Rabbi Jacob Staub
When I think about the intersection of my queer identity and my spiritual life, one place to begin is a particular moment: I was sitting with my spiritual director in what would have been 1999 or 2000, which would have made me late forties. Before then for many years I had been an advocate for admission of gays and lesbians to rabbinical school and to their hiring as rabbis and to their inclusion into the Jewish community, and for marriage, which I, the first I think same-sex marriage I officiated at was 1988 or something. But I was closeted through all that, I was a great straight ally, or so everybody thought.
I had just begun a relationship with this spiritual director, Susan. We were exploring what spiritual direction is. I was the academic vice president of a rabbinical seminary, we were trying to introduce this program into the Jewish world. And the fourth time I met with her, which was for an hour once a month, I said, “Susan, this has been wonderful. Every time I meet with you, you listen to me and we come to some luminous moment in [my narrative of] the previous month which becomes really inspirational and exciting that I had overlooked, but it feels like we’re not talking about my life, we’re talking about one moment in a given month, and so it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel honest.”
And she said, “Okay, well, why don’t you bring other stuff into God’s presence now? Just do it.”
And [by] the fourth spiritual direction meeting, I actually had some idea about how to invite God’s presence in, and sort of be surrounded by it and picture it as part of the air, caressing my face, and you know breathing God’s presence in. And so I did that, and then I tried to bring my, I think I was calling it “garbage,” my “tough stuff” in. As I did, God’s presence left. As I brought God’s presence back, my “garbage,” which was about my sexual orientation, left. And I kept trying to have them both in at the same time, and realized that I couldn’t, and realized that when I was four or five years old I had been taught that you had to get dressed up to go to synagogue, and that I had transformed that and was living it as I had to be dressed up in God’s presence. I couldn’t bring all my stuff in, I had to be presentable.
And she said, well, fine. Go home. Your homework for the month—and it turned out to be four or six months—was to work on it.
I had a meditation practice at that time, and instead of paying attention to my breath and noticing what arises, which was the mindfulness meditation practice that I had, I would sit with and awareness of my attraction to men, and try to have God hold me in God’s presence, and feeling held by God. And it took months before that was possible. But I did it. I did it, and I remember picturing—trying to get an image of God. I had this photograph of my mother holding me when I’m about nine months old, she’s in a skunk coat and feather hat, and she is holding me and I have an ear-lapped strapped hat, it’s very cold, it must be January, and she is—her cheek is pushed next to mine and she is very happy, big smile, and I am like on the verge of tears because she’s probably crowding me and I’m in an uncomfortable position. And I tried to picture God in a skunk coat and feather hat holding me and squeezing me. That was my image of God looking like my mother when I was nine months old.
I worked hard to imagine God caressing me, and saying “it’s all right,” and being with me, and being a loving, comforting, holding, presence, which was very different than the God that I had been brought up with.
My family was Orthodox Jewish. God was a judge.
And when I was eleven and the Cuban Missile Crisis happened, everybody else was terrified [but] I was very happy because I thought the world was going to blow up before I hit thirteen, and when I was thirteen I would be responsible for my sins and I would burn in Hell. And I knew, subliminally, I guess, I knew somehow that I could never make it as a righteous Jew who would have God’s approval.
And eventually when I was thirteen or fourteen I left Orthodox Judaism, I walked out. Not because I was gay, or not aware—I was gay, but not aware of that. I did it on the basis of modern scholarship and I learned how to detach myself from the Orthodox point of view that took everything literally. [In the time since then] I had become a Reconstructionist rabbi, a leader of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism, which doesn’t have a conception of a personal God. And so I had a God who was the power that makes for happiness and for love and for justice and for salvation. An impersonal God that I could make manifest, that I could make manifest by acting well. I could be—I could live a divine life.
I realized somehow in those months after that meeting with my spiritual director that my Reconstructionist view of God as impersonal was as judgmental as the personal view of God in which I had been raised. The one I had been raised in had God, you know, with the Book of Life, marking my sins and judging me, and condemning me, and the new one, which I thought was completely different, the liberal one, had me manifesting and being in the presence of divinity when I acted well. But when I was depressed, or unkind, or terrified, God wasn’t there. So God was only there when I was good.
What this practice enabled me to do was re-imagine God as a kind, comforting, loving presence.
