December 8, 2022

Twilight Judaism: A Conversation on Spiritual Practice & Queer Ecotheology with Jericho Vincent

By Madison Margolin

Jericho Vincent calls themself a post-ultra-Orthodox Jew. Having left the fold as a teenager, they’ve now returned to Judaism to excavate lost and suppressed feminist wisdom, queer theology, and ecospirituality concealed within the ancestral tradition.

Today, Jericho is the founder of Temple of the Stranger, an “alternative mystical community” in Brooklyn; the executive director of Shuva, an organization that shares Jewish ancestral perspectives on restorative justice; and (in their words) an “initiator of various spiritual experiments” based in Torah and ritual. They are the author of the memoir Cut Me Loose, and their writing has been featured in the New York Times, the Daily Beast, and The Cut. Jericho is also pursuing rabbinic ordination at the ALEPH Ordination Program, and can be found sharing Jewish teachings through their Instagram account, @thealef.

In this interview, we cover a variety of topics, from Jericho’s exploration of other religious traditions like Buddhism and Sufism, to finding the OTD (off the derech) community,1 to drawing inspiration from ancient Greek mythology, and finally coming back around to a Judaism that is at once creative and captivating. Pushing the boundaries of our modern ritualistic expressions, Jericho suggests, might help us arrive at practices that feel the most true, individually compelling, and transformative for our communities and our world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Madison Margolin

So let’s start with the basics. Tell me about yourself: the who, what, where. What do you do in the world today?

Jericho Vincent

Sure. I call myself post-ultra-Orthodox. I grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family, a very rabbinical family. I was pushed out of that as a teenager and spent a long time exploring other spiritual traditions before coming back to Judaism very much on my own terms. There are certain ultra-Orthodox values and portals, and ways of engaging, that are still part of my repertoire and how I think about Judaism. But I’m also very much on the fringe, very radical in how I think about Judaism. I write about this stuff, and I teach. And a lot of what I’m teaching right now is what I call genderqueer Torah—Torah that uses a genderqueer lens to make the stories relevant, to open up deeper meaning in Torah, to create invitations for God-encounter. I also do a lot of feminist Torah. I’m very interested in Asherah, the taboo portal to the feminine Divine, and doing work on repairing that broken-off access point. And I’m in rabbinical school, and a parent of two young kids.

MM

Where are you from?

JV

I’m from Pittsburgh originally, but I’ve lived in Brooklyn for a long time. I went away for grad school, but otherwise I’ve been here since I was seventeen.

MM

You said that when you were a teenager, you started to move away from your family. What was that like?

JV

I mean, it was kind of a weird OTD leaving-ultra-Orthodox-Judaism story; I was super devout and my initial pushbacks came from a place of great devotion. So, when I was twelve and I heard the casual racism in my family and community, I found it offensive spiritually. God created all people—how can we use a pejorative term for talking about any of them? And I got a lot of pushback. People were kind of astounded and outraged, or at least that’s how it felt to my melodramatic twelve-year-old mind, and that undid things for me. I felt I was rooted in something true when I spoke up, so I couldn’t understand: didn’t they see that I was coming from a place of devotion? Why did they think I was a bad kid?

It was the same thing with gender stuff. There’s this enormous gender segregation in ultra-Orthodox community, and as I turned twelve and entered puberty and adolescence, I was upset about it. My dad was this big rabbi. I really wanted to be close to him and I sensed that I was being pushed away from him. It was upsetting to me. And it wasn’t upsetting because I thought of myself as a rebellious kid, or what we would have called a “bad kid.” It was like, “No, I’m so devout. I love Torah so much. Let me be close to you.” And when people responded to my attempts to engage with my dad as rebellious, that was what undid me: the fact that I was being mischaracterized. And then there was just a series of escalating rebellions, until I was pushed out of my family when I was sixteen or seventeen years old. I still was super devout. I still wanted to stay in, but there were parts of me having a hard time with certain elements of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.

