Hidden Perspectives

Bringing the Bible Out of the Closet

Student blogger Yael Shafritz talks Gender, Sexuality and the Bible with Rabbi Friedlander

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Rainbow-Star-of-DavidCould you introduce yourself, and say a little bit about who you are and what you do?

My name is Ariel J Friedlander. I was ordained as a Progressive rabbi 17 years ago in the United States of America after a previous career as a sports and theatre photographer. At the moment I work part-time for the Memorial Scrolls Trust in London as the administrator of a collection of 1564 Torah scrolls originally saved from the Nazis by the Jewish Museum in Prague. I am also part of the Outreach Team at Liberal Judaism; serving small congregations in Bournemouth, Eastbourne and Stevenage, as well as unaffiliated Jews who come to us for assistance.

Is there anything you’ve found interesting about sexuality and gender in the Bible whilst studying it?

That’s a massive question! Before I try to respond, I need to remind myself that I am looking at an ancient text from a contemporary perspective. My understanding of concepts of sexuality and gender are based on 20th/21st century experiences and teaching. I have no idea what they meant to people living in the Bible era. In any case, since I place the Torah at the centre of my life as a Jew and a human being, I look to the text as a source of inspiration and a catalyst for learning and growth for now, rather than worrying about then. As an LGBT person, a central example of this would be the verses that condemn sexual intercourse between men, e.g., Leviticus 18:22 “You shall not lie down with a male, as with a woman: this is an abomination”. For several hundreds of years Judeo-Xian societies have based their laws about homosexuality on such verses, claiming a simple and absolute understanding of their meaning. Yet in my lifetime these laws have begun to change. One might argue that the text then becomes obsolete, and many Progressive Jewish communities no longer read those verses in public. However, the prejudice is not yet overcome, and so for me these words are still part of the debate.

Meanwhile, especially when reading and listening to the Bible in Hebrew, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the utterly masculine language in which it is written. The majority of the verbs are in male forms, and I struggle to feel connected to such alien actions. This is a major reason for my lack of interest in the specific and absolute meaning of the text. I prefer to focus on metaphor and more universal teachings that we may discover.

What have your experiences been like being an LGBT and woman rabbi?

When I was 5 years old I told my father I wanted to be the first woman rabbi. He told me I was too late so I said ok, forget it! The fact is that we now live in an era where there are children who do not know men can be rabbis because they have only ever seen a woman rabbi in their synagogue. Yet women still suffer from the same issues in this profession as in others. This includes everything from glass ceilings to extreme interest in and critique of their grooming and dress sense.

My rabbinic career began at a time of transition for LGBT rabbis in the USA. My class was the first to contain students who had come out in their interviews. There was still a great sense of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell when it came to job applications. Yet I decided that I could not be closeted. In each interview, when they asked if I had any questions for the committee, I would let them know that while I was currently single, if and when I would be blessed to find a partner the likelihood was that she would be female. I would then ask if the congregation would feel able to welcome her as my spouse. I thought that would be a gentle way to focus on their attitude, rather than my sexuality. I was able to maintain my integrity, but didn’t get many offers. I cannot be certain that this was not because of other flaws that I have, but the feedback at the time suggested that being LGBT was still a bit of a problem.

My first rabbinic position after ordination was in Canada. I was the junior of 4 rabbis in one of the largest congregations in the country. The Canadian Jewish community was nowhere near as socially liberal as the American one – I was one of only 4 women rabbis in the entire country! I had a miserable couple of years there, constantly bullied by my senior colleagues and forbidden to speak about LGBT issues or appear publicly at any LGBT events. It sent me into a deep depression. Yet all was not lost, and I was able to move back to the USA to serve two small congregations in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. There I had the good fortune to be protected by a family whose daughter was also lesbian and studying to become a rabbi. I spent 5 lovely years in this community and might still be there if I’d had a family with which to share that life. However, I was the only rabbi for 60 miles in any direction, yet knew only one other Jewish lesbian. I was lonely, and still hoped to find a partner. So I decided to seek a more urban lifestyle. To cut a long story short, both of the East coast congregations that I subsequently served had issues with my sexuality, and forced me out. I decided to sue the last one to make them buy out my contract instead of firing me, and fell foul of the American Constitutional law re separation between Church and State. The court ruled that only the congregation could define what “bad behaviour” by a rabbi was, and so they were free to condemn me. It was time to come home!

I’m delighted to say that moving back to the UK was the best thing I could have done. Here the law puts the burden of proof on the employer, so I felt much more protected as a LGBT person; and in any case our congregations seem a little more interested in our abilities rather than our room-mates. Meanwhile I have been able to work for issues such as Equality in Marriage both within the Jewish community and on a national level. I’ve been welcomed by students on campuses across the country, and served a variety of small congregations in the south of England. I’ve also found a wonderful partner, although since she is a Reform Jew and I’m a Liberal it’s a bit of a mixed marriage!

What do you think the importance is of projects like ‘hidden perspectives’ that attempt to look at gender and sexuality in the Bible in a different way?

First of all, I think that those of us who believe in God need to remember that religion is something created by humans. God exists or does not exist no matter what we think or feel. Yet we seek meaning for our lives, and moral direction as individuals and groups. Each religion is a language that expresses a particular journey and search for this meaning, and the texts at its centre are guidebooks for its adherents. Those of us on this journey have hearts and souls and minds of our own, and should not automatically accept without question the conclusions and decisions of those who went before us.

We don’t yet know how different the view of ‘hidden perspectives’ will be. What is important, however, is that such projects are given the space and support to explore the possibilities. For those of us interested in gender and sexuality in the Bible it is a great opportunity.

How do you think looking at different narratives/perspectives in the Bible can be used to change things for LGBT people and women in the Jewish community?

I think looking at different narratives/perspectives in the Bible has already changed things for LGBT people and women in the Jewish community. Starting at the beginning, we have different versions of creation. Tradition has favoured the one in which the woman has a more subservient position. Those who first reminded us that there is also an egalitarian version encouraged many women to bring that perspective to ritual and other community practices. From those seeds came challenges to other fixed positions including attitudes to LGBT people. And so it should continue.

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Author: Hidden Perspectives

A research project within the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) at The University of Sheffield.

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