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 Post subject: Re: What is Jewishness?
PostPosted: Wed Oct 08, 2008 6:25 pm 
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This is Rome

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I began this thread over two and a half years ago to discuss abstractly the question of what it is to be Jewish. When I began this discussion, I was a nineteen-year-old law student very interested in figuring out and ordering my life in a theoretical manner. If I could understand (academically) what it was for a non-Jew by birth to take on a Jewish identity, I felt, I could determine whether this was something that I wished to do.

I am now a 22 year old attorney living at the opposite end of the country. I am in an extraordinarily unusual situation for someone of my age - a religious tradition that is not my birthright has been my dominant spiritual influence for nearly 50 percent of my life (since I was 12.) It is this tradition and its people, the Jewish people, which I have loved and admired, with whom I have prayed, fought, disagreed, become frustrated, to which I have always returned, and by which I have most fundamentally been shaped.

In this decade, perhaps the most important lesson that I have learned is that life cannot be planned or understood ex ante, in theory, before it is actually experienced. With this in mind, I have decided to convert formally to Judaism (with a mikveh date sometime in August or September 2009). I am doing this even though I lack an answer to the seminal question, "What is Jewishness?" I do know this: standing in front of the bet din (rabbinic court) and immersing myself in the mikveh - the road to those moments, and the Jewish path I will follow thereafter - will lead me far closer to answering that question than any amount of theoretical reading and discussion.

One of my synagogue's requirements for conversion is to keep a journal that is updated at least 1-2 times a month. With the exception of reflections that are truly private, I will share some of my journal entries here as I go through this process.

_________________
I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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PostPosted: Wed Oct 08, 2008 10:17 pm 
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Wow, nerdanel, this is a big step -- a huge step -- to be taking! I am impressed and moved by your courage, and I look forward to reading more of your thoughts as you progress through the conversion process.

When I was on a similar-but-different path some time ago, I found the very term "conversion" rather inspiring:

Our good friend, the OED, wrote:
Conversion

from Latin conversion-em turning around, n. of action from convertere to turn round.

I. Turning in position, direction, destination.
1a. The action of turning round or revolving; revolution, rotation.
2a. The action of turning to a particular direction; turning. (1643, Sir T. Browne, "The conversion of the needle to the North")
b. fig. The action of turning or directing (one's mind , attention, actions, etc) to some object. (1581, J. Bell, "With such an unremoveable conversion of mynde to Godward")
3a. The action of turning back or returning; spec. the turning back of the sun in its apparent course on reaching the tropic; the solstice (1553, "The sommer conuersion of the sunne")
5. Used by 16th and 17th c. writers as the equivalent of ANTISTROPHE, and sometimes of APOSTROPHE. (1552 Huloet, "Conuersion, or speakynge one to another")
II. Change in character, nature, form, or function.
8a. The bringing of any one over to a specified religious faith, profession, or party, esp. to one regarded as true, from what is regarded as falsehood or error.
11. a. The action of turning, or process of being turned, into or to something else; change of form or properties, alteration.
e. grammar. The use of one part of speech as another (1950, S. Potter, Our Lang. v. 57 "This kind of word-play, the use of noun as verb and verb as noun .., known technically as conversion."
12b. Ship-building. (a) Reduction of timber from the rough state into pieces of nearly the required shape and size. (b) Change of a vessel from one class to another.
III. Change by substitution of an equivalent in purport or value.
14. Translation into another language (or into a different literary form).


Best wishes to you in this eventful-at-least-for-you year! :hug:


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PostPosted: Thu Oct 09, 2008 1:34 am 
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Nel, it just happens that this weekend I'm going to my cousin's daughter's Bat Mitzvah- my born-Anglican cousin who converted at just your age, after taking her own professional degree.

Is there anything you'd like me to ask her?


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PostPosted: Thu Oct 09, 2008 2:12 am 
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Congrats on making that commitment, nel. Keep us posted on that journey, it promises to be an exciting one.

I wish easy fast to all who observe Yom Kippur tomorrow (um... this is just one last sneak on the compie before I go into the holiday mode, I promise :whistle:). And a good and sweet year to all my friends here. :grouphug:

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“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

- Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 20, 2008 6:37 pm 
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Frelga and Teremia - thank you very much. Those definitions of conversion ARE interesting.

soli - thanks for the offer, and I'm sorry not to have returned to this thread on time. Did your cousin come to Judaism through a significant other or friend, or is it a path she discovered on her own?