I was supposed to go to a strict yeshivish2 seminary in Manchester, but when it was discovered that I’d been communicating with a boy, my cousins there basically told me I was no longer welcome on the island of the United Kingdom because I was such a terrible person. I ended up at Neve Yerushalayim, which (back then, at least) was a seminary for people encountering Orthodox Judaism for the first time. I was sixteen years old and kind of backing away. So, it was a weird soup.

After that, I ended up in New York, where a lot of people who grew up in the “out of town” (outside New York City) frum world end up. My relationship with my family, which was already hanging by a thread, disintegrated altogether. So I was trying to get my bearings. I didn’t feel like I had chosen to leave. Maybe I had subconsciously—but it felt like I was being pushed out, and that was pretty upsetting.

MM

It seems like it wasn’t Judaism that you were questioning, but how to engage with it. Am I getting that right?

JV

Yeah, the form of Judaism as it was practiced. I think I was sensitive to some of the hypocrisies in the community, and the way that trauma has shaped how ultra-Orthodox Jews deal with issues of race or gender. A lot of my OTD friends are these ballsy, brash people who knew what they wanted and went for it. I was not that. I was super pious, super devout, and somehow that ended up getting me into trouble.

MM

What were some of the things that got you into trouble based on your devoutness?

JV

There are two stories here that were significant in shaping my life. One was about race: hearing this pejorative word for Black folks and feeling like, how can we do that? And then when I protested, people looking at me like I was a terrible person for daring to question the way things were done.

Then there’s the gender story . . . You know, I think these incidents that happen to us as children can be the pivots on which our whole lives spin. And one of those times, for me, was when I was about twelve, around the Shabbat table. One of my older sisters had just been married, so her husband was sitting next to my dad, where I usually got to sit. I was super close to my dad, super devout, and wanted to learn from him. And he normally spoke to us in English, but because my brother-in-law was there and he was this young Talmud scholar from New York, my dad was talking in yeshivish, that patois of Aramaic and Yiddish and Hebrew. I didn’t understand it, and I was sitting all the way at the other end of the table with the women, and I felt frustrated that I was being excluded. So I called out and said, “Tatti,”—the name I used for my dad—”can you say that in English?” The whole room froze. There was a little laughter, and one of my sisters was like, “Oh, someone wants attention.” I fled the room in tears. It was an incredible hurt for me to realize that I just wanted to be close to Torah, and people were seeing me as a bad kid, an immodest kid. That was a significant moment. And as more of those things happened, they undid me. Then, pretty normal teenage rebellions also started creeping in. I was interested in boys. And when I was fifteen or sixteen, I was exchanging letters with a boy I had a crush on. Of course, those letters were like, “What do you think God says about blah, blah, blah?” He was Modern Orthodox, so I was interested in him on all these levels: how he treated me with a little more respect, and was allowed to go to college. Then the letters were found and there was this giant blow-up. Those were the kinds of things that got me in trouble.

MM

How did leaving affect your own piousness or observance? What was your evolution Jewishly?

“My Judaism was messy, bloody, anxiety-ridden, rich, textured, and intense, while my experience in Buddhism was total calm . . . But then I kind of missed the mess.”

JV

Even after leaving, I still had a really close relationship with God. It was super toxic, because that’s what I’d been given: God is the great, loving Father in the sky who will withhold His love and punish you. I was in a relationship with this Rastafarian dude I’d met at the local park, and was still soaking my pillow with tears every night, grief-stricken about losing my family, still feeling that deep connection to the ultra-Orthodox God. At the same time, some of my religious practices were sort of falling away. There were a couple years of torturous wrestling with that, because part of me still badly wanted to go back to ultra-Orthodox life. So I’d commit myself to it—that I was going to do teshuvah, and not talk to boys anymore, that I would stop having sex, and begin to keep Shabbos and kosher again. And then inevitably, it would blow up. I did that for three or four years and then just decided, “You know, fuck it. It’s not working for me. I can’t make this work.” But I still had this deep, spiritual sense, and I wanted that part of me to have community, a place to express itself. Somebody told me about Buddhism, which I didn’t know much about, so I went to a Zen temple and learned how to sit zazen. That was kind of a revelation. My Judaism was messy, bloody, anxiety-ridden, rich, textured, and intense, while my experience in Buddhism was total calm. I loved that calm. I stuck with it for a little while, but then I kind of missed the mess. I wanted something juicy and dripping and messy and gunky.

