When Dialogue Harms
Jay Michaelson

1. Moving forward but looking backward

In order to be intellectually alive, one must be moving forward on one or more paths of learning. Whether deepening expertise in one area of concentration, or exploring new subjects and disciplines, it is the forward progress of inquiry which keeps the mind alive. Remaining curious is remaining young.

At the same time, a degree of backward-looking is required for communication. Rather like Walter Benjamin's "Angel of History," those of us engaged in dialogue, teaching, or simple exchange of ideas must be moving ahead, but looking behind us at those at an earlier stage of education. Unless one wishes to labor in eternal, narcissistic solitude, one must learn to convey that which is interesting, or important, to others. Yet what is most exciting to the scholar may be far too detailed, obscure, or just plain complicated for the initiate.

That means reviewing the basics. When I teach Kabbalah, for example, I don't start with the cutting edge of scholarship, or with where I happen to be in my own learning. Rather, I start with where the student is, which is, usually, at the very beginning. Piano teachers start with scales, not sonatas. Simple enough.

But there are times at which the very act of communication -- necessary not just for teaching but also for political engagement, meaningful conversation, and a healthy exchange of opinions -- actually impedes the forward progress of the person trying to communicate. There are some situations in which "backward looking" actually moves us backwards.

I'm going to focus on three such instances, from my own experience: talking to people about sexuality, being a "spiritual teacher," and engaging in certain kinds of political conversations. These cases illustrate what is, for me, a difficult paradox of the engaged life: responsibility entails looking backward, but looking backward may cause harm to the self. My hope is not to offer any particular answer to this conundrum as much as observe ways in which our ignorance of it can obstruct precisely the kinds of change we hope to achieve, in ourselves and our world.

2. God makes people gay

I am involved, somewhat intensively, with the many efforts to achieve equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people within the structures of religion and state. I am part of organizations like Out and Faithful, Pride in the Pulpit, and the Gay Spirit Culture Project. I run my own "spiritual initiative for GLBT Jews," an organization called Nehirim. (The name refers to the rainbow-like lights in the sky at sunset -- and our annual weekend retreat is this month.) And I am involved in the various efforts within the Jewish world to address the status of homosexuality within halacha.

The single most effective point I can make in these efforts, I find, is the irreducible unchangeability of sexuality. Though many other lines of argument are available (more on that in a moment), the one that connects with people is: "I was born gay, and I know this because for twenty years of my life I suppressed it, trying desperately to be straight, repressing myself and distorting all aspects of my life by the suppression of my capacity to love, and by the continued deception of all my loved ones and friends."

Sexuality is not a value choice. The statement "homosexuality is wrong" makes no more sense than "brown hair is wrong" or "being short is wrong." Sexual orientation is not the type of thing that is morally ok or not -- it is a feature of our God-given (or genetic, if you prefer) human nature. So if we've read our sacred texts to mandate destroying something that God creates, we've made a mistake. It's not ok to think that what God gave is not ok. As people deeply understand this fact, I find, their view changes.

(An aside: It is interesting to see Christian and Jewish authorities increasingly come to realize the difficulty of this position, and thus turn more and more to the dubious -- and sometimes outright false -- "studies" which show that sexuality can be changed. Such studies have never shown a success rate of more than 5%, and the method of "change" is aversion therapy. Aversion therapy is what's done to Alex in "A Clockwork Orange": it's the repeated association with the object to be avoided [violence in Alex's case, same-sex relations in the case of 'reparative therapy'] with horrible, nasty stimuli. This is not success, repair, or transformation -- it's torture and conditioning.)

Moreover, my story is personal, and is based on my own lived experience; it's not something I'm making up. And the more I go into it -- the suicidal thoughts, the wasted opportunities, the guilt and shame and struggles with my nature -- the more I am able to connect with people whose previous contact with gay people might be a stereotype or television program.

The trouble with this whole argument is that it isn't healthy for me to espouse it, as a personal matter. Implicit in the claim that "sexuality cannot be changed" is the statement that "if I could change it, I would." And that is a particularly unhealthy position to hold. Indeed, one mark of self-acceptance is, well, self-acceptance: an embrace of one's identity, a celebration of one's capacity to love. Not making the best of a bad situation.

For this reason, I think, many GLBT people choose to make a very different argument about sexuality as it relates to political and religious rights: that this is an intimate matter, and thus an area into which neither state nor church should intrude. I certainly sympathize with this argument in the political realm. If someone chooses to engage in a form of consensual sexuality, I cannot comprehend why the state should get involved. I would even go so far as to say that the state should not discriminate on the basis of this choice as it doles out economic privileges (e.g., as part of marriage and civil unions). People have different values, and disagreement shouldn't result in disentitlement.

But surely this argument does not hold in the religious realm. Private, intimate choices are exactly those with which religion should be involved. And religious privileges surely may be apportioned according to the "rightness" of the choices. If you don't believe in Christ, don't become a priest; if you don't keep the sabbath, don't become a rabbi; whatever the values, surely it is defensible for religious institutions to appoint to places of authority those who make the correct value choices.

The category of civil liberty is ill-suited to religious status, and, in the Jewish system, is anathema to every coherent philosophy of halacha of which I know. Our value choices matter. That is the whole point. What's more, arguing civil liberty doesn't work so well in the political realm either, in our climate of fear based on the perceived threats of terrorism. If homosexuality really were a choice, it would be a very difficult choice to defend.

So I don't make that argument. I don't believe it, and I don't think it works either. The truth is I tried my best to change, and found distortion and repression. Once I accepted myself as God made me, I found love and grace. Still, as I tell my story and try to convince people that sexuality is like eye color, height, or "race," I find myself back in the distasteful position of saying "I can't help it." I have to make that response, because it is true and because it demonstrates the falsity of homophobic religious positions. But I've worked so hard to celebrate my own sexuality, learning to use it as a pathway to spirituality and intimacy. Would I really change it, now, if I could? And isn't it unhealthy to keep dwelling on a rationale of "It's not my fault," when what I really am about, these days, is celebration?

I understand that a nuanced answer is possible. For example, one might understand that sexuality is unchangeable, but that true acceptance means that, at a certain point, you wouldn't change it if you could. So it's a staged process. Fine. Still, in order to be an effective advocate, those kinds of complexities must be subsumed in a clearer message: this isn't chosen. And so, I have to move backward, often enmeshing myself so deeply in this discourse of non-chosenness that I lose track of the more healthy attitudes I have tried to cultivate.

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Top Image: Jay Michaelson, untitled
Lower Image: Jay Michaelson, Outlaw

May 2005

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When Dialogue Harms
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Michael Shurkin,
with Esther Nussbaum on Yad Vashem

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Zachary Greenwald

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Run Like the Wind
Jay Michaelson and Dan Friedman

David Goldstein

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