Why do we pray? What do we pray for?
Liturgy raises the most fundamental theological questions, daily, if we pay attention. But we rarely do. We are born into or find a denomination, are born into or find a congregation, and learn its liturgy.
Often—too often—the prayers become rote. But not for everyone. Because if you read the texts, actually read them, you will often find a language that is unbearable: an angry, vindictive God; a masculine universe; and an abstract language of praise completely disconnected from the world we know—the world of plants and animals, friends and family, love and loss.
Some of us can mask these uncomfortable words behind a linguistic veil, chanting Hebrew or Aramaic we do not understand or allowing ourselves to forget the meaning and find comfort, even uplift, in the familiarity of old niggun communally sung. However, especially for those whom conventional prayer excludes, the very act of praying can become agony, a struggle (agony’s root: agon) between words on the page and words in the heart.
Queer liturgy arises out of the particular struggle of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people to find their own voices in prayers that are meaningful for their lives. Queer liturgy attempts to answer the theological questions hidden behind the solid wall of conventional prayer: why pray? What to pray for? To Whom do we pray?
Why call this liturgy “queer” instead of “lgbt” or some other set of acronyms? The word “queer,” reclaimed from decades of abusive use, reminds us that sexuality and gender are not fixed. “Queer” suggests that lines are always a bit fuzzy and a bit curved, that nothing ever is quite as “straightforward” as it seems. Queer liturgy begins in identity but does not remain there: it is a liturgy that keeps moving, keeps questioning.
Queer liturgy insists upon prayers that are intimately personal, prayers that allow us to speak directly as ourselves to a God who is approachable. In the remainder of this essay, I will take as examples prayers from Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, a new LGBT siddur which I was privileged to help edit and guide to completion as project manager.
Here is a prayer to be read before lighting candles on Friday night, a prayer that asserts the direct, personal connection between the person who prays and the God to whom prayer is directed:
I draw Your energy toward me with my hands before
Covering my face with Your warmth, and at once it
Seeps through my eyelids, into my blood vessels,
Soothing organs that have held the week’s anxieties
And uncertainties, pouring in stillness and
Timelessness, bringing me closer to myself.
Blessed are You, O God, whose light comes to life in
Friday evening’s burning flames.
This prayer draws upon the custom of lighting the Shabbat candles, drawing their light towards the eyes with hand gestures, and then closing the eyes. The custom of closing the eyes began to ensure that as we bless the candles, they are not “working” to provide us with light. Here, however, the gesture is reinterpreted as one that removes anxieties and draws one closer to oneself. And that self is not some abstract someone but a person of flesh and blood, organs and vessels, in need of healing and prayer. Why pray? To bring God into my life.
The One Who Prays
Queer liturgy is adamant about recognizing the person who prays. Who is that person? Torah tells us that each of us is created b’tselem elohim, in the image of God. We are each of us holy.
Leviticus chapter 19 is known in Judaism as the “Holiness Code” because of its many commandments regarding human relationships and dietary laws, including the prohibition against sodomy. The following prayer, by Rabbi Lisa Edwards, reframes sexual and gender identity in the fuller context of the chapter:
We are your gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered children:
You must not seek vengeance, nor bear a grudge against the children
of your people. (LEVITICUS 19:18)
We are your bi, trans, lesbian, and gay parents:
Revere your mother and father, each one of you. (LEVITICUS 19:3)
We are elderly lesbians, bisexuals, gay men, and transgendered people:
You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old.
We are the stranger:
You must not oppress the stranger.
You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the
land of Egypt. (LEVITICUS 19:34)
We are lesbian, gay, trans, and bi Jews:
You must not go about slandering your kin. (LEVITICUS 19:16)
We are your trans, gay, bi, and lesbian siblings:
You shall not hate your brother or sister in your heart.
We are lesbian, gay, trans, and bi victims of gay-bashing and murder:
You may not stand idly when your neighbor’s blood is being shed.
We are your bi, gay, trans, and lesbian neighbors:
You must not oppress your neighbor. (LEVITICUS 19:13)
You must judge your neighbor justly. (LEVITICUS 19:15)
You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself. (LEVITICUS 19:18)
Precursors of Difference
The aim of creating a liturgy that speaks to us, now, today, is not really an innovation. Many of our prayers were written in Aramaic because Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Second Temple period—these were prayers meant to be said by ordinary Jews in the pews, not by the priests in the Temple. Many of the most beautiful prayers in our siddurim, the piyyut, were written in the middle ages in order to bring more spiritual uplift and beauty to a collection of largely formulaic prayers. The entire Kabbalat Shabbat service was added by the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century to inject a sense of spiritual oneness into the Shabbat service.
In the 19th century, nationalists added prayers for country and state; rationalists began reworking prayers as they questioned theological principles like the chosenness of the Jewish people.
The most significant change to the liturgy since the kabbalists was the work of feminists in our own time. When we think of feminist liturgy, we may think mainly of new rituals like the revival of rosh chodesh as a women’s holiday, or we may focus on the egalitarian language feminists introduced to more accurately represent a God without gender. The most significant innovation that feminists brought to liturgy has been our effort to reconnect the personal with the spiritual (just as, in the secular world, we reconnected the personal with the political).
A strong non-canonical liturgical tradition of women’s prayers flourished through the last millennium. Often these were very personal prayers connected to childbirth and lifecycle events. Contemporary feminists brought back that tradition by creating prayers that connect aspects of our daily lives to God. For example:
On Being A Woman
The moon is inside me,
Rage, joy, sadness, love –
They cycle, crescent, gibbous.