Then a guy I was dating took me to a Sufi mosque. I stepped in and it was like falling into an ocean of love, which is really what their practice is. It had all that richness and intensity I’d craved, and it was all based on love instead of terror. That was huge for me; it healed a lot of my spiritual yearnings to think of God as a lover, to think that I was allowed to love God as I was, even if I wasn’t practicing the way my parents wanted me to. So I stuck with Sufism for a while. I became a dervish and really got into it, and then ended up drifting away. Another guy I’d started dating was an atheist, and I was learning all this stuff about evolution and the Big Bang and the universe. All that, to me, seemed so sparkling with spiritual presence, which is a bizarre thing to say about atheism, but the pursuit of truth and the love of science, and the skepticism—there was something deeply spiritual there. So I dove deep into that, and it wasn’t until I started connecting with the emerging OTD community, maybe ten or eleven years ago, that I started to engage again Jewishly.

MM

And was that through Footsteps?

JV

Yes, through Footsteps initially, and also online blogs. There was this literary blog called Unpious; I got started submitting writing there, and became close to Shulem Deen, who ran the project. There was this very thrilling sense of emerging community at the time. It was amazing to meet other people who had experienced things that I’d experienced. And there was a big activist spirit to it, which was exciting for me. I got involved in community organizing, trying to address concerns within ultra-Orthodoxy (such as protesting child sex abuse) and supporting those who had left. It was a fertile time.

MM

So from Sufism to atheism to Buddhism and back around to Judaism—where are you now with all of it?

JV

I mean, it’s all cumulative, you know? Everything I’ve experienced and learned, it’s woven in. I am very passionately engaged with Judaism—I’m very interested in the living Judaism. I think that the Judaism most people practice is based on a sort of fossilized story. As if God was only alive 2,000 years ago, and we have to access what people said 2,000 years ago to try and reach God. I hold our tradition with care, and believe that our texts are sacred, but I’m really interested in God at this moment, right now. How can spiritual practice help us encounter God in the present?

I guess my Judaism is kind of witchy, in some ways. I’m really interested in bringing back the lost, feminine traditions and bringing back an earthier, more embodied sense of magic, that sense of sacredness. I also have a deep love of the ancient Greeks and their spirituality, and that kind of infuses my Judaism, which may sound totally weird, but many of our ancestors were Hellenistic Jews who balanced Judaism and Greek tradition.

MM

I’m curious, what does that look like in practice?

JV

I think of the pantheon of Greek gods as an incredibly accurate and deeply spiritual map for understanding the human mind. There is a Jewish version of that map, as well. So when I do my own internal spiritual work, I call on those archetypes. This is something that emerged from my relationship with my husband; we discovered and developed this practice together. There’s a set of cards we made called the Pantheon Deck that helps you map out different entities within yourself, using Jewish and Greek archetypes. So, for example, you might pull one card with the archetype of the pattern-maker, expressed in the figures of Ouranos and Rabbi Akiva. The deck basically connects Jewish and ancient Greek maps of meaning. It’s been a big part of my healing work.

MM

Wow, that’s so cool!

I wanted to go back to a few things from before, when you were talking about queer Torah, and about Asherah. Can you share more about that?

