To know a woman
A growing number of religious lesbians are proving that it is possible to believe in God and maintain a same-sex relationship. And they are also raising children.
The parade moseyed along slowly. Here and there one could hear catcalls, balloons in the colors of gay pride were tossed about by the breeze, and homosexuals and lesbians marched together under the watchful eyes of hundreds of police.
And then, suddenly, several women grabbed each other's hands and broke into a dance. At that very moment, as the members of the religious lesbian group Bat Kol danced in the Orthodox style and throatily sang "Lo lefahed clal" ("Not to Fear at All"), it was clear beyond a doubt: You can come out of the closet, you can live with another woman and move to Tel Aviv, but the legacy of the Bnei Akiva Zionist Orthodox youth movement is ineradicable.
Less than five years after local religious lesbians' grand emergence from the closet, manifested in the establishment of Bat Kol and participation in the gay pride parades, they still stand up for certain principles in their upbringing.
The members of Bat Kol (www.bat-kol.org) are increasingly declaring their affiliation with the religious public, in the clearest and most natural way they know: by establishing households in Israel. In a relatively short time, their numbers have grown from just a few in 2004 to 150 registered members in 2008. About half are living as couples, and are asserting - both verbally and through their actions - the intention to realize their right to motherhood.
The baby boom among religious lesbians began some two years ago and manifests itself clearly. In some cases, both women in the relationship even became pregnant at the same time, meaning there will be "siblings" who will grow up as non-biological twins.
"If at a joint Sabbath we held two years ago, there were three children playing on the lawn, on the last Sabbath there were 20 children," says Zehorit Raviv, a Bat Kol member who lives in Tel Aviv.
Raviv, a divorcee who is raising two children from her marriage and living with a non-religious partner, says, "While they are embracing us at liberal, egalitarian Orthodox congregations like Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem or Yakar in Tel Aviv, this isn't enough. Within the immediate family, when I come to events as a divorced woman with children, it is possible to look the other way. But I want to feel comfortable and not be condemned when I come with my partner and my children to the neighborhood synagogue in Jerusalem, where my father serves as a spiritual leader."
"There is no doubt that the phenomenon of having children stems from a desire to belong," says Avigail Sperber, a founder of Bat Kol. "Someone told me that, as the saying goes, 'the golem has turned on its creator' - that we have reverted to the traditional model of society. Maybe we are indeed toeing the line and maybe we are acting out of a desire to please our parents. But I think this whole development also stems from a basic instinct that awakens at our age. And ultimately, someone who gives birth becomes an initiator of change in her environment."
Sperber, 34, an impressive and eloquent woman (in fact, the entire organization is made up of such women), grew up in Jerusalem's Old Katamon neighborhood. She attended the Horev religious high school and studied at the religious Ma'aleh film school. Sperber came out of the closet 10 years ago; she has been living with another woman for three years and is currently seven months pregnant.
Her father, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, is a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University and a well-known figure among the religious public, who for many years headed the committee of Hemed, the state religious education system; her mother Hannah is a couples therapist. Both parents treat their daughter's partner like a member of the family. The two are invited as a couple to every family event, and Rabbi Sperber has no doubt that the child who will have two mothers will fit in just fine among the other grandchildren, and Abigail Sperber has no doubt the child will fit in just fine.
However, Avigail Sperber does not delude herself into thinking that her family's openness represents the norm in religious society.
"Some of our members grew up in Jewish settlements in the territories, and their families have shunned both them and their partners," she says. "Yet, I see the relative ease with which young religious women of 20 are coming out of the closet today. They are more aware and they have learned about the phenomenon via the Internet, media exposure, the parade - all of these have been influential and they have created a change from within."
Sperber believes that it is women like her, and others in Bat Kol who have established families, who will spearhead both social change and alterations in halakhic laws. "The moment there are children, it's simply impossible to say you don't know. Once, it used to be debated at my father's synagogue whether it was permissible to allow a nonreligious boy to read from the Torah. Now the questions are changing. By the very fact of our existence, we are changing social norms."
Realizing a dream
Even secular homosexuals and lesbians in the United States and Israel haven't taken single-sex parenting for granted, and it took years for some couples to make this move. The religious lesbians of Bat Kol have simply skipped the phase of trying to make up their minds.
"This is a dream that all of us grew up with: a husband, children, a wedding and a white dress. Whereas we once thought that we would have to give up this dream, we have seen that it can still be realized," Sperber explains. "In effect, single mothers have paved the way for us by dealing with the matter of using sperm donations in halakhic law."
"We were 26 years old, and we realized that we were lesbians and that we would stay together," says Ziva Ofek, a lawyer who lives in Moshav Kfar Uriah with her partner Dovrat Ofek. They met at the Kfar Pines religious secondary school for girls when they were 14.
"Until then we believed that lesbians only existed in Hollywood. Dovrat told me, 'You have to know that I'm not giving up kids.' We were still in the closet. Long-sleeved shirts and all. Only several years later, when we were pregnant, both of us at the same time, did my mother tell family and friends that I was pregnant and that I had a female partner. My father understood that we were a couple and that this wasn't going to change only when he saw our joint parenting.
