here is the paper i gave at the queer studies conference…
Tikkun Olam, Tikkun Atzmo (Repairing the World, Repairing the Self)
By way of introduction I want to say firstly, I’m working on a book, which is an experimental memoir about growing up queer in an Orthodox Jewish home, and the bitter, yet sometimes amusing experiences wrought by living in the crossfire of seemingly conflicting communities. The work is fashioned from clashing forms that eventually agree to harmoniously exist in the same space. So a lot of this research I’m presenting today overlaps with that project.
The other impetus for this paper is seeing the judgmentalness and intolerance many religious queer Jews encounter both in Jewish circles and in gay circles. Being a queer Jew means attempting to delicately untangle the thin threads of identity on a regular basis. Both queers and Jews have a history of oppression and both groups have taken measures to insulate and strengthen their communities to protect against violence. Part of bolstering community strength and protection is the sheathing of identity in politics. But this sheathing is a disguise that flattens complexity and ultimately damages individuals within a particular identity community, and thus the community at large.
Judaism is a particularly interesting example of a religion, which has the potential for social justice service due to its self-proclaimed investment and participation in tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of world-mending through good deeds.
But who is “one of us” is a question asked by both queer and Jewish communities; we are seeing queer communities acting more like religious communities. Like Judaism, which often asks members to choose a sect of Judaism with which to identify, and sometimes even questions a person’s Jewish lineage, many queers feel pressure from their communities to choose a letter in the sexual minority alphabet and stick to it, or worry that non-monogamy or other fringe sexual practices, somehow make heteronormative gays look bad. Jews no longer have a monopoly on guilt. There is now queer guilt. Feminist guilt. Social justice guilt. In the context of our nearly-mainstream gay activism characterized by the fight for marriage equality, now, queer Jews have not only to ask themselves “Am I a ‘good Jew,’” but also, “Am I a ‘good queer’”?
Horizontal hostility is a problem both in Jewish and queer communities. While it is understandable that this insularity has occurred, because it is borne out of years of oppression, identity politics have come in the way of justice and have served to alienate more than unite. This presentation attempts to simultaneously participate in and question our approach to tikkun olam by highlighting the ways that tikkun atzmo, improving the self, can be an essential part of the larger political project of enacting social change. In a world (internal and external) where everything is relative, including the concept of tikkun olam itself, how do we navigate the flimsy line between strengthening communities and creating outlaws out of allies?
The first bit of material I am bringing to you, which has to do specifically with the concepts of tikkun olam, mending the world, and tikkun atzmo, mending the self, is from Martin Buber’s slim book, The Way of Man According to the Teaching of Hasidism. As a bit of background: Hasidism is an ultra-orthodox, but mystical religious movement that began in Eastern Europe in the 18th Century.
Buber writes that Hasidism believes every part of the world, which is an irradiation of god, has formed a crust around itself. But within each shell lives a divine spark, and it is the task of every person to liberate these sparks “and re-join it with the Origin by holding it in a holy manner” (5-6). The project of releasing these divine sparks from their casings so they can return to god is a metaphor for acts of tikkun olam. When these sparks re-join god, we are healing the world, which, Hasidic teaching says, is a holy act. Not only do these acts benefit god’s wholeness, but individual human wholeness as well.
One defining characteristic of Hasidism is that it teaches through story. In The Way of Man Buber relays a kind of heartbreaking story of a Hasid who fasted for a week to perform a difficult feat of asceticism. It came to his last hour of fasting, and just couldn’t take it anymore, he felt so weak he thought he would die. He saw a well and prepared to drink from it, but then his will power kicked in and he began to walk away. As he walked away, a feeling of pride hit him for having passed this difficult test, and he suddenly became aware that it’s better he should go drink than to let pride take over him. So he went back to the well to drink, but just as he was about to drink, his thirst disappeared. When he went to see his teacher the Rabbi, he yelled at him for being indecisive. And you think, this poor guy thought he was trying to do the right thing by evaluating and being critical of his own desires and actions, so isn’t the Rabbi being a little too harsh on him?
Buber explicates saying, that the moral of the story is that “it is the wavering… character of the man’s doing that makes it questionable…” that man needs to “unify his soul… amalgamating the diverging elements…” in order to do holy work. Buber writes that “the man with the divided, complicated, contradictory soul is not helpless…” but that “unity of the soul can never be achieved in the middle of the work,” that this unification needs to happen before one can undertake such a project: the soul needs to be “protected from its own contradictions” (21-24).
Now this all presents a really interesting problem for religious queer Jews. If our souls need to be unified before doing tikkun olam, as a queer Jew I ask, what if the natural state of our soul is fragmentedness? Buber writes, after all, that, according to Hasidic teachings, a person should reach god “starting from his particular place and in a manner determined by his particular nature” (17). Buber sees that both the individual and the world needs mending, but he proposes that we must make our selves whole before we can work to make the world whole.
