The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage

Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.

The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies. 

We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.

It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity.  As Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, creator of Queer Spiritual Counseling teaches, the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in. The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded–it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.

It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition. 

I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer — it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Six self-help books seek to help you get sealed in the Book of Life

In these days of asking tough questions, taking stock, revisiting memories and trying to do better in 5767, books are essential tools. Several new works from different disciplines and traditions, some of which don’t mention the words Days of Awe, lend new meaning to the holidays — on caring for orphans, baking bread, deepening celebrations, understanding forgiveness, practicing kindness, exploring traditional liturgy and rituals.


Holy Moses — The Getty’s latest collection puts a Christian perspective on the leader, lawgiver and

A few years ago I was leading a group of American Jews on a tour of sites in Eastern Europe. Convinced that the narrative and psychological history of Poland cannot be understood without a visit to Jasna Gora, the great pilgrimage church in Czestochowa, and a view of its devotional painting, the so-called Black Madonna (believed to have been painted by St. Luke), I brought the tour group there en route to Auschwitz. To my disappointment, many in the group were puzzled, some even amused, at the crowds of people intensely venerating the small painting.

“Jews don’t do that sort of thing,” they said. When I asked how many of them had placed a small slip of paper in the crevices of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they assured me “That’s different!” and rejected my argument that we have our own kinds of object veneration, best exemplified in the ceremonial kissing of the Torah as it is carried around the synagogue.

The Getty Center’s upcoming exhibition “Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai” (Nov. 14-March 4) provides a great opportunity to ponder these religious confluences, while also coming almost face-to-face with some of the earliest, and most beautiful, images in Christian art. Mount Sinai resonates for Jews as the place where Moses received the Law from God. The wilderness of Sinai is the place where the Israelites wandered after their escape from Egypt. The images come to the Getty from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of the rugged mountain, which is said to where Moses communicated with the Burning Bush (Exodus 3:1-5). But viewers might be surprised to see that the Moses images in some of these extraordinary works aren’t the ones we’re accustomed to seeing.

The exhibition includes images from both the “New” and “Old Testament,” but it is the link between the former and the site from which they emanate that may be most interesting to the Jewish community. It’s a major accomplishment for the J. Paul Getty Museum to have persuaded the religious powers in charge to lend treasures from this venerable, yet almost inaccessible, site; but it’s also a coup for Angelenos, since the exhibition will not be seen elsewhere, and few of us are likely to have the opportunity to visit the monastery itself.

But this is more than an opportunity to ogle rare treasures. Indeed, they come to us with a visual tradition of their own, and need to be understood within that tradition. Byzantine art, with its vast time span, from the fifth century almost to the modern era, is generally characterized by stylized frontal figures and a rich use of color, especially gold. It doesn’t look like the more naturalistic art we have come to know since the Renaissance, although visitors will recognize in these icons the underpinnings of much early Italian panel painting. Initially, the somber narrative images may look static, but they merit careful attention to uncover the magic of delicately doleful faces, almost every one with a unique personality, sharing in a piety to which we can only aspire.

As devotional objects, the icons are eloquent, and it’s probably worthwhile imagining the pious monk communicating with these images on a daily basis. They must surely have become personal devotional friends, assistants on the route toward salvation. Seen as mantras for meditation exercises, these icons have a universal quality that goes far beyond the specificity of a given saint or religious narrative.

While the Getty exhibition centers on approximately 43 rare icons, from the sixth to the 17th centuries, the exhibition will also attempt to explicate their context in the isolated monastery whose construction was ordered by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century (he’s the one who built the famous, and beautifully ornate, Byzantine church, Hagia Sofia in what is now Istanbul).

Yale professor Robert S. Nelson led a team of curators who obviously became as transfixed by the place as by the works they were borrowing, attempting to present in the exhibition design a sense of the environment in which Saint Catherine’s sits. For those who want to contemplate the difficulties of land and climate endured by the wandering Israelites, that aspect of this exhibition should be an added incentive to visit the Getty.

Yet the concept of a 1,400-year-old monastery as a Christian pilgrimage site that is so intimately tied to Jewish history would likely be a seductive subject, even without the inspirational art. The show will explicate the role of icons in Christian liturgy, which ought to intrigue both Christians and non-Christians. As professor Thomas Matthews writes in the splendid catalog, the icons “bring us face to face with the deep debt of Christian religion to its pagan antecedents … [and] challenge our understanding of the underlying religious phenomena.”

