Shelly Jay Shore traces the deep, connective threads of their Judaism and bisexuality.
By Shelly Jay Shore
The mainstream narrative on religion and queerness is generally that the two exist as a binary: you are religious, or you’re queer, and if you’re both, you’d better come to class prepared to explain why. The current, increasingly hostile climate around legislation like the Equality Act and the slew of anti-trans bills being proposed and passed across the country is once again setting religious communities and queer communities at odds, with religious queers – from those who are mostly-secular, to queer clergy and leaders within nonprofits across faith spectrum – caught in the middle. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, particularly when the majority of religious Americans support queer rights and religious queers aren’t nearly as rare as people seem to expect, even in some of the most purportedly LGBTQ-unfriendly religious spaces.
As part of the world of religious queers, I struggle with having to defend finding connection and comfort in faith at a time when it’s once again being weaponized against the community that I love. But for me, religion and sexuality are impossible to separate. I don’t mean this in the way that many of my peers do; that I so deeply internalized certain sermons and liturgy and gospel from a young age that I’m still processing the ways it’s infused itself in my understanding of my body, desire, and my ways of giving and receiving pleasure. Knowing what I know now about the tapestry of Jewish writing on sexuality, I’m actually a bit disappointed about the entirely beige religious education I received.
I came out as bisexual at thirteen, the same year I had my bat mitzvah, and because of that, coming into my religious and queer identities was both a parallel process, and something of an interwoven tapestry of discovery and connection. I grew up in a Reform Jewish community, and my Hebrew school upbringing focused primarily on Torah and b’nai mitzvah preparation, learning the basics of biblical Judaism and service liturgy. It wasn’t until I expanded my own Jewish studies in high school and college that I actually read more deeply into Jewish texts, particularly into Ketuvim (literally “Writings”): the section of the Tanakh that contains poetry, psalms, philosophy, history, and stories.
Ketuvim was where I started not just to fall in love with Jewish writing, but to find myself absorbed in what felt like an impossible sort of eroticism that seemed at odds with everything I knew about religion and religious texts. I was no stranger to the sexuality of religious art and homoerotic interpretations of biblical figures and their stories, but it was in reading Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim in Hebrew) that I first came across Jewish text as a vessel for sensuality, honey-sweet and flushed. According to rabbinic commentary, the eight short chapters of Shir ha-Shirim follow two unnamed lovers, a young man and woman, as they pursue each other through verdant gardens. Reading them as a queer person attracted to people of all genders, the changing of pronouns from one lover to the other made me feel seen in my own desires in a way I never expected:
You have captured my heart, my own one, my bride. You have captured my heart, with one glance of your eyes…Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride; Honey and milk Are under your tongue; And the scent of your robes Is like the scent of Lebanon.
Like an apple tree among trees of the forest, So is my beloved among the youths. I delight to sit in his shade, And his fruit is sweet to my mouth.
Judaism has a generous tradition of discussing gendered aspects of the Divine – not necessarily to assign gender or to humanize God, but to organize characteristics and provide a framework for assembling parts of an overall Divine whole. (It’s worth noting that historically, this wasn’t a particularly feminist framework at all, with the understanding being that “wholeness” would involve feminine characteristics becoming assimilated into the masculine; however, given that Judaism has built an entire religious tradition on arguing about what other rabbis have said, it’s no particular surprise that modern theorists have elected to enthusiastically disagree.) The Sabbath, for example, serves as a representation for the tangible Divine Feminine, and excerpts of Songs of Songs are traditionally used to greet the Sabbath Bride on Friday evenings as part of the service that welcomes Shabbat.
Small wonder, then, that as I explored the facets of my sexuality and the facets of my Judaism, liturgy like this would weave them together:
I say: Let me climb the palm, Let me take hold of its branches; Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes, Your breath like the fragrance of apples.
I would take girls to bed and press ancient poetry between their thighs: Let me in, my own, My darling, my faultless dove! For my head is drenched with dew, My locks with the damp of night. I would kiss boys in dark corners at smoky parties, heavy with bass and laughter and potential, and think, I would lead you, I would bring you To the house of my mother, Of her who taught me—I would let you drink of the spiced wine, Of my pomegranate juice.
Like all nice Jewish kids, the first and most important Hebrew I memorized was the Sh’ma, the call to prayer. But the first Hebrew I memorized by conscious choice was Shir ha-Shirim, a call to desire.
Queer people are no strangers to using religious imagery to tell our stories, express our identities and desires, and create our own narratives. Just look at Lil Nas X’s recent “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” music video, which takes queer reclaiming of biblical imagery to an entirely new level. We bring these stories of nurturance and shame,belonging and rejection, desire and despair,-into our own work for so many reasons. We want to process what we’ve heard and what we’ve internalized, we want to decide what we hold true and what we’ve stepped away from, and we want to determine what is meaningful and what we can let go. For some of us it’s a complete rejection, for some it’s parody, for some it’s a homecoming, for some it’s a marriage, for some it’s creating entirely new spaces and radical ways of engaging and learning.
For me, faith, bisexuality, and desire are linked and inseparable. I’ve previously written about these identities as a tapestry, woven and beautiful, and I use that metaphor not just for the incredibly catchy Prince of Egypt reference (also relevant to the bi Jewish experience, honestly, because animated Moses and Tzipporah could get it), but because of the visual. Once a tapestry is woven, the individual threads and their unique paths and roles can’t be seen or picked apart, but join together in the fuller, more complete whole. My bisexuality and my faith and my desires have so deeply woven together that now, today, I don’t think I could define my queerness without my Judaism, my Judaism without my queerness, or my expressions of desire without either. And despite everything that comes with it, I don’t think I’d have it any other way.
Shelly Jay Shore (she/they) is a writer and nonprofit fundraiser in New York/Colonized Lenapehoking. When not working, she experiments with home bartending, raises two dogs and one small human, and attempts to personally sustain the chocolate chip industry. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @shellyjayshore.