There was a point a few years later, after I had come out, where I was in the middle of a terrible, really painful four-year divorce. And I was talking to my spiritual director and said, “I don’t know what to do. I just—I just don’t know what to do.” And she said, “Ask for help.” She actually said, “Give it to God.” I didn’t know what that meant, but she explained that that meant “ask for help.” And I said, “I can’t.” And she said, “Why not?” and I said, “Because I don’t believe in a God who hears my prayers, and who responds to them.” And she said, “Well try it,” and I said, “I can’t.”
So what I ended up being able to do was to be able to say, “I need help.” And as soon as I said “I need help,” everything changed. It really worked. Instead of thinking that I was all on my own, autonomous, independent, responsible, all the things that I considered virtuous—you know, being what Erich Fromme called healthy, mature religion, as opposed to the kind where you rely on someone—I realized that all of my attributes, we call them divine predicates, were all active. And there were no passive ones, like being able to receive help. Asking for help, letting someone compliment you, letting someone love you, letting someone hold you. All of the receptive virtues were not part of that mid-twentieth century Reconstructionist theology that had been developed by middle-aged white men.
So the following year, after this spiritual direction incident that I’ve just described, I had an angioplasty, with no heart damage, but it was pretty terrifying. I was 49 years old.
Six weeks after the angioplasty, I made a commitment not to go back into the closet to myself, not knowing what that meant or what was going to come afterwards.
I had been on a retreat just before the angioplasty, where I was afraid that I had prostate cancer, because my PSA level had gone up a little bit. And I couldn’t get to the urologist until after the retreat, so I—you know, you’re sitting alone, in silence, and you think the worst. I must have sat through ten or twenty eulogies for myself. And I didn’t like any of them. People said wonderful things about me, like what a great father, what a great husband, what a great teacher, how much I’d been helpful to my students, what a great writer I was, all the things that I had aspired to be. And I realized that none of them were me. And I made that commitment not to go back into the closet—to myself, not that I was going to come out, necessarily, to anybody else, just that I was going to maintain authentic consciousness.
And seven months later I actually came out, I began the coming out process. But it’s clear to me that I could not have done that without all of that prior work of developing a relationship with a loving, comforting, supportive, nonjudgmental God. You know, that was the spiritual background to that piece.
I’m going to talk a bit about what it was like to come out, seven months later. It was one of the major spiritual experiences of my life, I would say.
So I came out to my now ex-wife, and two weeks later to my three kids. And I remember immediately after coming out to my then-wife, it was July, the colors were brighter, and I could smell things better, each sense was—all of my senses were heightened.
I did not have any idea how much energy I was expending moment by moment being closeted. I had been very successfully closeted. It turned out nobody suspected. I thought everybody knew and was just giving me a break, but they didn’t. I had lots of lesbian and gay friends. It wasn’t a world in which it was impossible to imagine me being gay, but I really worked hard at [precluding that perception].
And once I didn’t have to worry about, ‘Oh my God, what would happen if I got discovered?’ (You know, I had never had a romantic or a sexual relationship with a man, it wasn’t like there was anything to discover except my orientation at that point.) I just felt exuberant and hyper-perceptive, I don’t know—colors were vivid, I don’t know, I’m at a loss for words right now—not only colors. It’s like I could be me. I didn’t worry anymore about other people’s opinions. I wasn’t terrified of being found out.
The weeks and months after coming out, of just—I remember being on an Amtrak train from Philadelphia to New York, reading a book called, something like "Finding True Love in a Man-Eat-Man World." It’s like a primer on how to come out as gay that someone had recommended to me, one of my gay colleagues. And I couldn’t believe it! I was sitting on a train, and I didn’t have to cover, I didn’t have to be embarrassed about the cover. I didn’t have to pretend to be somebody that I wasn’t. And that led to a lot of energy and creativity, and further development of a relationship with God.
Let me talk a little theologically here. I believe in God. But I believe that none of us know who or what God is.
God by definition is beyond our ability to conceive, perceive, understand, and everything we think, over the ages, everything that people have thought God has said has been, much of it has been authentic encounters with the holy, with the divine, but it gets filtered through real live people who live in particular times and places with particular personalities, and so it’s culturally specific and personally specific to the person who has that encounter, how they interpret what happens when they meet God, or hear God, or something like that.
