Max Chaiken ’09: Acceptance from family, struggle with God

National Coming-Out Week

Thursday, October 13, 2005

On Yom Kippur, Jews atone for a year’s worth of sins, apologizing both to our fellow men and to God himself. On the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the traditional Torah reading is from the portion of Leviticus that contains all of the ways in which we can sin – including homosexual sex.

As a Jew, I’m excited to usher in the New Year. Yet this time of year is always one of mixed emotions for me.

I have not always been an observant Jew. I grew up in an essentially secular home, though we went to shul once in a while at a Reform synagogue nearby. It was through a Reform summer camp that I went to for many summers that my passion for being observant was kindled.

In middle school came a bar mitzvah, puberty, rebellion against religion – and soon after that, the realization that I was gay. The next summer, I told my parents in a frightened letter of confession from my summer camp. In retrospect, I didn’t have anything to worry about: We were from suburban New Jersey and my parents were liberal, secular Jews with tons of connections to gay people. Nevertheless, it was a burden off of my shoulders to have my family finally know and understand me for who I was.

I took a year off last year and went to study in Israel, where in my studies I came to realize how beautiful the Jewish tradition is. The irony was that even though I had come to accept myself as gay, I was growing enamored of a heritage that in many cases doesn’t accept me.

It should infuriate me as a proud, young, gay male that my religion has a tradition of not understanding and not accepting my sexual orientation. It should enrage me that more Jews don’t see homosexuality as a God-given gift. But it doesn’t. In fact, I find myself sympathizing with the religious Jewish tradition that loves me as a Jew but cannot and will not accept my gay lifestyle.

How did I proceed through the “days of awe” without fearing that my lifestyle will somehow condemn me and prevent divine forgiveness?

My only consolation can be found in two words: Yisrael and T’shuvah. Yisrael most literally means “one who struggles with God” and t’shuvah is the act of repenting, or more literally, returning. Every year at this time, I make the committment to return, year after year and perform tshuvah, and struggle with the fact that my beautiful religious tradition might not be able to reconcile itself with my God-given sexuality. Yet simultaneously, I am continually committing myself to being part of Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, the people who struggle with God.

Max Chaiken ’09 is filled with awe.

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