I recently interviewed Jay Michaelson on Nehirim and his new book, God in Your Body. You can read an adapted excerpt from his book in the post below. Nehirim will be hosting their 2007 Spiritual Retreat from May 18-20, 2007 at the Elat Chayyim / Isabella Freedman in Falls Village, CT. I’ll be teaching/facilitating workshops along with a great host of people that weekend, so I hope to see some of you there!

CK: I love the write up on your website about why Nehirim was chosen as the name for the organization–tell us about this choice and how you came to founding Nehirim.

JM: The name comes from the Zohar — it means “lights,” and specifically refers to lights in the heavens, like the colors you see at sunset. Most gay Jewish groups are called Keshet which means rainbow. I wanted something that captured the spectrum idea, but queerer—even more plural, and more spiritual. I don’t want to be someone’s rainbow. I want to be a Divine light shining in the sky, and in my difference, be part of something larger.

I started the organization because Elat Chayyim asked me to lead a GLBT spiritual retreat, and I realized there was more to this than just the retreat; there’s the community, the platform for the work that I and my faculty members do, and the sense that being queer and Jewish is not just about advocacy and social events. Both of those are important, of course, but if being gay and Jewish or trans and Jewish or whatever and Jewish is really no different from being a straight Jewish man, well, that’s not very interesting.

CK: Nehirim is a young organization doing interesting work amidst a handful of Jewish LGBT organizations that have sprouted over the last few years, each with a somewhat different focus–whether that’s regional, political or cultural. How do you see Nehirim in this rubric of Jewish LGBT growth?

JM: We’re the only organization committed to spirituality — and by that I mean any practice that transforms the self. We’re not a political advocacy group, although of course we are politically engaged and do sponsor events about important political issues. We’re also not about having parties, or commiserating about the predicament of homosexuality, or gathering resources and information, or any number of other activities that other groups do. What we’re about is this: how you love matters to how you do religion, and so queers are going to be Jewish in ways that are new, different, and enriching for everybody. We want to figure out what those are.

CK: One of the challenges we are often faced in working within what are defined as “subsections” or “minority” communities is that often times–and currently what we see in regards to LGBT Jews today–is the desire to perpetuate a model in which a few people become our community’s spokespeople. I wonder if and how you have struggled with this issue and if you see Nehirim as a place of opportunity to challenge this model?

JM: Here’s how we do it. Nehirim’s a small shop; I have a very small staff, and I speak for the organization because I’m the director and that’s what I do. However, when it comes to our own events, we have many voices and no single consensus or agenda. At last year’s retreat, for example, Jarah Greenfield, a student at RRC, led a workshop on gender in the Zohar, in which she accused all of the Kabbalah of being phallocentric and heteronormative. Those are definitely not my views, but they’re hers, and they’re important for how queers read Jewish mystical text. We had a teacher named Craig Hanauer lead a group called “Ambivalent about the Practice of Judaism” at the same retreat as other participants led an orthodox-style prayer service. Now, I’m still doing the inviting of these different teachers, but I’m not about to censor any of them. So within our programming, there are many voices.

I try to be careful when I’m speaking from my own experience and when I’m trying to make larger points on behalf of queer communities, which I try to do very carefully. Many activists believe “gay” Jews need to be as virtually-normal as they can, so as to lessen the fear about sexual diversity. Many others take the exact opposite view. In my own personal work, I’ve tried to move beyond assimilationist rhetoric to ask what’s special about GLBT Jews, rather than pleading for us to be treated nicely. Of course, one could go even further and ask what’s destabilizing and undermining about us, or further still and demand changes in the heteronormative patriarchy, but I think my way is less threatening and still honest.

CK: At the end of your essay, “How can you be gay and Jewish?” you write, “Given that negative attitudes towards homosexuality cause up to 8,000 deaths each year in the United States alone [see sites], I believe those who propound such views are complicit in death and suffering.” You flipped the dominant script, and I applaud you for that. Why do you think more people haven’t done this, for example, with the text in Leviticus. When I finally studied the text with Talmudic scholars, they showed us how this text really reads differently–meaning they flipped the script. They didn’t hide the nuances in the text where, for example, the gender of the people mentioned are actually more complicated than male and female, or that the root verbs offer varied interpretations. I think we continue to lose by saying that the “traditional” interpretation of “man shall not lie with man…” is valid. I think we lose by not changing the terms of the debate.

JM: I hear you, but I think there’s a difference between Midrashic interpretation and halacha. For people committed to halacha, the plain language of the text is important, and at least as I read it, it’s telling a man not to do something to another man. What that something is, is obviously _not_ plain. Why that something is bad — also not plain. However, the hermeneutical infinity of Jewish textual reasoning does tend to get narrowed when law is at stake. I’m not sure about it, but some of my recent work is asking whether “queer halacha” is an oxymoron.

CK: Actually, what I’m contesting is what you say is the plain language of the text stating that it’s between men. Scholars have also shown that the sex and sexual act in question is with an androgynos, or a person that is androgynous, not between two men—what I’m questioning then are the limitations that people place on gender in the reading of the text, and how over time rabbis and scholars have limited the multiplicity of genders that the text really has to offer—even when rabbis of old were able to talk about more than a “male” and “female” gender binary.

