A Jewish LGBT Approach to Self Reflection and Repentance (Tshuvah) and Its Christian Implications

It was wonderful to have Rabbi Robert Daum as the special guest at our Diocese of New Westminster Clergy Conference this week. Rabbi Daum is a good friend of our diocese, a strong academic presence at VST, and one who was able to share deep spiritual insights with us.

In one of his talks, Rabbi Daum spoke of the practice of Tsuvah – the Jewish process of self-reflection and ‘return’ (ie. repentance) that receives special emphasis in the period leading up to the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur (October 7 and 8 this year). It is a time of examination, shedding of the old and the putting on of new intentions and purposes before God.  It involves, as similar periods of self examination for Anglicans do, working toward fuller self-acceptance and the subsequent building of self-confidence. It’s the affirmation that, in God, we become whole again.

Jay Michaelson, in the October 5 edition of Religion Dispatches, puts this holiest time of the year for observant Jewish people into a GLBT context. Michaelson is an associate editor of Religion Dispatches and a founder of Nehirim, an organization dealing with GLBT Jewish culture and spirituality. He is completing a PhD in Jewish thought at Hebrew University.

As one can imagine, observant GLBT Jewish people might find the Tshuvah a painful time, particularly in terms of gay self-acceptance. He points out it’s inevitable that long-ingrained feelings of unworthiness and homophobia developed in childhood might contaminate the ‘repentance’ process; particularly in situations where the central principle of Tshuvah, that ‘change’ is possible, is used as a weapon against sexual minorities. This situation is familiar to GLBT Christians as well. In that context, ‘change’ becomes a code word for repression, distortion, and fear.

A way forward, suggests Michaelson,  is “interposing one’s experience between oneself and the authoritative spiritual texts which guide relationship with God.” Says Michaelson, “LGBT people must either abandon repentance or queer it. If we are not to reject it, we must make it our own, make it more complex, set aside its oversimplifications. The good news is that this is a gift to everybody else.” In other words, in a time of tshuvah, one must allow experience, conscience, and discernment to speak. Good advice to anyone seeking a fuller walk with God.

Michaelson compares the situation religious GLBT people face to the situation faced by Huck Finn in Twain’s novel:

“Huck has been taught that if he helps escaped slaves, he will go to hell. But he has befriended Jim, the runaway slave, and cannot turn him in. So, Huck decides at a pivotal moment in the book, ‘I guess I’ll go to hell, then.’ That moment, of course, is not damnation but salvation. It is the birth of a mature conscience. Gays and lesbians born into religious communities face a Huck Finn moment, at which the comforting immaturity of dogma yields to a more complicated, but ultimately redemptive, moral conscience….For those who refuse to choose between God and gay, it means having to do just what Huck Finn did: transcend religion in order to save it.”

Challenging food for thought indeed. Expanding on his position, Michaelson observes that “this is an essential step for all religious people – but it’s one LGBT religious people cannot avoid. Queer spiritual consciousness is inherently distrustful because it has seen how rules, codes, and even the operation of conscience itself can be tools of oppression and self-repression. Of course, strait people ought to come to this realization also. But religious queer people have to.”

This place is one where, sadly, many LGBT Christians cannot get to. I had a student years ago who committed his life to Jesus, and then discovered he was gay. Despite the efforts of many, he could not, in himself, reconcile his sexual orientation with his Christian commitment; so he abandoned the latter. Conditioned, imposed guilt subsumed spiritual commitment. One can only hope that the young man of whom I speak learned – or will learn – to “employ the faculty of discernment, and inquire into the present sensations of a given moral choice”, as Michaelson puts it. “When I am acting in accord with my body, mind, and heart, there is a sense of groundedness, of peace, that arises….It allows a wider, deeper journey to unfold.”

So the challenge is similar for all who seek wholeness in a path to godliness:

“There is no substitute for discernment. Not surrender to a text, nor zeal, nor the illusions of the deep down. Only the hard work of spiritual practice (meditation, contemplation, contemplative prayer, etc.) to untangle the mind and try to see one’s values and one’s actions clearly. It’s not that everything is okay and all is permitted. It’s that the only way to sort wheat from chaff is to do so carefully, in a calm and composed mind, at once informed by sacred traditions and yet almost, it seems, from scratch.”

What a magnificent way to state the challenge to spiritual journeying which we all face.

*     *     *

Reference: “Queer Repentance: On Not Surrendering to a Text, to Guilt, or to Habit” by Jay Michaelson. Religion Dispatches, October 5, 2011. http://www.religiondispatches.org.

Rev. Steve Bailey is a deacon at St. Laurence, Coquitlam, and one of the blogmasters at nwanglicanblog. Your comments and reflections are always welcome as are your articles. If you have an article brewing, send it as an attachment to steve_bailey@telus.net.

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