That will surely be evident to Jewish viewers, as well, for the affinity of so many of our own rituals.

Given the Sinai origins of this exhibition, you won’t be surprised to find a number of images of Moses: Removing his sandals in front of the Burning Bush, receiving the Law and even standing beside the Virgin and Child. You won’t encounter the Moses we’ve seen in later Western art, who’s also the venerable law-giver we know from Jewish ceremonial objects — all of which have their origins in Christian art. Here Moses is a young man, generally beardless, almost diffident, in awe of his God, rather than awesome to his People. This might be a reflection of the monks’ considering Moses as a role model in their lives of meditation and prayer — a Moses striving for, rather than automatically imbued with, sanctity; he is the law-receiver, rather than the law-giver. Among the small number of non-icon artifacts in the exhibition is a sixth century cross incised with scenes from the life of Moses.

Remarkably, these icons were first published only in the 1950s, so this rare public display promises to expand our understanding of an important chapter of art history, especially in regard to European panel painting for which these paintings are important antecedents. The earliest ones have also provided new insights into the cult of icons and the religious sensibilities underlying this major aspect of Christian worship, as well as its debt to earlier pagan sources.

A Mother’s Pride

A few weeks ago as the school year ended, my daughter stood on the bimah in the chapel of our synagogue and, with four of her fellow fifth-graders, led her Jewish day school’s Monday Tefillah services. Four girls and a boy shared the honor, and their radically varying sizes bespoke the varying growth spurts that characterize this awkward age. Likewise, their maturity and ability to address their classmates ebbed and flowed during their short moments in the spotlight. But what brought that poignant mix of mother’s pride and prejudice home, watching her among her friends in this holy setting, was just how different and alike my Rachel is from the rest. For, even as she blends in beautifully, she cannot help but stand out — my daughter was born Chinese.

Rachel is a Jewish American girl from China. My husband Richard Core and I enrolled her, starting at age 4, in Temple Israel of Hollywood schools full time. Like every other kid there, she has become somewhat fluent in conversational Hebrew, knows the prayers by heart and has learned her Judaica lessons well. She is not the only Asian girl in her school — there are three, all adopted (two from China, one from Vietnam) — and she says she feels no different from anyone else. But among the mix of mostly Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews that make up our community, she adds a special spice. And in her own discreet style, I believe she has helped teach her friends to be colorblind in ways that could last a lifetime.

Rachel will become bat mitzvah in slightly more than two years, and she has been preparing for that moment since pre-school. As a fourth-grader, she read from the Torah at a day school service, and earlier this year, she gave a d’var Torah before the upper grades. I attended both events, of course, and each time I cried.

To see my child leading prayers is a rite of passage that evokes the deepest emotions. I know I would probably cry to see any child of mine connect with the ancient rituals, taking on the mantel of our ancestors, and I am pleased that Rachel embarked upon this path in the safe, exploratory confines of her school. But when I look at Rachel in this context, I think, also, of her divergent origins, of her birth parents whom we likely will never meet, of her own genetic ancestors and their traditions that she carries, within her as well, in ways that are both conscious and not.

It is a gift to share our lives with a child of mixed culture, because nothing is obvious. As we think ahead to her bat mitzvah ceremony, we are thinking of ways of acknowledging Rachel’s special heritage, whether in the food we serve — how bad could a kosher Chinese buffet be? – or the flowers, or maybe a special prayer. We will give thanks for the good fortune that made her part of our family, for the coincidence of adoption possibilities that led us to a foreign land to meet our daughter.

We will remember, too, as we see her accept the responsibilities of becoming a Jewish adult, that she is also becoming a woman of Asian and American heritage, and that whether she wants to or not, throughout her life she will be opening the eyes of those who look upon her. Rachel does not see herself as anything but one of her group, and she’s mostly right in that. But the other day, when I watched her from afar, on the bimah, saying the Shema, I could not help but be reminded of how far we have come from the state-run orphanage filled with loving caregivers in Southern China, where Richard and I met her more than a decade ago.

Holy Toledo!

My husband’s family hails from Toledo, Ohio, a city that proudly claims kinship with Toledo, Spain. That’s one reason I didn’t want to miss this Castilian hill town 42 miles southeast of Madrid. There’s also the fact that El Greco’s “View of Toledo,” a spectral view of the city’s spires by moonlight, has long been one of my favorite paintings.

