Finding Keshet for the first time? Just came out? Finally bringing together your Jewish and LGBTQ+ selves? We are so glad you are here.
By Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael, Jackie Maris, and Hannah Henschel
At Keshet, we celebrate LGBTQ+ Jews, and make and take space for all of us in every Jewish community. We work for the full equality of all LGBTQ+ Jews and our families in Jewish life. We equip Jewish organizations with the skills and knowledge to build LGBTQ+-affirming communities, create spaces in which all queer Jewish youth feel seen and valued, and advance LGBTQ+ rights nationwide.
This resource is designed to welcome you to Keshet – it’s for people who are newly coming out, who are finding queer Jewish community for the first time, who have a loved one who came out to them, or anyone who wants to dive into what it means to be LGBTQ+ and Jewish. Keshet has lots more resources, tools, and ideas for queer Jewish individuals of all ages, our families, and Jewish communities committed to LGBTQ+ belonging. This is designed as a place to start.
Jewish tradition teaches that each person has inherent dignity and worth, and all of us are made B’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine Image (Bereishit/Genesis 1:26). This is a core metaphor for how LGBTQ+ Jews can see ourselves: that every single one of us is a reflection of the goodness and wisdom of the Divine. We affirm the fundamental dignity of each person exactly as they are, and treat each person in ways that honor their whole selves including their gender and sexuality as well as other identities.
Importantly, each of us is unique and different. Jewish tradition specifically teaches that the infinite variety and diversity of humanity is a mark of Divine artistry and creativity (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). When someone is forced to diminish or hide their true self, we’ve failed to live up to our tradition’s vision of a loving and just society, and we feel even that the Divine Image is also diminished. So, in order to create the kind of society that Jewish tradition strives for, we must meet LGBTQ+ Jews’ needs for safety, authenticity, and wellbeing, and we must embrace – not just “accept” – LGBTQ+ Jews for all aspects of their identity.
Things got complicated fast! What matters is that we know that each person is sacred and deserves dignity.
There are some people for whom “God” language doesn’t feel quite right, or it can be alienating. Jews have been exploring metaphors and arguing about God for millennia. One blessing of our tradition is that we are all allowed to keep asking these questions. Whatever way you want to understand the metaphor of the “Divine image” is up to you. You may connect deeply to the idea of a personal and personally responsive God. Or you might relate to a less theistic idea of “the universe’s pattern,” or a creative and caring force throughout nature, part of each human heart and mind, universal human rights, the concept of love or justice, the force that makes for liberation, or something else. It’s also part of Jewish tradition to be agnostic or atheist!
But whatever metaphors or language describe your beliefs, for thousands of years Jewish thinkers have returned to the central idea that people must respect, protect, and honor each other.
Queer Jews are awesome, diverse, and already present in every imaginable Jewish community. We believe that all of our communities are richer and more vibrant when every individual is able to be embraced and loved for all of who they are, and bring their unique gifts, insights, and joy.
Different Jewish communities may be more or less welcoming to LGBTQ+ people due to a range of factors. And a community that feels right for one queer Jew will not be right for others! Keshet is a pluralistic organization, meaning that we are a space and resource for Jewish people of all backgrounds and their families. We believe that LGBTQ+ Jews of all backgrounds deserve to be authentically LGBTQ+ and authentically Jewish within their own communities.
Queer Jewish people have always been here. And starting in the 1960s and 70s, Jewish lesbians, gay men, and feminists worked explicitly for the full participation and leadership of women and queer folks in North American Jewish communities. Now in the 21st century, nearly all the major denominations/streams of Judaism in the United States have official policies that welcome and integrate LGBTQ+ Jews into their communities, institutions, and even theology. Even in those movements that have not yet made official policy statements to this effect, LGBTQ+ Jews are present, forming community, and advocating for more explicit embrace.
The Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements, plus other non-denominational institutions, ordain LGBTQ+ rabbis and cantors, perform any-gender weddings, and welcome queer individuals and families. Keshet and other LGBTQ+ Jewish organizations like our partners at Eshel, JQY, SOJOURN, and many others, have worked in the past, and continue today, educating, advocating, and agitating so that every Jewish community is a place where queer Jews can belong, thrive, and lead.
While there are important theological, ritual, and cultural differences between the various movements of Judaism, these differences do not always determine what the experience of an LGBTQ+ member of a particular community will be like. Keshet is connected with LGBTQ+ people who are thriving and leading in communities of every imaginable movement (and in unaffiliated communities). We support and consult with LGBTQ+ advocates in communities of every affiliation.
