Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Excitations, Exploitations, and Exclusions

Rather than learning to respect the very different perspectives and experiences that each transgender subgroup brings to the table, the transgender community has instead become a sort of gender free-for-all, where identities are regularly co-opted by others within the community. These days, many transsexuals assume that they have the right to appropriate the language of, or speak on behalf of, intersex people; similarly, many cissexual genderqueers feel they have the right to do the same for transsexuals. This needlessly erases each group’s unique issues, obstacles, and perspectives.
— Julia Serano[1]

Cultural studies thus believes that its practice does matter, that its own intellectual work is supposed to—can—make a difference…. Cultural studies is never merely a theoretical practice, even when that practice incorporates notions of politics, power, and context into its analysis…. In a period of waning enthusiasm for “pure” and implacably ahistorical theory, cultural studies demonstrates the social difference theory can make.
— Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler[2]

I want to come clean from the outset—my field is neither Religious Studies nor Queer Studies. I am a scholar of rabbinics, which, although it concerns itself with deeply religious ancient texts, rarely situates itself within the greater field of “Religious Studies.” I am of European descent, queer, a lesbian, and a Jew. And I am, and have always been, an activist, which again, situates me outside a field (in this case, my field), for although much is now being written on issues of gender, class and race, “activist scholarship” is generally looked down upon in the field of rabbinics.

My positions as “insider/outsider,” my contact with literature from the fields of Queer Studies and Religious Studies, and my desire for my scholarship to “do something,” have all raised multiple questions for my work, which finds itself at this intersection of queer studies and religion. I speak here as someone for whom what I write, for whom I write, and why I write are inseparable. And I speak here to those at this intersection who, like me, are invested in the project of Queer Studies and religion beyond the academy. Here, I wish to (humbly) examine just one of the questions that emerges of these considerations: What is the relationship between queer religious scholarship (my rabbinics scholarship included), and queer and/or religious people? Our scholarship is often unabashedly allied with “queer politics” (by which I mean an investment in the political/social outcome and greater meaning of what we write) and sometimes inextricably bound to our own religious (or anti-religious) beliefs, struggles and/or questions.[3] How might it then serve to benefit, enrich and excite queer movements and religious communities? At the same time, how do we keep our work from co-opting, exploiting or excluding those very people (or others who reside outside of the bounds of those movements)?

What I offer here are three examples of how these questions play out in my own work, and thoughts about how they might play out in the field at large. I first examine the issue of when the texts don’t say what we wish they would. Then I examine what happens when those we are writing about do not have consensus on how they wish to be discussed, and we are confronted with how to be an ally while making our choices about language. Finally, I reflect on our audience—how we want to write for that audience, and what (or whom) we forgo and/or gain in the process of making those decisions. Of course, these are only examples of a vast range of issues that arise when we wish to make our scholarship matter, but they are a place to start.

Excitations: Texts that Won’t Behave

My writing is primarily concerned with the subject of intersex in Jewish legal texts (rabbinic literature) of (approximately) the first to sixth centuries C.E., in which there is a fair amount of deliberation about intersex bodies. The discussion revolves around how to “classify” those bodies in a religious system that is entirely dependent upon a binary sex/gender system for almost every aspect of daily life. In these texts, there is rarely a differentiation between biological sex and gender assignment. The assumption is that being born with male genitalia means following the ritual laws assigned to men, and being born with female genitalia means following laws assigned to women. In the legal material, nowhere have I found that the rabbis prescribe or assume that a male or female might follow laws that do not conform to their gender assignment. Thus, when the rabbis discuss intersex bodies, bodies that do not conform to the binary, they are of necessity discussing gender assignment, insofar as they are deciding which of the gender segregated rules the person with an intersex body must follow at any given moment. As Charlotte Fonrobert puts it, “sex is variable, gender is not.”[4] This is where the rabbinic conundrum occurs.

In exploring the subject of intersex in Rabbinic literature, some have chosen to focus on the rabbis’ obsession with categorization as a thought experiment, rather than on the possible impact of the rabbinic discourse on actual intersex bodies.[5] One of the elements that queer theory brings to the table is the real people behind these supposedly theoretical texts. And this is where things begin to get fuzzier, because I want my work to serve real people. I want my work to excite and inspire them. I want to find places in the ancient texts in which they can see themselves reflected, and to find alternatives to the way in which the discourses of today are conducted. And I believe that it is our responsibility as scholars at this intersection to keep in mind the harm that has already been caused to the queer community, and to intersex individuals (or individuals with DSD), often in the name of religion itself, and not to repeat that harm in our research. At the same time, it is essential to our scholarship that we tell the truth about what these texts say (to whatever extent that is possible), whether or not it is what we wish them to say.

