Wholly Jewish: Max Antman: The Queerness and Politics of Torah

Hosted by Jewish performance and ritual artist Shira Kline (she/her), a.k.a. ShirLaLa, this season features interviews with LGBTQIA+ Jews from the Union for Reform Judaism's JewV'Nation Fellowship. Follow along as they share their experiences in Jewish spaces, how their queerness and their Judaism intersect, and their visions of a more inclusive and equitable Jewish community.

How can we embrace Judaism from not only a queer perspective, but also a “political” one? Max Antman (he/him), a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, discusses how being a gay man influences his reading of Torah, how his Reform synagogue empowered his gay identity, and the sacred relationship between activism and studying Jewish text. “Judaism is inherently very intertwined with politics,” he says. “[I want] to push the Jewish community forward and…rally behind these issues of equity, justice, diversity, inclusion…I want to be out and talking to people and integrating them into the Jewish community and pushing for progress in our world.”

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Max Antman [00:00:00] We always talk about in society, religion as being this closed off place that you can't have any of these challenging conversations. And yet in my Reform Synagogue, I'm having the most complex conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity that I've ever had. So how did these things line up?

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:00:17] Welcome back to Wholly Jewish, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. What do we all have in common? We all live and balance complex and nuanced identities that when braided together, make us wholly ourselves and wholly Jewish. This season, Jewish performance and ritual artist, Shira Kline, speaks with LGBTQIA+ Jews from the Union for Reform Judaism's JewV'Nation Fellowship, to share their experiences, insights and how their identities enrich and create a more vibrant Jewish community. Today, Shira is speaking with Max Antman.  

Shira Kline [00:00:57] Hey, everyone, and welcome back to this week's episode of Wholly Jewish. This is Shira. I use she/her pronouns and I'm excited to be here online, international phone call today with Max Antman. Max you're originally from Evanston, but tell us what you're doing in Jerusalem, Israel, this year.

Max Antman [00:01:15] So I am just beginning the first semester, or the second semester, excuse me, of my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion. It's the Reform Rabbinical Seminary and the first year is in Jerusalem. The rest are stateside.

Shira Kline [00:01:31] Max, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about yourself. And, you know, for all of our listeners here on Wholly Jewish here, and beyond, tell us, how do you identify?

Max Antman [00:01:42] So, I would say I identify as a Jew, a gay Jew, a man, a brother, a son, an activist, a friend, a student, hopefully a scholar at some point.

Shira Kline [00:02:02] And I'm wondering about your, in your gay identity, you know, we've been talking a lot on this show about language, vocabulary and cultural norms of this kind of vocabulary. So, I'm curious to know, how do you define queer these days?

Max Antman [00:02:19] I try not to define queer, if I'm being honest. I think the beauty of the word queer is that it encompasses a full range of identities that is a complex spectrum of gender and sexual orientation and other things. And it would be very hard to put it into a box or to identify exactly what that means. So, when other people refer to the larger queer community, I certainly identify as being part of that community. But if someone said, "how do you identify?", I wouldn't necessarily use the term queer. I would say gay.

Shira Kline [00:02:56] OK. I'm wondering, when you say in your bio…You wrote this beautiful sentence about sparking an interest between the interplay between Judaism and politics and pursuing a career in political organizing through a Jewish lens. So, there's so many questions I have for you about that. I want to know which Judaism, which politics? I want to know, you know, which lens are we talking about? And then what I'm also most curious about is how your gay identity may have or may have not, you know, where does that come in? Does one inform the other?

Max Antman [00:03:40] I think that Judaism is inherently very intertwined with politics. The history of Judaism, of textual study of communication and dialog between faith leaders in the Jewish world is about asking and answering and questioning difficult conversations about gender and identity and leadership and power. And a lot of our sacred texts are about those really challenging, important, complex topics. And as we continue to look at those texts today, it's very clear that they can be utilized to really think about the framework that we're living in now. The political spaces that we occupy in the United States and worldwide can often be looked at through the framework of religious text and the conversations that rabbis and other people in those texts have been having, the conversations that they've been having for thousands of years. So, I think that they, you know, Judaism is wrapped up into that world and it really integrated and interesting way already. And I also think that specifically the reform Jewish world in the United States is really at the forefront of a lot of progressive policy that I want to be a part of.

Shira Kline [00:05:06] When you are talking about how Judaism is an open forum, it provides, like, for us to debate and talk about in all the, um, between the sources of faith leaders speaking on...Was that a description of politics? Was that a comparison to politics today?

