Jay Michaelson has a message for religious leaders who consider homosexuality a sin: God loves gay people and wants them to have fulfilling sex lives.
A contributing editor to the Forward newspaper and an LGBT activist, Michaelson has drawn attention for his latest book, “God vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality.” In it, he argues that biblical proscriptions against homosexuality are a myth.
Michaelson will expound on that theme at five upcoming speaking appearances in Berkeley, Tiburon and San Francisco.
As an observant Jew, he knows many in the Orthodox community do not take kindly to his message, but he says things are changing.
“By an Orthodox pace, things are moving really fast,” Michaelson said in an interview. “It’s a community working through their issues. It’s sometimes frustrating, but it wouldn’t be Orthodox if they waved a magic wand and [declared] a whole new reading of Torah. If Orthodoxy stands for anything, it’s not about ignorance or burying heads in the sand.”
Michaelson, 40, is a student of Torah and other Jewish texts who works on behalf of sexual minorities in religious communities. The author of four books and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, he is an associate editor at Religion Dispatches magazine and a founding editor of Zeek magazine, and in 2009 he was included on the “Forward 50” list of new generation Jewish leaders.
The resident of Putnam Valley, N.Y., says the few biblical verses traditionally cited as banning homosexuality are ambiguous at best and mistranslated at worst.
As a prime example, he cites the Hebrew word toevah, commonly translated from Leviticus 18:22 as “abomination” in reference to gay sex.
It does not mean that at all, Michaelson said. It refers to certain sexual practices in the context of idolatry, and not to stable, loving, same-sex relationships.
The preponderance of scriptural emphasis, he said, is on love and building loving relationships.
“Love your neighbor as yourself means as you yourself would want to be loved,” Michaelson said. “A lot of this battle is about gay existence. Does someone who never met me have the right to say this is a pathology?”
Having identified as Orthodox for much of his life, Michaelson said he experienced years of closeted torment. He recounts that suffering in his book, though now out and married to his husband, Paul, he suffers no more.
“For the 10 percent who have made up their minds, it’s speaking to a wall,” he said. “I’ve had the door slammed in my face. At one talk I’ve been asked about bestiality. Most people are in the middle, sincerely questioning what they’ve been taught.”
That was true for Michaelson, who warred with himself for years before coming out. He couldn’t reconcile his feelings of homosexuality with the religious teachings he had come to believe.
But one day while hiking in Israel (on Mount Sodom, to add to the irony) he had an awakening. As he tells it, he said to God, “I’ve tried it your way, I’ve tried repressing for too long and I’ve had enough. Now it’s going to be my way, and I hope that’s OK. If not, too bad.”
Looking back, “It was the most religious thing I had ever done,” he said.
Once he came out, Michaelson began speaking out, pushing religious communities to more fully embrace gays and lesbians. But winning over his family wasn’t easy. Cousins shunned him, and his mother took years to come around. Now, however, she argues in favor of gay rights with her conservative Jewish friends in Florida, and she attended her son’s same-sex wedding in Massachusetts.
Though he eschews denominational labels, he says his Jewish practice today is “juicy,” and probably most resembles that of Conservative Judaism.
By speaking out, Michaelson hopes to chip away at long-standing dogma that condemns gays people on religious grounds.
“This is not a gay issue,” he said, “It’s an everybody issue. Just as feminism and economics are everybody issue, so too is equality. That’s of interest to everyone.”
Jay Michaelson in conversation with Rabbi Michael Lerner at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17 at Congregation Netivot Shalom, 1316 University Ave., Berkeley; also 10 a.m. Nov. 20 at Congregation Kol Shofar, Tiburon. Full list of appearances at www.jaymichaelson.net/events.
“God vs. Gay: The Religious Case for Equality” by Jay Michaelson (212 pages, Beacon, $25.95).