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Miraculous Lights

Rabbi Jacob Staub wrote this essay for Hanukkah 2013.

The first of the eight candles of Hanukah is lit this Wednesday evening. The lights of Hanukah strike me this year as exactly the right image for the primary Hanukah theme: preserving one’s unique and distinctive identity. As the Maccabees refused to relinquish their distinctiveness in the face of pressure to become Hellenized, so do many of us today continue to wear our differences with pride.

Several weeks ago, I received the annual Face of Light (Anpin Nehirin) Award from the organization Nehirim (Lights), a national community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Jews, families, and allies, committed to a more just and inclusive world. The award was especially meaningful to me because for the last decade, Nehirim has provided a safe and nurturing community in which the spirits of LGBT people can shine.

I came out as a gay man in 2000, when I was 49 years old, first to my then-wife and our three children, then gradually to the world over the course of the next year. The decision to do so was excruciatingly difficult and had taken years to reach. I had no expectations that I would ever find someone to love me as I had been loved by my wife of 25 years. I only knew that I was unable to maintain the deception any longer. If I could have remained closeted, I would have.

I was afraid—that my wife would break down, that my relationships with my children would be irreparably harmed, that I would no longer be able to serve effectively as the Academic Vice President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, that I would be alone. My deepest fear, however, was that people would no longer trust me—that I would be viewed as a liar. I was known for my honesty, more than anything else. And now, everyone would know that I had been dishonest for decades about my sexual orientation.

This is obviously a much longer story, about which I have recently reflected in an oral history posted for Queeriality. But there are two memories that seem particularly relevant here.

First, I remember walking in Center City Philadelphia early on the Monday morning following the weekend when I had come out to my wife. I remember the quality of the sunlight, the deep azure sky, the different shades of green of the leaves. I was seeing light and colors that were brighter, more vivid, than I had ever seen them before. Until that day, I had spent a huge but imperceptible amount of energy at every moment keeping my straight persona intact. Staying in the closet was not only exhausting; it was a distraction that drained my ability to see!

Second, when soon thereafter, I first walked into the biweekly meeting of the Gay Married Men’s (Gamma) Support Group at the William Way LGBT Community Center on Spruce Street, I was petrified. I could barely breathe. I had never been in a room of self-identified gay men. It was something that I had feared for so long that I didn’t know how to turn the fear off, how not to look away from the direct gaze of another man. I had lived my life veiled. The very idea of a radiant face was beyond my ability to imagine.

I had always heard that coming out is a process, not an event, but until I did it, I had no idea what that meant. And part of my process took place as I served as a teacher at Nehirim on weekends.

Most of the people who attend the weekend gatherings that Nehirim sponsors across the continent have not, thank God, been in the closet for 49 years. Many have family members or childhood rabbis who are not so happy about their sexual orientations or gender identities. Yet even those people who do have supportive families and Jewish communities do not know what it is like to be totally out simultaneously as Jews and as queers—to participate in a mikveh (ritual immersion) before the Sabbath with queer Jews, to welcome the Sabbath Bride with 100 other LGBT people, to study sacred texts with a group of people who share the experience of trying to reclaim Jewish traditions after having been alienated from them because as LGBT people, they were not explicitly included. Even the most well-intentioned straight person does not fully understand the needs and wounds of queer Jews.

The Maccabees who are celebrated on Hanukah insisted on the right of Jews to maintain their identities despite intense pressures to Hellenize. Even in the most gay-friendly Jewish communities, there can be subtle and unintentional pressure on LGBT members to leave their distinctive identities at the synagogue door, to be included by being like everyone else. For this reason, many LGBT Jews will want and need to explore their Jewish identities in settings with others who share their experiences, where they can allow their faces to be radiant without inhibition.

“A great miracle happened there,” Jews say on Hanukah. My experiences show that the miraculous lights of Hanukah continue to illumine today.

Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

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