‘Confounding Patriarchy:  From Lesbian Nation to the Wilderness where Others Meet.’

The title of this paper requires some explanation.

Lesbian Nation: Specifically, the book of that name by the radical lesbian feminist author, Jill Johnston, first published in 1973.[1]

Wilderness: a natural, empty space; ‘No-Man’s-Land’; a ‘borderland’ between nations and monoliths; the terrain of spiritual wanderings and discoveries; unchartered territory accessible to all.

What’s the difference between a ‘nation’ and a ‘wilderness’? A nation exists within well-defined boundaries and is defined further by its flag, and by a series of particulars with reference to history, culture, language, economy and polity. National entities struggle with diversity and plurality and tend to be monolithic. A wilderness by contrast and by definition, is wild and unruly, bounded only by its outer extremities – where wilderness meets ‘civilisation.’

Whether as end-goal or separatist strategy, lesbian nation/ lesbian separatism represented in the 1970s in the United States – and to a lesser extent in Britain – a way for lesbians to express absolute rejection of patriarchy by doing everything possible to live outside a patriarchal framework. The emergence of LGBTQIQ – Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer-Intersex-Questioning – represented by the rainbow flag, expresses a profusion of diverse sexualities, orientations, and genders that challenges monolithic thinking and practice. Today I invite you to take a historical journey via my own experience, from lesbian nation, circa 1970s, inhabited by lesbians for whom being lesbians and living a lesbian existence provided a total and complete framework of meaning – to the wilderness, where a plurality of others meet. On that journey, I will draw on the concepts/metaphors of the borderland and the wilderness to demonstrate the potential for LGBTQIQ alliance to challenge, both, patriarchy, and singular, monolithic responses to patriarchy.

Lesbian Separatism and the emergence of plural feminisms

The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s that was led largely by lesbians, political and otherwise, and propelled by the rejection of patriarchal power was nonetheless, shaped by a dualistic, binary patriarchal mind-set, rooted in essentialist definitions of what constitutes femaleness and maleness, in which ‘women’ and ‘men’ were understood as absolute, closed identity categories. And so it was that the ‘sisterhood’ was inclusive of all women – in theory, at least, while in practice, it was not inclusive at all because ‘sisters’ did not recognise the differences between women, and made the assumption that all women share the same experience. This is how I put it in an article I wrote for the first issue of Shifra, a Jewish feminist magazine launched in December 1984 by a group of Jewish lesbians, including me:[2]

‘A central assumption of feminism is that the identity woman is a fundamental one; that everything an individual woman is can be reduced to one basic fact: she is a woman. It is this assumption that has led to another: the identity of all women in our essential womanhood – sisterhood: basically, we are all sisters because our shared womanhood underlies all other experiences – individual, cultural, economic – which separate us. The prototype feminist … is a woman who has experienced the ‘click’ phenomenon, and with the truth revealed, has ‘cast-off’ all the old bonds which tied her – to family, to class, to culture, to religion, to nation – to emerge a new woman, unfettered and eager to join hands with her sisters across the globe and create a new world.

‘Well, this had been the theory of it. In practice, some of us had to cast-off more than others. The new woman, early ‘70s variety, could be white, middle class and culturally Christian, because that is the norm in the countries where modern feminism initially developed – and so, nobody noticed; she couldn’t be black, working class, Jewish – because that would mean her ‘loyalties’ were subject to conflicting pulls, and anyway, we all know how much more patriarchal these ‘other’ cultures are… Yet, lots of ‘other’ women did try to become ‘new’ women too: rejecting, denying, repressing, forgetting, or simply camouflaging – with the rhetoric and new reflexes of ‘sisterhood’ – ‘old’ rituals, habits, customs, fears and allegiances.’

The establishment of lesbian nation faltered as lesbians, whose lives encompassed ‘other’ identities escaped across the borders. But where did they/we go? To use another analogy:  If monolithic sisterhood was a superhighway, taking everyone in one direction, identity politics turned out to be a cul-de-sac. Once the critique of patriarchy got overwhelmed by the assertion of differentiating identities to the exclusion of a sense of connection with other women, the Women’s Liberation Movement had, quite literally, nowhere to go.

