InterviewMovement tells wider story of shifting Orthodox attitudes

Gay and Orthodox: Book charts the rise of a once unthinkable dual identity in Israel

‘Queer Judaism,’ a new work from academic Orit Avishai, explores the rapid transformation over just two decades of the visibility and activism of LGBTQ religious Jews

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

A woman at the annual Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, on June 2, 2022, holds up a sign with the biblical phrase 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.' (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A woman at the annual Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, on June 2, 2022, holds up a sign with the biblical phrase 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.' (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A few weeks ago, prominent Israeli journalist Yair Cherki announced on social media that he was gay.

The news set off shockwaves, not just due to Cherki’s renown as a reporter for the popular Channel 12 news, but also since he was brought up in a well-known conservative national-religious family and community in Jerusalem.

“I love boys, and I love God – and it is not contradictory,” Cherki wrote in his coming-out Facebook post. “I live this conflict between faith and sexual preference all the time. There are those who have solved this conflict [by saying] there is no God, and others [by saying] there is no homosexuality. From my experience I know they both exist.”

In a move that would have been unthinkable even just 20 years ago, Cherki declared his intention to live his life publicly as a religious gay man – and is arguably the most well-known Orthodox Israeli to come out of the closet.

The revolution among religious gay Israelis is precisely what academic Orit Avishai charts and explores in her new book, “Queer Judaism: LGBT Activism and the Remaking of Jewish Orthodoxy in Israel.

Drawing on interviews with dozens of gay religious Israeli Jews and activists, experiences at Orthodox LGBTQ events and time researching and reading message boards, Avishai traces the history of gay activism in Israel’s religious worlds and the rapid transformation in attitudes and advocacy.

Academic Orit Avishai and her new book, ‘Queer Judaism.’ (Courtesy)

“The movement is very young… the organizations don’t come together until the mid-2000s, and by the mid-2010s there’s just an explosion of activity, there’s lots of organizations there’s huge visibility and networks and language, and all these rabbis are coming on board,” she said in a recent interview with The Times of Israel. “Social movements and history – you don’t usually see it changing that rapidly.”

Avishai, an Israeli-born sociology professor at Fordham University in New York City, charts throughout the book the accelerated manner in which Orthodox LGBTQ individuals in Israel fought for and won some level of acceptance from within their communities.

Certainly, over the years, many gay Israelis who were brought up religious have opted to leave their communities behind for a secular lifestyle — and many continue to do so. But now more than ever, there are those who hold on proudly to both facets of their identities without seeing a conflict, according to Avishai.

“They have gone from chatrooms and backrooms, from being fearful, anonymous, and closeted, to crafting and disseminating personal and collective narratives through viral Facebook posts that proudly feature their faces, names, families, and stories,” she wrote.

In the book – which is academic in nature but a fairly accessible read – Avishai speaks with many Orthodox LGBTQ Israelis who refused to concede that being gay meant they would have to leave behind their religious communities and way of life.

One such woman she quotes told the author that: “Life would be much easier if I would become ex-Orthodox, if I were willing to give up my religious world. But I felt that I couldn’t give it up. I really, really believe. I belong to the religious world, no matter what. But I also feel that I can’t be with men.”

A gay couple has a wedding ceremony under a hupa during the annual Pride Parade in Jerusalem, July 21, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The author said throughout her research and interviews it was “incredibly pivotal to hear from people about their real-life experiences,” which led her to understand their “lived experience of creating a new way of being Orthodox – that it’s just a variation on a theme.”

She also explores some of the concerns and quandaries that may be unique to religious gay Jews as they navigate the collision of both worlds.

“Orthodox LGBT persons say that their decisions about family formation take into account not only their own well-being and desires but also those of their future children — ‘Will there be a school that accepts them? Will we be able to celebrate their birth in a synagogue? Would they be able to be bar mitzvahed there?,’” she wrote. “On the flip side, having children is so central to Orthodox Jewish life – reproduction is a mitzvah one is expected to fulfill. So central is this mitzvah that some rabbinic authorities have used it as an entry point to support monogamous same-sex unions.”

And while Avishai admits that the community of actively religious gay Israelis is not a large one, the movement and the changes also tell a wider story of shifting attitudes in Orthodoxy.

“How the majority responds to these demands, these requests to be seen, to be heard, to be accepted, to be included – also reveals a lot about the dominant group and its modes of thinking,” she said. “This particular story is also a story about the Orthodox community or communities negotiating what it means to be Orthodox.”

While the work of any sociologist is to study groups, movements and communities, Avishai takes care to note in the book that she is neither Orthodox nor a member of the LGBTQ community.

“There’s a real debate about whether one can and should study communities outside of their own,” she said. “The benefit of being an outsider is that you’re not committed in the same way to a cause, to a people, to a theory.”

A participant waves an LGBTQ rainbow flag bearing the star of David during the annual Pride parade in Jerusalem on June 3, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

In a way, Avishai has written a fairly optimistic book in “Queer Judaism,” one that envisions a positive trend forward of acceptance.

“The fortunes of Orthodox LGBT persons have turned in large part on the accumulated impact of the actions of individuals who decided not to live their lives as a problem,” she wrote in the conclusion, “who recalibrated their dreams; who demanded their families, friends, religious leaders, and congregations recognize that they exist and make space for them.”

But the professor admitted that she may have painted too sunny an outlook – as many Orthodox communities remain staunchly homophobic, and far-right anti-LGBTQ activist Avi Maoz was handed a governmental position just a few months ago.

“Movements are always dynamic and responding to one another – and backlash is always part of this story,” she said.

However, she noted, “if you’re looking at the trajectory, it is one of growing visibility… have they arrived? No, they have not arrived, and who knows what the much larger renegotiation of Israel we’re witnessing right now, where that’s going to lead – but it’s part of the conversation.”

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