Hidden Perspectives

Bringing the Bible Out of the Closet

Rabbi Judith Levitt by Yael Shafritz

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rabbi levittCould you introduce yourself, and say a little bit about who you are and what you do?

I was born in South Africa in a small town where we were one of only two Jewish families. We moved to London when I was seven and immediately joined a Reform Synagogue. I grew up in RSY and Reform Students where I loved the spirit of questioning and wrestling with Judaism in the world. Whilst studying at the University of Sheffield I went on a trip to Krakow and Auschwitz. A year later I accompanied one of my grandmothers back to her home town of Vilnius in Lithuania. Both these journeys had a tremendous impact on me personally and deepened my connection with Judaism.

Since 2010 I have been the Rabbinic Head of Education for Westminster Synagogue and I am about to start a new position as Associate Rabbi at Sha’arei Tsedek Reform Synagogue.

Writing and painting are some of my other passions and I often explore Jewish themes in my creative work. My first degree was in English literature and my rabbinic dissertation explored the relationship between the Psalms and contemporary Israeli poetry.
I have a particular interest in Jewish spirituality and have led many workshops and services using art, literature and meditation to facilitate spiritual connection. I also have a passion for social action and using our Judaism to have a positive impact on the world
at large.

So you went to Sheffield uni, what were your experiences of being LGBT and of faith at the uni, [especially any whilst doing biblical studies]

I loved attending Sheffield Uni. They were some of the best experiences of my life! Being LGBT at Sheffield was wonderful we had one of the most thriving LGB (sadly trans people were only officially included in the title after I left even though we had trans people who were amazing and active in LGB) groups in the country. I was involved in campaigns (to abolish Section 28 mainly) and social events. I was lesbian officer on the committee for a few years. I found it quite hard being Jewish in a queer environment because so many people in the queer community had rejected religion (often because they themselves had been rejected by their religious communities). In terms of Biblical Studies, I really enjoyed the courses I took. However, during the first week of term the lecturer asked all the Jewish people to raise their hands. Mine was the lone hand that shot up. I felt singled out (the lecturer later apologised) and being out as queer and Jewish meant I was often targeted by evangelical Christians on the course. They were warm and friendly but I was and continue to be happy as I am with no desire to convert. I had a couple of heated discussions with the leader of my ‘Old Testament’ seminar as he kept referring to passages in Isaiah as precursors to Jesus. I obviously have a different interpretation. I tried to join the J-Soc in my first week at Sheffield but kept being set up on dates with boys. I used to attend the Reform Synagogue on my own and eventually with one of my English Literature lecturers who became my point of connection with Reform Judaism in Sheffield.

What have your experiences been like being LGBT and a female rabbi?

When I am introduced to someone new I regularly receive the comment ‘I didn’t know women could be rabbis’ This has happened in synagogue, at parties, in taxis and even at airport customs. I also had the experience as a student rabbi of co-leading a service with a male colleague and being treated like his assistant. I think it is challenging for people because the image most have in their heads of the word ‘rabbi’ is an older man with a beard. I am certainly not what people expect when they think of a rabbi and sometimes they find it comedic that the word applies to me. However, I also enjoy subverting people’s expectations. I lead an annual Passover Seder at a day centre for elderly people. When I first walked in wearing a Kippah they looked horrified that I was their rabbi for the occasion. However, by the final songs people were smiling and I felt completely accepted. An older woman even gripped my hand and said ‘I’d have liked to have been a rabbi like you if I’d had the chance’
Being a lesbian, I often feel that my personal life is invisible. Whilst the privacy is valuable as someone who is very visible in the community, it is also strange that anything to do with my personal life is unacknowledged. Colleagues have been berated for telling anecdotes in sermons about their same sex partners and I think people sometimes worry that if they say ‘how was your weekend?’ the answer will be deeply inappropriate or radical rather than the reality which is probably ‘my partner and I went to the cinema, it was lovely thank you’. I am very fortunate for the LGBT rabbis who have gone before me and paved the way and for on-going collegial support. In the Liberal and Reform communities we are familiar with LGBT rabbis and having that language and visibility has made my life so much easier.

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.

I think they are essential. Everything I believe about the Bible is that we should engage and struggle and wrestle with texts. This is an integral part of Jewish tradition. Ancient rabbis argued on the page about Jewish values and even the minority opinion is recorded. There are so many interesting, creative and subversive ways of reading biblical texts. A spectrum of genders and sexualities is not a modern invention, people in ancient times were wrestling with many of the same issues we are engaging today. Looking at the Bible in a different way could also have the consequence of transforming how people feel about themselves; about their bodies and sexualities. I do not think it is hyperbolic to say that this could save lives.

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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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