And yet, the emergence of particular identities was necessary – for all the ‘others’ who did not fit into ‘sisterhood’ as defined by WASP – White Anglo-Saxon Protestant – cultural assumptions, and because it demonstrated the plurality of women’s and lesbian experience. Nevertheless, the WLM in Britain did not survive the disruption that was played out, in particular, in the pages of the weekly Women’s Liberation Movement Newsletter, and the monthly feminist magazine, Spare Rib. The Jewish Lesbian Group I was part of in the early days of Jewish feminism, 1982 to 1984, did more than serve as a forum for mutual support and exploration of the intersection of our Jewish and lesbian identities. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, we found ourselves in a very uncomfortable place when the pages of the WLMNSpare Rib, and the black feminist magazine, Outwrite, began to engage in the wider media campaign that equated Zionism with racism. In addition to our collective responses, I remember writing a long piece on the history of anti-Semitism for the WLMN in an attempt to educate my non-Jewish ‘sisters’ about Jewish experience. I decided to write the piece, following a meeting at ‘A Woman’s Place’ on Sunday July 10 1982 to discuss the newsletter’s policy on ‘no anti-Semitic and racist entries’ – which became little more than a forum for women to be openly anti-Semitic.

So, the assertion of particular cultural, ethnic and religious identities on the part of lesbians and women who had regarded one another as ‘sisters’, put an end to the collective identity of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Arguably, other developments also led to schisms between groups of women – in particular, Greenham Common, with its focus on women uniting for peace, which was seen by ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ lesbian feminists as diverting women’s energies from the wider project of challenging patriarchy.[3]

From ‘Lesbian’ and ‘Gay’ to ‘LGBT’ – and ‘Q’

As the Women’s Liberation Movement gave way to clusters of engagement, the trajectory of the Gay Liberation Movement, which formed after the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969, and was established in Britain in 1972, was profoundly influenced by the HIV-Aids crisis that erupted in the early 1980s. The emphasis of GLM was on political struggle. Highlighting the ‘lifestyle’ choices of gay men, the HIV-Aids crisis revealed the importance of community for gay people – community which extended beyond gay men, to include lesbians who supported their gay brothers, who became ill, and all those whose lives did not mesh with heterosexual assumptions. In an important sense, the adoption of the rainbow flag came to symbolise the transformation of gay activism into the alliance of all LGBT people. The rainbow flag proclaims not so much identity as connectivity.

While the rainbow flag emerged in a community context, the development of queer consciousness that followed was very much framed by the emergence of queer theory and gender theory, expressions of post-modern thinking, which became the primary theoretical constructs in the 1990s, in place of ‘feminist studies’, ‘women’s studies’ and ‘gay studies.’ In an important sense, queer theory and gender theory spoke to transformations at the grassroots, acknowledging that gender is socially constructed, and that ‘identities’ are not essential and fixed, but rather, who we are, is expressed by what we do – and what we do is varied and subject to change. Perhaps the most influential work in this arena was Judith Butler’s ground-breaking book, Gender Trouble, published in 1990.[4] Crucially, queer theory and gender theory not only provide a theoretical framework for LGBT existence, the emergence of the ‘Q’ category, creates a bridge that enables heterosexuals, who do not regard the way they live as mainstream, to become part of the ‘queer’ embrace, so that the rainbow flag becomes ever more all-encompassing; a flag for all those who choose to challenge patriarchy and its coercive social norms.

A Strange Hybrid: Lesbian Rabbi 

The emergence of LGBTQ – expanding in recent years to encompass ‘I’ (Intersex) and another ‘Q’ (Questioning) – has created the context for inclusive community. Nevertheless, for those whose lives also encompass ‘other’ allegiances, it is clear that LGBTQIQ still represents a kind of nation – even an island – similar to lesbian nation, only bigger and more diverse. When I first crossed the border of lesbian nation to enter Jewish life, with my decision to study for the rabbinate in 1984, many of my lesbian feminist sisters regarded me as a traitor. Meanwhile, in the early years of my rabbinate, just one of two lesbian rabbis, and the only one employed full-time in the mainstream, I experienced rejection and persecution in response to my attempts to make Jewish life more inclusive – particularly, around the issue of same-sex marriage.[5] So, I lived, like a desert creature, in a wilderness ‘in between’ these two territories: a strange hybrid; a Lesbian Rabbi.

