Boundary Crosser: Bisexuality and Judaism
Rabbi Debra Kolodny
Many scholars say that the word ivri, or Hebrew, comes from the verb root avar, to cross over.
From this we learn that embedded in the core identity of the Jewish people is the invitation or perhaps the mandate to cross over–to transcend our current status and seek something deeper, higher, better and find the bridge between here and there.
Equally imbedded in our collective consciousness is another meaning of the word avar-to transcend boundaries-to imagine and then live into new categories that haven’t been obvious before.
It is in this place of binary-busting boundary-crossing that my bisexual soul lives in harmony with ancient Jewish texts, finds embrace as a Jewish leader (rabbi and organizational executive) and works in partnership with thousands of organizations and congregations to elevate and celebrate bi and trans Jews.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
Having been raised secularly, I wasn’t active in Jewish community until 1998, almost twenty years after I came out as queer. Just two years after I joined the Fabrangen Havurah in Washington DC my adventures as an out bisexual in the Jewish world began with a vengeance. I had just published the anthology: Blessed Bi Spirit, Bisexual People of Faith (Continuum International Press) and I organized a book tour that took me to book stores, house parties, LGBTQI+ conferences, university campuses, and an occasional house of worship. It was the only book on the intersection of bisexuality and spirituality published at the time, and I was invited to speak quite a lot. I think I led 50 workshops that first year.
The book launch gave me an opportunity to have conversations about the celebration of my non-dual sexual orientation with Jewish leaders and institutions that I hadn’t yet had outside of my congregation.
Most of these discussions were grounded in appreciation and curiosity. But I’ll never forget the cisgender straight rabbi of a lesbian and gay shul (yes, I think it’s fair to say lesbian and gay) who challenged me. Of course we should accept and celebrate lesbian and gay people, he said. We all know that they have no choice about who they love. But bisexual people? Well, bisexual people COULD be with either a man or a woman so they had an obligation to choose to be with someone of the ‘opposite’ gender.
Putting aside the reality that fluency with non-binary gender identities was not as normative in 2000 as it is now, I was shocked.
After all, he continued, heterosexuality was embedded in the Torah. Adam and Eve are our models for relationship and the ideal of cleaving to our ezer ceneged, our opposite other who completes us, is what should be our norm unless we are biologically unable to comply.
While this view was and still is quite popular in the Orthodox Jewish world, it is only one of many ways to read Torah. I was stunned to hear it from a Reform rabbi serving a lesbian and gay congregation.
But this idea wasn’t unique to this progressive Jewish leader. He just had the courage to share it with me. Evidence of this belief was all around me, and after a while I realized that it should not surprise me. Not because there was an unambiguous and irrefutable Jewish teaching that mandated it, but because this framework was popularized by none other than the lesbian and gay movement itself.
Throughout the 1990s, the lesbian and gay movement argued that sexual orientation was immutable—could not change—and therefore was subject to the highest possible protection against discrimination. The argument was chosen to protect us against discrimination for two reasons. First because it was successful in prohibiting discrimination based on race and gender. And then because the 1986 Supreme Court decision in Bowers v. Hardwick suggested that using Constitutional privacy arguments to prohibit sexual orientation based discrimination would fail.
An unfortunate side effect of the “immutability” argument was that it opened the door for the sentiment that if gay people could be straight they certainly would be. They just couldn’t help it. This rendered sexual orientation diversity into a metaphoric congenital illness instead of a beautiful reflection of the Creator’s will. Weak “scientific” and illogical legal arguments thereby overshadowed theological explorations and left communities of faith with a limited understanding of the nature of love. In doing so it distracted many Jews from traditional arguments upholding the sanctity of same sex love. For example, there is a Jewish belief that each of us has a basherte-a Divinely intended partner, who according to some midrashim (Jewish commentaries) is selected just for us by Yah (G-d). (e.g. Genesis Rabbah 68:4) If Yah chose the one we love, I say, who are we to argue!
Changing the Narrative
So I embarked on a mission. In my secular and Jewish teaching on bisexuality I challenged this framing. I challenged the legal analysis in the lesbian and gay world and pushed for the First Amendment right of association as the foundation for our rights. This approach rendered the ‘born that way’ argument irrelevant and ensured that bisexual folks would not be caught without legal protection.
More relevant to this conversation, in religious environments I taught from texts that lifted up choice as a holy rubric, and I focused on a different part of Torah’s origin story for humans.
You see, Torah explicitly states: Vayivra Elohim et ha-adam bzalmo, b’tzelem Elohim bara oto, zachar unekeva bara otam. “And Elohim created the earth being in G-d’s image, in the image of Elohim G-d created it, male and female, God created them.” This first being, created in the image of G-d, was both male and female. That first singular being (bara oto-G-d created it) was also plural (bara otam –G-d created them).
Midrash Vayikra Rabbah records the thought of Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman, that “when the Holy Blessed One created the first human, G-d created a hermaphrodite (fully male and female).”
