Jay Michaelson was born in Tampa, Florida, in 1971 and grew up in a Conservative Jewish household. He repressed his sexuality from an early age, fearing it was incompatible with religion. While Michaelson chose to practice Orthodox Judaism into his twenties, he felt an increasing tension during this period between his religious beliefs and sexuality. 'It took me ten years of wrestling', he reflects, 'to finally admit the truth: if I wanted true love, the kind that Song of Songs sings about, my Eve would have to be Steve'. After many years of despair, he 'came out' in 2001 at the age of thirty. Several years in the making, this decision was motivated by a revelation Michaelson had during a hike in Israel. He recalls saying to God, 'I've tried it your way, I've tried repressing for too long and I've had enough. Now it's going to be my way, and I hope that's OK. If not, too bad.' 'Coming out' was, he argues, 'the most religious thing I had ever done'.
'God versus gay is a myth', Jay Michaelson.
Despite his fear that being openly gay would mark the end of his faith, Michaelson immediately engaged with religiously inspired LGBT activism. In 2004, he founded Nehirim, a national organisation that provides programming for the Jewish LGBT community (the name is derived from the Hebrew for 'lights'). The group focuses on spirituality, rather than direct political advocacy, and its flagship event were a series of weekend retreats held every summer. (As a child, Michaelson regularly attended Camp Ramah, a Conservative Jewish summer camp). Michaelson served as the groups's executive director until 2010. He also co-founded Eshel, an organization which supports Orthodox LGBT Jews and their families.
With multiple advanced degrees, Michaelson has combined this activism with careers in academia and journalism. He has taught at Boston University Law School, Harvard Divinity School, and Chicago Theological Seminary. In 2011, he published the agenda-setting work, God vs Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. Written for a popular audience, the book argues forcefully that the teachings of the Bible, far from condemning homosexuality, actively support full equality for the LGBT community. God vs Gay? was an Amazon bestseller and Lambda Literary Award finalist. In 2013, he wrote Redefining Religious Liberty, the first long-form expose on the conservative “religious liberty” movement which uses religious freedom as a way to discriminate against LGBT people and others.
The same year, Michaelson earned a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His thesis examined the life and thought of the eighteenth-century heretic Jacob Frank. He continues to write academic articles on the intersection between Jewishness and queer identity. In 2013, Michaelson was also ordained as a non-denominational rabbi.
Departing sharply from his Orthodox Jewish roots, Michaelson has also published several books on Buddhism and meditation (he also teaches jhana meditation). In 2013, he authored Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism and the Next Generation of Enlightenment and in 2018 began teaching on Ten Percent Happier, a leading meditation app. He has taught meditation at a range of institutions, including Burning Man, Kripalu, and New York Insight.
Michaelson writes frequently on the intersection of law, religion, and LGBTQ equality, and is a leading expert on the “religious liberty” movement. He is considered by many to be a key progressive Jewish voice in the gay rights movement.
(This biographical statement written by Stephen Colbrook from information found in God vs. Gay?, various CVs on Michaelson’s website (https://www.jaymichaelson.net/presskit/), the Arcus Foundation website (https://www.arcusfoundation.org/), and two interviews Michaelson has conducted with journalists (http://jvoices.com/2007/02/20/sacred-sexuality-an-interview-with-jay-michaelson/ and https://brightestyoungthings.com/articles/interview-jay-michaelson with editorial input from Michaelson).
Biography Date: September 2019
Author/editor | Jewish (ethnic, Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox) | Buddhist | Clergy Activist | Nehirim | Theology | Michaelson, Jay