and Jewish culture in many ways have been involved in the social changes and movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including feminism and gay/lesbian/queer politics and theory. An important movement within feminism defined itself as Jewish feminism, and Jews in gay/lesbian/queer political movements have attempted to articulate the connections between their political commitments and religious belief and practice (Shneer and Aviv 2002).


In its approach to Judaism, Jewish texts, and Jewish history feminist and gay/lesbian/queer scholarship has, as in many other areas, taken a double route: on the one hand working to reconstruct a largely hidden history and recover texts that have not been attended to, and on the other hand rereading canonical texts and the historical record. The movements within institutional Judaism to include women, lesbians, and gay men are in large part the result of such rereadings of the canon, decisions about how to (re)interpret and use the body of religious texts that shapes Jewish belief and practice.

From the book of Genesis on, the Hebrew Bible provides rich material for rethinking gender and sexuality even as it establishes some of the bedrock for traditional (patriarchal, heterosexist, and homophobic) gender and sexual understandings. The traditional, normalizing force of the biblical text can be seen in the frequency with which contemporary debates about changing gender roles and nonnormative sexual arrangements recur to the story of creation, with its double account of the creation of a male-female pair, Adam and Eve, in which Adam is given priority and power. Procreation as a central goal for humankind—"be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28)—is emphasized and reemphasized many times in the Hebrew Bible.

A large body of feminist biblical interpretation allows scholars to reconstruct and critique the ways in which an ancient Israelite patriarchy operated, calling attention to spaces that existed—if sometimes tenuously or marginally—for female autonomy, political agency, and religious power. There is much less thematizing in the Bible of what could be called homosexuality than there is a consideration of gendered relationships and roles. For those who look to the Hebrew Bible for a simple sanctioning of modern heterosexual monogamy, marriage, and family, however, that text contains many complications.

Marriage alongside relationships of concubinage is by no means unusual in the biblical text, which does not forbid men from having concubines. Many of the prominent and heroic male figures in the Bible—including Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon—are married more than once, without the suggestion that polygamy in and of itself is wrong. The Bible also focuses repeatedly on moments of sexual transgression that sometimes are treated with moral disapprobation but sometimes simply are reported. In Genesis alone those transgressions include disallowed sexual contact between the "sons of God" and "daughters of men"; the uncovering of the drunken Noah's nakedness by his son Ham; the attempt by the inhabitants of Sodom to have sex with the two young men of God who are visiting Lot in their city, followed by Lot's offer to protect the men by substituting his two daughters for them (an offer that is refused); Lot's daughters sleeping with their drunken father; the rape of Dinah by her neighbor Shechem; Reuben's sleeping with his father's concubine, Bilhah; Onan's "spill[ing] his semen on the ground"; and the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar's wife. The Noah and Sodom episodes suggest male-male sex, and many of the "heterosexual" encounters involve at their heart male-male homosocial relationships; for instance, Reuben's transgression with Bilhah is more about his relationship to his father than it is about heterosexuality.

The Sodom incident is replayed with significant differences in Judges, Chapter 19, again with the threat of male-male rape as one of its components. Later the Sodom story became—though primarily in Christian rather than Jewish theology—a key text for Western reflections on and condemnations of male-male homosexuality.

Compared with other kinds of sexual transgression, however, homosexuality gets relatively little attention in the Hebrew Bible: Even the stories in Genesis and Judges do not emphasize homosexual threats against protected visitors as much as the violation of the protocols of hospitality. Male-male homosexuality is prohibited twice in the book of Leviticus (Chapters 18 and 20), with the death penalty prescribed in the second instance. Those injunctions occur, however, in long compendia of other transgressions, sexual and otherwise; in Chapter 18 the prohibition of male-male sex occurs immediately after an injunction against sacrificing one's offspring to Moloch, and it is possible that the taboo placed on male-male sex was intended to separate early Judaism from cultic sexual practices among neighbors of the Jews as much as it was concerned with male homosexual sex. There is no clear reference to female-female sex in the Hebrew Bible.