What I didn’t know until recently is that Spain’s Toledo contains — along with spires, damascene jewelry and scrumptious marzipan — a treasure trove of Jewish memories.

Back in 1200, under the benign rule of a Catholic king, Toledo housed some 12,000 Jews, who contributed mightily to the city’s dynamic intellectual life. Of the many synagogues that once dotted the winding lanes, two have survived. Both were converted into churches following the expulsion of Jews from Spain, but they now have been preserved as national monuments.

The 14th century house of worship built by the wealthy and powerful Samuel HaLevi is known today as the Transito (Assumption) Synagogue. Its grandly carved bimah and magnificent ceiling are still intact.

Equally impressive in its way is the Sephardic Museum located in what was once the women’s gallery. It contains Jewish antiquities, many borrowed from Israeli collections, and there’s also heartwarming video footage of modern Jews celebrating holidays and life-cycle events: proof for Spanish visitors that Judaism lives on.

This is worth underscoring, because the guards on the premises have little sense of exactly what they’re guarding. When I asked in my best schoolgirl Spanish if there were any modern synagogues in Spain, all I got was a shrug.

The second surviving synagogue on the street now called, Reyes Catlicos (Catholic Kings), is the austerely beautiful Santa Mara la Blanca, dating from the late 12th century. It was built in the Moorish style, with stately rows of white columns reaching upward into rounded arches. High off the ground, above the archways, long-ago artisans etched lacelike patterns into the plaster.

I had heard that when this synagogue became a church, the Jewish symbols among the plaster adornments were obliterated. But there remained, I was told, a single Magen David as a token of what once had been.

Naturally, I set out to find it. Again, the guards and other employees were of little help. One acknowledged that the star existed but wouldn’t budge from her post at the gift shop cash register to point it out.

Finally, persistence paid off. Above the first pillar to the right of the doorway, and some 25 feet off the ground, we saw the faint but visible six-pointed star representing our people.

As we strolled along Reyes Catlicos, a bilingual sign promising information about Jewish Toledo led us into a narrow alley, Calle del Angel. Here we found Casa de Jacob, a spacious, modern store selling Jewish ritual items, kosher foods from Israel and serious Jewish texts in Spanish, Hebrew and English. It also offers a map detailing the archaeological remnants of Jewish life within Toledo’s ancient walls.

According to David, the pleasant young man behind the counter, Casa de Jacob is unique in Spain. It’s lovingly operated by David’s family, most of whom believe they descend from Jews forced to accept Catholicism at the time of the Inquisition. (He said his father’s brother, however, is still in denial.)

Our chat with David allowed us, as we moved on to Toledo’s magnificent cathedral, to feel a little more at home in this very Catholic place.

Later, as we watched the sun set over the city from the spot where El Greco had painted his masterpiece, I was feeling profoundly affectionate toward my surroundings. Holy Toledo, indeed!

The map can be viewed on the Web at, and the store’s informative and wide-ranging site can be found at


Digging In

When Israeli archeologist Dr. Dan Bahat arrived in the United States early in February for a month of speaking engagements, he planned to talk to audiences about the history of the Temple Mount and the current state of archeological digs nearby. After all, Bahat’s visit was sponsored by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism in order to reassure Americans that the many historical sites in Jerusalem are still safe to visit, even with the current violent clashes. Bahat spoke mainly to Christian groups and churches across the country, groups whose “traditional visits to holy sites in Israel have fallen off even more sharply” in recent months than those of Jewish groups, he noted.

So the archeologist found himself quite surprised when his planned talks regularly became question-and-answer sessions about the possible location of the Ark of the Covenant.

Bahat, who for many years has overseen the digging of the tunnel beneath the Western Wall, is, in fact, something of an expert on the Ark. Although its location may be of interest to American fans of Indiana Jones, mainstream archeologists generally agree it is directly beneath the Islamic holy site of the Dome of the Rock. “We are not searching for the Holy of Holies. We know where it is to be found, but we cannot dig there, and that is not our purpose,” he said. “We dig only to know more about the Temple Mount, the many religious landmarks there, its rich, rich history.”