JV

I apply a trauma lens to Judaism, thinking about how our culture bears scars. And I think one of the great traumas was this very, very consequential choice King Josiah made 2,000 years ago, to exile anything based in the figure of Asherah—a female portal to the Divine that coexisted with YHVH3—and to make Her taboo. The worship of Asherah provided our ancestors with a way to celebrate feminine aspects of the Divine, but suddenly that access to a divine feminine was blocked off. Then we went into exile almost immediately after that. And that decision got set in the stone of exilic trauma. I think we see the consequence today. I mean, we see patriarchy and how damaging it has been for our people, for our spirituality—so reconnecting with Asherah is an essential piece of my work. How can we heal that wound? How can we welcome Asherah back in? It’s super taboo for people who are familiar with these texts or practices. Asherah worship is seen as idol worship, and all these terrible things. Yet I can point out in the Zohar where it says that Asherah is the name of Shekhinah—but we’re just not allowed to use that name until the Messiah comes.4 If the old dudes in the Zohar say it, then why is it not okay if we say it? We are allowed to claim our own history. That feels super important to me, one way of healing Judaism from patriarchy.

Also, of course, the symbol of Asherah is a sacred tree. So there is a related wound that came from suppressing nature, suppressing the nature Goddess. We have kept that suppression alive for all these generations, with terrible consequences. And in this time of ecological crisis, the wound and its consequences are so important to address. Centering nature, and our relationship to it, feels more important than ever.

In rabbinical school, I cofounded a group called Mitzvat HaRegah that tries to understand what God wants us to do as we teeter on the verge of ecological collapse. Looking at sacred texts, there are so many imperatives to take action, to protect nature, to be good stewards of nature. It was such an eye-opening moment for me when I realized that although ultra-Orthodoxy claims to be “authentic Judaism,” it is just as curated as any other kind of Judaism. And there’s this huge swath of wisdom in the tradition about so many things—like ecological care—being totally ignored. To be an authentic Jew, I think you have to reckon with those sacred imperatives about nature, and obviously with the ecological emergency we’re living through.

MM

In regard to healing the suppression of Asherah in Jewish wisdom and history, what does that modern-day healing look like? When we talk about doing the work—what are the tangible steps? And once we integrate that sense of healing, what does Judaism look like?

JV

I think we start with a reckoning. We tell the story of what happened (which so few know, even though it was right there in the text) and then we make space through grief: for feeling what a horrifying thing suppression of the feminine has been for our people—for men, for women, for nonbinary people—to exist in a culture where this was done, where we’ve lived with the impact. Then I think we start to dismantle it. A big piece is eliminating, or balancing, patriarchal language. All of our traditional language that has been preserved is male-based. So, one piece is using female names for God, using feminist texts. I’m a huge fan of the Toratah Project, which is rewriting the Torah with all the genders reversed, so that female figures dominate and God is feminine. That’s really important.

And then of course, we need to move beyond the binary, which is something I try to do in my genderqueer teaching. It’s very important to balance the masculine with the feminine, to see what happens when we look into the spectrum between and beyond them. To investigate how the text can be expanded to make space for the feminine, and what lies beyond.

We also have to think really hard about ritual. What were the rituals that our ancient mothers practiced? And if you’re in connection with God in this moment, and think God has a feminine energy as much as a masculine energy, how do we bring the feminine—which has been so suppressed—further in? Trees and the moon, which were very important portals for our ancestors, are part of this. We already have some tree and moon practices—we have Tu B’Shvat, we have Kiddush Levanah.5 How can we turn those practices into celebrations of God’s feminine energy, which has been suppressed? I think there’s some really juicy, exciting, creative work there for anybody engaged with Judaism.

“If you’re in connection with God in this moment, and think God has a feminine energy as much as a masculine energy, how do we bring the feminine—which has been so suppressed—further in?” 

MM

So you mentioned the feminine names of God. What are some of those?

JV

Along with Asherah, another name that was suppressed and erased is Mamlekhet ha-Shamayim, which means Queen of Heaven. And then the Kabbalists, working from Talmudic sources, gave us the name Shekhinah, which is not taboo—that’s a feminine name for God we still have. But I think those two older ones, Asherah and Mamlekhet ha-Shamayim, point to a powerful portal. If you study Hasidut and Kabbalah and Zohar, the whole thing is about the exiled feminine that needs to be returned, but those texts never make the explicit link to the historical events of suppression. We’re not talking about something metaphorical.

