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Q&A with author Jay Michaelson

November 27th, 2018

To prepare for the release of the 36.3 issue of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Purdue University Press interviewed contributor Jay Michaelson about religion, writing, and more. 

Michaelson is an affiliated assistant professor at Chicago Theological Seminary, where his work focuses on the intersection of queer studies and Jewish theology. His scholarly publications include “Queering Kabbalistic Gender Dimorphism,” “Hating Law for Christian Reasons: The Religious Roots of American Anti-lawyerism,” and “Chaos, Law, and God: The Religious Meanings of Homosexuality.” His books include Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism (Trumpeter, 2009) and God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality (Beacon, 2011). A book based on his doctoral dissertation, Jacob Frank: From Jewish Antinomianism to Esoteric Myth, is presently under review. He holds a PhD in Jewish thought from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a JD from Yale Law School, and nondenominational rabbinic ordination. 

Michaelson’s article  “Queering Martin Buber: Harry Hay’s Erotic Dialogical?” appears in Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, volume 36, issue 3. 


 

Q – Your article, “Queering Martin Buber: Harry Hay’s Erotic Dialogical?,” is featured in the upcoming edition of Shofar. What was the inspiration behind the article?

 

In certain gay subcultures, Harry Hay’s philosophy is well-known and actively practiced, and yet there’s very little awareness there of its close relationship to Buber’s. At first, I was interested in possible influences; as the research went on, this morphed into an interest in phenomenological affinities and differences, and how the two thinkers could complement one another.”

 

Q – You have had diverse success as a writer; your work ranges from best-selling books to scholarly articles. How do you feel this variety affects your writing and thinking?

 

As an “alt-ac” with a long-term visiting position at Chicago Theological Seminary but a primary career outside the academy, there’s a certain freedom in being able to write scholarly articles on a wide variety of subjects, and I certainly make use of that. In addition, I’m interested in bridging discourses between “high” philosophers such as Buber and outsider thinkers like Hay. I’m not sure Hay is (or deserves to be) taken seriously by proper philosophy scholars, and yet there’s something quite interesting in his eroticizing of the dialogical that I think is worthy of analysis.”

 

Q – How does your spiritual practices and meditation impact your writing?

 

It depends on the work. In the case of this article, I was interested in trying to assess, based on the textual evidence, how these similar but divergent dialogical philosophies might be experienced in practice, rather than solely on the page. I think that’s informed by my work in the contemplative world. At the same time, I’m extremely wary of imposing any of my own experiences onto the subjects at hand.”

 

Q – You’ve extensively covered both Buddhism and Judaism. What do you believe are some of the most compelling similarities/differences between the two?

 

I feel like I’ve written a book on that subject.… I think for many people, myself included, the Buddha Dharma provides a less theologically freighted set of contemplative practices that can enrich a Jewish communal and ritual life. The questions Buddhism asks about suffering and the end of suffering are complementary to those Judaism asks about justice and relationship to the Divine. I see them as having different conversations.”

 

Q – As a political correspondent and writer, you’re required to keep in close contact with current events. How do these particularly chaotic times affect your work and life?

 

In terms of the work, I think there’s a constant awareness of the justice impacts of any idea under consideration, including those in this article. For example, for all of Hay’s genius, the problem of essentialism, which I discuss in the article, is particularly glaring in the context of nationalism, ethnocentrism, and threats to democracy. As soon as one group of people declares itself intrinsically different from and better than another, we’re in trouble.”

 

Q – How do you feel your personal life/childhood influences your writing in your fields of study?

 

Certainly this particular article reflects my own identity as queer person on the one hand, and on the other as an American Jew who encountered popularizations of Buber at an early, formative age.”

 

Q – What would you like for readers to glean from your article “Queering Martin Buber: Harry Hay’s Erotic Dialogical?”?

 

I’d be happy simply to introduce mainstream Jewish studies scholars to considering the sex-negative and implicitly queer-negative elements in various forms of philosophical discourse. There have been some excellent encounters recently between queer/LGBTQ studies and Jewish studies, and I’d be thrilled for this to be another of them.”

 


Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies is a triannual publication that produces original, peer-reviewed scholarly articles, issues on special topics, book forums, review essays, and the occasional forum on Contemporary Critical Jewish Studies. Shofar reaches an international readership with an impressive range of reliably robust offerings primarily in modern history, literature, culture, and the arts. Shofar’s special issues have covered a wide range of timely subjects, including Diaspora and exile in modern Jewish culture, the transcultural generation in Israeli literature, race and Jews in America, and Holocaust and genocide cinema. To learn more about or subscribe to Shofar, visit: www.shofarjournal.org.