The most frequent question when you announce that you have decided to convert to Judaism is, "What denomination?" (or, "Is it a halachic conversion?") As I stated clearly from the start of this thread, I have long understood that halachic conversion is not a possibility for me - principally because of my view of gender and feminism. In ten years, I have not been able to reconcile my view of these subjects with Orthodox Judaism, and I do not expect the next ten years will be different. If I'm wrong about the next decade ... well, I'll worry about halachic conversion then.

My decision not to convert Orthodox does not surprise me. What surprises me is my decision to pursue Reform conversion. Reform Judaism is the most liberal of the Jewish denominations, and is often denigrated by the misinformed as "pick-and-choose" Judaism. When I came to Judaism in 1998, I was deeply skeptical of what I perceived as Reform Judaism's acrobatic level of flexibility, and I was quite certain I would pursue "at least" Conservative conversion.

I "discovered" Reform Judaism through my connection to the GLBT community in 2006, and my access to one of the oldest gay-majority synagogues in this country. During my time at that shul, I have observed a continuum of Jewishly-inspired behavior. Yes, I have seen those who admittedly engage in "pick-and-choose-what's-convenient" Judaism. And then, I've seen those who are deeply observant, in multiple senses. There are people at my synagogue who are quite traditional in terms of ritual observance, and have chosen a Reform shul solely primarily because their sexual orientation or gender identity would keep them from feeling fully accepted or acceptable in an Orthodox shul. And then, there are those who are not so strictly ritually observant, but whose Judaism informs their daily lives in a conscious way -- who live with Jewish intention. I have come to appreciate that Reform Judaism does involve "choosing" - choosing how to infuse one's life with Jewish ethics, morality, and spirituality, within a framework that is inclusive along gender and sexual orientation lines, and which does not absolutely demand of its members literal faith in specific supernatural events depicted in the Bible.

I have no idea whether Reform Judaism represents the "end point" for me with respect to Judaism, though I am open to it playing out that way. It is clear, however, that the wrestling with G-d (and tradition, and spirituality) that Reform Judaism facilitates is a beginning point for me as a young adult. I am not seeking a specific set of ritual traditions to follow as a matter of procedure. Nor am I seeking a theological manifesto - a Jewish equivalent of the Nicene Creed that I can recite and so inform the world: "I have faith in these supernatural happenings; this is how I believe that G-d interacts with the world." I am seeking a tradition in which membership confers on me the obligation - and provides me with the framework - to examine my actions, thoughts, intentions, and emotions on a daily basis - a spiritual mirror, if you will. And, because this is an intensive undertaking, I wish for a community of people with shared values who are engaged in the same process - from whom I can receive, and to whom I can provide support.

But why convert? Why must I call myself "a Jew" in order to adopt Judaism as this spiritual mirror? Why not remain - as I've often described myself - an "agnostic, non-Jewish synagogue attendee" or "Jewpie," content to hang around synagogues and derive what spiritual benefits can be found there? For much of the past couple of years, I've thought that would be sufficient. Certainly it has represented the ultimate in convenience - to show up when I wanted, to observe as and when it felt right, to be familiar enough after all these years with the tradition to interface with it at will ... and to leave it behind the rest of the time. Indeed, there have been instances when I have gleefully stated to Jewish friends, "Doesn't apply to me!" or "Not bound by that!" when confronted with some aspect of Jewish observance that frankly, wasn't convenient or comfortable. In other words, after ten years I have ended up doing exactly what I had the good sense to condemn at twelve - to cherry-pick from the Jewish tradition based on feel-good convenience, with no sense of obligation to engage with its dictates seriously and consistently as the going gets tough. I am sure that many other non-Jews who hang around synagogues (particularly those who are Noachide-identified) who are capable of consistently reaping the benefits of Jewish spirituality while continuing to identify as not Jewish. However, for me, my current positioning has devolved into little more than intellectual, emotional, and spiritual laziness.

