Jay Michaelson
Constriction, p. 2

Last month, I was labeled, by sources I will not name (but who made their views known publicly), as a "Torah-bashing gay radical," because I suggested that the Conservative movement should read as narrowly as possible Leviticus' prohibition on anal sex between men. I was, in the context of a heated debate, publicly vilified by a man who claims to be a "reformed homosexual" - he now calls himself a celibate bisexual - and who has spoken out in favor of maintaining exclusionary policies at Jewish educational institutions. Because of the particular context in which the debate took place, no one came to my aid. By coincidence, the same week as all of this happened, a project I was working on for a university - editing a book of songs and prayers - ran into a snag: some Orthodox college students became so incensed at the addition of an egalitarian liturgical phrase (even though it was asterisked, smaller-fonted, and prefaced-with-"some add") that they threatened not to eat at the college's kosher kitchen. Only after I and my editorial board caved in to the Orthodox demands did the project move forward.

The combination of these two events drove me to tears. Moreover, they, and a very busy readjustment time after a meditation retreat, led me to want to turn away from all this Jewish ethnocentrism, Jewish insensitivity, and above all this relentless Jewish fear of change. I felt a pull towards the freer, less doctrinal atmosphere of Buddhist practice, in which what is, is. Simply. When a friend of mine commented that something I'd written for the liturgy book sounded "more 'Eastern' than Jewish," I though he might be right. I changed what I had written into something more entrenched in metaphor, less expressive of the meaning behind the imagery. And in so doing, I further distanced myself from what was traditional enough to pass as authentically Jewish.

Halacha, the Jewish "way to walk," is a dual-focused spiritual path. One of its trajectories is toward the Ultimate: the Jewish path orients the individual toward the One by refocusing consciousness in every mundane act of human existence. The other trajectory is away from the Ultimate and toward the ordinary: Jewish practice imprints upon our lives a structure that reflects God's will as we, in all our flawed humanity, understand it, and its validity exists completely independent from how we feel, or how our spirit is moved at any particular time. Most observant Jews choose one modality or the other, practicing halacha either because it makes them 'feel spiritual' or because it is a yoke that they have taken on. The former group has the contemplative path of the Hasidim and the mystical literature of the Kabbalah; the latter the active path of the halachic process and the legal reasoning of the Talmud. Often the two groups come to blows.

Sometimes, halacha becomes an attachment, a perverse and idolatrous pathology of Jewish religious consciousness. There is, particularly in the legal-categorical camp, great pain, and great fear. Whether this fear may be ascribed to Jewish survivalism, or neurosis, or some other extra-religious condition is, to me, beside the point. Let's suppose it is entirely religious: . There is within what is called "Torah Judaism" a fierce desire to ascertain and follow the Right Way, which (to reiterate) is trans-subjective, which does not depend on what makes us feel spiritual or not, but which is, in its objectivity, the recipe for living in a way that is larger than ourselves. And yet, despite all the effort to get beyond the ego, the self does intrude - a self which yells, fights, asserts itself.

Jewish practice is meant to open us up. Every blessing we recite is supposed to take us beyond the phenomenon of this apple, or this occasion, and toward the unified Source of all apples, times, and people - either by orienting our consciousness toward It (Hasidic) or conforming our will to It (mitnagdic). Some interpret the language of Jewish godtalk dualistically (God created the apple), some non-dualistically (the apple is nothing but God), but in either case, God-consciousness of some type is invited at least one hundred times a day. And yet, there is sometimes the opposite effect of expansion: a particularly Jewish mode of constriction, of tightness; it is a collapsing into the self's deepst fears, which uses the practice of Judaism much as the outlet mall in Reeves' article. We are meant to cling to God and to mitzvot - but the clinging can become perverted. Instead of clinging to the transcendence of ourselves, we cling to our fear.

Hope Reeves ran to buy shoes because she was scared of something: scared that her notions of truth, those of a well-adjusted, thoroughly acculturated New York Times travel writer, might be off the mark. She was scared to confront herself and be confronted by someone with spiky orange hair. The discomfort seems almost palpable in her writing (particularly when, later in the article, she describes being moved to tears by a psychic who tells her that her current husband is not her true love - an emotional intensity she cures by getting a massage). And the Orthodox Jews, in the liturgical example at least, were also scared. They (unlike the homophobic Jews)had no halachic leg to stand on; this was not an angry and impossible debate about whether Jewish law must be scrupulously maintained or not. They were scared only of change. As if to allow the slightest of cracks in their rigid practice would cause the whole edifice to shake. I won't pretend that I met their myopia with boundless compassion. I got pissed off. But I was acutely aware of a deep fear that they seemed to be expressing, as if something very close to themselves was being threatened.

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Image courtesy Gay/Jewish mens' group of Portland, Oregon.

March 2003

Readings and Misreadings
Zeek live, March 20 at Makor

surrender monkeys
Michael Shurkin

the reason for
Hal Sirowitz

Jay Michaelson

war and not-peace
Dan Friedman

Only Shelter
Bryn Canner

Abraham Mezrich

josh goes to prague
Josh Ring

David Stromberg

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