With the evolving understanding of science, human nature, and interpretations of religious texts, Jay Michaelson said, gay, lesbian and transgender people are finding their voice in Judaism and other religions.
“Contrary to some people’s misperceptions, religious people should be supporting, not opposing, gays because of religion,” said the author in a phone interview with NJJN. “Many religious people focus in on one or two [biblical] verses, but our traditions are really much broader and much more meaningful.
“They teach about love and respect, compassion and honesty and values like that.”
The latest of Michaelson’s four books, God vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality, explores both the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. In addition to his books, the 40-year-old Brooklyn resident has written more than 200 articles on the intersection of religion, spirituality, sexuality, and law.
On Sunday, April 15, Michaelson will appear in Highland Park in a program sponsored by the Pride Center of New Jersey, Highland Park Minyan, New Jersey’s Gay and Lesbian Havurah, the Reformed Church of Highland Park, the Jewish literary journal Zeek, and Nehirim, a national organization of LGBT Jews, partners, and allies, of which Michaelson is founding director.
“We are bringing Jay because of what he can bring to the gay community as well as the Jewish community,” said Pride Center president David Rogoff, also a founder and former president of the Gay and Lesbian Havurah.
“One of the obstacles gay people face in being proud of who they are are the religious teachings that define them as an abomination,” he said. “Jay shows in his book how our religious heritage has many teachings that support people being true to themselves.”
‘Love and honesty’
Michaelson said about 50 pages of his book are devoted to the Leviticus verse that refers to a man lying with another man as an “abomination.” Released in October, the book has been nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for LGBT-interest titles.
The author cited multiple interpretations for the controversial verse, adding, “The question is why choose one way over another?”
Moreover, Michaelson said, the Hebrew word “to’eiva” should not be translated as “abomination,” but rather “taboo.”
“‘Abomination,’ that’s the King James version; it’s not Judaism,” said Michaelson. “And the taboo is connected to idolatry. So what is being prohibited is a very narrow form of behavior.
“Not that mine is the only valid interpretation,” he said, “but…the difference is if you interpret the verse too broadly you have a crisis of major proportions leading people to lead very tortured lives. It’s not that I’m right and everyone else is wrong, but this interpretation is the only one that fits with our values.”
Those values have been partially shaped by scientific knowledge ancient Jews could never have imagined.
“We know things today about our sexuality — that we are probably born with the tendency to be gay or straight — that our ancestors didn’t know, just like they didn’t know the Earth revolves around the sun,” said Michaelson. “When we found that out, it changed everything. When the Torah speaks of the four corners of the Earth, we know from modern science it doesn’t mean the Earth has four corners.”
Raised in a Conservative home in Tampa, Fla., Michaelson turned to Orthodoxy in his 20s. He earned a law degree from Yale and is about to complete his doctorate in Jewish thought from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“I thought coming out would be the end of my religious life, but in fact it was only the beginning,” he said. “From where I sit now it was the most religious thing I’ve ever done. It opened me up to love and honesty. When you’re in the closet you’re lying to everybody all the time,”
Michaelson said he no longer considers himself to be a member of any denomination, but is kosher and Sabbath-observant. His Orthodox friends are not judgmental and view his sexuality as something “between God and human beings.”
“The point is not whether we agree on Jewish law, but whether we agree on each other’s humanity,” he explained. “If we only know each other as stereotypes, that’s a problem. If we know each other as people, that’s the solution. Even in the Orthodox community they may not be changing Halacha, Jewish law, but they are finding ways to be more compassionate.”