Queer approaches to the Hebrew biblical text may be concerned with how the sexuality of moments such as those discussed above exceeds the norms laid out elsewhere in the Bible; what purposes it serves, within the text, to depict such transgressive moments (are norms resolidified or destabilized?); and how biblical sexuality differs from sexuality as it is understood in the modern era. In addition, the realm of homosociality, which is explored in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, provides a rich ground for biblical study.

Although homosexual moments are rare in the Bible, homosocial ones are common. Thus, for instance, when Dinah is raped (Genesis 34), she becomes the object of negotiation, debate, and conflict among her father, Jacob; her brothers; and their male neighbors, in effect disappearing from her own story, which becomes instead an account of male-male conflict. A few chapters later the story of Tamar (Genesis 38) interrogates the practice of levirate marriage, in which a woman whose husband has died has the right to marry her brother-in-law; here the concerns of the text are the relations among three brothers and their father as much as "heterosexuality." The biblical text also foregrounds intense homoaffective relationships, such as that between Jonathan and David; when David laments Jonathan's death, he defines their love as "passing the love of women" (2 Samuel 1:26). Female-female homoaffectivity characterizes the relationship between Naomi and Ruth; the women of Bethlehem tell Naomi that Ruth "is more to [her] than seven sons" (Ruth 4:15) (Ackerman 2005, Guest 2005, Stone 2001, Nissinen 1998).

The Bible, especially the Torah, is the central legal and religious text of Judaism. Jewish understandings of gender and sexuality, as of most areas of daily life and religious practice, however, are inflected through a complex, contentious body of interpretive writing that includes the Talmud—a text that records rabbinic discussion and debate of the first several centuries—alongside the work of later influential commentators such as Rashi and Maimonides. In light of its dialogic and disputational character, Talmudic and later interpretive writing often contains tensions or contradictory statements about the relationships between men and women and about sex and sexuality and thus provides rich sites for feminist and queer investigation (Hauptman 1998, Baskin 2002). The most striking queer work on the Talmud has been Daniel Boyarin's Carnal Israel (1993).

Later religious texts within Judaism also provide material for rethinking gender and sexuality. Elliott Wolfson (2005) develops an analysis of how the feminine and the erotic operate in the medieval mystical text the Kabbalah and the kinds of queer gender/sexual reorientation its mysticism might suggest.


The work examined above considers and rereads texts that are canonical within Judaism. Another significant approach to rethinking Jewish gender and sexuality involves looking to the historical record for unknown or underread texts and for historical documents that might lead one to reconceive the ways in which gendered lives have been lived within Judaism and the ways in which normative and nonnormative sexuality might have been defined and experienced.

Recovering and rereading medieval Hebrew poetic texts, Tova Rosen (2003) analyzes a complex set of gendered understandings within which women simultaneously were idolized and demonized but rarely were seen as agents independent of men; Rosen shows that medieval Hebrew poetry about women is often also in large part about men and their relations. Rosen also identifies an important subgenre of poetry that represents men cross-dressing as women, and women as men. Medieval Hebrew, especially Andalusian, poetry, like its Arabic counterpart, also often thematizes the love of boys (Roth 1982).

Poems of course correspond only in indirect and unpredictable ways to "real life," and tracing the lives of sexually queer Jewish women and men before the nineteenth century is more difficult than studying the lives of heterosexual Jewish women. This is partly a function of the paucity of historical records concerning homosexuality in European Jewish communities; it also reflects the more general problem in the history of homosexuality of identifying queer lives in periods before the elaboration of modern gay and lesbian identities. Thus, although the responsa literature (a body of rabbinic case law) provides some material for the study of the history of homosexuality within Judaism (Greenberg 2004), until very recently the literature has lacked a clear way of naming a homosexual identity.

