The (Circle) Spiral of Jewish Life
We often think about the cycle of the year-the change of the air in the fall, or the blossoming of new life in the spring-and we see a circle. But we sometimes fail to recognize that while each year's times and seasons can be very similar to years past, we are never in the same place we once were. Rabbi Michael Marmur suggests that the cycle of the Jewish year is better seen as a spiral. Each year, we hope to merit the chance to come back to the same season or moment, as in years past; to appreciate its beauty and the unique nature of what it might represent.
Sometimes, certain points on the spiral allow us to glimpse back at similar moments from years past. The Yamim Noraim, the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, demand that we look back as part of the process of teshuvah (repentance or returning). Our tradition demands that we look back at the spiral of our past year, and of our lives, to reflect on where we have come from, where we are, and who we want to be.
Gay Jews in particular can struggle at this time of year. The Torah portion traditionally read on Yom Kippur afternoon is a section of Leviticus that details certain laws of sexual conduct, including one of the two Levitical prohibitions against same-sex (male) relations. Yet when I think back to my experiences of struggling to reconcile Jewish tradition with being gay, I find the image of the spiral extremely comforting. As I look back at myself, and my journey to reconcile my identity as a gay Jew, I recall two moments that continue to help me frame the kind of advocate I want to be for full inclusion of the LGBTQ community in Jewish life.
The first moment relates to my experience in NFTY (the North American Federation of Temple Youth), which this year is celebrating 75 years of engaging Jewish youth. As a regional board member in 2003, I sponsored a resolution to publicly declare NFTY's support for the rights of gay and lesbian couples to get married. By passing the resolution, NFTY was once again well ahead of the curve in its support for equal rights, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. I hadn't thought about this resolution for quite some time, until the more recent breakthroughs in the struggle for marriage equality, including the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet when I read the resolution today, I am proud that NFTY raised its voice in support of the cause. More importantly, I am grateful that I, along with generations of teens, had a safe place to learn to raise my voice for equality and justice.
The second moment on my spiral was in the fall of 2005, during my freshman year at Brown University. I had just returned from a year living in Haifa, Israel, and I wrote an op-ed for the Brown Daily Herald in honor of National Coming Out Day. I wrote about my personal struggle with being both Jewish and gay. The piece appeared on Yom Kippur, which was quite fitting, but the sentiment I expressed then is one that I have come to soundly reject today. I wrote that I "find myself sympathizing with the religious Jewish tradition that loves me as a Jew but cannot and will not accept my gay lifestyle." Rereading those words I wonder what I was thinking using the term "gay lifestyle" and why I would waste my time struggling with what I now understand as an innate, God-given part of my identity.
Yet the piece is a time capsule. It is a fixed point on the spiral of my journey that both reminds me of the myriad of ways in which I have changed over the years, and to be patient with others who may still struggle to reconcile what may seem like conflicting identities. I am grateful and proud of who I am as a Jew, and as a gay man. I no longer feel a particular struggle with Leviticus. I don't see being gay as an impediment to intentional, meaningful Jewish practice. Yet each year, given the chance to look back at my journey, I feel grateful for my past struggles, and I feel grateful for the moments and people in my life that have guided me to this level of self-acceptance.
As Jews everywhere embrace the process of returning, of teshuvah, may we all find comfort in past struggles. May we remind ourselves of the ways in which we have changed and grown. May we find encouragement in our triumphs, and may we allow our defeats to help us learn and grow.
Max Chaiken is an alum of the URJ Camp Harlam and the URJ Kutz Camp, and is currently a second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, CA.