The second voices I’m brining to this discussion are those of Caryn Aviv and David Shneer who, in their book New Jews: The End of the Jewish Diaspora, explore the myriad ways Jews have made homes around the world, and see the de-centering of Israel as the idea of the Jewish homeland as a necessary step in recognizing and celebrating the diversity of the Jewish experience around the world as vibrant, valuable, significant, and worthy. They argue that the collective desire of Jews to return someplace is outdated, especially because Israel is such a fraught place, and clearly not the answer to escaping and surviving anti-Semitism.
In later chapters, they draw connections between the experiences of queers and Jews in their common effort to find safe spaces, or “homelands”… they write that because homophobia manifests itself differently in the Middle East, Israel is especially not a haven for queer Jews. They write of American queer Jews, “The assumption of multiple allegiances and belonging to several communities simultaneously is almost taken for granted and celebrated as one of the strengths of living in North America” (Aviv and Shneer 108). So Aviv and Shneer see what can be considered identity fragmentation as the gift of a multiplicity of belonging.
Aviv and Shneer cite geographer Wayne Mylisk, who studies queer promised lands saying, “queer spaces such as San Francisco are for gay men and lesbians more akin to what Jerusalem is for Jews: most of live somewhere else, fewer of us make the pilgrimage than in the past, our political power has moved elsewhere, but the cultural and emotional significance of the place cannot be overestimated.” “This link,” Aviv and Shneer continue, “between Jerusalem for Jews and gay ghettos as the metaphorical Zion for queers, highlights how space and place are compelling ideas around which to develop the political notion of citizenship, peoplehood, and belonging” (110-111). What needs mending, in this reading of queer/Jewish displacement, is not our selves, or even the world, but the way we think about ourselves in particular contexts.
Now, as a set of third perspectives, which focus on acts of queer and feminist subversion in traditional spaces, I’m going to do a super queer, and not so Jewish thing, and cite Madonna. While there are many questions I could raise about Madonna’s adoption (or usurpation, depending on your perspective) of Kabbalistic practices and Jewish symbolism, these questions are beyond the scope of this presentation. However, I would like to talk for a second about her video, “Die Another Day” in conjunction with Yona Wallach’s poem “Tefillin,” which I think does have bearing on our discussion of re-imagining how we perform tikkun olam.
In her video “Die Another Day,” Madonna makes a narrow escape from a team of male officers who torture and try to kill her, all the while engaging an inner battle as represented by the two Madonnas of her mind’s eye, one dressed in black, the other in white. She sports a tattoo on her arm of the Hebrew letters Lamed Aleph Vav, one of the 72 Names of god used by Kabbalists to purify or escape from negativity, particularly an ego-based mentality, that resides in human consciousness. This inner battle culminates as the squad of officers prepares to strap Madonna into an electric chair. In a hurry, she wraps her arm and hand with the leather strap of tefillin. Laying tefillin, a ritual that is performed traditionally by men in conjunction with specific prayers, represents the man’s obligation to do god’s commandments, but also the connection between the wearer’s heart, mind, and actions. In intercut scenes, the white-clad Madonna slays the black-clad Madonna, and the Madonna who is strapped into the electric chair, magically escapes death, leaving the letters Lamed Aleph Vav burned into the chair, and the crew of men utterly perplexed.
In this video, Madonna’s internal struggle between her multiple selves mirrors the external battle between her and the gang of murderous men. It is only when she kills the negativity inside her that she is able to escape death at the hands of the violent world around her. Tefillin, a religious object traditionally associated with men, is the artifact in the video that helps her do tikkun atzmo and to transform from an unruly female prisoner, into a free woman.
Yona Wallach’s poem, “Tefillin,” also uses the artifact, tefillin, as a means to empowerment, however, Wallach’s poem pushes harder and so this empowerment becomes an act of subversion. The poem begins with an elaborate sex scene in which a male “you” uses tefillin on the female speaker as bondage restraints. The speaker, urges, “turn me over on my belly / and put the tefillin in my mouth / bridle reins…” But the sexualized description is not the most erotic or compelling part of the poem; it’s the end that contains all of the “oomph,” where the speaker describes moving the tefillin over the man’s body with “unconcealed intention.” The Hebrew word used for “intention” is “kavanah” which is used in reference to devout, focused, fervent prayer. She continues to describe the joy and cruelty with which she wraps them around the man’s neck and pulling “till your soul leaves you / till I choke you / completely with the tefillin / that stretch the length of the stage / and into the stunned crowd.” The words “stage” and “crowd” indicate that this fantasy is not happening some place as “safe” as a bedroom, or behind closed doors. Rather, this is playing out on a stage in front of an audience, in public, as performance. The words used in the original Hebrew, though, add another dimension. The word translated as “stage” is “bimah,” which is a stage, but the stage in a synagogue upon which all prayers are led and all rituals are conducted. The word translated as “crowd” in Hebrew is “hakahal” which also means “community” or “congregation.” So while each of these words are given a secular translation, there are also significant religious overtones in the text. Wallach turns the religious ceremony and the place in which these rituals are performed into a ritualized subversive performance. By placing this sex scene, which doubles as the feminist overpowering of tradition, in a synagogue, Wallach both perverts (and I mean that with all the sincerest compliments) and sanctifies the new act. In the poem, the reader and the entire congregation bears witness to this “perversion.”