So given that, what I learned sitting in God’s presence, and afterwards there, was that God has an infinite number of aspects. And what I experience is what I am open to, so how can I open my heart to feel God’s love and comfort, right? I couldn’t, it had been closed, so it wasn’t there, it’s only there if we let it in. God is also judgmental, and God can be punitive and all these—I think God is beyond our moral categories, but the personal relationship that I developed with God is one that I cultivate and need to cultivate like I cultivate friendships and loving relationship with human beings.
I am always busily at work in trying to do that, in trying to invite God in, and trying to notice the opportunities or the invitations in particular situations that I could say come from God.
Last Wednesday I went up to Teaneck, New Jersey, and had lunch with my sister, who is Orthodox, in a glatt kosher restaurant. I’ve had a lot of trouble with her since I came out. We were once very close, and she didn’t come to our chuppah, to the rather large and boisterous wedding that Michael, my husband, and I had three and a half years ago, and that hurt me a lot. And I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to repair that relationship, and realized at some point that I could lead her, I could tell her what I needed, and tell her what I needed her to say, and move the impasse along. I needed her to say, “I’m really sorry for the pain I caused you by not coming to your wedding.” So, I did that. And I did that because I held her, my relationship with her, in prayer for years, trying to figure out what the invitation was, what the opportunity was, how I could make something better and more loving.
My youngest daughter committed suicide two years ago, and so there have been lots of opportunities to try and figure out how to live in grief and darkness and look for what the opportunities are—how I live in a spiritual space where I don’t think God is in control, or that God is directing everything. “How could God do this?” is not a relevant question to me. But I believe that there are openings or me to discover meaning and paths to goodness that come even in the darkest and more difficult times.
I’ll talk a little about queering religion.
I’ve written a bunch of stuff on how to queer different Bible passages, how to look at traditionally authoritative texts through a queer lens. And I wrote a few articles, chapters, in the book “Torah Queeries,” which takes each [weekly Torah portion] and looks at it from a queer point of view. And there’s a website with queer homilies every week that I’ve written a few for.
What does it look like to feel empowered to do that? To own all of the riches of the traditions that we inherit—to take ownership of them and not to cede control of them to authorities who do not see things from the expansive, inclusive perspective that we have.
I believe that the five books of Moses, the Torah, was compiled in large part in the 7th century BCE after the destruction of the northern [kingdom], the ten tribes of Israel, when the Judean authorities started getting scared and started editing out all kinds of diverse customs and practices and beliefs that existed there, and started talking about how ‘Either you do what we say in God’s name, or you will be punished.’ They were traumatized.
How do you—how do you queer a religion in a way that takes the traumatization out and allows for an expansion of possibilities and a lack of fear, an illumination of fear about the unknown, about control, [so that you] can just celebrate love and experience in ways that were unthinkable, unimaginable, before? There are lots of words in the liturgy that I change, not necessarily strictly on a queer basis. I think that we can embrace much, if not most, of what we inherit as long as we don’t give the power to homophobic and other kind of authoritative influences that have tried to interpret them in ways that are self-serving and not necessarily divine.
On the other hand, it’s important to acknowledge our pain. I experience so much of Jewish practices and belief has been anti-woman, misogynistic, or anti-queer. In order to transcend that I think we need to acknowledge it. So I am not in the business of saying ‘Oh, Judaism is mostly all right, we just have to make a few changes.’ I think there’s a lot of restructuring that we do to allow us to celebrate in our inherited traditions. And to do that we need to acknowledge the ways in which we have been hurt as children, as adults, in the ways that synagogues and churches have hurt us, or the way they have defined us.
And so I’m really hopeful. You know it’s a couple of weeks after the Supreme Court DOMA decision, and a couple days after the Attorney General of Pennsylvania has refused to defend Pennsylvania’s DOMA law. And I think back ten, twenty, thirty years, within the Jewish community, the amount of openness that exists now, relative to the amount of fear thirty years ago, is extraordinary. I have hope that in years and decades and centuries to come, that large sections of religious communities and religious traditions, will embrace and celebrate the diversity of humankind, and will no longer be as oppressive and restrictive as they have been in the past. And I’m very happy about that.
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This text is condensed and edited from a Queerituality story Rabbi Jacob Staub recorded on July 14, 2013, in Philadelphia, Pa. It was transcribed by volunteer Haley Campbell.