So, for the first time since age seventeen, I again wish to approach this rich, ancient tradition from the standpoint of a would-be adherent. I have long questioned, "What IS Jewishness, anyway?' - and I believe the first step towards answering that question is to determine, "If I am Jewish, then what will my (then-) religion/tradition/community expect and require of me? Can I - and do I wish to - honor these expectations and requirements in my life?" In answering this question, I will be mindful (at long last) that the Orthodox do not possess a monopoly on how it must be answered, and that the answers of other Jews - whether by birth or by choice - also are to be valued. I will work to put aside my insecurities that I can "never really be Jewish" because I was not raised that way, do not "look" Jewish, and may never have an Orthodox rabbi or the state of Israel agree that I am Jewish. I will continue to respect the varied spiritual paths (or desire to avoid spirituality) of family, friends, and acquaintances and continue to value my pluralistic outlook. And I will remain mindful that my inability to absolutely predict the future - i.e. to say with complete certainty that this journey will end with bet din and mikveh - should not be a bar to exploring this spiritual path enthusiastically and with intention...and reaping the benefits of that exploration.

_________________
I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 20, 2008 8:14 pm 
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Quote:
soli - thanks for the offer, and I'm sorry not to have returned to this thread on time. Did your cousin come to Judaism through a significant other or friend, or is it a path she discovered on her own?


I'm sorry too, since I wound up not carrying on the discussion.

In Cary's case she converted in connection with her marriage- but she I think she was also influenced by her long and close relationship with her cousins on the other side, also Jewish.

It is the case that her synagogue is very, very Reform- her husband's half-humorous label is "Jewish Unitarians." :)


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 20, 2008 10:28 pm 
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This is Rome

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Quick question for anyone who happens to read my last post - could you just post a quick note letting me know whether it's clear what I'm saying? I shared the post (minus the responses to individual people) with a family member, who says that she read it and didn't understand why I was saying - huh. Wondering if it's one of those things that's clear in my head, but didn't translate to screen.

_________________
I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 20, 2008 10:30 pm 
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It was completely clear to me. :) (Although I don't think it would be accurate to say that I just "happened" to read your post :P)

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 21, 2008 3:37 pm 
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nel, I knew what you were saying too, but then I KNEW what you were saying. ;)

I am glad you came to see Reform Judaism as a legitimate and vibrant expression of Jewish life and faith. I have a lot of respect for many Orthodox Jews - it takes guts to proclaim your Jewishness so boldly in everything you do - but I reject the idea that they are somehow the "real" or more "authentic" Jews. The Jewish tradition is thougthands of years old, and it seems odd to freeze it arbitrarily at some point in 19th century, when it - we - survived those millenia by growing, changing and adapting, while keeping the heart and spirit alive. Of course, most Orthodox communities change and adapt, too. The Reform just got a head start. ;)

At my synagogue last night, we celebrated Simhat Torah, with a klezmer band and hot dog dinner. Huge fun! I got to dance with the Torah, and I can't describe the awe, the pride, the joy I felt while holding the scrolls, their velvety covering warm from my husband's arms. Sure, the Reform don't party like the Hassidim do - no one does - but I wouldn't trade any party for yesterday's mishegaz, when unrolled Torah ringed the hall with little girls break-dancing to klezmer in the middle of the floor while the edge of the parchment rested on my fingers.

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“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

- Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 27, 2008 2:37 pm 
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If the goal was to describe your spiritual journey as you currently see it, then yes, it was clear.

Your comments make it clear that you've thought about what it 'really' means to be Jewish, and how you can best do that in your own life. You clearly admire some aspects of Orthodox Judaism, but not others. You seem to have reached a point where the ethnicity question is not a barrier, though you acknowledge that maybe to others, you won't 'look' Jewish (though how that is your problem, I don't know).

You also recognize that you will have a greater level of accountability by formally joining. It won't be just up to you to determine (all by your lonesome) how to lead an authentically Jewish life. You will have a community to grow with, as well as the responsibilities that come with that.

While you have chosen a Reform congregation at the moment, that might be more specific to the particular congregation you are part of. Should you find yourself in a different place, you might choose differently. You do not pretend to know where this journey will end up, you just know that you won't get very far along it if you don't begin, so you are starting.


I can claim to understand someone, but if I can't repeat their ideas back to them, perhaps I don't really understand ;). That was my attempt (as a non-Jew) to highlight some of the key points I got from your story. If it was not what you intended, please correct me.


