Jay Michaelson
Hasidism and Homoeroticism, p.5

So is it better or worse for heterosexuals to explore their same-sex desires? It's great that they're queering it up, but if it has no social effect, if it in fact leads to more institutional homophobia - does it matter?

The answer for me came at the schvitz-mikva, as I went about my own ritual in the midst of all the nakedness, whipping, massaging, and panting. I love going to the mikva. In the past, I saw it as a confrontation with my own personal demon, and a negation of it. Now, I recognize the charge that comes from being around naked men as part of the ritual. I don't "get off" on the bodies that I see there, and when I do find myself especially attracted to one, I try to guide my attention back to what I'm doing. But I do get a charge from being in an erotic environment, and being aware of it, and being able to hold it together with the return to the One that takes place in the living waters themselves.

On this occasion, there were several men around me as I performed my usual seven 'dunks' into the mikva. One of them was a beautiful boy, who looked around 17 or 18, standing directly in front of me and talking to a friend. Above the water, I looked at him, heard the sounds of the whole complex, was in the world of what the Hindus call lila, the cosmic play of energies in the world of manifestation (yesh in the Hebrew). I didn't avert my eyes or deny his beauty. But then, below the water, I was back into ayin, into the primordial nothingness from which all things come and to which they all return. Above the water, energy, beauty, eroticism, noise, life. Back in the water, silence, stillness, unity, the 'death in life' sought by mystics. I had never so quickly moved from the desert to the city, the One to the many. It was as if the dual nature of our life experience - Quality and lila, shamayim and aretz, God-as-one and God-as-manifest - was actually visible. Radiant manifestation, and radiant emptiness.

Erotic ritual completes us. It expresses some of our most basic, powerful urges, and orients them around the true Reality. In unifying with the Other (heterosexual) or embodying the Other (homosexual), we enact the yichudim that return us to our source. For me, contemplation, not ecstasy, is still my primary path; there are fewer addictive attachments, and fewer opportunities to mistake the energy for the One. But eroticism, in its multiple manifestations, is both a spiritual practice and a part of the flowering of human potential itself. To embody both yang and yin, action and reception; to see the world as alive, not just from one perspective, but from many - this is part of why we are here. Whether or not we are made better people as a result of our engagement with our own queer sexuality, we seem more complete as a result.

Certainly, there are many limits that the haredim place upon themselves; they are not exploring the boundaries of erotic possibility. But I wonder if, within those limits, the homoerotic culture of hasidism "gets it" in a way that more moderate religious cultures do not. Jewish mysticism was invented by men who left their families for extended periods and lived in intimate circles of male mystical comrades. What insights did they glimpse in such communion, which we today have just begun to rediscover?

[1]       [2]       [3]       [4]       5
Image: Andy Alpern

Jay Michaelson is the chief editor of Zeek Magazine. He also writes the "Fringes" column on Jewish spirituality for the Forward, and is a political columnist for Jewsweek.

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From previous issues:

Davening with Joe
Michael Shurkin

Are we all asleep?
Jay Michaelson

When I Met Humility, I Saw Letters
Niles Goldstein