Some have adopted these texts or their language in ways that are empowering to the queer community, bringing to light a system that seems more flexible regarding gender, and thus allowing Jewish queer folk to see themselves reflected in ancient religious texts for the first time. There are web pages dedicated to the subject,[6] organizations that use the language of the Talmud, a traditional group that prepares the dead for burial that includes this language on its website,[7] and even a series of media projects bringing “lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, questioning, tumtum and androgynous Jewish perspectives to film, television and print media.”[8] Biologist Anne Fausto Sterling, in her groundbreaking book Sexing the Body, writes: “Jewish religious texts such as the … Tosefta list extensive regulations for people of mixed sex…. Judaic law provided a means for integrating hermaphrodites [sic] into mainstream culture.”[9]

But this is not the whole story. From the looks of all of these sources, one might think that the rabbinic view of the intersex body and the fluidity of sex/gender is far more advanced than what we find in our own western cultural milieu. And in certain ways, this is indeed true. For example, whereas our culture “disappears” such bodies by cutting them to fit into the binary system, the culture of the rabbis attempted no such tactics. So too, rather than being repressed, discussion of people who do not fit into that norm was fairly natural.

On the other hand, what of the fact that in many cases, the intersex body lands at the bottom of the gender hierarchy? What of the fact, that although the rabbis do speak about intersex bodies, they are far from believing that these “non-conforming” bodies should be allowed “non-conforming” gender roles? Queer Jews look to these texts to find themselves. And yet in our scholarship we must be equally attentive to the fact that the rabbis’ approach to the topic of intersex is not ours, and bears little resemblance to the ways in which we understand queer or intersex or DSD at this moment in history.

When we try to see queer in an ancient religious tradition, do we not sometimes glamourize an equally oppressive and patriarchal system, in the service of empowerment? If we are to be politically relevant scholars, allies and truth-tellers, imaginative and critical, under what circumstances do we “queer” the texts, and under what circumstances do we “query” them?

Exploitations: Allies that Won’t Behave

Having participated in queer communities for decades, I have been aware of damage done to those who are different, both from within these communities and outside of them, sometimes unintentionally or even with the best of intentions. How then, do we, as members of some communities and allies to others, refrain from causing more damage than has already been done to the people about whom we write? In my own research, for example, I deliberate over the ongoing debate between those who identify as intersex and those who prefer the language of DSD (“differences of sexual development,” or the medicalized, “disorders of sexual development”). Do we embrace the language of intersex, and participate to a greater or lesser degree in the postmodernist queer discourse? Or do we instead use the language of DSD—positioning those who understand themselves as cisgender individuals with a medical condition as they wish to be positioned? While largely a tactical choice to push forward an activist agenda within the traditional medical context, the latter choice is sometimes born out of a particularly non-queer, non-trans, and sometimes even anti-queer/trans agenda. Those who embrace it do not want to be considered or associated with the queer community. On the other hand, the former raises another issue: the use of intersex bodies to bolster a claim for queerness has been seen by people with DSD as co-opting the bodies of real people who have no desire to identify as queer, for the queer community’s own political agenda.[10]

The question of whether we are wronging actual people in our attempts to advance discourse or theory is not unique to queer studies or religious studies.[11] What is unique to this field (or at least, shared by fewer academic fields) is the investment of many of its academicians in the community or communities of which they write, beyond the ivory tower. Many (though not all) academic fields traditionally situate themselves outside of the frame that they are studying (sometimes self-conceived as “objective”). In contrast, it seems to me that the intersection of the subjects that we are here to talk about has particular power, because while we are, on the face of it, discussing academics, many of us believe that those subjects are not only academic. We have a “vested” interest, often in queer, sometimes in religion, and sometimes in both.

I noticed (and appreciated), the variety of language used to describe the very workshop out of which this paper emerged: “a … workshop on Gender, Religion and Queer Theory,” or, “Intersection of Queer Studies and Religion.” One of the issues it was suggested that we address was: “How do queer theoretical approaches affect the study of religion and gender?” This triumvirate signifies both the beauty and the knottiness (pun intended) of this particular intersection. Are we interested in Queer Studies? In Queer theories? In queer cultures? In our own queer identities? Are we discussing its effects on the study of religion? On religion itself? On our own religious beliefs or approaches? Do we believe that the academy and the lived experience are the same? Connected? Disconnected? In many ways the lines between where we end and our studies begin are less clear at this intersection than it seems they are to some researchers in other fields. Many scholars engaging at the intersection of these fields are positioned between two spheres at least one of which holds great weight in our lives, not only academically, but spiritually, socially, and as a part or parts of our identity. I believe this is a strength of this part of the academy, and I believe we will reap the benefit of that difference if we are able to bring it to the table and to develop it more systematically as an integral part of our conversations about methodology.

