Jirı Mordechai Langer and Homosexual-Jewish Identity

At the turn of the twentieth century, the 19 year old Jiri Langer scandalized his liberal parents by becoming a baal teshuvah to Belz Chassidus. Langer eventually left the Hasidc world to become observant and halakhic but modern Jew. He was a poet, psychologist, Zionist, and Hebraist- as well as a close friend of Kafka. He wrote a superb account of the life of the Hasidic court called Nine Gates to the Chassidic Mysteries; it remains one of the most successful narratives of authentic Chassidic experience. Go read it.

In the new issue of JQR, there is an article called Coming Out of the Hasidic Closet: Jirˇı´Mordechai Langer (1894–1943) and the Fashioning of Homosexual-Jewish Identity written by Shaun Jacob Halper in JQR, Vol. 101, No. 2 (Spring 2011) 189–231. The author who is a Berkeley PHD and graduate of Yeshiva of Flatbush and Yeshivat Har Etzion is attempting to queer Jiri Langer and Hasidism, but the questions asked in the article make the article a queering of Modern Orthodoxy and modern Yeshiva life. The article has extensive notes on many topics. I am not sure of my thoughts on the article yet. It just came out.

Halper notes the break between Jiri and his parents was part of a pattern for that age. But Jiri chose not just poetry and Zionism rejecting their liberal and middle class lives, he also chose Orthodoxy. Langer found immense happiness in the Yeshiva. Later he becomes a Zionist leader and author. Later in his life, he wrote Die Erotik der Kabbala, a work ignored by scholars even though he dealt with the current erotic trends of the kabblah many decades before the current authors.

Langer defends halakhah as based on the need for Jews to bind their overwhelming passions. He offer reasons for the commandments , delineated in the full article, that treat as obvious that women are excluded from the homoerotics of time bound mizvot. Orthodox family life serves to bind passions, however tragic the results.
[Halper is in italics, Jiri Langer himself is in bold]

Jirˇı´ Langer’s generation of German-speaking Jews came of age experiencing acute cultural and political disinheritance. During this cultural upheaval they experienced the triple marginalization of their parents (as
German speakers, as Jews, and as liberals), leaving them caught between a declining German liberal culture and the ascendant presence of German vo¨lkisch ideology and Czech nationalism.

Jirˇı´ had come out to his family: he was now a Hasid who, among other things, kept strictly kosher and refused to speak with or look directly at women. Brod described how Jirˇı´’s conversion brushed up against the limits of Prague- Jewish sensibilities; Take his depiction of Hasidic yeshivah students from Die Erotik der Kabbala:

As soon as he arrives and it is determined that he is serious, he is greeted with open arms by the ‘‘Chevre’’ [social group]. Soon he finds himself in the middle of a circle of friends, who ‘‘draw near’’ to him through various tenderness and it doesn’t take long to find an older student who has ‘‘the same soul’’ to study with, which he accepts with great joy. How blessed he feels.

In this description of homoerotic attachment to the Rebbe, Langer evokes his own autobiographical account of leaving Prague for Belz in the first chapter of his Nine Gates to the Hasidic Mysteries. There he tells that while he later found his years among the Hasidim to be the happiest in his life.

At the time, Langer thought to remain at home for good, frustrated with his unbearable loneliness among the Hasidim, but he was visited one night in the family kitchen by the Belze Rebbe, Yisashar Dov Rokeah, through a prophetic vision, which inspired his return. These autobiographical links explain why Langer spends such a substantial portion of Die Erotik der Kabbala explicating the homoeroticism of the Hasidic world (he devotes an entire chapter to the subject). The following is even more explicit:

To understand what kind of love dwelled between the ‘‘yoshvim’’ [talmudic scholars; literally: ‘‘those who sit’’], one only has to step into the beis ha-midrash (house of study), where they are enveloped with their studies. Here sit two young men, with beards just beginning to cover their chins, ‘‘studying’’ assiduously over thick Talmud-folios. The one holds the other byhis beard, looks deep into his eyes, and in this manner explains a complicated Talmud passage. And there, two friends (yedidim) pace around the hall deep in conversation, while embracing one another . (During meals one can see that they always dine out of the same bowl). In the dark corner stand a pair. The younger of the two rests his back against the wall, the elder has the entire frontal part of his body literally pressed against him; they look lovingly in each other’s eyes, but keep still. What could be playing out within their pure souls? They themselves don’t even know.

That he experienced (or reimagined his experience) in the Hasidic world as homoerotic is undeniable. Hasidism, as he pictured it, was an incubator of homosexual desire.

Langer’s next metamorphosis into a Zionist activist. Langer became a co-organizer of the first hakhshara (preparation) training program for Zionist emigrants at Mukacheve

How did Langer, a homosexual man affiliated with halakhic Judaism until his death, address the issue of corporeal consummation (i.e., sex) in his work?

In Die Erotik der Kabbala, Langer engages with dominant cultural, psychoanalytic, and sexological discourses on homosexuality, but most directly with the work of Hans Bluher, the major theoretician of the German Wandervogelbewegung … Langer’s intellectual debt to Bluher is profound.

Bluher’s assertion that Jews were historically incapable of homosexuality; legal/religious commitments stunted homosexual expression by channeling Jewish drives exclusively around the interests of the family.

Langer’s commitment to Jewish law undoubtedly ran deep. During one digression (the text is loaded with these), Langer vigorously defends Halakhah against, what was by the 1920s, an oft-repeated attack repeated by Zionists, Haskalah writers, and Jews of many other stripes for decades that Jewish law was oppressive, ascetic, and caused spiritual decay:

When the modern Hebrew poet Saul Tschernichovski mocks his people for ‘‘tying up the divine in tefillin’’ he in a way touched on the deep secrets of the commandments. But his jeers are misplaced . The power of tefillin to ‘‘tie up’’ the divine is worthy of the highest admiration. Wrongly, one believes that an unrestrained life, driven extremely in one direction, is a sign of inner strength. On the contrary, every extreme, passionate way of life or ideology is, tragically actually a symptom of spiritual uncertainty or else inner weakness. Finding a happy compromise, as long as one’s energies are not lost, is actually the hardest thing to accomplish. It is always a work of especial spiritual depth and unflinching will to live. Therefore, only the noblest men and races can accomplish it.

In defending the law, Langer asserts the capacity of Halakhah to balance extreme passions with a healthy dose of restraint: Halakhah forms a ‘‘happy compromise’’ between compulsive drives and civilizing responsibilities.
But what about the expression of homosexual desire? Is the homosexual offered a ‘‘happy compromise’’ as well in the denial of his emotional and physical satisfaction through sex? Indeed, the problem of homosexuality and Jewish law stretches Langer’s faith to its limits:

The official position that emerges works coercively on individuals, in that it requires each individual who seeks to comply with the law to suppress his sexual tendencies and bring himself into harmony with ideas about the preservation of society. The tragedy that this inflicts upon each individual is proportional to his sexual drive.

One response to “Jirı Mordechai Langer and Homosexual-Jewish Identity

  1. I think it’s more than tragedy. It’s incompatible.
    Individuals who desire intimacy beyond brotherly love would maybe be better off, for the sake of their own harmony, to flee Hasidic life.
    Being dealt two cards such as same sex intimacy desire and Torah way minyan Chevre tenderness desire seems highly combative and destined for a painful crash.
    I’m awed by individuals who endure and thrive under such friction and don’t hesitate to identify them as heroic.

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