Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Queer Midrash

For the last thirty-five years, the religious right has been swinging the Bible like a club. But it's a bigger, richer, more liberating, and, yes, sexier book than Pat Robertson would ever want to admit. Reading it together and responding to it as gay men with word, movement, art, and music, we can reclaim it for ourselves as a site of spiritual growth and empowerment, a source of heightened self-awareness, and even a space for the holy, erotic playfulness of our queer imagination.

Perhaps we can't afford to stop arguing over the “proof texts” that for centuries have served to marginalize same-sex love: bigots still have to be resisted, and people of good will with an at least partially open mind need to be convinced. But sooner or later, it's soul-destroying to focus only on the negative work of proving homophobes wrong. For our own spiritual nourishment, we need to sidestep that whole, sorry debate with people we’ll never convince, and instead to take back a sacred text on our own terms. It’s our right to discern how our lives as men who love men are reflected back to us in a book that comprehends so much of Western culture’s search for the Divine.

One tool for that reclamation is midrash, a staple of Jewish biblical interpretation that starts with the questions a biblical story raises but doesn’t answer; a midrashic interpretation fills in the missing details in order to provide answers to those questions. Who is the mysterious young man who flees naked from the scene of Jesus’ arrest in the Gospel of Mark? What was the nature of the bond between David and Jonathan? Between Ruth and Naomi? Between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple?

Abraham Katzman takes up this challenge in his wonderfully homoerotic meditation on the Exodus, “Wicked Child” (in The Badboy Book of Erotic Poetry, ed. David Laurents, 1995). In the Passover Haggadah, the "wicked child" is the one who defiantly refuses to believe that the Exodus has anything to do with his own life. Katzman has the chutzpah to claim the Exodus for two queer men in the midst of their very steamy lovemaking. The poem’s speaker addresses his still bound and just now unblindfolded lover: “I will explain to you this holiday./ I will explain to you Passover./ How our people, our tribe, wandered the desert/ for forty years. How we were slaves in Egypt./ How our gay tribe of jews/ fucked each other’s asses/ even then in the desert./ How we spoke of it as holy./ As a way to understand G-d.”

The photography of Oscar Wolfman (accessible through the link to his website in the sidebar of this blog, and on display this month at Queen Gallery in Toronto) offers an often lush and sometimes deeply unsettling visual trope on portions from the Torah and other scripture.

An extraordinary collection of poems by Brian Day, Conjuring Jesus(Guernica Editions, 2009), re-imagines the life of Jesus with unapologetic desire for his flesh. What’s more, Day breaks open the stories to embrace the spirituality of other world traditions: in his retelling, the raising of Lazarus becomes a lover’s encounter with the sleeping Krishna: “Krishna is wrapped in strips of gravecloth,/ his skin moist with the fragrant oils of death./ Each summons the other from across the rock,/ which is loosed by the falling tears of Jesus,/ by the yearnings of Krishna as he lies like a stone.”

At Easton Mountain’s Gay Spirit Camp from 16-23 August, I’ll lead three workshops on the practice of queer midrash. I can’t imagine a greater privilege than encouraging gay men to take back the Word and being present to witness their integrity and pride in laying claim to the sacred page.

1 comment:

  1. David,
    Yes and yes. Midrash is the way to make texts and stories ours. Sacred texts are not sacred because they are immutable, but because people have taken them and told their own stories in concert with the texts, making them alive with personal experience. Christianity needs to recover its Jewish roots, and this will happen as we, all of us, tell our particular stories inspired by the texts. For example, I think that this is what the Passion and resurrection narratives are: Midrash on Hebrew stories of suffering.