Exclusions: Language that Won’t Behave

Finally, I find myself intrigued by a different language question—that which is sometimes put in terms of “obscurantist” versus “politically purposed,”[12] or as “critical theory versus “introductory primers,”[13] depending on whose “side” one is taking in this ongoing (sometimes acerbic) battle. This issue has been ground into fine flour by now, and I will not spend a great deal of time repeating the arguments, but I do wish to put on the table two points, as part of the greater question I am asking.
The first point I believe we must grapple with as we write is—if we are truly invested in “the natives of whom we speak,”[14] and all the more so if we are in community with, or are ourselves, those natives, how important is it to speak in a language in which we are understood by those beyond the academy. Although I fervently believe that language is there to be manipulated (as has historically been done not only by academics, but also by activists); and although I agree with Butler[15] and others who claim it is political and radical to do so; and although I believe that language constructs and organizes how we see the world, I throw my lot in with those who are disinclined to use theoretical technical language. If we balance the political needs that are served by the language of theory, against the effects of using language that is more accessible, I trust that the latter dominates. I believe that what serves the community better politically is for what happens in the ivory tower to be understood by a wider audience that includes those who have little or no access to the academy. And I believe that in this field, whether or not we intend to be, we are ultimately, political.

I do wish to add a word to the more than decade-long conversation about theoretical language about field-specific technical language. Although that conversation has been extensive, what I have not found discussed a great deal is the issue of interdisciplinarity. In a changing academic atmosphere of interdisciplinary studies, I have found this issue is magnified. In my own writing, for example, the two audiences I hope to reach are specialized in two very different areas—queer theory and rabbinics—and there is little overlap. Each of these fields has a specific set of specialized technical vocabulary, virtually unintelligible to anyone outside the field. Thus, if I hope to reach anyone at all, I must either choose a field to write within, or find ways to express myself that do not assume a knowledge of the “lingo” prior to reading my writing. If we are to be truly interdisciplinary, can we indeed expect our readers to become steeped enough to be proficient in the specialized language of more than one discipline? I think not.

Conclusions that Won’t Behave

Although I have tried to draw conclusions, they have consistently turned themselves into yet more questions. We who write about religion or religious issues and are at the same time invested in queer theory or queer politics, are at a strange intersection. It is clear that most (if not all) religious traditions have had a painful impact on queer people. So how do we remain academically faithful to the history of these (sometimes harmful) religious traditions, keep contributing to their growth and change, and do all of this without co-opting on the one hand, or excluding on the other, the already co-opted and excluded? Of course, this is impossible. But what is possible? What can we do with the tools of religion and queer, to open conversations with one other, and with activists outside of this room who may not share our (individual and collective) goals? How can we move towards an agenda that is inclusive of the excluded? How do we approach our work with integrity, and still allow the members of the communities we write about to see themselves in these texts?

I believe that we who stand at this intersection are uniquely positioned to come to our research with a heightened awareness of these issues. If we take seriously our work as scholars of queer theory, then queering our methods as well as our materials is essential. I put forward these questions as queer questions, questions that fall between and cross over communities (academic, queer, religious, intersex, etc.), disciplines (rabbinics, Queer studies, Religious studies), concerns (politics, integrity, activism, faith) and individuals (you, me, and the people we write about/for). As an insider/outsider, I have been grateful to read and listen to the scholars grappling with issues that arise at this intersection, and I am grateful to those who have taught me to read queerly not only when I open my texts, but when I ask myself important methodological questions. I look forward to conversations that keep us honest, thinking, caring and creative.

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  1. Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2007), 354. [Return to text]
  2. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler, Cultural Studies (New York: Routledge, 1992), 6. [Return to text]
  3. See, for example, Ayesha Chaudhry’s description of Yasir Qadhi, Assistant Professor at Rhodes College, in “Sexual Violence and Sacred Texts,” Feminist Studies in Religion Press, forthcoming. [Return to text]
  4. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, “Regulating the human body: rabbinic legal discourse and the making of Jewish gender,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, ed. Charlotte Fonrobert and Martin Jaffee (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. 2007), 270-294. [Return to text]
  5. See, for example, Sacha Stern, Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings, Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums, (New York: Brill, 1994), 101-102. [Return to text]
  6. “TransTorah”. [Return to text]
  7. “Training for your Chevra Kadisha. [Return to text]

  8. “Fein Mentsch—Midrash Through a Contemporary Lens”
    . [Return to text]
  9. Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000), 33. [Return to text]
  10. Alyson Spurgas, “(Un)Queering identity: the biosocial production of intersex/DSD,” in Critical Intersex, ed. Morgan Holmes, (Burlington: Ashgate, 2009), 101; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) 22-27. [Return to text]
  11. See, for example, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology: Dialogue for Ethically Conscious Practice (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2002); Heidi Armbruster and Anna Lærke, Taking Sides: Ethics, Politics, and Fieldwork in Anthropology (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008). [Return to text]
  12. Terry Eagleton, “In the Gaudy Supermarket,” London Review of Books 21:10 (1999): 3-6. [Return to text]
  13. James Miller, “Is bad writing necessary?: George Orwell, Theodor Adorno, and the politics of literature,” Lingua Franca: The Review of Academic Life 9:9 (December/January 2000). [Return to text]
  14. Eagleton, “In the Gaudy Supermarket.” [Return to text]
  15. Judith Butler, “Exacting Solidarities,” London Review of Books 21:13 (1999). [Return to text]