Max Antman [00:05:29] I think it is very similar. In Judaism we have this thing called a machloket, which is essentially a dialog, conversation, argument between rabbis of old. And it has to do with, you know, really complex conversations, issues that were brought to the rabbis, whether they were about, you know, a dispute between neighbors or about gender or about power structures and roles. And if you look through the history books and through sacred texts, you have a lot of these kind of debates between rabbis about different pieces of Jewish law. And they are not considered, in those books, oftentimes to be political conversations, but they're conversations about whether or not women should have specific roles in society and what their…and what their rights should be there, about land transfer and payment for stealing and about if, you know, if one person steals something or is dishonest to another person, what is the punishment for that? And how do we integrate different kinds of law into those spaces? What are the exceptions to the rules? All these kinds of things. And so, it's not necessarily contextualized in a political context. But when you think about the ways in which we debate issues of gender and sexual orientation and economics and foreign relations in our current world, it's very similar. You know, leaders coming together and battling it out and talking about, "oh, this doesn't actually make sense anymore. Or there should be an exception here or this is clearly the moral or ethical thing to do". It is a very similar framework, I think. And so, as I'm studying Torah or other, or Mishnah or Gemara, or other forms of ancient Jewish text, I often am thinking, you know, how is this similar to some of the larger conversations that we're having in our world today?

Shira Kline [00:07:46] Yeah, that's, that's really interesting. I've never thought of it that way, quite in such a simple comparison. And I really appreciate that. Now, I'm curious…

Max Antman [00:07:56] I want to say it's not simple, but, you know, for the purposes of our conversation, trying to simplify it. But, yeah, it's very, it's all very complex.

Shira Kline [00:08:08] It's fun, though, to imagine to, you know, to imagine that, not only to imagine the comparison between then and now, but to also realize that that is a way of understanding what politics are.

Max Antman [00:08:19] Yeah. Conversations, debate, compromise. All those kinds of things.

Shira Kline [00:08:26] Mm hmm. Tell me a story about one of the first times you realized, as you were developing your interests in these things, where your gay identity started to play a role in in how you reflect on these…On either the Torah conversations, these ancient Jewish texts, conversations or these political conversations.

Max Antman [00:08:54] When I was in high school, or maybe even younger than that, I have no idea. I was at a Jewish youth retreat. I was the youth. I was on the retreat. And it was a retreat that was run through my reform synagogue, about sexuality and gender. And we spent a weekend kind of talking about identity and sexual orientation and gender identity and the complex inner workings of that world, and this was already, you know, fifteen years ago. And it was the most comprehensive sexuality education that I had ever received. I wasn't getting that kind of education in my public school. And having a forum to ask any questions that I possibly could have about sexuality and gender, as well as, you know, other issues that, that interact with those, was mind opening.

Shira Kline [00:09:59] Wow.

Max Antman [00:10:00] And having that be within a Jewish context was so profound. And I thought, you know, we always talk about in society religion as being this closed off place that you can't have any of these challenging conversations. And yet in my reform synagogue, I'm having the most complex conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity that I've ever had. So how did these things line up? Is religion, actually what we in society say that it is or is my reform synagogue something completely out of the realm of the norm? Or is Judaism or my understanding of Judaism, the Reform Judaism specifically, somewhere in the middle of those two spaces, and really kind of bridging the gap between traditional faith and understanding of a faith in God and religion. And also utilizing that space, that platform of religion, to teach young people about kind of these issues in the context of faith. And I think that was the first time I really thought that these things could be intertwined for me. At that point, I was not out and I don't know if I really even had a complex understanding of my own sexual orientation, but, It was very, a very significant moment.

Shira Kline [00:11:16] And I, I'm curious where, tell us again, where did you grow up, which reform synagogue was that?

Max Antman [00:11:23] The reform synagogue I grew up at was Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois. And my parents still belong there. And I don't know, it's a very special place.

Shira Kline [00:11:35] It is, clearly, and I will send them some love and gratitude for their honest work in teaching and opening it up. So, what kinds of questions did that lead you to? Like what, what did this bring up for you?

Max Antman [00:11:49] I think it brought up…not "I think", it brought up all sorts of questions of "who am I?" and "what is Judaism?" and "what am I supposed to do with this knowledge that I now have about sex?" and, and I mean sex in the context of anatomy, but I also mean it in the context of action. Right? I wasn't getting any education about romantic and sexual relationships, and I was getting that at my synagogue in a very safe and structured and responsible way. But it opened my whole world to these conversations of identity and how that could play a role in my life and whether or not that was the kind of springboard to discover my own queerness or not, I'm not sure. But I think it, I think it opened the door completely to everything.

Shira Kline [00:12:56] Yeah. It sounds like it, it also provided you with some, you know, like, some vocabulary around, like, a holistic identity in ways that we sort of can integrate these different parts of ourselves. And especially as we are just learning about them sometimes.

Max Antman [00:13:15] Right. And then going back to my health class in school and sharing some of those terms and them being like, "well, we're not actually teaching about that" and I'm like, "well, I don't need you to teach about, because I already learned it, sorry".

Shira Kline [00:13:26] Wow. All right. OK, thank you, temple. You know, I want to know then, so what happened next? You know, do you feel that as you've been growing up and as you, like you said, embraced different sides of yourself, that your work in the political fields was influenced by your gay identities? I mean, have you been you know, do you do specifically activism in that world? Or would you even say that just having the perspective that you do as a gay man, does it influence and inform the choices and the things that you pursue in the political fields?

