The Most Important Queer in Israel's Religious Zionism

עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick
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Musician Daniel Zamir with his saxophone.
עקיבא נוביק
Akiva Novick

In the annals of the LGBTQ battle being waged within the religious Zionist community, a special chapter will be devoted to the events of the shaharit morning prayer of last Thursday in the Shtiblach Synagogue in Jerusalem. The gabbai (sexton) acceded to the request of the worshippers who demanded that he bar musician Daniel Zamir from leading the prayer and reciting the Kaddish for his grandfather, because he recently declared that he is bisexual.

In hindsight, this public humiliation is likely to turn out to be a serious mistake on the part of those defending the values of religious conservatism: Zamir refused to remain silent and turned to Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed. Rabbi Eliyahu, a right-wing, religiously conservative icon in the community, ruled that the worshippers were mistaken, and that “a sexual proclivity does not disqualify a person from leading the prayer.” At the same time, other rabbis explained to the gabbai, who consulted with them, that embarrassing Zamir was a mistake, and is not based on specific halakhot (religious laws). The gabbai apologized.

The issue with Zamir is that it is hard to situate him on the religious continuum: He comes from a secular home, is currently a Chabad Hasid, walks around wearing a large kippa and bends religious definitions. What’s unusual about his fight for legitimacy is that it’s taking place in the virgin territory of the more conservative religious society. There are quite a number of Jerusalem minyanim (prayer groups) that would receive him with open arms, but he isn’t interested in them. He wants to take his seat in the most Orthodox synagogues.

And that’s what makes Zamir the most important queer in religious Zionism: He refuses to behave like an ordinary religious bi man. He doesn’t make do with crumbs. When he came out of the closet as bisexual last Rosh Hashana, he did so in “Olam Katan,” a popular synagogue leaflet with commentaries on the weekly Torah portion and other texts. The goal of his interviewers was to promote conversion therapy, and Zamir provided the goods in part, but the bottom line was that he was the first to declare LGBTQ proclivities in a Hardali (Haredi national-religious) publication. Many of the bulletin’s readers would have preferred that he come out of the closet in Yedioth Ahronoth, or on a billboard on the Ayalon Highway, rather than in a newspaper they read during prayers.

Zamir registered his first achievement after the gabbai in a West Bank synagogue refused to honor him by calling him up for an “aliyah” during the Torah reading. At the time Rabbi Eliyahu ruled that it is forbidden to discriminate against a worshiper due to his sexual proclivity (emphasizing that this proclivity is theoretical). The events of Thursday are another stage in the battle. Zamir continues to challenge the religious community, which up to now has honored hordes of thieves, adulterers and liars with leading the prayers and getting an aliyah, but part of which has trouble with someone who has come out of the closet.

After all, until now they were not really required to decide what to do with bisexual men in the synagogue. There were no Daniel Zamirs in previous generations, who both came out of the closet and insisted on maintaining their proximity to the Holy Ark. The present generation of religious Zionists has something that its parents lacked: close friends who are coming out of the closet. The sons and daughters of religious Zionism are witnessing at first hand the mental anguish of bisexual, trans, gay and lesbian people in the closet, and many of them are convinced that this is not a whim or a Western trend, as they were taught to think.

In terms of the battle against legitimizing LGBTQ people in religious society, it would have been preferable had the gabbai allowed Zamir to recite the Kaddish and lead the prayer. There certainly was no point in turning him into a kind of local, poor man’s Rosa Parks, and to allow him to benefit from an embrace even from those who aren’t outright liberals in the community. Many LGBTQ people could be prevented from reciting the Kaddish, but doing that to a person like Zamir, in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood, in 2021, is a foolish mistake even for those preventing it.

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