The archeologist first began working on the dig near the Western Wall in the early 1970s, soon after Israel gained control of that part of Jerusalem in the 1967 war. At the time, said Bahat, “There was no archeological supervision of the site. The whole dig was run for political purposes, under the Department of Religious Affairs.” Believing that such work was the job of archeologists, he left the dig and the political maneuvering behind, but returned in 1978 when control of the project was ceded to the Department of Antiquities. In 1985, Bahat became the district archeologist of Jerusalem, a post he kept until 1991, when he left to teach at Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University. He continues there, as senior lecturer, while keeping up his work on the Wall tunnel.

Bahat has nevertheless used the interest expressed in the Ark of the Covenant to engage audiences in the whole fascinating history of religious sites in the area, a technique he learned as a professor. Prior to teaching, he led excavations of Herod’s palace in Jerusalem and at Masada. At the Western Wall tunnel, his work has not been affected by the recent violence between Israelis and Palestinians, he reports, adding that the tunnel remains open to the public.

On the Outside, Looking In

A bush that is on fire but doesn’t burn is indeed a mysterious phenomenon. But arguably, there is a far more mysterious element in the story of God’s commanding Moshe to go down to Egypt to the palace of Pharaoh. And that mysterious element is the very selection of Moshe. On the face of it, Moshe would seem to be the least well suited person in the world to take on the epic challenge of confronting Pharaoh and liberating the Israelite slaves.

I don’t say this because of Moshe’s self-professed weakness in the area of public speaking. The rest of the Torah is a powerful testament to his ability to speak eloquently, passionately and powerfully. Moshe’s claim that “I am not a man of words,” was an expression of his legendary humility, not a reflection of the objective reality. I rather refer to the vast distance that existed between Moshe and the people whose liberator he would be — a distance that began with happenstance, but persisted by design.

Moshe, of course, was the only Jew in the world who did not grow up among his brethren. As soon as he was weaned, he was returned to the care of the daughter of Pharaoh who had drawn him up from the river. And when, years later, Moshe left the royal compound to see the state of his biological kin, the Jews did not perceive him as being one of their own. This was pointedly displayed when Moshe chided one of the Jewish slaves to not strike his own brother. The slave’s response exuded suspicion and fear of Moshe: “Are you threatening to kill me as you killed the Egyptian taskmaster?”

Moshe was an outsider looking in. The distance between himself and the people whom he called “brothers” appeared unbridgeable. The fact that he never experienced the suffering and degradation that was their daily routine, only made the gap more severe.

The argument can strongly be made that in the aftermath of the above incident, Moshe made a conscious decision to separate himself from these people. The words that Moshe spoke in his heart, “behold, the thing is known,” are taken by the Midrash to reflect Moshe’s sudden understanding as to why the Children of Israel, of all the nations, are deserving of such a terrible, unjust lot. Their seeming lack of regard for each other, and their suspicion of any one who would want to help alleviate their plight leave a very sour taste in Moshe’s mouth. Reinforcing this argument are Moshe’s subsequent decisions to become a son-in-law, employee and permanent fixture in the home of Yitro, the priest of Midian.

Moshe had initially fled there to escape prosecution for the killing of the Egyptian taskmaster, but he quickly decided to set down roots. Decades and decades pass before God appears to Moshe at the burning bush. Decades and decades pass, during which time he has no contact at all with his kin in Egypt.

So why indeed is Moshe, of all people, selected? Why does God charge him with the task of liberating the people from their bondage? The answer is that in the fulfillment of this particular task, distance was not disqualification. It was an absolute necessity.

If it persists long enough, evil comes to be accepted as the normal state of things. It was certainly the opinion of the Pharaohs, that Jewish bondage was as natural and immutable as the annual ebb and flow of the Nile. Pharaoh had no framework with which to understand the cry “let my people go.” The cry could just as well have been “let the sun not rise.”

Even more tragically, the Jews themselves had assimilated this way of thinking. Jews were slaves. Such was their fate. It was an issue with as much moral charge to it as the direction of the wind. The people’s resistance to Moshe’s first efforts to confront Pharaoh, and their periodic desire to return to bondage even after the Exodus are powerful testaments to this.

Who could see things otherwise? Who could stand up and rail against an obscene injustice that everyone else had long since accepted as normal? Only the outsider could. Only Moshe, who saw himself as an outsider in the palace, and whose sense of morality and justice had never been anesthetized by the institutionalization of evil, could see the outrage of bondage. Only Moshe could be so convinced of the righteousness of his cause, that he could stare defiantly into the eyes of the most powerful man on earth, and not blink. Only Moshe would have the stamina, resiliency and tenacity to see the mission through to its end. And this is why God did not allow Moshe to decline the mission. Moshe the outsider, Moshe who alone could see what others had become blind to, was the only one who could get the job done.