Of course, no community is perfect. We still live in a society that is homophobic and transphobic, as well as racist, sexist, ableist, fatphobic, classist, and otherwise divides us all into privileged and marginalized groups based on our identities and life experiences. If you experience anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes, policies, or bullying in your Jewish community or family, it might feel like it doesn’t matter if someone is getting Jewish-gay-married out there, or if some rabbinical school is ordaining non-binary rabbis. You deserve to be in a community – and a world – that embraces you for your whole self. That’s why Keshet, and our partners throughout the North American Jewish world, continue to work for the full equality and belonging of every queer Jew in every Jewish community, full stop.
Religious texts have indeed been harnessed in homophobic, transphobic, and queerphobic ways. And our text tradition contains plenty of stories, images, or ideas that seem rooted in another time and not reflective of our morality today. Unfortunately, humans sometimes make the choice to harm others with their interpretations of religious texts.
And yet, these same texts contain mitzvot (religious obligations) to respect one another and to love our neighbors as ourselves. If you have been hurt by people using Torah as a weapon against you, that should never have happened. On our website you’ll find many resources grappling with Jewish text and exploring unique LGBTQ+ Torah insights. We often start with Keshet’s core Seven Jewish Values for Inclusive Community.
One added challenge for American Jews is that we live in a society that is historically, politically, and culturally dominated by conservative Christians, who have been fighting against LGBTQ equality and demonizing LGBTQ people for decades. Because conservative Christians are well organized and often use religious language in their anti-LGBTQ+ lobbying, it can feel like “religious” means anti-LGBTQ. But even today the significant majority of Americans, across all faith, geographic, and racial groups, believe in LGBTQ equality and support it in policy. (See recent public opinion research from PRRI.) Keshet mobilizes US Jews to take political action for LGBTQ equality proudly as Jews, because of our tradition and not in spite of it.
The Torah and later Jewish writings like the Talmud talk explicitly and implicitly about many people and concepts that today might be understood as LGBTQ+. These texts also address core questions like justice and access, bodily autonomy, love, and dignity, which are deeply relevant to the LGBTQ community. One of the most amazing things about studying Torah with a queer lens is just how incredibly much is there, including gender expansive identities, diverse gender expression, relationships, family, and sex. It’s an amazing blessing that we get to inherit this tradition of questioning and creativity. Even our ancient rabbis, for example, questioned the gender of God.
It would be anachronistic to say that Torah directly addresses the identities in the LGBTQ+ community as we understand them today. Even just in the last few generations, the way we understand and talk about LGBTQ identity and experience has changed dramatically. As Jews have been doing for thousands of years, Keshet and LGBTQ+ Jews today are drawing on a rich and wise set of texts to address everything we are learning and living about gender and sexuality in these past few generations.
One of the delights of Judaism is how Jews throughout history have inherited, shaped, and reconstructed our text, rituals, customs, spirituality, and culture, to match our times and circumstances and to meet the needs of our lives. Wrestling with tradition, co-creating with our communities and loved ones, making meaning through our ancestors’ centuries-old writings, inviting every Jew into the interpretive experience – this is why Judaism is a living tradition. LGBTQ+ Jews are makers and writers of Torah and rich Jewish ideas.
We invite all queer Jews to bring our full selves as participants in, and contributors to, a living tradition. Take a look at Jewish text and tradition in Keshet’s resource library.
Different communities and individuals understand halacha, Jewish law and practice, in different ways. Keshet does not claim to offer a one-size-fits-all approach to halacha, and believe that every halachic approach can authentically affirm the value and dignity of LGBTQ+ people.
Here’s one example. In some of the oldest and most authoritative of Jewish texts, such as the Mishnah, the Rabbis understood that their binary definitions of sex and gender did not neatly describe or define many people. They saw that there were many people who were not simply “men” or “women,” according to both biology and social roles. The sages whose voices are captured in the Mishnah did not deny the existence of all of these people, or demand that they strive to “fit into” binary categories. The sages instead wrote down their questions and suggestions about how the categories of sex and gender – which were relevant to their understandings of ritual, families, and much more – might work for these people who did not fit into binary categories. The Mishnah’s discussions on gender and sex are just one example of how the halachic process can express respect, inclusivity, and honesty about human experience.
Similarly, as we have learned more and more about the rich diversity of sexual orientation and gender among people in our communities, many contemporary rabbis and thinkers have written extensively about what halachic language we might use to think about these ways of being in the world.
Halachic language can also help us talk about serious and significant ethical commitments to LGBTQ equality and justice. For example, Jewish law obligates us to pikuach nefesh, doing nearly everything within our power to save lives. If we take this mitzvah, commandment, seriously, we should do everything in our power to prevent isolation and, God forbid, suicidality among young LGBTQ Jews.
There are a number of resources that approach LGBTQ identities with halacha in mind:
That’s so Jewish of you! Reach out to us! We’re so glad you’re here.