Rabbi David Dunn Bauer’s new boss, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, is expecting a lot from him as he starts his new job heading the synagogue’s social justice outreach: “My agenda is a simple one: change the world,” Kleinbaum told me. “David is going to help us do it.”
After spending the last three years in San Francisco, where he most recently served as Bay Area director of programming for the Jewish LGBT organization Nehirim—creating such events as a transgender retreat and a “summer camp” for gay men—Bauer has taken a new position at CBST, New York’s LGBT synagogue. While it’s a big move, it’s also something of a homecoming; His rabbinical career began at CBST, where he served as an intern more than a decade ago. “There’s a special pride (and challenge) in coming home as a ‘grown-up’ to the place that nurtured you when you were a child,” Bauer said. “I want to do my best here, give back to the place that first gave me my queer Jewish identity.”
After leading Friday night services during his CBST internship in 2001, Bauer headed downtown to the LURE—a gay bar in the Meatpacking District whose name stood for Leather, Uniform, Rubber, Etc. That leather bar was also a place where God lived, he said, an erotic community where people were able to be who they were. “I actively work against the idea that you have to check your religiosity at the door of the bedroom, bar, or bathhouse,” he told me recently in an interview in San Francisco, “and that you have to check your sexualities at the door of the church or the synagogue.”
The fusion of sex and God, the gay and the divine, isn’t new for Bauer. He came out when he was 12, after watching The Desert Song, a Sigmund Romberg opera, on television. “I guess I got sexually aware early,” he said. “I never had the feeling of, ‘Oh, this is a phase I am going through.’ When I look back, all my earliest sexual impulses were gay.”
Bauer is part of a growing sex-positive trend in Judaism—see also Keshet, Jewrotica, or the sex-education program Seven Wells—that is inclusive of queer communities, supportive of the notion that pleasure is good, and dedicated to making space for God in the bedroom. “We are told to be dainty and discreet,” he said. “I don’t believe in a discreet God. I believe in a frank and direct God.”
Trained in Body Electric erotic massage, Bauer also teaches erotic spirituality through workshops such as “Prayerbook of the Body” and (along with New York psychotherapist Michael Cohen) “Celebrating the Body Judaic.” It’s all part of his mission to blend Jewish tradition with a marginalized queer universe. “Everyone brings their own definition of God into the conversation,” he told me. “The work is helping people understand the straightness or narrowness of their God. Many have images of God that actually exclude them.”
Bauer’s practice “is not about the queerness of people, it’s about the queerness of God.” He explained: “For me, queering is rejecting the division of the world into a fixed binary of male/female, masculine/feminine, even gay/straight.” This means that God doesn’t fit neatly in a box with a bow on it. “This is a Queer universe,” reads Bauer’s “Manifesto of Queer Spiritual Counseling.” “The universe was clearly not created by a God allergic to variety.”
“Even though I consider myself a naturally religious person, Judaism was the last religion I ever looked at,” Bauer told me. “I never had a bar mitzvah. I never had a rabbi growing up. I never belonged to a Jewish congregation as a family.”
Growing up in Detroit, Bauer was raised a Unitarian, before moving to Philadelphia to attend a Quaker school. His mother, a Reform Jew, and his father, a Kindertransport refugee from Germany who was adamantly atheist, didn’t push Judaism on him as a child. His mother later explained to him: “We were part of an era where assimilation was a mark of success.”
Following his graduation from Yale in 1981 with a B.A. in English literature and theater, Bauer worked for opera companies across the country as a stage manager and stage director. During that time, he says he was always a religious person in some form, practicing “crystals, affirmations, and Louise Hay.” As for Judaism, however, “I was a Fiddler Jew—everything I knew about Judaism I knew from Fiddler.”
This changed in 1992 when, following an invitation from an uncle living in Germany, Bauer moved to Cologne to work in opera. Because he was the son of a refugee, he could claim German citizenship, and in proving to the German government that he was a Jew, he ended up proving it to himself as well. Until then, he hadn’t claimed Judaism as his own. “I consider myself a Reconstructionist baal teshuvah,” he explained. “In Judaism as a Civilization, belonging precedes believing,” he told me, quoting the seminal work by Mordecai Kaplan, intellectual founder of the Reconstructionist movement. Proving himself as a Jew in Germany, not far from where his family had been driven out during the war, brought this first step, the sense of belonging. The believing would come later.
While living in Germany, finally self-identified as a Jew, he was invited to work with the opera in Israel. “The first time I showed up to the Israeli opera, I was the American Jew who knew nothing about Judaism,” he said. The head of the technical department of the opera, an African-American woman married to an Israeli, was carrying a tray of stew. “‘What is that?’ I asked her. ‘Honey,’ she told me, ‘that is cholent! You don’t know your own people’s food?’ ”
At that point, he had only been to synagogue two or three times in his life. “I was still a religious person,” he said. “I always prayed. I always thought about and talked to God.” When I asked what God he was praying to all that time, he answered: “Probably a non-Christian version of Christian God, and with Italian opera in my head there was probably a lot of Catholic influence. Everything I knew about religion I had absorbed culturally.”
Concurrent to his Jewish awakening came a deepening and expanding of his understanding of erotic spirituality. Bauer had attended his first Body Electric workshop taught by founder Joseph Kramer shortly before moving to Germany and while there worked as a translator for a Body Electric German tour; Body Electric is a school of erotic massage founded during the first wave of the AIDS crisis when gay men were retreating from their bodies, and from their sexuality. It uses tantra and breath and a basic idea of community to restore a lost sense of sacredness and safety to sex for gay men for whom sex had become associated with illness, death, and fear; it has since expanded to include all genders and sexualities.
“The Body Electric was the first place I went to,” Bauer said, “the first community I was part of that understood the spiritually transformative power of eroticism. My erotic spiritual life predated my Jewish spiritual life. By the time I discovered that Jewish religion was meaningful to me—which I did the first time I walked into synagogue as an adult—I already had a functioning erotically based spirituality.”
As he split his time between the opera worlds of New York, Tel Aviv, and Germany, he was finally pushed to investigate his new-found religious identity. He went to synagogue with a cousin who was an actor/director at Steven Wise Free Synagogue, and then he started attending CBST, where Kleinbaum was his first rabbi. “Frankly,” he told me, “I had a total gay rabbinical crush on her. She was brilliant, and I was blown away.” He kept going back for more.
By 1995, when he wanted out of the opera industry, describing having “hit the ceiling” of his talent, he started brainstorming new career opportunities. “Through a series of coincidences while working in Tel Aviv I fell in with a bad crowd of rabbinical students,” he said, “and realized that their goal would give me the life I wanted: intellectual, spiritual, passionate, text-driven, prayerful, and Jewish. I emailed Rabbi Kleinbaum from Tel Aviv and said, ‘Dear Rabbi Kleinbaum, I want your job.’ ”
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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Merissa Nathan Gerson is a writer, sex educator, and rape prevention advocate. She teaches Alternative Journalism at Tulane University in New Orleans.