The inner conflicts of both the speaker in the poem and Madonna can be read as more immediately important than the political perspectives from which they come. Their battles, while politically specific, focus on the wrenching task of tikkun atzmo, the mending of the self, rather than tikkun olam, the mending of the world. Both speakers use the artifact, tefillin as a symbol both of binding or restraint, but also as a symbol of freedom. Tefillin, in these two examples of tikkun atzmo, is used in subversive ways that directly relate to women’s experiences, even though tefillin is traditionally worn by men. Even though in Wallach’s poem, the emphasis on laying tefillin as performance and the highlighting of charged language and space makes her piece subversive, both Wallach’s and Madonna’s interpretation of the renewing of self underscore the essential connection between tikkun olam and tikkun atzmo.
Repairing the world and repairing the self have to be done in tandem. These projects are inextricably felted together. This is not always a selfish endeavor like Buber suggests. The struggle, so engrained into the experiences of Orthodox queer Jews, itself becomes the unity about which Buber writes because it is nearly impossible to have a concept of an identity without that struggle. In other words, it is the struggle that defines us.
And finally, I’d like to bring Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first out, gay, Orthodox Rabbi, who, in his book, Wrestling with God and Men, suggests some opportunities for renewal amongst queer Orthodox Jews and their straight communities. He writes, “since the movement of attitude, at least initially, depends so much on empathetic hearing, the most important work will be our ‘coming out’ and the telling of our stories… Not until the issue is fully situated in its human context, when family ties, longstanding friendships, and affections are on the line, will any text-based argument for inclusion be even minimally effective” (28). While in this passage, Rabbi Greenberg focuses on the need for queer Jews to tell their stories to unwelcoming communities, he also emphasizes the necessity of a willingness to hear and engage with complexity on the part of queer and straight Jews. He writes that “the world is desperately in need of religious traditions that work their truths through life rather than above it… The truth is worked out best through the earthly realities of life, in an open conversation” (31).
Finally, he asserts, “the profound halachik questions of our moment surely demand a generous sense of the possible. Rabbis will need to be as fearless as were their forebears to imagine the opposite of their suppositions… only the most versatile of minds should be trusted to speak” (31).
Story, Rabbi Greenberg urges, is one essential way to restore humanity to social justice movements, both queer and Jewish. And in that spirit, I’d like to end with a short story from the Rabbi and spiritual scholar, the Ba’al Shem Tov (the BeSHT for shirt!) who is the central figure in the Hasidic movement and its literature.
— One year around the high holidays, the Ba’al Shem Tov approaches Reb Ze’ev, one of his congregants, and asks him to blow shofar (ram’s horn sounded on the Jewish New Year) on Rosh Hashana and learn all the Kabalistic meditations associated with each note.
— He was so excited that the holy Ba’al Shem chose him. He vowed that he was going to blow the shofar with such kavanah (focus) that everyone in the community would forget about their individual thoughts and aims in their prayer, and with each sound he blew, a divine spark would be released and bring about the Messianic age right then and there.
— He studied those meditations like crazy and wrote them down on a piece of paper.
— Finally the moment arrived and he stood on the bimah (stage) prepared to welcome the Messiah with the sounds of his shofar.
— He realizes he’s lost the paper and he gets so distressed, he forgets everything he learned and has to blow shofar without any meditations. He is just so upset that he cries and suffers more with each note he blows.
— The community hears the wailing of the shofar and sees Reb Ze’ev’s tears and they can feel that his heart is broken – all that suffering and heartbreak took fire and flamed upward…
— After he blew the sounds, Reb Ze’ev, so embarrassed, approaches the BeSHT to apologize for not blowing shofar the way he’d asked him to. And the BeSHT says, That was a most extraordinary shofar-blowing we’ve heard! In the king’s palace, there are many gates and doors, leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. But there is one key that fits all the locks, a master key that opens all the doors. The meditations are keys, each unlocking another door in our souls, each accessing another chamber in the supernatural worlds. But there is one key that unlocks all doors, that opens up for us the innermost chambers of the divine palace. That master key is a broken heart.
The Ba’al Shem Tov’s story shows us that sometimes healing means breaking ourselves even further because when we crack open, we can feel everything that touches us more vividly. That when we suffer, when we are split in our skins, we are somehow more prepared to have a positive effect on the world. That one kind of tikkun olam we can do is tikkun atzmo. That holding the responsibility of tikkun olam “in a holy manner,” as Buber says, can make all the difference for individuals as well as the community at large.