It was this day two years ago that my life changed forever. After living a double-life for longer than anyone should be forced to, I came to a terrifying realisation that I wasn’t just gay and Jewish, I was a gay Jew. The feeling that coursed through me brings to mind the stories of the shattered vessel of Kabbalistic fame, wherein God’s breadth was too great to be contained that it shattered what had tried so carefully to hold it in. I became that shattered vessel: I had longed to hold God within me, but his breadth was too great, and I shattered.
Trite as it may sound, I recall the moment as if I were living it as I write these words: I’m standing in the middle of the sanctuary on the afternoon of Yom Kippur 5769. I’m fervently jumping between reading the Hebrew, which after weeks of study I’m finally starting to understand, and the English when the service moves too fast for me to follow. The Torah reading begins; I keep reading. And then I stop, my mind stuck on one passage, like a gear that has jarred the entire mechanism. For a moment I’m unable to think, unable to recall all the times I’ve read these words before, all those times as I child I read them on Yom Kippur and felt confused by them although I had not yet known why, and it’s like I’m reading them for the first time:
V’et-zachar lo tishkav mishkavei isha; to’evah hi.
A man shall not lie with a man as he lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.
I felt sick. I became faint. I looked up toward the bimah, the ark and the gates of heaven slowly swinging shut above me. I’ve always seen the gates of heaven, always stood in awe of their glory, their magnitude, the way they manage to fit inside an earthly dwelling such as this, so vast yet equally so small. Never before had I trembled before them; never before had I feared they would close before I could step inside.
Then it struck me. It struck me this thing I call love, this wondrous feeling so beautiful and blissful, could never be called love in the eyes of God. I swayed where I stood, dizzied and drowning, unable to surface. This thing I call love, I said to myself, you call an abhorrence. I’ll repent for this sooner or later.
Like the shattered vessel that was both ending and beginning, this shattering was also a new beginning. At last unable to keep my identities as a gay man and a Jewish man separate, I was forced to find a way to mend them, to mold them together, to make them a single identity. For the first time I turned to people who were able to help and guide me through this most turbulent time in my life. Ironically enough (if it’s ironic at all), this led me to Jewish Mosaic (now part of Keshet) where I was in turn led to the Conservative Movement’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards and consequently, to their responsa on homosexuality.
Over the following few months, I read in secret all nineteen of their responsa, spanning sixteen years of discussions and decisions, and I recall vividly both the pain and acceptance I felt. I wept throughout Rabbi Joel Roth’s “Homosexuality,” in which he proclaimed there is nearly no place in Judaism for a gay Jew with arguments not even I could deny, and I recall crying myself to sleep the night I read his last words, deciding then I would do anything if it meant not making God turn his eyes away from me. I recall the warmth and compassion I felt reading the responsum by Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, and Avram Reisner that proclaimed the dignity of a gay Jew should be preserved just as anyone else’s.
Even through all this, time went on, and for lack of any better term, I remained safely hidden inside the closet (though, to some, I was beginning to find windows in these walls, to see the outlines of many doorways leading to personal freedom and perhaps religious freedom as well). For the first time in my life, however, I was truly beginning to feel whole. For years since I first started to come out to myself, I had kept two strictly separate identities: That of a young man beginning to discover his sexual identity, shown only to himself; and that of the young Jewish boy forging a deeper connection to his religion, shown to everyone else. When I started to accept being gay, the former took hold in myself and vowed to stay; when I became a madrich, a teacher’s aid, at my synagogue’s religious school, the latter began to grow stronger day by day.
These boys were twins to me: born at the same time, they grew up together, but they were separate people. I was torn inside. And this night on Yom Kippur, that seam was ineffably sewn—no longer could these sides be separate; they were now inherently connected.
I wrote, alluding to a beloved song sung by Anna Nalick:
“But, Anna, love does hurt”
Driving away from a wreck of a day
you tell me you’re falling to pieces
I turn from the mirror to glance far away
not to stare at my own broken pieces
An abhorrence, you called it, this thing I call love
but you gave it to me, my creator
I stare at the gates as they swing shut above
I’ll repent for this sooner or later
I shook all night. I couldn’t sit still let alone keep from mindlessly pacing. I must have written half a dozen poems that night, trying futilely to capture the whirling feelings crashing inside me. This struggle pushed me onwards, and fortunately close friends and long-time acquaintances were there to help me along the way. If not for them, for all I was worth, I would be nothing today. If not for the strength and the compassion they gave me, I would have none today to speak of. If not for them, I would not be.
I’ve come a long way in these past two years. From being as far in the closet as one could be, to being the openly gay president of a college’s Gay-Straight Alliance and a teacher at my synagogue’s congregational school, now in my sixth year. When I look back at myself, it’s as if I was someone else entirely. I’m still me, but the growth has made me stronger, has made me more confident and courageous, and has made me more thankful than ever could possibly be put into words for all the people and opportunities that I’ve been given.
Where my heart hangs and my soul stands on the religious conflicts of homosexuality and Judaism varies from day to day, but I have my theories and my philosophies, and someday I’ll share them with my rabbi and he’ll either applaud my reasoning and I’ll feel wonderful, or he’ll point me in the right direction and I’ll discover more to Judaism and myself before finding an end to this journey. But all that, the details, the fine print—it’s not what matters most, what means the most to me. What means the most to me is that, even if I don’t always know what God’s words mean to me today, in the world we live in, in 2010 not 2000 b.c.e., I know God will always love me exactly as he made me—gay and Jewish—and nothing will change that.
Yom Kippur is a time for repentance, atonement, renewal; and every year, I’ve taken from the day more than I’ve ever put into it. I seek forgiveness, and in return, I am forgiven. I ask for strength, and in return, I am strengthened. I pray for love, and in return, I am loved.