I’m trying to feel positive. South Dakota women have succeeded in getting more than enough signatures to put that state’s nefarious abortion ban on hold—at least until November’s elections. And the U.S. Senate has refused to let President Bush outlaw same-sex marriages via an amendment to the Constitution.
But these have been breathtakingly awful challenges to our rights, representing a deep intolerance for diversity and a lack of respect for other people’s lives. In the wake of the news, I’ve been mulling over a conversation reported to me. When a Lilith subscriber told a friend about a powerful article she’d read in a previous issue, her buddy—who’d never seen a copy of the magazine— responded: “Lilith? That lesbian rag?” “Lesbian” is the last curse standing, obviously considered to be the most powerful insult in the sexist arsenal, the trope trotted out to discredit women activists (along with the words “shrill” and “strident— never used to describe men), even when the subject at hand has nothing to do with sexuality or sexual identity. And when we do cover gay issues in Jewish life—like lesbian weddings, which we have written about for 20 years or so, along with the huge range of other subjects our reporters and essayists write about —the mention of the L word seems to take up all the oxygen in the room.
Lilith is not alone in attracting these insults. A prominent woman rabbi recounted to me recently that after her support for gay rights became known, her husband was told by a bystander that “those” leading women rabbis are “all a bunch of lesbians.” Her husband’s reply? “Thanks so much for letting me know. I’ve been sleeping with one of them for years, and I’m going right home to tell our sons that their mother is a lesbian.” Rapid-fire repartee aside, the bias reeks. Prejudice persists in the attempt to discredit rights’ advocates by suggesting that they are homosexual, with the corollary assumption that gay is bad.
The cover story in the issue of Lilith you’re holding in your hands is not overtly about politics. At least not the kind of public politics we think of when we discuss amendments to the Constitution. This story is about the struggle of one woman to accept her identity as a lesbian. She wants to be true to herself and to her beloved, and at the same time to stay connected to her loving family. But the personal is, as we know, political, and has important implications for capital-P politics. At least Jewish politics. The two women on the cover met in an Orthodox day school. They are no strangers to Jewish tradition. And their story recalls the statements made by the pioneering women activists of the early 1970s, who pressed Conservative Judaism to count women in the minyan and allow women to be called to the Torah. We take for granted that such egalitarian opportunities for worship exist now, but the women who pressed for these changes—thrillingly radical at the time, utterly normative today—were viewed as rabblerousing interlopers, not, as they announced themselves to be, as the products of the movement itself, its schools and its camps. “We are your daughters,” one of them said at the time. Similarly, the seemingly transgressive act of creating a ceremony steeped in Jewish themes and language to sanctify a union that traditional Judaism has not recognized, comes from women who are the daughters, literally and figuratively, of Modern Orthodoxy.
The two women on the cover have a lot to teach us not only about themselves and the process by which their relationship to one another and to their families evolved, but also about how their communities (and that means the rest of us) react. Gay and lesbian couples are too often still—let’s face it—a kind of freak show at Jewish occasions, at a synagogue kiddush, or a wedding dance. The common question this couple heard when they came out was “How can someone so pretty be a lesbian?”
The rabbinic organization of the Conservative movement says that it will consider later this year its position on gay marriage and the ordination of openly homo sexual rabbis and cantors. What the outcome of the deliberation will be is anybody’s guess right now, but this memoir of identity crisis, with its palpable yearning to reconcile being a lesbian with being a Jew—familiar in its rhythms for those who remember the earlier struggles to bring Judaism and feminism into a closer alignment—will, we hope, humanize the issue for the Conservative rabbinical decisors.
I wrote in the introduction to my 1984 book Jewish and Female that one of its goals was to bring the “two poles of Judaism and feminism” together. Now, the polar tugs have dissipated; I find myself speaking often of how feminism and Judaism feel very consonant, both devoted to tikkim olam, making the world a better place. As you’ll read, for gay Jews melding the two aspects of their identity, the poles are moving into closer alignment too.