Failure is an Option: Queer Failure and Religious Identity

Failure is an Option: Queer Failure and the Negotiation of Religious Identity

SJ Crasnow, Rockhurst University


Kippah hand-made for Trans Pride 2022, embroidered in the colours of the trans flag. Image courtesy of the Jewish Museum London.

Though some scholars of religion have increasingly made efforts to disrupt normative biases in how they approach their research and teaching, course content is still often shaped by these biases. For example, World Religions classes may be more likely to include Christianity than any other religion, and courses on Judaism may be more likely to focus on the experiences of white Jews in Europe and the U.S than other Jewish communities. Not only are there norms about what to teach, but also how it should be taught.

In my experience as both an undergraduate and graduate student at large research universities, I absorbed these norms primarily by observing professors. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) message I internalized was that professors are “experts” who impart their wisdom via primarily one-sided lectures, ideally to rapt students. In my first year as a professor teaching undergraduate students at a small Catholic university in the Midwest, I attempted to copy the lecture-based teaching style I had seen modeled. It was a failure of sorts in that several students provided feedback that they wanted more discussion and less lecture. Given that I do not embody the professor archetype as an out queer and non-binary trans person, I will never know how much of this feedback was informed by student bias. Regardless, this “failure” was also freeing; I suddenly felt I had permission to try something different. In truth, I had resorted to a lecture style not because I thought I was well suited to it (I did not) but because of my own anxiety. I was searching for a sense of comfort in this familiar educational mode as I confronted my new role and the imposter syndrome that accompanied it. I tried to protect myself by sticking to scripted lectures and avoiding the improvisation I associated with class discussions. This experience reinforced that there is no one-size model for approaching teaching, and that just as for our students, the subjectivities we bring to our work as instructors are relevant to how and what we choose to (and/or are empowered to) teach.

My subjectivity has also influenced the content I teach in that I am especially concerned with the religious expressions and experiences of marginalized people, which are often excluded from classroom content. Including diverse perspectives creates openings to discuss religious “authenticity” and the avenues by which religion is formed and reformed (as it always has been), especially by those who do not fit within the prescribed bounds of a given religion. My life as a queer and trans Jew also provides me with personal experiences of how marginalized people navigate their relationships to religious traditions and communities. These experiences then become examples of religious diversity I can choose to share with students.

One such example comes from my spouse and my recent journey to having a child. As is the case for many queer people, getting pregnant was not an easy process. It was drawn out, expensive, invasive, involved months of grieving, and required my spouse and I to rely on other people to make it happen. After learning that my wife was pregnant, I felt elated but also afraid. During the months that followed we waited anxiously, counting the days until it was likely the pregnancy would come to term. As we became more confident there would be a child, we started to imagine who they might be and to discuss more thoroughly the values we hoped to instill in them. I am Jewish and identify with a mostly cultural progressive Judaism. My spouse was raised Christian but no longer identifies as religious. For as long as we have discussed the possibility of children, we have planned to raise our child with both of our religious and cultural influences, that is, with the Jewish traditions important to me and the Christian traditions (primarily holiday related) important to my spouse. However, given that neither my wife, who became pregnant, nor our donor are Jewish, our child will not be considered halakhically Jewish by Conservative and Orthodox Jewish communities.[1] Their Jewish status in Reform, Reconstructionist, and other liberal and progressive Jewish communities is more ambiguous. Over the course of the pregnancy, my feelings about this fluctuated between anger, defiance, hurt, rejection, shame, and sadness. 

Both interfaith and queer relationships continue to face challenges to full inclusion in Jewish communities.[2] In the U.S., interfaith relationships have often been discouraged by Jewish institutions because they are perceived to challenge Judaism’s growth and continuation (also known as “Jewish continuity”). Jewish identity has “traditionally” been understood to pass through the mother, though Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism also recognize as Jews the (biological) children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers.[3] However, additional questions regarding lineage are raised by modern circumstances where families are also created in other ways, such as via reproductive technology, surrogacy, and adoption. While Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism consider patrilineal Jews to be Jewish without requiring conversion, the rabbis who decided this ruled based on the assumption of a heterosexual couple where both parents would be biologically related to the child. As a result, it is unclear what relevance this ruling has for my child who is not biologically related to their Jewish parent.[4]

When the challenges my child would face to their Jewish identity or status first occurred to me, my initial thought was to have them undergo conversion to Judaism as an infant, which they could later decide to accept or renounce. However, upon reflection, I found this approach had significant flaws. The first was that in my view, my child is Jewish because I, their parent, am Jewish and therefore they do not need to undergo conversion. Though the resolution allowing Jewish descent to pass to children from either parent is typically referred to as “patrilineal descent,” a term which itself reveals the normative Jewish communal assumption of heterosexual coupling, the language the resolution uses is “ambilineal descent” or Jewish descent from either parent.[5] Concerns similar to mine also arise for Jewish adoptive parents of non-Jewish children. While these children are often expected to undergo conversion to be considered Jewish, this bothers many couples who adopt, as well as rabbis who “are sympathetic to and want to respect the affirmation of some adoptive parents that bringing the child into their Jewish family establishes the child’s Jewish identity without conversion.”[6] For these adoptive parents, conversion requirements for their children can exacerbate sensitivities about not being considered the “real” parents of the child as well as emotional struggles that can accompany adoption.[7] This is also true for queer parents who frequently face stigma or unequal treatment socially, medically, and legally. For example, ensuring I have established parental rights regarding my child requires undergoing an expensive legal process.