JM: Got it. However, given the number of lesbians and the number of androgynoses in the world, I think it’s more important to focus on the fact that lesbians are not included in the prohibition, rather than the fact that it may also extend to genders beyond male and female. Also, the rabbinic idea of androgynos is totally absent in the Biblical text. In fact, as you know, the main question the rabbis ask about the androgynos is when that person is a “man” and when a “woman,” legally speaking, implicitly agreeing that there are two genders for most legal questions. As someone who is not transgendered, I don’t have any comment on how trans people adopt or relate to Talmudic gender categories. However, I personally see them in a very limited way: as a wonderful sign that at least some pre-modern Jews understood the reality of gender variance.

[Editorial Note] Here Jay is using the term androgynos in what he defines as a Talmudic sense and definition of a person that is intersex, or a person with both male and female genitalia. I have studied with other scholars who interpret this term to also include people that do not fit into stereotypical gender roles, and I imagine others may as well. Thus, it presents a real challenge around language, and how language is used in relation to trans, intersex and gender variant people in discussions. As such, I want to plug a recent drash by HUC Rabbinical student Reuben Zellman, about transgender and intersex people in ancient texts as a resource for thinking this through. This also presents the need for more intentional conversations to tease through our language, how it’s being used, the communications’ barriers that are happening with our language, and at the same time building thoughtful analysis on not placing value on one group as being “more important” to focus on (i.e. saying it’s more important to focus on lesbians which then pits two groups of people as being in competition around deserves attention and discussion when they don’t need to be in competition to each be addressed thoughtfully.)

CK: You recently came out with a new book, God in Your Body–did your work at Nehirim play a part in developing this book?

JM: Well, there are some who would say that just writing about the body in an affirming way — that is, it matters on its own, not just as the chariot of the soul or something — is itself a “feminine” and thus “queer” thing for me to do. For those who see the body as feminine (and I’m not necessarily buying into that), then for a man to put the body at the center of spiritual practice is for a man to “do something feminine,” as opposed to rabbinic-masculine things like talk about the spirit, law, and the meaning of Biblical text. But to be honest I don’t really want to push this too far; to me it’s a tertiary point. In the Jewish tradition, I think that is true; Boyarin’s work on queer Talmudic body-talk makes that point quite clearly. Outside the tradition, well, it can be a little essentializing (and binaristic, if that’s a word) to say that any one thing is feminine, another is masculine, etc.

I do think, though, that as a member of a sexual or gender minority, you’re forced to be more aware of your body than majority folks are. Even if you efface and deny it, you’re aware of it, but especially if you make the God-loving, life-loving choice to pursue love in and through your body’s
many knowing desires, it’s impossible to just say “well, the body doesn’t matter, or it matters only ancillarily.” No, if you’re going to life a rich, full, queer life, the body is central.

And obviously, the sex chapter, which talks a lot about shame and overcoming shame, is based on my own experience. I don’t think you need to be a gay-hunting Sherlock Holmes to figure that out.

Having said all of that, I don’t want to give the impression that God in Your Body is an overtly gay or queer-themed book. It’s not, and the majority of the audiences who have connected with it are not queer-identified.

CK: Why do you think the audience hasn’t been LGBTQ Jews? Or even more so, who did you have in mind as your audience when you were writing the book?

JM: Well, most of the people who come to events and send me emails don’t mention being queer, and don’t present themselves in a way that signifies “queer” in our culture. Of course, they could all be queer and I don’t know it, but as of right now I’m flying down to a strait-laced, heteronormative mainstream Conservative synagogue to talk about the book. I am not tailoring my remarks to a queer audience. My audience was anyone interested in the body as a site of spiritual or religious work. If that’s queer, then baruch hashem. If not, then also baruch hashem. One nice thing about the anti-label “queer” is that it warns us not to get too wrapped up in labels and distinctions. On one level, those labels mark difference, and that is useful. On another, they can become obstacles to letting go. For me, the less identities that I’m invested in maintaining, the better.

CK: Where do you see Nehirim in ten years?

JM: I’d like to see it franchise out — different retreats in different places, different programs for different communities, and different leaderships for different interests. I’d like to see local chapters and semi-independent events. I’d like to see the transgendered people get pissed off at the transphobia of the term “GLBT” and start their own group, or groups, inspired by what we’ve done with ours. I’d like the artists who come to Nehirim to get sick of all the God talk and start _their_ own queer-arts-spirituality-transformation group. And I’d like Nehirim to run its own silent meditation retreats one day, because there is just no substitute for sitting in silence for five or more days; in my experience as a student and a teacher, nothing else comes close, period. Mostly, I’d like it to be understood that just as there are women’s’ and feminist spiritualities, there are queer spiritualities in the Jewish tradition as well. Whether that’s got our brand-name on it or not is secondary; I want to shift the questions our culture is asking to “Should we let the lesbians in?” to “How are the butch-dykes going to change how I read sacred text, and look at a set of tefillin?”