Okay, I don’t know if I should get up on another soap box, but the mystical tradition was developed mostly by men, so they couldn’t bring these ideas about the feminine into the embodied historical truth—the idea that patriarchy needs to be dismantled. But what an amazing miracle to be alive today, in an era of feminism, in an era beyond the gender binary, where we can finally start to do that work.

MM

Does that work include reformatting or changing the texts themselves? Or is it just putting more emphasis on different things, like Kiddush Levanah, or other rituals in the Jewish calendar?

JV

I think it’s a giant question, and we need more and more people to grapple with it. I think the answer is all of the above. But I could speak to some of the things that I’m playing with in my life. The traditional blessing formulation is barukh ata Adonai Elohaynu Melekh ha-Olam. You know, the king of the world—a super patriarchal image both because it’s masculine and because it’s hierarchical. So, I’ve been moving to Ru’ach ha-Olam, spirit of the world—a non-patriarchal Divine. That’s my regular morning blessing: emphasizing the feminine, and using feminine grammar or mixed-gender grammar.

Also, we know that our ancient mothers would bake cakes for the Queen of Heaven. That’s what we’re told: there was this practice of offering some kind of cake. In my household, when I menstruate, I bake cakes with my daughter, with an awareness of that tradition, that history. I think we’re venturing into this very ancient territory that has been cordoned off for so long, and there’s so much play that has to happen, and so many exciting discoveries for us to figure out and share with each other.

MM

Wow. Baking cakes with your daughter is a really sweet thing to do. How old is your daughter?

JV

Ten years old.

MM

I love that. I remember so much curiosity and shame and shyness, and just weirdness, around periods, especially for kids approaching the age when they’re about to get one. I think the practice of baking cakes is such an interesting way to celebrate that moment, and open up about it.

JV

Yes! That’s true in any context, but especially if you’re connected to traditional Jewish texts, where writing about menstruation has been this horrible, misogynistic shitshow for the past 2,000 years. My daughter doesn’t know that stuff, but she does know, “Oh, this is when we bake cakes and think about God and how She loves our bodies, and loves this amazing process that some bodies go through, menstruation.” It feels really important.

MM

Totally. The other thing I wanted to get to is what you said about queer Torah. Can you explain a bit about what your work is there?

JV

A lot of what I’m doing now is, in a way, super basic. It’s just affirming that nonbinary and trans Jews not only have a right to exist, but can have deep roots in our spiritual tradition. Part of that is about reclaiming ancient characters from the very binary, patriarchal gaze they’ve been locked under. Yosef and Dina are my favorites. They’re interesting, gender-bending characters, who are half-siblings. We have little clues in the text that point to both of them living lives outside the gender binary. That’s an important first step: just affirming that we have always been here, and nonbinary or trans people have ancestors in the tradition, and our culture has an ancient history of making space for folks like that.

Then I do some more mystical work, as well. Rabbinic Judaism is a very binary tradition. In Judaism post-exile, everything is pure and impure, Shabbos and chol, Sabbath and weekday, kosher and not kosher, male and female. Everything has to be cut in two. But there are some mystical breadcrumbs that touch that place of the in-between. I think—without giving you the whole sermon on it—particularly for nonbinary folks, there’s some compelling stuff in rabbinic texts, clues that some of our mystical ancestors believed moving beyond binaries was a way to find liberatory consciousness. There are stories about the very first twilight and the Messianic things God created in twilight. We can think about nonbinary folks as belonging to the category of twilight in Jewish tradition, which is a very auspicious and special time.

MM

For people who don’t necessarily have the background, what is it about Yosef and Dina that makes them these role models?

