- Same-Sex Desire and Jewish Community:Queering Biblical Texts in Canadian and American Jewish Literature
It has been asserted that queer subjectivity can be realized in identifications with certain images of mainstream culture, sometimes to a far greater extent than in "conventional" forms of gay life (Sedgwick, Tendencies; Butler, Bodies; Munoz; Halperin, How). These nonlinear, nonnormative identifications and disidentifications participate in the formation of multiple, hybrid identities through working on, with, and against a dominant cultural form (Munoz 3-8, 30). This essay looks at Jewish queer narratives in their relation to mainstream Jewish culture, as examples of contemporary forms of Jewish literary imagination in North America. I am interested in exploring the ways Jewish queer culture workers read a queer valence that is already present within Jewish intellectual life in its traditional form—potentially or in actuality in individual experiences, and imaginatively, as a rhetorical trope in some modes of literature.
The queer possibilities in reading classical Jewish texts could be better understood in light of the Foucauldian theory of polyvalence of discourse, developed in The History of Sexuality. This theory regards discourse as never unified or fixed, but rather as "a series of discontinuous segments, not uniform nor stable, multiplicity of discursive elements that can come into play in various strategies" (Foucault 100). In this sense, the queer valence present in classical Jewish texts and in traditional patterns of studying these texts does not constitute "homoeroticism" as a uniform narrative or as a coherent element of a larger narrative; rather, this "queer kernel" could name a play of multiple "discontinuous segments" that lend themselves to certain modes of reception.
I will discuss two works of historical fiction that portray male same-sex eroticism in relation to Judaism and Jewish community. Each of these two novels revisits the conventional tropes of Ashkenazic Jewish identity, employing symbolic images of the [End Page 249] Jewish past and Jewish intellectual life. In particular, they construct the relationship between mainstream Jewish community and queerness as a relationship between two biblical sources, the legal material of Leviticus and the narratives of David and Jonathan in the books of Samuel.
Miriam, the second book of the Rashi's Daughters trilogy, was published in 2007 by Maggie Anton, an American, female, straight-identified author. This novel is centered on the image of medieval Jewish scholarship in France. It is set in the home and yeshivah (rabbinical educational institution) of Rashi, "father" of Jewish traditional commentaries on the Bible and the Talmud, who lived in Troyes in the eleventh century. Judah, a main protagonist in the second book of Rashi's Daughters, is married to Miriam, a daughter of Rashi. He is the major assistant of Rashi in the yeshivah and a co-author of Rashi's Talmud commentaries. Throughout the novel, Judah struggles with his sexual attractions to his male study partners and students. Anton's queer character is a Jewish scholar and teacher, situated at the very heart of Jewish intellectual life. The other novel, Mourning and Celebration, was published in 2009 by K. David Brody, a Canadian, male, gay-identified author. The protagonist, Yankl, who later changes his name to Jonathan, is a Hasidic Jew who lives in a nineteenth-century Polish town, a shtetl. As a teenage yeshivah student, Yankl discovers his strong erotic attraction to men, particularly to his study partners. Brody, too, has chosen a traditional image of the Jewish intellectual, the yeshivah student, in his representation of a queer Jewish man.
The Discourses of "Leviticus" and "David and Jonathan"
Both of these novels represent male same-sex desire in terms of the interplay of two competing discourses: "the sexual," phallocentric discourse, associated with the prohibition of a sexual act between males in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13,1 and "the affective" discourse, associated with the story of romantic friendship between David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 18-20, 23 and 2 Samuel 1.2 These discourses denote the use of the biblical sets of texts in contemporary Jewish culture, which differs significantly from the meanings of these biblical texts in their context of production, in the ancient Israelite and Near Eastern cultures...