This interview was conducted as part of the interview series, LGBTQ&A, a weekly podcast that documents modern queer and trans history.
It was the late '80s, the height of the AIDS crisis. Rabbi Denise Eger was 28 years old—"a newly minted rabbi"—who would don mask, gown, and rubber gloves to visit members of her congregation in the hospital. Nurses were too afraid to enter the hospital rooms so they'd leave patients' meals outside. It was "the years when they thought you could catch it through the air," she recalls.
Rabbi Eger would feed those too weak to do it themselves, often removing her mask and gloves, providing a rare dose of human touch. Then she'd move to another patient, another hospital.
At the same time, she was coming out publicly. "If you're hiding and lying about who you are," she says, particularly for a rabbi, that's not a good thing. "It's not healthy...it's not good for the soul." She came out and has since become one of the most famous rabbis in the world, let alone female or queer rabbis.
Jeffrey Masters: When you were in seminary and not out, did you assume you’d become a rabbi and stay in the closet forever?
Denise L. Eger: Well, it's interesting. A couple of us made an underground a support group for one another at the seminary. We called ourselves Hineni which is the Hebrew word for I'm here. We used to meet covertly underground, far away from campus because it was really painful and really hard. This was the mid-'80 and AIDS was really just starting to take its horrible toll on our community.
I thought that I wouldn't really be able to be open and out about my whole life, but as anybody who's deep in the closet knows, A. It's not healthy, and B. Lying is not a good thing. It's not good for the soul. Particularly for a rabbi, that's not being a person of integrity if you're hiding and lying about who you are. I couldn't. I couldn't do it.
JM: You must be part of the first generation of openly queer rabbis.
DE: Yes, I am of the first generation. Not the first, that would be Rabbi Allen Bennett, the first openly gay rabbi in the states. He was Harvey Milk’s Rabbi in San Francisco, back in the day. He came out during the Briggs Initiative when they wanted to roundup the teachers and throw them out of the schools.
I called it “the plexiglass closet”. It was kind of a Don't Ask, Don't Tell. There was a resolution in 1990, in reformed Judaism, to allow openly gay people to be ordained as rabbis. And I came out publicly in The LA Times in advance of the convention, in part, to put a face and a name to it.
That's what Harvey Milk taught us. You have to come out. Once people get to know you, it's very different. It's not just something out there to be scared of, but it's your neighbor, it's your teacher, it's your banker.
JM: It's your rabbi.
DE: It's your rabbi.
JM: When you were outing yourself so publicly, were you afraid the resolution might not pass?
DE: Yeah, but I was already the rabbi here in Los Angeles at the first gay synagogue, and it was the AIDS crisis. I was running from hospital to hospital in 1988 ministering to our community, our young men that were dying.
In those years, you'd get a diagnosis and six weeks later you were dead. It was a very different time than now. So I didn't really have a lot of time to hang out and sit around and ponder my fate. I was dealing with the fates of other people.
JM: We don’t hear many stories from faith leaders about that time.
DE: I can't explain to you how many people died. To be a 28-year-old, I was a newly minted rabbi. You certainly didn't talk about this in seminary. In those days, you had to put on a cap and a gown and a mask and rubber gloves, and the nurses wouldn't go into the rooms of people with HIV and they'd leave the food outside.
Reverend Troy Perry, who founded the Metropolitan Community Church, and I one day ran into each other at Cedar Sinai Hospital. Both were masked and gowned up and we started to chitchat about visiting our members. We were both commiserating that the hospital's nurses and the doctors were being uncooperative.
These were the years when they thought you could catch it through the air. And we both admitted to each other that we would go into the rooms and take off our masks and gloves and hold the hand because somebody hadn't had human touch in forever. We would feed people because they were leaving the food outside the bed and people were so weak. They were skeletal and couldn't get up to get their own food.
We didn't know that the other was doing that at the time, but it was empowering for both of us to realize that as ministers caring for our community, what we had to do to take care of each other, to literally take care of those that were dying.
JM: I think we have the perception in the LGBTQ community of not being people of faith, when actually the majority of us are.
DE: Yes, and that's probably the biggest closet in the queer community. First of all, many of us have either our faith of origin or we found a new one. But there's such a negativity about it and I understand why because many people have used the Bible or the Koran or the Torah to bash and to kill. I get it.
But there are a lot of us who are very progressive and a lot of faith traditions that are incredibly inclusive and have changed and are not doing what you see portrayed in the press from the far extremist rightwing evangelicals, be they Jews, Muslims, or Christians.
JM: Did you always feel like your sexuality and Judaism weren't in conflict?
DE: Judaism is really different than Christianity this way. In Christianity sexuality is negativity. In Judaism, sexuality is something that's part of living a healthy life. Sexuality and expressing sexuality is normal. It's divine in the sense that God gave us our sexuality, not only for procreation, but for pleasure, in Judaism. So we don't quite have that negativity that one sees often in the larger culture.
JM: To end with a big question, how do you define God?
DE: For me, God's not a being or an entity that's located somewhere in the heavens. God is a word that we use to talk about the lifeforce that connects all of life in the universe. It's more of an energy source, whether we're plant, animal, or human being, that we possess within us.
God in our theology doesn't have gender because God is not a person in our theology. Judaism is very clear that God doesn't have a human body, but rather is something other. It's something different.
JM: How do you explain why some people don’t believe in God?
DE: I think people have a healthy curiosity and a healthy skepticism. I don't think it's a bad thing, I think is a good thing. I think there's been a lot of emphasis on science and rationality and Judaism, particularly Reform Judaism, very much embraces the science.
We're not creationists, we don't really believe the literal word of the Bible, but I think there is a spiritual longing that human beings have. When you automatically say, "I don't believe in God, I'm an atheist." You shut out the discussion of what connects all of life. That is when we lose hope. How do you sustain and build hope in the world if we don't have some way to connect one to the other, to each of us? For me, that's what the idea of God does. It connects all of humanity together.
This interview is the first interview in LGBTQ&A's four-part series exploring queerness and Jewish life. Click here to listen to Uzi Even, Israel's first openly gay member of parliament.