Still, queer readings of the historical record are possible. Rosa Alvarez Perez (2005) uncovers the lives of Jewish women in medieval Northern France, some aspects of which she reads as queer. Some scholars have focused on the ways in which European Christian stereotypes of Jews depended on tropes of Jewish sexual queerness sexual rapacity on the one hand and sexual deficiency on the other, often linked to the Jewish practice of male circumcision. Jewish women sometimes were depicted as especially sexually attractive and seductive (and hence dangerous to Christian men); their ugliness might, however, be emphasized. Jewish men often were represented as effeminate; one persistent Christian myth, which originated as early as the thirteenth century, was that Jewish men bled monthly, a "bloody flux" that later was conflated with women's menstruation. The presence of such stereotypes might help explain Jewish communities' embrace of a heroic masculinity at times of crisis but also a Jewish valuing of masculinities—especially bookish ones—distinct from Christian models (Lampert 2004, Kruger 2006, Gilman 1991).

Recently, however, Daniel Boyarin (1997) has emphasized that alternative—bookish or effeminate—Jewish masculinities are not simply or even primarily responses to Christian stereotypes and social pressures. Instead, he sees an early elaboration within rabbinic Judaism—beginning in the period of the composition of the Talmud—of Jewish masculinities alternative to Roman and Christian models of proper and heroic masculinity. Reading the Talmud in new queer and feminist ways, Boyarin argues that the rabbis developed a strong critique of the oppression of women and opened spaces for valorized effeminate or "sissy" masculinities. Boyarin's analysis traces the history of such identities in European Judaism through to crucial nineteenth- and twentieth-century Jewish figures such as Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, and Bertha Pappenheim.

see also Homoeroticism, Female/Male, Concept; Jewish Tradition, Gender and Women.


Ackerman, Susan. 2005. When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David. New York: Columbia University Press.

Alpert, Rebecca T.; Sue Levi Elwell; and Shirley Idelson, eds. 2001. Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Alvarez Perez, Rosa. "Martrys and Moneylenders: Retrieving the Memory of Jewish Women in Medieval Northern France." Diss., City University of New York, 2005.

Baskin, Judith R. 2002. Midrashic Women: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature. Hannover, NH: Brandeis University Press.

Boyarin, Daniel. 1993. Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Boyarin, Daniel. 1997. Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Boyarin, Daniel; Daniel Itzkovitz; and Ann Pellegrini, eds. 2003. Queer Theory and the Jewish Question. New York: Columbia University Press.

DuBowski, Sandi Simcha. 2001. Trembling before G-d. New York: New Yorker Films.

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Greenberg, Steven. 2004. Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Guest, Deryn. 2005. When Deborah Met Jael: Lesbian Biblical Hermeneutics. London: SCM Press.

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Kruger, Steven F. 2006. The Spectral Jew: Conversion and Embodiment in Medieval Europe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lampert, Lisa. 2004. Gender and Jewish Difference from Paul to Shakespeare. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Nissinen, Martti. 1998. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, trans. Kirsi Stjerna. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Peskowitz, Miriam, and Laura Levitt, eds. 1997. Judaism since Gender. New York: Routledge.

Rosen, Tova. 2003. Unveiling Eve: Reading Gender in Medieval Hebrew Literature. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Roth, Norman. 1982. "'Deal Gently with the Young Man': Love of Boys in Medieval Hebrew Poetry of Spain." Speculum 57(1): 20-51.

Rudavsky, T. M., ed. 1995. Gender and Judaism: The Transformation of Tradition. New York: New York University Press.

Schneer, David, and Caryn Aviv, eds. 2002. Queer Jews. New York: Routledge.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1985. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stone, Ken, ed. 2001. Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press.

"What Is Reform Judaism?" 2005. Available from http://rj.org/whatisrj.shtml.

Wolfson, Elliot R. 2005. Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination. New York: Fordham University Press.

                                          Steven F. Kruger

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