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PostPosted: Mon Oct 27, 2008 10:51 pm 
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MithLuin wrote:
... You seem to have reached a point where the ethnicity question is not a barrier, though you acknowledge that maybe to others, you won't 'look' Jewish (though how that is your problem, I don't know)...


Nel, I assume you know about the Bene Israel - the ancient Jewish communities of India and Burma? And of the extant synagogues in India? Rodef Shalom in Mumbai is affiliated to the UPJ.

Not that it makes any difference to your choice; but I know when I made the choice, the knowledge that there were ancient indigenous Jewish communities in the land of my birth touched something in me; made me feel less of a martian landing on earth. :D It also influenced me in adopting some sephardi customs - the Jews of Greece are sephardim.

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 08, 2009 7:34 am 
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A British court rules in favor of a definition of Judaism inclusive of converts to progressive Judaism, and against the Orthodox view that only people born to a Jewish mother or who have converted to Orthodox Judaism are Jewish.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/08/world ... itain.html

This ruling is particularly important to me because - if this view was taken everywhere (by which I mean, Israel), I could be indifferent to the Orthodox view of who is Jewish. They're entitled to exclude as any people as they would like, of course. But what makes me grit my teeth is when they exclude people who have converted to Reform or Conservative Judaism; or exclude people born to Jewish fathers who consider themselves Jewish and are religiously observant; or exclude people born to mothers who have converted to Reform or Conservative Judaism -- and do so with the tacit or explicit backing of any government (usually, the Israeli government, but until this ruling, the British government as well, as far as I'm concerned.)

_________________
I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 05, 2010 12:11 am 
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This came up in a chat earlier...

Jewishness is...

when you are invited to a dinner party, and plan on taking a bottle from the well-stocked shelf when you realize that you are going to a kosher house and must run out at lunch and buy kosher wine.

You also barely manage to bite your tongue at the same dinner just before you ask if there is bacon in the salad. :blackeye:

It is also a great sense of relief that you need not worry about anything that is served at the table - it is all kosher, which means you can eat it all.

Well, except for the WeightWatchers points, but that's a universal problem.

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“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

- Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 05, 2010 12:20 am 
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This is Rome

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Haha, Frelga - I'm reminded of a certain dinner at a restaurant in Berkeley a couple of years ago, in which the topic of eating shrimp was discussed. :P

I haven't focused much energy during the past year on the issue of what to do with my longstanding, but still non-formalized relationship to Judaism. Too much effort has gone into the issue of what I am doing career-wise. I'm looking forward to becoming involved in Jewish life on campus next year (I almost typed "Hillel", then realized that's a U.S. organization...), and continuing to engage with the questions that I outlined earlier in this thread. If I have any insights worth sharing, I'll post them here.

_________________
I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 05, 2010 4:20 am 
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I am looking forward to hearing of your impressions.

nerdanel wrote:
Haha, Frelga - I'm reminded of a certain dinner at a restaurant in Berkeley a couple of years ago, in which the topic of eating shrimp was discussed. :P


Ha, yes, I remember. :love:

Somehow I feel that as long as I am aware that shrimp are not kosher, eating or not eating them is hardly relevant in itself. :whistle:

My son and I had that conversation many times, especially during the Passover, where he showed great fortitude in avoiding even birthday cakes and donuts. He said, we can't eat this at Passover. We can, I told him. But we choose not to. That's the heart of it.

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“It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

- Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, Good Omens


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 05, 2010 6:20 am 
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Quote:
We can, I told him. But we choose not to. That's the heart of it.


That's both exact and true. And it's the heart of a lot of things that matter.

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― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King


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PostPosted: Sat Jun 05, 2010 1:47 pm 
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Indeed. :)

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 06, 2010 7:05 am 
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Frelga wrote:
Somehow I feel that as long as I am aware that shrimp are not kosher, eating or not eating them is hardly relevant in itself. :whistle:


I love Reform Judaism. :P :love:

_________________
I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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PostPosted: Sat Mar 26, 2011 12:34 pm 
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not something I would recommend
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This seems like the best place to ask: me and a friend were talking about how religions view homosexuality. I mentioned that I'd gotten the impression that the Jewish faith was by and large fairly tolerant of it and that my impression was that branches that taught acceptance weren't rare. He said I was wrong and that Jews were generally as opposed to homosexuality as Christians generally are. So I decided to ask my Jewish HoF friends - who's right?