Rabbi Levi expands on his colleague’s insight: “When the adam, (the first person) was created, God made adam with two body-fronts, and then sawed the creature in two, so that two bodies resulted, one for the male and one for the female.”
The plain meaning of the scriptural text is accepted in this midrash. There is no shying away from the notion that the original state of humanity was male and female both. And that this non-binary being was created in the image of G-d.
With this understanding, Breshit’s second human creation story (Chapter 2 verses 7-22) is a continuation of the first. When Chava was taken from Adam’s tzela, from the side of the earth being, the half of the adam that remained could have its ezer cneged, its helping opposite, and not be lonely.
As mentioned above, some take this as meaning our marriage partner must be of a different gender in order that we be completed.
Yet, we can take this story in a totally different direction!
As Jews we take on spiritual practices in order to be more like G-d. Not omniscient and omnipotent, but more kind and fair and loving. So, if we are serious about deploying prayer, meditation, ritual, ethical study and observance of commandments as our path towards living into our most elevated, holy, G-d seeking selves, this work leads us back to that time when we were truly in G-d’s image, b’tzelem Elohim, both male and female. If we cultivate that original wholeness, we need not rely on a partner to manifest being in the image of G-d, by having two halves of one being merged in coupledom. Through our spiritual development we can become whole in and of ourselves, without needing another to complete us. And in our whole androgynous selves we can partner with another whole androgynous being. And our gender identity and theirs is of no consequence. Straight, gay, bi, pan: it’s all irrelevant. Wholeness meets wholeness. Our opposite helpmeet is just the person who is different enough from us that we don’t get bored and we learn new things and maybe have a different set of skills in the house (you fix the TV, I’ll use the chain saw on the downed tree limb!).
In the past twenty years I have ALWAYS been met with delight and appreciation when I teach this and related Torah-whether I am in a mainstream synagogue, a queer Jewish retreat, a secular queer conference that invites religious teachings, a Board of Rabbis meeting or anywhere else.
And in the past 17 years I have NEVER heard anyone say that as Jews we should welcome lesbian and gay people, but bisexual people can choose, so they must enter only heterosexual relationships.
From Boundary-Busting to Normativity
In the past 17 years a lot of other things have changed too. 2004 was a big year for queer Jews. Nehirim, an LGBTQI+ retreat and advocacy organization, was founded by Jay Michaelson, and LGBTQI+ Jews started attending gorgeous spiritual gatherings in bucolic settings in droves. Learning queer Torah, praying in queer space, having deep and powerful and revelatory conversations as never before. And that same year I was promoted from the Director of Organizing and Development to the Executive Director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
As the first out bisexual executive at any national Jewish organization you might think I faced some biphobia or resistance or discomfort. But ALEPH had had a lesbian executive before me, and I don’t even know if a single person batted an eyelash. I was welcomed with open arms for all of who I am.
And nine years later, interestingly enough, in 2013 I became the Executive Director of Nehirim, making me the first out bisexual executive director of a national LGBTQI+ organization! I heard through the grapevine that there was conversation about whether the organization was ‘ready’ for a bisexual executive when the Board discussed my candidacy, but whatever those concerns were, they did not become an impediment. Again, I found not a whiff of biphobia. Of course by 2013 a generation of bi/pan/gender fluid/non-binary folks had flooded into the queer world, and if anything there were those who felt that having a bisexual leader was an appropriate sign of the times.
That same year (2013) I was also invited by the CCAR (the Reform Rabbinic Leadership Association) to write an essay on Bisexuality and Judaism for one of their publications. No longer an invisible part of the string of queer letters, Judaism was inviting real theological engagement with the reality of bisexuality. What a delight!
Between leaving ALEPH in 2011 and starting at Nehirim I served my first pulpit as a rabbi in Portland, Oregon. It is startling to say this, but I think my bisexuality was actually an asset. There were many bisexual women in the congregation and when I began dating it was clear that the gender identity of the object of my affection was a non-issue. The congregation just wanted me to be happy.
Since 2016 I have served the UnShul, a Portland community founded in social justice, committed to participating in liberation and reparation work. Though we are not a queer congregation, over half of those attracted to the community are LGBTQI+. It is sheer delight to serve a radical leftist, queer positive, mystical, embodied congregation. I teach justice Torah on the regular, and that includes queer Torah but is by no means limited to it. I am regularly called upon to speak at justice rallies and conferences, even MC’ing the 100,000 person Women’s March on January 21, 2017.
Today, being the out bisexual and non-binary rabbi that I am seems to be exactly what this moment is calling for. All of us are being invited to step out of hateful and oppressive systems and into our highest selves, welcoming immigrants, making reparations to Black and Indigenous peoples, saying no to police violence and creating abundance for all. May we continue on this path of elevating and celebrating the glorious complexity of humanity, assuring that the holiness of each of us is affirmed, nourished and secured.