i’m having a pang of queer jewish guilt. in case you’re wondering, that’s like garnishing my pre-existing heap of chronic jewish guilt (if you’re jewish, you don’t need a reason to feel guilty. it’s just your default state of being) with a generous sprinkling of fairy-dust-guilt .
here’s the issue:
i went to Congragation Sha’ar Zahav, the gay shul in San Francisco… and… i… didn’t like it.
it left me with the following question: when does a politically and religiously progressive, Reform, queer-friendly jewish community cross over into something other than judaism?
what i experienced at Sha’ar Zahav *reminded* me of judaism. it bore some resemblance to a kabbalat shabbat service. but i’m not entirely certain that’s what it was.
yes, the building was a “proper” sanctuary with stained glass windows, yes, they have designated leadership and a membership, and yes they are well-known and specifically queer. yes yes yes. BUT the cantor was excessively showy in his exuberance so as to come off like a kindergarten teacher, the leader of the service was entirely too self-congratulatory in his sense of humor, and there was a mere 20 people there, none of whom could carry a tune to save their lives.
more importantly, there were too many moments when the service felt more like a gay religion than like judaism.
the siddur, printed especially for Sha’ar Zahav, contained prayers unrecognizable to me as a jew with an orthodox upbringing. a small fraction of the text was in hebrew, and what traditional text was in there, they mostly skipped over during the service. i’m not saying that a decontextualized quote from Leaves of Grass may never ever be used in a jewish service to forcibly evoke a sense of awe. i’m just saying that there are ways to use what already exists in our jewish liturgy (or if we absolutely must, make secular additions), without bastardizing our history and traditions.
one more note on liturgy: for me, the straw that broke my tolerance was when we recited the Shema together, i found that i didn’t know their version of the text. the Shema, which is sung in exactly the same tune, in exactly the same words precisely so that a jew, no matter where they are from, who they are, or what language they speak, can go into any shul around the globe, and be able to say the Shema with the local community. that’s how important the Shema is.
never again will i go to a service where i am made to put my arms around a stranger and sway, wear a name tag, or sing “shabbat shalom, hey!“.
this last part is not specific to self-proclaimed LGBT shuls. this is more a frustration with reform judaism in general.
i have the following imagined criticism playing out in my head: the reform shul says to me, “yeah, well at least we *want* you in our community. why would you want to be in a community that doesn’t want you back?”
the answer is that i dont need to sacrifice a serious, well-informed, traditional judaism for queer friendliness.
case in point: the San Francisco Mission Minyan. i found kabbalat shabbat at Mission Minyan, which i attended the previous week, to be infinitely more inspiring. held in an upstairs room in the Women’s Building, the Mission Minyan had the feeling of going to a shteeble. a no-frills, plain old room in some random place — nothing awe-inspiring about it. but it was PACKED with people of all stripes, genders, and ages– women wearing tichles, men wearing suits, people in kippot serugot, jeans, and sneakers. there were women, men, genderqueers…
there was no backward-bending necessary to make the service all-gender-friendly, welcoming to women and queers, and still traditional both in spirit and in practice. The prayers remained intact, the folks who wanted seating separated by gender sat apart, but there was no mechitzah, and the service was constructed so that whatever your personal minhag, you were able to execute it without standing out and without being criticized. there are no divrei torah at Mission Minyan to avoid politicizing or proselytizing that which is meant to be accessible and welcoming to all. furthermore, there was TONS of singing! and in my book, that’s the main ingredient in any good shul experience.
whenever i experience a community like this (and it’s only happened once before at P’nai Or of Portland, Oregon under the Rabbinical leadership of the late Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield) i cannot describe it as anything other than miraculous.
i guess i don’t feel TOO guilty…
i will definitely be back to the Mission Minyan.
sorry Sha’ar Zahav.