JV

Well, when you look at the plain text, there are some interesting clues, and then when you look at the rabbinic traditions that follow many years later, there’s even more intrigue. We know that Dina, as the Hebrew says, goes out to see the women of the land.6 That one sentence is incredibly loaded. Women did not leave the camp. And why is she going out? She’s going out to check out other women. She is clearly acting outside the bounds of the gender that was prescribed for her. Of course, we know how that story ends, and there’s so much focus on the tragic ending, that people don’t pause to think about who this character was before her life was upended.

It’s especially important—considering how gender was so culturally rooted in that time—to consider what it would mean for a person to act like Dina 3,000 years ago. From the little bit of information we’re given, this is a character who is not living a life within the gender binary, who does not want to be confined by the way femaleness was defined at that time. If you approach it with open eyes and open heart, clearly this person is not doing what women do; they’re doing what men do. This is somebody who fucks with gender, a nonbinary person.

Yosef is kind of famously a little queer; he has this coat of many colors, these attributes that are considered feminine, and he’s described as very beautiful. There are a lot of clues in Yosef’s younger years that their relationship to gender is queer in some way. And then there’s this amazing story—or bit of text—at the end of Yosef’s life, when Jacob, Yosef’s father, is dying, and he blesses all his children. The blessings he gives Yosef are blessings of breasts and womb.7 If you just read it with peshat (the simple meaning of the text), then wait, what? This feminine male character is being blessed with breasts and womb? Amazing. Then Rabbi Irwin Keller points out that Yosef’s grandchildren were birthed on Yosef’s knees, which—if we know anything about the culture at the time—puts Yosef into the position of the grandmother, the matriarch.8 Laboring women would root themselves into the matriarch’s body, as if the matriarch’s spiritual energy was flowing through the laboring woman into the child. So, Yosef’s position is a very female position. This character, who has this feminine, queer past, assumes a matriarchal role.

There are a number of rabbinic traditions that affirm this, that say both Yosef and Dina were the opposite gender in utero, and their genders were switched before birth. The story is that Rachel was pregnant with a girl, and Leah was pregnant with a boy. But because Rachel didn’t have a son, Leah took pity on her and had the genders switched.9 The story says that’s why Yosef came out so feminine and Dina came out so masculine. And there are a bunch of other little texts that kind of embellished this idea.

MM

How did Leah and Rachel know the genders of the children?

JV

Well, how do the rabbis know anything? Or how do the characters know anything? It’s all magic. It’s all beautiful, magical mythology.

Footnotes

  1. Derech means “path” in Hebrew. “Off the derech” refers to Jews who have left an Orthodox community.
  2. Non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox.
  3. Another name for God, typically associated with the masculine.
  4. Zohar 1:49a. See also Jill Hammer, “An Altar of Earth: Reflections on Jews, Goddesses and the Zohar,” author website, November 25, 2013.
  5. The blessing of the moon every month.
  6. Genesis 34:1.
  7. Genesis 49:25.
  8. Irwin Keller, “Joseph the Matriarch,” author website, December 5, 2018.
  9. Rachel is Yosef’s mother, and Leah is Dina’s mother.

Jericho Vincent is a writer and educator. They are the author of the memoir Cut Me Loose and co-author of the illustrated children’s book Legends of the Talmud. Their essays have been published in the New York Times, The Cut, the Daily Beast, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Jericho has been named one of the Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36,” and one of The Forward’s “Forward 50” for their writing and community organizing. They hold a master’s degree in Public Policy from Harvard University, where they were a Pforzheimer Fellow. Trained as an IFS coach, they are currently a Wexner Fellow and rabbinical student. You can find them @thealef on Instagram and at jerichovincent.com.

Madison Margolin is a journalist covering psychedelics, cannabis, spirituality, and Jewish life. She is the cofounder of DoubleBlind Magazine and has written for publications like Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Vice, among others. Also a cofounder of the Jewish Psychedelic Summit and host of the Set & Setting podcast on the Be Here Now Network, Madison has traveled from cannabis farms in Northern California to underground ceremonies in Brooklyn to the shores of the Ganges River and all over Israel|Palestine, reporting on the role of entheogens in religion, culture, and healing. Find out more about her work here, or follow her on social media.