This Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Says His Holiest Moment Was Becoming Public LGBTQ Ally09:46
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Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is one of the few ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis who not only support, but actively advocate for, LGBTQ individuals. He's pictured here with Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Courtesy of Mike Moskowitz)MoreCloseclosemore
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is one of the few ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis who not only support, but actively advocate for, LGBTQ individuals. He's pictured here with Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York. (Courtesy of Mike Moskowitz)

There's a widespread perception that fundamentalist faiths are incompatible with the LGBTQ identity. And for the most part, that's true — with a few exceptions.

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is one of the few ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis who not only support, but actively advocate for, LGBTQ individuals. He tells Here & Now's Robin Young that despite his stand on these issues costing him his congregation and his job at Columbia University, he's proud of the work he now does with New York's Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.

"The rabbinic voice I don't think has been loud enough in creating a safe space," Moskowitz says. "That a sanctuary should be a sacred space, a sanctuary, from persecution. And unfortunately, religion now often excludes people."

Interview Highlights

On calling his choice to become an LGBTQ advocate a "holy decision"

"I think we're all put in this world for a specific purpose, and for me, I've found clarity in the invitation to kind of expand the space that religion I think is meant to provide, as a container to help support relationships with God. There's just a huge segment of society that is being told, 'There's no room for you here,' and as a fundamentalist, I believe that God is everywhere, all the time. We need some restorative religion to heal for some of the trauma that has been meted out by those who want to constrict the space that God occupies.

"I think that God isn't some sort of prefabricated, mass-produced space, and each person needs to ask themselves, 'What does God want from me, being who I am, in this relationship?' "

"The rabbinic voice I don't think has been loud enough in creating a safe space."

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

On what "ultra-Orthodox" means to him

"I find it helpful to borrow language from the queer community about my own religious identity, because I think there's a huge parallel there. I was assigned secular, and then kind of came out as orthodox in high school, went on a right-wing trajectory for the next 20 years, learning in the largest seminaries in the world, and really living in that very far right-wing Lithuanian, yeshiva world. And now, [I] identify as religiously nonconforming. I have very progressive values, which are very much a part of who I am. I also am deeply religious.

"We all have to express ourselves with some sort of dominant physical form. And so for me, living in an ultra-Orthodox community, dressing the way in which rabbis in my community dress, is helpful in that it expresses to the world who I am at my core. If we force somebody to choose between a gender identity and a religious identity, or a sexual identity and a religious identity, there is only one out of those three which is a choice, and so people leave religion because they're told that there is no space for them to be who they are."

On this new "holy" understanding coming to him as a result of personal experience

"Actually two different personal experiences that really led me in this quest to try to uncover and discover the divine will. First, someone in my family transitioned, and said, 'I'm not a girl, I'm a boy.' And that led me — I was a rabbi at Columbia University — to explore gender studies for the first time.

"And then when one of my students was really struggling as a trans individual, I felt a calling to really come out very publicly as an ally."

"When we have rabbis getting in between a person's relationship with God, it gets crowded. If a person is genuinely and sincerely on a quest to discover the divine intention, that struggle for truth is as holy as it gets."

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

On giving a speech at Hanukkah that he calls his "coming-out speech" about being an ally

"For me, it felt so reminiscent of the feeling I had when I was 17, 20 years earlier, thinking about whether or not I was willing to take on the precarity of acknowledging the truth that I felt in my core to be absolute and objective, but was going to have consequences. ... It was a similar struggle at 37, to come out again in that place of embarking on a journey to discover and uncover the divine will in a space that was very new for me. I think faith is a call to action, and when we're willing to do something in partnership with God for the greater good, and there's risks involved, I think that there's a way in which we manifest the divine will in the world of action."

On losing his job, and feeling isolated from the ultra-Orthodox community as a result of his advocacy

"It's lonely and isolating, in that this space isn't occupied with other people with my background, and I think that's just the way it is when it comes to progress. But we also have some old truths that we can ground ourselves in, which are that God loves us more than we love ourselves, and God doesn't put extra people in this world and God so desperately yearns and longs to be in a relationship with each one of us. And unfortunately, the suicide rate among the trans community, for those who are not validated and affirmed, it's over 40 percent. Whether we understand the meta question of where gender lies is almost irrelevant, because we do understand the practical obligation to create a safe space for folks."

On whether the ultra-Orthodox community could shift further on LGBTQ issues

"At the intersection of tradition and innovation, there is a lot of tension. If you change the rules too much, it's a different game. But if you don't adapt, no one's going to show up to play. And I think the far-right part of orthodoxy has drawn some lines with Sharpies, very permanent lines, but the problem is that that no longer fits the topography of the universe. And as rabbis, we're taught not to answer questions, but to answer people, and so the needs of people today are just different. So we don't need to change the tradition, but we need to recognize that its application to people needs to look different because people look different."

On what he says to people who say his advocacy is against God's will or an abomination

"Nobody can ever own the relationship of another with God, and I think that we need to have much more autonomy given to the individual to own and take responsibility for our relationships with God. When we have rabbis getting in between a person's relationship with God, it gets crowded. If a person is genuinely and sincerely on a quest to discover the divine intention, that struggle for truth is as holy as it gets."

On arriving at this transcendent moment through meeting transgender people, and those words being similar

"We find transitions deep within our tradition: from holiness to the mundane, from the day into the night. And sometimes it's a contradiction to the physical, because that plane of spirituality might look different than what we see with our physical eyes. Then if we have gendered aspects of God in our liturgy, 'Our father, our king,' and feminine aspects, and God doesn't have a body ... where might gender lie, and what might that tell us about those who are able to sense things perhaps on a soul level?"


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on November 9, 2018.

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