It has only been in recent years, since more LGBT Jews began to knock at the door of Jewish life, and LGBT rabbis began to proliferate as rabbinic training within the progressive Jewish world became non-discriminatory, that the progressive Jewish world, initially, Liberal Judaism,[6] has become more inclusive. However, since most of Jewish life remains impervious to the needs of LGBT Jews, and Jews remain largely invisible within LGBT life, LGBT Jews continue to inhabit – albeit in greater numbers – the borderland ‘in between’.

In the Wilderness

So, how might LGBTQIQ become more inclusive of ‘others’? I began with the metaphor of the wilderness. I want to return to this metaphor in order to suggest a way in which LGBTQIQ can become a context where the rainbow flag of connectivity flies as an invitation to all ‘others’ to inhabit an inclusive domain that defies boundaries and celebrates diversity.

Interestingly, the Hebrew noun for wilderness, midbar, is related to the noun, davar, meaning ‘word’ or ‘thing’; with the first syllable, mi, mimicking the preposition, mi, meaning ‘from’. And so, midbar: the locus devoid of words and things; the place of no-thing: nothing.

By contrast with the monolithic nation construct, the wilderness narrative found in the Torah,[7] demonstrates the creative potential of the space devoid of words and things beyond boundaries and borders. This is particularly evident in the Torah account of the building of the Tabernacle – the sacred tent in the wilderness.[8] We read in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 25 (:1-8):

The Eternal spoke to Moses saying: / Speak to the Israelites that they shall take for Me an offering, from each person whose heart is willing you shall take My offering. / And this is the offering which you shall take from [what is] with them: gold and silver and copper; / blue and purple and crimson yarns and fine linen and goats hair; rams skins dyed red and dolphins skins, and acacia wood; / oil for the lighting, spices for the anointing oil and the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the cape and for the breast piece. Then let them make for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell b’tocham – among them.

Note that the verse says: that I may dwell among them – not that I may dwell in it. The construction of the Tabernacle is an exercise in community building in which each individual offers their gifts with a willing heart to the collective enterprise.[9]

Imagine the scene: the profusion of wonderful, varied gifts: some glittering in the sunlight; others radiating deep plush colours; a plurality of fabrics and textures and scents. And let us also imagine that these varied and beautiful gifts are expressions of the variety of the individuals, who bring them.

So, who were these individuals, who gave their offerings for the building of that glorious tent with a willing heart? The answer seems obvious: the Israelites; the descendants of Jacob/Israel and his family. But the wilderness journey we find in the Torah was not the journey of a people, with a singular identity. The ex-slaves were a rabble made up of the Israelites, and erev rav – a ‘mixed multitude’ of others, who made the dash to freedom with them.[10] The individuals who brought their magnificently varied gifts were also themselves magnificently varied. It was the experience of fleeing the house of bondage and living in the barren wilderness that enabled them to forge a community and to build out of the emptiness a framework of meaning and a sense of connection.

Of course, the journey of the slaves had a goal – the land beyond the Jordan, where a new society based on equity and justice was to be established. However, significantly, the Torah focuses as much on the journey itself, as on the destination. Indeed, the Torah concludes before the wilderness wanderers cross the River Jordan.[11] Moreover, since the Torah is read in an annual cycle, Jewish communities the world over go on a journey of weekly Torah readings that no sooner reaches the end of the wilderness wanderings, related in the Book of Deuteronomy, than goes back to the beginning again with the Book of Genesis.[12]

Indeed, it is one of the paradoxes of Jewish existence that a people formed, according to the Torah, for the purpose of instituting a new social system, has spent most of the past 3250 years since entering the land beyond the Jordan, dispersed as a beleaguered minority in other people’s lands, rather than living as a sovereign nation.[13] And so, in an important sense, the tale of wilderness wanderings presents an alternative way of life: On the one hand, there is the nationhood project that expresses the essence of patriarchy, with its boundaries and border controls, its definitions of insiders and outsiders; on the other hand, the community of itinerant wanderers on a journey in the wild landscape beyond.

As we gather together as LGBTQIQ people, like the Israelites and the mixed multitude before us, determined to escape tyranny, we are challenged to live as nomads, setting up and dismantling our tents, ever-ready to offer hospitality to others along the way; our rainbow flag, both, a declaration of connectivity that proclaims and encompasses our particular identities, and an invitation to others to join us.

