So, a Rabbi Walks Into a Bar. It’s Not the Beginning of a Joke, but of a Spiritual Journey.
Trained in erotic massage and queer spiritual counseling, Rabbi David Dunn Bauer comes back to the New York shul where he started
To begin his training to become a rabbi, Bauer chose the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College because he “felt most at home there.” His first elective at RRC was a sexual ethics class, and his first “magnum opus” paper was on “Tzniut for Gay Men.” And before he was ordained in 2003, he also took part in the Body Electric Clergy Retreat in 2000 and the Body Electric Two-Gender Retreat in 2001. “I was already trying to synthesize,” he explained, “to make sense of it all. I was finding the connections. Kaplan talks about American Jews living in two civilizations, an American civilization and a Jewish civilization. I would say gay American Jews live in at least three civilizations.”
After ordination, Bauer moved to Massachusetts, where he was a pulpit rabbi for the Jewish Community of Amherst for seven years. Under his leadership, it became the first Massachusetts synagogue to sign the Declaration of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry. Separately, he was developing Body Electric workshops, and eventually he moved to the Bay Area to devote a formal academic treatment to the intersection of sexuality and religion. He was the first Jew to receive a certificate in Sexuality and Religion from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. “I wrote about Jewish Queer Sexual Ethics and about Blessings for the Erotic Body,” he said. He was the first rabbi to contribute a video to the It Gets Better Project, a suicide-prevention effort for queer youth, and all of this work combined became, in 2011, his counseling practice, Queer Spiritual Counseling, a combination of spiritual direction and confidential, erotic, spiritual counseling.
“David is a visionary,” said Nehirim founder Jay Michaelson. “In addition to his social-justice work, his teaching on eros in the Jewish tradition has been really innovative. Often, people are amazed that a rabbi would teach about male sexual health, for example, but to me that’s exactly what a rabbi should be doing.”
Now that he’s coming back to New York to engage what he calls “social activist energies—all the different ways in which people want to make the world better, for folks within the LGBTQ Jewish community and for the whole planet,” Bauer is bringing his Queer Spiritual Counseling practice and erotic-massage and spirituality workshops with him. He will be leading retreats at Easton Mountain retreat center in upstate New York, including an Erotic Shabbaton for Gay/Bi Jewish Men next fall and “Prayerbook of the Body,” a body-positive approach to finding God, next spring. “The erotic sensations of the body are blessings to be celebrated,” he told me. One practice he offers are blessings such as: “Blessed is God, who allows me to feel pleasure.”
In reference to erotic spiritual retreats and kinky nightclubs, Bauer cites the Jewish liturgy of the Kedushah and the beautiful description of the angels giving each other permission in love—one to the other—to praise God. The passage depicts a community of angels praising and praising together, saying kadosh, kadosh, kadosh. “The image,” he explained, “for me, of that, is a Body Electric workshop, or everybody at the LURE, community giving its members permission to praise God as who they are.”
He continued, “I take seriously the Torah’s injunction that our experience of oppression and alienation must lead us to support others’ liberation.” By supporting an erotic experience of spirituality and a queering of God, Bauer is offering a liberating alternative to what could be an otherwise oppressive and alienating Judaism. “As far as I am concerned, among other things, this is social justice work,” Bauer explained. “Because so much of what is used to bash queer people is the message that who you are, what turns you on, and what you do is intrinsically evil and abominable to God. This work is individual spiritual work, communal spiritual work, and also social justice work.”
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