"It's a bit sad that you have to be a mother in order to be accepted, but that's how it is. Every time you enter an elevator with the children, you come out of the closet anew. At the grocery store, at the health clinic, people ask whether they are twins and we answer that they aren't. And they ask how that can be, and we explain."
Bat Ami and Orit Neumeier-Potashnik (35 and 38, respectively) also decided to have children right after they met; today their two daughters are 2 years old.
"This matter tested our relationship right from the beginning," Bat Ami admits. "To call it 'an alternative family' is nonsense. The children make us into the most normal family there is."
Sperber: "Religious lesbians feel that becoming a family is something that is taken for granted. The fear in religious society is that if we accept this way of life, the whole institution of the family will collapse. But we are proof that the opposite is true."
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a spiritual authority and one of the leaders in the discussion on the place of homosexuals and lesbians in religious society, said not long ago in an interview that hundreds of religious youths are gay and lesbian - which he learned through the many questions he is asked on the Internet. Cherlow adopts a commendable humanist approach - that is, until it comes to halakhic law. When it is a matter of what is permitted and what is forbidden, one realizes that there has been no change in the approach.
In comparison to men lying together, which is punishable by death, the attitude toward lesbianism in halakhic law is gentler. The Gamara refers to them as mesolelot (literally, dikes, interestingly enough); according to most rabbinical interpretations, this phenomenon does not clash with halakhic law. However, a few of the religious lesbians relate that they struggled quite a bit with the concept of the sanctity of marriage, which was central to their education.
"We learned that the sanctity is between a man and a woman - the question is whether sanctity can exist in a lesbian couple," says Sperber. "One has to achieve a certain level of maturity to understand that halakhic law did not take all the possibilities into account. In my view, if a relationship goes beyond attraction and love, and it gives something to the world, it becomes holy."
In her blog, Ziva Ofek has written about the anxieties she suffered during her pregnancy, caused by the fear that because she had violated the sanctity of marriage, she would give birth to an imperfect child. While secular lesbians are preoccupied with their private space, by definition, religious people need a community, if only for purposes of religious practice. Religious lesbian families are forcing society to deal with the conflict in halakhic law. Things happen much quicker if a son is born, because of the need to hold his circumcision ceremony, which means exposure of the parents' identities after the birth.
Ziva and Dovrat Ofek celebrated two circumcisions for their sons, Eyal and Alon, within one month. Both were impressive and unusual events with regard to the religious community's experience with the phenomenon of lesbianism. They relate that there were those who attended the ceremony and blessed the child's father inadvertently, as is customary. Difficulties crop up every time they visit the synagogue with the boys: It is always necessary to find a man who will accompany Eyal and Alon when their mothers sit in the women's section at the rear. Now, as the boys are entering first grade, the question of their education has come up.
"It is important to me to give a religious education to my children, but in the meantime I have been forced to relinquish this desire," says Ziva. Her children were rejected by the anthroposophic religious kindergarten in Jerusalem. "They said 'we don't have anything like that here,'" and she got the message. Currently the children attend the open school on Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha.
The ones who are not celebrating the recent advances are the ultra-Orthodox women in Bat Kol. They consist of a group of 15 women, who are proof that it is possible to come out of the closet and remain conservative.
"I long for children," says B., a divorced woman, who is now living with another woman, "but I feel that the members of Bat Kol are pushing for a kind of establishment family life by preaching a family with two mothers and children. This does not suit me.
"A man, a father, is essential for everything related to the synagogue and education. I am first of all an ultra-Orthodox woman and only after that a lesbian. In my opinion, those who give up religious education are making a huge sacrifice. Despite all the defects of ultra-Orthodox society, despite the fact that it is very cruel and they can excommunicate someone - in my mind this society is the best option out there.
"My children would always be different because their mother isn't 'standard,' but I would prefer that they not study at a university and that they not watch television and absorb all of society's violence. I hope that at the same time I would be able to educate them toward tolerance. Everyone is expecting me to be the first to do so in the ultra-Orthodox sector, but I am not prepared to pay the social price. I have always been someone who does what is right for her. And really, everyone in my immediate environment knows, but I do have limits. In order to enter a child into an ultra-Orthodox kindergarten, I have to identify the father, and if I live with the person I love, that's impossible."
B. is now considering a joint life with an ultra-Orthodox gay man, or a regular marriage. For the religious lesbians, a situation in which a child does not have a father is not seen as a disadvantage. "Having a son will be a challenge for me," says Sperber. "I'm a bit anxious, but this will be a challenge two mothers will face together. My mother says: You two are raising the new religious man."
Recently a rift has emerged in Bat Kol, between ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox women, over the attitude toward transgendered women. Ultra-Orthodox B. argues that with respect to halakhic law, a transgender is a man and "it is forbidden to touch a male, period." In meetings with lesbians, she allows herself to show her hair. "I wouldn't be able to do this in front of a man," she adds. "The women at Bat Kol are amazing, but I can't be in a place that doesn't connect with halakhic law."
Ofek, however, argues that the status of transgenders in halakhic law is unclear, since the matter is hardly discussed. "In my opinion," she says, "the acceptance of transgenders is connected to the acceptance of everything that is different.
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