We are a people of Moshe. It is our task to see and point out the flaws and injustices that the general society has come to accept. This week’s parsha reminds us to never relinquish this demanding role — the one that underlies our claim to being a holy people.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.

PhotographyImages from the Territory of Belief

Top, “Encampent in the Wilderness of Paran, Sinai,” circa 1875.Above, “Moses’ Well, Jebel Musa,” 1868-69. Below “Arab Man inProfile,” from the 1850s. Photos from “Revealing the Holy Land,”1997.


In the company of his friend, fellow world traveler andphotographer Maxime du Camp, French novelist Gustave Flaubert visitedJerusalem in 1850. The urbane and sophisticated Flaubert wasdecidedly unimpressed with this crumbling backwater of the OttomanEmpire: “Jerusalem stands as a fortress; here the old religionssilent rot away. One treads on dung; ruins surround you wherever youreyes wander — a very sad and sorry picture.”

That same year, a Rev. George Wilson Bridges also made his way tothe Holy City. An English cleric and an amateur photographer, Bridgesand his young son traveled through Palestine as part of a seven-yearjourney around the Mediterranean and the East. Bridges undertook thejourney as a form of solace: He had just buried his wife and daughterin Jamaica — victims of a tropical fever they contracted while thereverend was there doing missionary work. Steeped as he was in griefand religious conviction, Bridges found that Jerusalem’s atmosphereof melancholia and desolation suited him. “What sight,” he observedafter witnessing Jews praying at the Western Wall, “even in thiswondrous city, so touching, so impressive as this — Jews mourningthe ruins of Jerusalem….”

These two travelers — one a littérateur seeking new imagesand impressions for his work and the other an emotionally strickenChristian — see the same patch of stony land in dramaticallydifferent contexts. As is vividly illustrated in a stunning new book,”Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine,”men such as Flaubert and Bridges were part of a larger stream ofdisparate travelers who trekked to 19th-century Palestine.

From the moment an image could be fixed, photographers beganjourneying to Jerusalem to capture images from the ancient holy city.Armed with newly invented equipment and a host of differingmotivations, patrons and agendas, they all saw — through theircamera lenses — what they wanted to see. Collected here (and soon tobe on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art), these remarkablepictures tell almost as much about Western attitudes toward the “HolyLand” as they do about the hardscrabble country itself. NitzaRosovsky’s informative essay further illuminates the historicalcontext of these images.

Occupying the lion’s share of the book are a series of photographsby Sgt. James McDonald, a member of England’s Royal Engineers. Takenduring the engineer corps’ meticulous land surveys of Jerusalem andthe Sinai, McDonald’s pictures reveal an expertise with earlyprocesses of photography. They also capture 19th-century Palestine’ssun-drenched, desolate beauty and hint at England’s imperialisticdesigns on it.

Land surveyorsweren’t the only ones drawn to Palestine. Westerners in general,whether they were armchair travelers or early tourists, werefascinated with the mysterious Holy Land, which, until the mid-19thcentury, had only been represented by religious Renaissance art,illustration and sentimental contemporary painting. The demand forphotographic images of Palestine gave rise to several prominentcommercial photographers, such as Frenchman Felix Bonfils andEnglishman Frank Mason Good. Occupied with a different agenda thanMcDonald, they produced popular pictures for an eager, paying public.Those early photos stimulated travel and pilgrimages to the area. Asbusiness flourished, entire studios were devoted to producingphotographs of biblical sites (accompanied by verses of scripture)and portraits of romanticized Middle Eastern “types.” Those images –of picturesque tents under palm trees and exotically costumed locals– are also included here.

“Revealing the Holy Land” captures the point where the historiesof picture-taking, Palestine, and the West’s Middle East policyintersect and interact. As such, it’s not only a beautiful book ofphotography but also an important document. The particular set ofculture clashes and competing interests that had just begun to takeshape in mid-19th-century Palestine continue to reverberate in Israelto this day — unresolved and as seemingly fixed as an oldphotograph.

“Revealing the Holy Land” (University of California Press, $25paper/$60 cloth) is available at bookstores. The exhibit goes ondisplay at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from Jan. 29 through March29.