Max Antman [00:14:10] I think being a, I think holding a non-dominant identity, whatever that identity is, allows you to understand and conceptualize power in a different way. You know, I mean, if you don't carry with you any non-dominant identities in society, it can be really challenging to, to kind of understand or empathize or even want to break down power structures that were created to disenfranchise people of those identities.

Shira Kline [00:14:45] Mm hmm. In your experience, has, has there ever been a tension between the two?

Max Antman [00:14:52] Between my Judaism and my gay identity? No, I don't really think there has been. Which is, again, an unbelievable privilege, a really privileged space to be in. And I think that's also a testament to the community that I grew up in. The reform Jewish world is not the same everywhere in the country. I grew up in a really progressive area at a really forward-thinking synagogue, with rabbis and leaders who not only took an interest in youth of non-dominant identities, but really prioritized education around race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity. And so, I grew up understanding Judaism as encompassing all of those things and that I'd never had to choose between my identity as a gay man and my Judaism. I don't think that, and in fact, I know that that's not the experience of everyone and it's a real privilege that I have. But I've never thought about those two things as being in conflict with one another in my life.

Shira Kline [00:16:04] So now. OK. So. And now, now that you're like, really this year you've chosen to really immerse deeply in Jewish studies and Jewish text. And it sounds like you're taking a sort of, would you say you're taking a little bit of a sidestep away from your political activism?

Max Antman [00:16:24] I don't know if I'm taking a sidestep or if I'm just going at it from a different vantage point. Right?

Shira Kline [00:16:33] Please tell me more about that.

Max Antman [00:16:36] So, after I graduated college, I was doing a lot of organizing and activism in Washington, D.C. at some Jewish organizations, non-Jewish organizations. And the people that I saw doing the most effective and creative and strategic activism and organizing were rabbis, those who were in synagogues, those who were at nonprofit organizations, who were speaking from the pulpit, who were speaking from the dinner table. People who had a foundation in Jewish text and in storytelling, who were able to talk about faith and politics and, not necessarily the nitty gritty like Democrat Republican politics, but the policy around equity and around justice and equality.

Shira Kline [00:17:23] I'm very moved by your description of, of what the leadership that you've seen and that you've been inspired by. And I want to know a little bit more about your vision for your leadership.

Max Antman [00:17:36] I was at a human rights panel a few weeks ago, and there's a really inspiring rabbi, Rabbi Susan Silverman, sort of reform rabbi who lives in Jerusalem. And she said essentially, I'm paraphrasing, because someone asked, you know, "how do you justify stepping away from activism, from justice work to study Talmud and Torah and other Jewish texts. What's the justification for that?" And she said, "You are taking the time to learn how to be what the world needs you to be." And she said it more eloquently than that, she's more eloquent than I am. But that really stuck with me because I, you know, I've been struggling with that. And I think the idea of really taking the time not only to get a foundation in Judaism and in Jewish text and liturgy and scripture, but also doing a lot of introspective and, and self-seeking work. Understanding who I am and further digging into my own identities is going to be really important as I kind of craft the career or the path that I want my rabbinate to go down. In an ideal world, I would love to be in a role or in a space in North America advocating for minority rights and climate justice and really using the platform of the rabbi, of the rabbinate, to push not only the North American Jewish community forward, because I will say that I think the North American Jewish community can do more and, and the brilliant leaders that I've been around are not all of the leaders and the brilliant and wonderful communities that I've been a part of are not all North American Jewish communities. So wanting to push the Jewish community forward and also work across lines of difference with other faith groups and non-faith groups to really rally behind these issues of equity, justice, diversity, inclusion and making our country and our world a better place. Which sounds corny, but, you know, I don't think that I would be going to rabbinical school if that wasn't my ultimate goal. I'm not interested in sitting behind a desk all day. I want to be out and talking to people and integrating them into the Jewish community and pushing for progress in our world.

Shira Kline [00:20:23] Awesome, awesome. Right on. Well, it's, it's good to be in the world with you. And at the beginning, before we started rolling, I said, "seems like you're gonna be helping us to run the world", and that's pretty much what I meant by that. There you go. So, thank you.

Max Antman [00:20:40] Well, you and me both, Shira.

Shira Kline [00:20:42] Thank you for bringing this passion and wishing you a beautiful year of learning and exploration. And like you said, the, the pathways may they be open to you for just like this understanding of who you are so that you can be all that you are. And it's really been great to be here with you. Thank you.

Max Antman [00:20:58] Thank you so much. I was happy, happy to be here with you. Very cool.

Rabbi Leora Kaye [00:21:05] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of Wholly Jewish. Tune in again for our next episode. And in the meantime, you can find daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, current events and more at ReformJudaism.org. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism and on Twitter, our handle is @ReformJudaism. Hope you have a good week and L'hitraot.