Conclusion: On the Fringe

I’m going to conclude the journey from lesbian nation to the wilderness where ‘others’ meet with another wilderness image: The fringe. The Torah speaks of tzitzit, the ‘fringe’ to be attached to each corner of one’s garments, as an aide memoir of the sacred connection with the Eternal One, ‘who brought you out of the land of Egypt – Mitzrayim.’[14] Mitzrayim: connected to the adjective, tzar, ‘narrow’; a ‘narrow’ place. The fringe; the edge is the location of the sacred – kadosh – that which is ‘set apart.’ The journey of the slaves: from the narrow place of tyranny to the sacred fringe. The fringe – the borderland – the wilderness: the meeting place of all who dare to leave the narrow places – including the tight identity enclaves we ourselves create – celebrate diversity, and embrace liberation.


Elizabeth (Elli) Tikvah Sarah graduated in Sociology in 1977 (London School of Economics). After engaging in lesbian feminist activism research, writing and editing, she entered the Leo Baeck College in 1984, and was ordained in 1989. A pioneer in the area of LGBT inclusion, Elli initiated a process within Liberal Judaism, which culminated in a new policy and the publication of an anthology of ceremonies for civil partners in December 2005. Elli is Rabbi of Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue, and Liberal Jewish Chaplain at Sussex and Brighton Universities. She has edited and co-edited four books, contributed more than four dozen articles and several poems to various journals and anthologies, and is author of Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012). She is currently working on two other books: Beyond Binary Tyranny. A Jewish Journey; and: word-maps of the holy land.

In March 2006, Elli married her partner, Jess Wood (Director of Allsorts Youth Project and MBE in the New Year’s Honours List, 2012 for her services to LGBT and young people), at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue.      FB & Twitter: @rabbiellisarah

[1] Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution by Jill Johnston (Simon and Schuster, 1973).

[2] From ‘Knowing No Bounds – Or, What’s a Nice Jewish Lesbian Doing Holding the Sefer-Torah?’ First published in Shifra – Jewish Feminist Magazine, issue 1, December 1984. Included in Trouble-Making Judaism by Elli Tikvah Sarah (David Paul Books, 2012, pp.125-6). The Shifra collective: Jane Black, Bev Gold, Linda Bellos, Marilyn Fetcher, Riva Krut, Libby Lawsn, Scarlet Pollock, Leah Ruth, Sheila Saunders and Elizabeth Sarah (Elli Tikvah Sarah – I adopted Tikvah, ‘Hope’, as my middle name in 1998.

[3] Breaching the Peace: A Collection of Radical Feminist Papers (Onlywomen Press, London, 1984). Most of the papers here were written for a radical feminist half-day workshop called “The Women’s Liberation Movement versus The Women’s Peace Movement or How Dare You Presume I Went to Greenham?” held at ‘A Woman’s Place’ in London on April 10, 1983.

[4] Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler (Routledge, 1990).

[5] See the Preface to my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, London, 2012), for an account of my experience. An earlier account, ‘Being a Lesbian Rabbi’, was included in Lesbian Rabbis. The First Generation edited by Rebecca T. Alpert, Sue Levi Elwell and Shirley Idelson (Rutgers University Press, 2001).

[6] Liberal Judaism – a movement founded in Britain in 1902. See ‘Liberal’ or ‘Progressive’ Judaism as a worldwide phenomenon, first emerged in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century.

[7] The Torah: In particular, The ‘Five Books of Moses’: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. More broadly: the whole of Jewish teaching (Torah means ‘Teaching’). I’m referring here to Torah in the more particular sense.

[8] The Hebrew word for Tabernacle is Mishkan, meaning ‘dwelling place’.  Another name used in the Torah account is Mikdash, meaning ‘Sanctuary’.

[9] See Chapter 11, ‘Empowering Individuals and Creating Community’ in Trouble-Making Judaism.

[10] Exodus 12:38.

[11] See Deuteronomy chapter 34.

[12] The Torah reading cycle begins and ends each Autumn, and is celebrated with the festival of Simchat Torah (‘Joy of Torah’) that concludes a just over three week period of sacred days.

[13] The wilderness wanderers entered Canaan, c. 1250 BCE. The land was conquered by a succession of empires: the Assyrians in 722 BCE; the Babylonians in 586 BCE; the Persians in 538 BCE; the Greeks c. 333 BCE; their successors in that area, the Seleucids in 175 BCE; and after a brief period of Judean independence, 140-65 BCE, by the Romans in 65 BCE. The modern State of Israel, established in 1948, is the first independent Jewish nation since that time.

[14] Numbers 11:37-41.