The second issue with a conversion ritual is that it contains sexed/gendered requirements that I am uncomfortable with. While I could consider conversion as a solution if my child were assigned female, if the child were assigned male, circumcision would typically be an expected requirement for conversion.[8] While circumcision is typically the norm in U.S. Jewish communities even before my wife was pregnant, we decided that we did not plan to circumcise our child. For me this decision is informed by my queer and trans identities (and my queer and trans progressive politics), which have instilled in me a suspicion towards non-medically necessary interventions to infants’ bodies – especially when these are determined by social and cultural understandings of sex and gender. My intention is not to critique the decisions of others, which are likewise personal and complex, but rather to explain how the coming arrival of my child prompted me, not for the first time, to reflect on how being a queer and trans Jew has often left me feeling destined to fail to meet the standards of Jewish communal norms.

In The Queer Art of Failure Jack Halberstam examines queer messaging in pop cultural works to suggest other paths besides acceptance via conforming (i.e., “liberal freedom”) or death (whether literal or metaphorical). Halberstam argues that instead, queer people might “refuse the choices as offered” by dominant society and instead pursue a path of resistance via alternative methods such as “refusal, passivity, unbecoming, [and] unbeing.”[9] As I have faced these challenges, I have found myself weighing the options Halberstam presents. I first considered how I might try to guarantee acceptance for my child by conforming to the norms of Jewish community, but upon realizing this might mean conversion would be required a conflict arose between my queer and trans values on the one hand and my desire for my child to be accepted as Jewish on the other. The path Halberstam describes as toward “death” might metaphorically refer to the option to sever any connection between Judaism and the family my wife and I are creating. However, elements of Judaism are important to me, and I intend to pass those elements on to my child. So, I began to consider other possibilities.

My refusal to seek acceptance for my child via conversion and/or circumcision mirrors Halberstam’s proposed path of resistance. My queer failure in this regard serves as a critique of Judaism’s patriarchal, hetero-, and cis-normative standards. Circumcision provides a particularly stark example as a method for marking the covenant between God and God’s people that applies only to males. Regardless of one’s feelings on circumcision as a practice, it is difficult to deny its significance as a piece of the patriarchal and binary structure and logic that governs Judaism. “Traditional,” or strict, expressions of Judaism maintain a binary patriarchal differentiation, frequently offering uneven power, privileges, and responsibilities to Jews based on sex/gender. Even in many liberal Jewish communities, a culture of patriarchy and hetero- and cis-normativity is well established. My proposed resolution to the “problem” of my child’s Jewish acceptance is not ideal. But as Halberstam and other queer, trans, and marginalized thinkers have suggested, ideals are shaped by dominant norms and are often out of reach, or undesirable, for marginalized people. In religious communities marginalized people are often made to feel they must conform or leave, and until institutions better affirm the expansive realities that exist in religious communities, queer failure offers a path forward. While there can be a sense of loss or rejection associated with this failure, just as with my teaching, failure can also spur the creation of something new and vitally needed: a vision of religions and religious communities that better represents and affirms the diversity within them.

[1]Halakha refers to Jewish Law.

[2] For a history of the evolution of Jewish policies related to the acceptance of interfaith relationships and queer relationships, see Mehta, Samira K., and Brett Krutzsch. "The Changing Jewish Family: Jewish Communal Responses to Interfaith and Same-Sex Marriage." American Jewish History 104, no. 4 (2020): 553-577.

[3] The quotation marks are intended to communicate that the word “tradition” is often used to imply something that is sacred because it has been true throughout history, though history may not support that claim. For more on “tradition” as a construct see Hobsbawm, E. J. The Invention of Tradition. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

[4] Reconstructionist Rabbi Renée Bauer has argued that regardless of biological relations, the children of same-sex couples where either partner is Jewish should be considered Jewish in Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism. See Bauer, Renée, “‘Patrilineal Descent’ and Same-Sex Parents: New Definitions of Identity,” The Reconstructionist, Spring 2006. Likewise, a progressive Rabbi of a non-affiliated congregation in the city where I live assured me that he and his congregation would view my child as Jewish.

[5] See Bauer, Renée, “‘Patrilineal Descent’ and Same-Sex Parents: New Definitions of Identity,” The Reconstructionist, Spring 2006, pg. 31.

[6] Bauer, 29.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Assigned sex/gender” is a designation typically determined by a medical professional based on the child’s genitals.

[9] Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

S.J. Crasnow is an Associate Professor and the Chair of the department of Theology and Religious Studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. They research queer and trans Jewish life in the contemporary U.S. with particular attention to ritual innovation, material culture, and the influence of rhetoric on race, religion, gender, sexuality, and disability on the construction of Jewish identity.