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I wanna throw my body in the river and drown
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PostPosted: Sat Mar 26, 2011 3:25 pm 
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Great timing - I just got back from an Orthodox-hosted Shabbat lunch (I always have mixed feelings about going into a gender role-driven environment, but this rabbi and rebbetzin are pretty good about not making egalitarian people feel out-of-place.)

TL;DR: your friend is more or less wrong. ;)

First off, I'd suggest that you read back through this thread itself, because so much of it has been dedicated to whether/how a non-heterosexual orientation can be reconciled with Judaism. We had Glowy here at the time, and she was furnishing an Orthodox perspective, whilst the rest of us were discussing Reform/Conservative Judaism and homosexuality.

I think that most Jews, including many Orthodox, accept the existence of homosexual orientations. There are gay Jews within every domination. It is most difficult within the Orthodox world. Orthodoxy teaches that sex between two men is strictly forbidden per Leviticus (Vayikra). Sex between women is not mentioned in the Torah, but is seen as subject to a lesser rabbinic prohibition. The documentary "Trembling Before G-d" chronicles the lives of gay Orthodox Jews. Here's an example of a Jewish group for Orthodox gay people: http://www.orthogays.org/ Some gay Jews believe they are called to be celibate; some believe that intimacy short of intercourse is permissible; others are fully intimate with their partners and have varying beliefs on the religious permissibility of that. I haven't observed many Orthodox people outside of Israel take very strong stances against homosexuality, but in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox have reacted violently against gay pride parades in Jerusalem (for instance).

Conservative Judaism, the "middle" denomination, is more or less accepting of gay Jews, though it will depend on the specific congregation. I favor a conservative shul in Berkeley, CA, which has happily been performing same-sex commitment ceremonies for years (well before the movement originally okayed it), has many openly gay members in same-sex relationships, etc. In late 2006, the movement first agreed to accept gay and lesbian rabbis and officially said that commitment ceremonies were okay. The acceptance was intermediate and quasi-grudging: for instance, they said that because bisexuals could choose an opposite-sex relationship, that would be the preferable course of action. (This partly relates to the movement's beliefs on the importance of procreation, raising Jewish children, etc.) But essentially, some Conservative congregations are very accepting, have LGBT social groups and dating nights, etc; others are not really there at this point. I'd say Conservative Judaism's official position is now to the left of many other religious denominations in the US, of all faiths.

Reform Judaism, the largest US Jewish denomination, takes an officially liberal stance on the issue. It supports same-sex marriage (including religious ceremonies), ordains openly gay and lesbian rabbis, and does not express a preference that bisexuals should choose opposite-sex relationships. It has several synagogues nationwide, especially in LA, NY, and SF, that are LGBT-majority. The one in SF, my former shul, has now developed a LGBT-themed (and yet beautifully traditional in many ways, apart from its inclusiveness) prayerbook that I think you would quite enjoy glancing at if you get a chance. In addition to the usual prayers, it has prayers for special lifecycle occasions unique to the LGBT community, like coming out to parents or transitioning genders. Before we say the Mourners' Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, we always say an English language prayer remembering the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who have been persecuted or killed or committed suicide because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Although sad, it's a meaningful way to take a moment within the service that might not seem directly relevant to people who haven't recently suffered a loss, and to suddenly make the whole congregation feel it is immediately relevant and important. I always found it powerful to recall the deaths of sexual and gender minorities through time, some of whom may never have been mourned.

Anyway, I think that any openly gay and religious person could find a niche within the Jewish world, but that it would be fairly unusual for an openly gay person who was not born Orthodox to embrace Orthodoxy. I'm sure there are a few who have done so, but it seems likely that it would be a very emotionally painful choice on multiple levels.

_________________
I won't just survive
Oh, you will see me thrive
Can't write my story
I'm beyond the archetype
I won't just conform
No matter how you shake my core
'Cause my roots, they run deep, oh

When, when the fire's at my feet again
And the vultures all start circling
They're whispering, "You're out of time,"
But still I rise
This is no mistake, no accident
When you think the final nail is in, think again
Don't be surprised, I will still rise


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