Hasidism and Homoeroticism
1. Spirit and Sex
Recently, I participated in a summit sponsored by Gay Spirit Culture, a new organization with two complementary missions: first, to bring spiritual practice and awareness into the gay community ("shifting gay culture by supporting inner transformation"), and second, to articulate and share the unique perspectives, if any, which gay people have into spirituality generally. These are noble goals. On the one hand, the GLBT community has been so wounded by the homophobia of traditional religion that it often seems wilfully anti-spiritual, despite the historical prominence of queer people among the world's leading mystical and religious personalities. And, of course, there remain conservative elements within the world's religious traditions who, due to their fear and ignorance, are causing great suffering - even death - among the co-religionists whom they drive to despair and self-mutilation.
At GSC, we wanted to create not just a "safe space" for queers to be religious in the ordinary way; we wanted to create a queer space to be religious in a new way. Often, this meant recovering the supposedly lost linkage between spirituality and sexuality. Sometimes, this was experiential, and radical: sacred rites of erotic spirituality, radical-faerie-influenced paganism and art, and so on. Other times were more sedate. But throughout, there was the general understanding that what we were doing was either essentially new, or recovering a spiritual eroticism long suppressed in the mainstream traditions.
By coincidence, I traveled immediately after the GSC summit to Israel. I was worried about moving so rapidly from such a heated, erotic-spiritual space into a place where, I felt, such forms of expression are sadly lacking. I was moving, it seemed, from a place that was experimental, experiential, radical, and queer to a place that, while holy and precious to me, was traditional, mediated by text, and overwhelmingly heteronormative. Sure, I had gay friends who I'd go and visit, but, in general, it seemed like this part of myself was going to have to be turned "off" for a while.
In fact, I found that a rich, queer eroticism is alive and well and living in the haredi community. What I saw amazed me - even despite my long history of participating, as an outsider, in Hasidic rituals. It also caused me to question several fundamental assumptions about the place and effect of homoeroticism in traditional religious communities. If straightness is about identity roles and fixed gender distinctions, and queerness is about questioning all of those things, then what I found - and I'm no ethnographer, these are merely anecdotes -- was very queer indeed.
2. The tomb and the bathhouse
The minor Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day after the beginning of Passover, is traditionally observed as the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, to whom has been ascribed the authorship of the Zohar, masterpiece of Kabbalah. That Bar Yohai did not write the Zohar text we have today, that he probably isn't buried in the place regarded as his tomb, and that he may not have even died on Lag B'Omer, is all beside the point. Up to 30,000 people converge on his tomb and dance through the night and throughout the entire next day. Given that the tomb complex itself is only the size of an average suburban house, the crowding is intense. (The daytime images in Andy Alpern's photo essay, in this month's issue of Zeek, are far less crowded; literally every square foot of the tomb complex was covered at night.)
Of course, the hordes are separated - men on one side, women on the other. And so for the entire time I was there, I was sandwiched between a moving mass of male humanity. There was no personal space whatsoever; every part of my body, except my head, was in full contact with a part of someone else's body. There were rare instances where I stumbled into a gap in the crowd. But most of the time, I had to surrender to its ebbs and flows, pushing through the sea of flesh to get where I wanted to go.
and the Zohar
Hasidism and Homoeroticism
Sound & Image
Andy Alpern and
Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit
One Ring Zero
Josh's Jury Duty
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Zeek in Print
Spring/Summer 2004 issue now on sale!
From previous issues:
Knowledge, Community, Irony, and Love