When young, I could not control
This wash of blood and light.
With age – and your help, Shechinah –
I can direct these currents,
Ride them to new shores.
Shechinah, give me wisdom
To find power in my cycles.
Bless you, Mother of us all,
For giving women the strength of the tides.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender liturgists have carried this feminist model into their own liturgy, creating prayers that recognize the uniqueness of the lgbt experience. These prayers are rooted in identity difference, yet refuse to name specific difference. Instead, queer liturgy embraces difference and uniqueness as qualities, celebrating that which makes each individual b’tselem elohim, an image of God.
Unique In The World
My God, I thank You for my life and my soul and my body; for my name, for
my sexual and affectionate nature, for my way of thinking and talking. Help
me realize that in my qualities I am unique in the world, and that no one like
me has ever lived: for if there had ever before been someone like me, I would
not have needed to exist. Help me make perfect my own ways of love and
caring, that by becoming perfect in my own way, I can honor Your name, and
help bring about the coming of the Messianic age.
If feminists—at least some feminists—focused on bringing women into the liturgy, queer liturgists want every Jew to feel welcome, no matter what their sexuality or gender, no matter what their race or religion of birth. As Jay Michaelson notes, LGBT people have suffered enough exclusion that the aim is to be inclusionary whenever possible.
Here is an example of a prayer familiar to us from the Shabbat evening liturgy, the “vShamru,” reconceived to remind each of us of the commandment to observe Shabbat. The Hebrew calls on “b’nei Yisraeil” to celebrate Shabbat. In Hebrew, the plural is formed from the masculine noun, so that the word for “children” and “sons” is the same. What if a minyan of women reciting this prayer? What if we do not identify as either sons or daughters, as either male or female? Why not open up the language to numerous possibilities:
V’sham-ru v’nei Yis-ra-eil…
V’sham-ru v’not Yis-ra-eil…
V’sham-ru a-dot Yis-ra-eil…
V’sham-ru ke-lal Yis-ra-eil…
et ha-sha-bat, la-a-sot et ha-sha-bat
l’do-ro-tam brit o-lam.
The sons of Israel / The daughters of Israel…
The communities of Israel / All of Israel…
shall keep Shabbat, observing Shabbat
in all generations as a covenant for all time.
In a queer context, the service leader might choose any of these options—or, more likely, will encourage the community to sing the option that most meets their needs. The resulting mix of words and voices creates unity from difference, the harmony of multiple identities woven together.
But queer liturgy moves beyond identity politics, since the experiences of lgbt people also invokes theological problems. Who is chosen? How do we trust the words of Torah when Torah prohibits our love?
The most radical aspect of queer liturgy may be its refusal to answer these theological questions. Queer liturgy is about questioning, not answering. It is defiantly non-canonical. At Sha’ar Zahav, the most significant argument around the new siddur was whether in fact to publish the siddur at all. As long as our prayerbook was stapled and Xeroxed, congregants argued, it could be easily changed, while a hardcover might look like an impenetrable canonical text.
That reluctance to fix prayers is echoed in a reluctance to resolve theological problems. In the v’Shamru, for example, “bnei,” “sons,” is not replaced by a neutral term, but rather offered alongside other options. Likewise, multiple names of God are used in English for the unspeakable Name, including Adonai (Lord, a masculine name), Shechinah (Presence, a feminine name) and God (the English neutral).
Like the Reconstructionist liturgy, queer liturgy questions theology that seems to exclude rather than include. For example, why must we pray, in the Aleinu, that we have been chosen by God from among all other people? One way to address such questions is to change the text, to change “from” others to “with” others. Queer liturgy, however, prefers to leave the root text because we understand that prejudice cannot just be ignored—it must be addressed. Alongside of offering a language change for the Aleinu, why not also offer a new Aleinu that reworks the theme, thanking God for choosing lgbt people, making us “different from all others,” with unique gifts to offer? This playful—though serious–response addresses the theological question without answering it.
Queer liturgy often includes prayers that question why we pray, that question Torah, that question God. Queer liturgy includes commentaries that suggest we might not want to take prayers for granted, might want to change them or even discard them. For example, Siddur Sha’ar Zahav includes an alternative Amidah that is a Contemplation for Non-Believers.
What may be most moving, however, are prayers like these from the Remembrance section. Here we have another example of the personal as spiritual, a direct address of the individual to God in the prophetic mode: angry, defiant, but still engaged.
On Leaving Me Angry
It says in the Amidah that You revive the dead. What good does that do for
me now, God? Now You have taken, much too soon and far too cruelly, one
whom I love and long for.
To put death in Your world and not fully explain why – why trees fall, why
mountains crumble, why whales sink into the abyss and our beloved ones
vanish – leaves me twice mad, God: once at death, and once at You, Creator
And I cannot say, Amen.
For An Unresolved Relationship
Your memory is blessed in anger and in love. Both fill the space of your
absence in equal, imperfect measure, for how else could I honor the truth of
your life or of mine?
In struggle born of love our boundless and dangerous hearts sanctified each
other with rage’s improbable grace. I cannot now forget how each hand of these
feelings fed the other if it is really you I want to remember. My anger, like my
love, is also sacred. With them both I bless your stilled and silent body, your
still and silenced breath.
Queer liturgy brings back the prophets. It brings back an engagement with God on God’s own holy ground. How Jewish is that?
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