By Ollie Read and Robert Wheatley
It’s often assumed that, as a person of faith, one must identify a certain way in order to follow a religion because of what a holy text appears to denote, forcing individuals to either lose their faith or find other methods to conform; ideas that may be psychologically damaging, and, at times, life-threatening. As time has moved on, religious communities and communities of faith have begun to reject these harmful attempts at trying to change who a person is, and have, instead, embraced the diversity of human sexuality and gender: be it Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Judaism to name a few major religions.
The Trident decided to explore this topic further in regards to one particular religion, Judaism, and for this spoke to C. Faraday; a send-year Psychology student from the University of Hertfordshire. C., who has chosen to use their first initial for this interview, comes from a Jewish ethnoreligious background, which inspired them to connect with Judaism as their grandfather once did. C. has found comfort in practicing as a Jew and tells us how their gender identity and sexuality works well with their faith, as a result of the interpretive nature of Judaistic holy texts, and how Jews have been influenced by their history to sympathise with those prosecuted.
So, C., tell us about yourself.
I study psychology, and I’m in my second year of that, completing some of my last year’s modules. I’ve got other interests like history, biology, philosophy, and the area of linguistics and anthropology — I’m very interested in people, I guess you could say. I love cooking, gardening, and stuff like video games, as well, like strategy games.
What do you identify as?
I typically refer to myself as non-binary. My personal thing about gender is sort of like because I’m autistic, I never really used to understand its concept as a child; I just accepted what was told to me, even though I didn’t get it properly. I later realised I did stuff I wasn’t supposed to do because of the way I was assigned at birth, and so I became unsure about the whole thing. I found out later on that I felt more comfortable being called non-binary, so that’s what I call myself.
When it comes to my sexuality it’s a little bit complicated, as I don’t really care how someone identifies gender-wise: if I feel something for someone, I feel something for someone. But, I feel comfortable calling myself a lesbian because I’m still very much attracted to other women, especially those similar to me. But, I’m still a bit iffy about that label as I’m not completely unattracted to men, but since I’m in a relationship with a woman I tend to identify more so as a lesbian.
I suppose we should move on to the religious side of things if that’s OK with you?
Absolutely, I love to talk about it. My faith is something I’m rediscovering, actually, so the more I can talk to other Jewish people about it, and get my feelings on it — the way it helps to talk to someone to get your own perspective on it — the better; which is why I tend to ‘info-dump’ from people to better understand it. Because I have autism, it helps a lot to have someone I can bounce ideas and questions back and forth with. It’s why I had some issues with modules last year as I didn’t ask for help when I should of, but that’s something a lot of first years do.
So, you’re in the process of rediscovering your Jewish identity?
Well, my grandfather was a Jewish man, and I don’t know lots about him but my family on that side stopped being observant of the Jewish faith and are non-religious. But, more recently, I’m interested in embracing it again, and it feels comforting to learn more about Judaism. It’s something I feel is a part of me. Initially, while I’m Jewish, I didn’t look into it too much, though learning things about my heritage inspired my interest. One particular thing I love about the Jewish culture and religion is that it doesn’t really matter what your beliefs are.
I’m not particularly a very religious person, and I’m mostly agnostic, and you can ask a lot of Jewish people and they would probably say the same. For me, participating in stuff like religious events are less about your faith and more about the culture behind them. It’s similar to how while loads of Atheists celebrate Christmas they don’t do it for religious purposes; it’s because it’s a nice thing to do. It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not, it’s about getting together with family.
I tend to get together with friends as my family isn’t practicing faith, and it’s something more for me to do. I fasted on Yom Kippur, and while it wasn’t a huge thing it was nice to participate in something closer to my faith.
Are you a practicing Jew?
I don’t yet go to temple and might pick that up, but I have certainly been celebrating holidays more. For example, on Rosh Hashana this year I baked challah, had honey and apples, and a week later fasted for Yom Kippur. I didn’t celebrate Hannakuh last year as I didn’t feel informed enough about it, but this year I fully intend to, especially as I’ve been visiting a Jewish society and feel more confident about stuff now.
You’ve spoken very positively about your faith, but how do you feel your identity works with your religion?
I’ve known about my sexuality from my early teens, gender-wise a little later — oh my god, I just realised I’m 20 — but I knew some Jewish people in the LGBT+ community, so it never stuck out to me as an oddity to have both identities. Some orthodox sects frown upon it, but even then my practice of Judaism is cultural and personal to me, so even if every preacher frowned on it I wouldn’t care. One of my closest friends, she’s trans, gay and Jewish and she’s very similar to me in that she’s rediscovering her faith as well; something that’s cool to do together, sometimes.
It just seems natural to me, to be both Jewish and in the LGBTQIA community. It might be more common for the Jewish community to be open-minded than, say, the Christian community, purely because a lot of Jews faced prosecution themselves. While the Christian faith’s interpretations are quite rigid, the Jewish faith is a bit more like the law: it’s open to interpretation. There’s a whole book, the Talmud, which interprets the Tanakh and sees how its verses can be interpreted; a little like how the law can be interpreted in different ways.
The reformation of Judaism sprung up a lot more interpretations, and even more recently there have been groups dedicated to highlighting things that might even be supportive of transgender people and other sexualities. Rabbis will even raise attention to the fact that it was written thousands of years ago, so not everything will be appropriate today; you don’t have to take every ounce of it as given. For example, on Shabbat, you’re not supposed to drive, because you can’t light a fire, which happens when you activate the engine. You’re not supposed to use lights either, even though the text doesn’t refer to electricity, but you can interpret it in different ways. Because of this, I can see why people could synchronise being Jewish and LGBT+.
Re-embracing Judaism, I felt so comfortable, knowing that I could read through the text and interpret it because it didn’t matter if some other people disagree with it; I can do what’s personally relevant to me because that doesn’t stop me from being Jewish. Even those who aren’t observant Jews at all can still be considered Jewish as they can be ethnically or culturally Jewish and not religious at all. While I do observe some things, as I choose to, even then I’d still consider myself culturally and ethnically Jewish.
What do you think causes some people in your religious community to be apprehensive about allowing LGBTQIA-identifying people in?
Because the texts are so open to interpretation there are still people that interpret in a way that exclude our communities, but I think it also depends on your location; different areas of the world and their Jewish communities might be more accepting. I found that with the Israeli people I spoke to that they tended to be a bit more on the orthodox side, and while I’m not sure why, I wondered if it had to do with them not being part of the Jewish diaspora, so they may not be as understanding of persecution.
What would you say to someone who’s a faithful individual, and LGBTQIA identifying, and might be struggling with this intersection of identities?
You do you: it’s your personal perspective. I’ve always felt, in terms of religion and faith, that it can be something very personal to you. No matter what, you’ll find people that are similar to you, either LGBT+ or accepting of you otherwise, and as the Tanakh is open to interpretation you can interpret it your way as well.
Similarly with Christianity, while, historically, the Bible has been interpreted quite rigidly, that doesn’t mean you can’t interpret it how you like. While I don’t know as much about the Quran, I know that Islam has a long history of science, maths, and law, so I assume similarly can be done with the Quran so you can be of Muslim faith and still LGBT+.
I doubt many religions specifically condemn being LGBT+, and ones that do I’m sure can be interpreted to find something comfortable for you; don’t be afraid to consider your own perspective. After all, religious texts aren’t a person telling you what to do: it’s a sacred text that can indeed be interpreted. What I do know that a core tenet of many religions is to be accepting, and be good to people: condemning people seems anti-religious, otherwise.