Notes for “The Tao of Mitzvah, Sabbath, and Boddhisatva,” by Kate Bornstein

versions of this talk were delivered to the 13th Annual NUJLS Conference, 2009 

and to the 3rd Annual Trans Religious Conference, 2009

My older brother died unexpectedly this January. It was a terrible shock. He’d been the family Patriarch. Not that he cared much, but he was the oldest male. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but most Orthodox and Conservative refuse to acknowledge my change of gender from male to female. 

So, hello to you… I’m speaking to you as the new Patriarch of the Bornstein family. 

And for this afternoon I’m speaking to you as your Kate-riarch, and you are my cherished children. Thank you all for inviting me, and for welcoming me with such warmth. Now it’s my mitvah to share with you what I’ve learned about making life more worth living as both a Jew and as a queer.


When I arrived at college in 1965, my room-mate was  a guy named Jim. These weren’t co-ed dorms. I was still a guy.  Jim was a nice enough young man, as was I. He was a gentle Christian man from the mid-west. I was not. I was a stressed out Jewish closet case from the New Jersey shore. And, the first day in our dorm room together, Jim looks at me kind of strange. 

“Bornstein,” he says, “is that a Jewish name?”

And for reasons aplenty, I bristled but joked off my edginess by saying, “No, it’s Roman Catholic.”

I thought he knew I was joking. But he didn’t find out I really was a Jew until six months later. In fact, when it finally came out that I was a Jew, he was positively convinced I couldn’t be a Jew. Why? Because all Jews have horns. 

Decent guy from a loving family, and he came to college believing that Jews have horns and it took him six months in college for him to find out we didn’t! I didn’t have horns, so I couldn’t be Jewish.

Am I a Jew? I’ve been having to look at this one very closely over the last few years. 

Am I a Jew?


I’m a transsexual dyke. 

I’m sadomasochist, which means I play with pain erotically. Mostly, I like to be on the receiving end, so that makes me a piggie masochist. 

I’ve got piercings in body parts I wasn’t born with.

Am I a Jew?

I’m a tattooed lady. 

I’m a radical left wing elder, artist and theorist. 

I’m a pornographer—a good one. 

I believe in gods and goddesses and angels and demons.

I’m an atheist. 

Am I a Jew?

I read Tarot cards and I throw the I Ching. 

I believe in reincarnation.

Am I a Jew?

Is anyone telling you that you’re less of a Jew by reason of your Desire?

Where are your horns?


We come to college with a great many misconceptions…

Most of us leave our homes and come to college believing that race, age and class have nothing to do with your gender or your sexuality.

Some people believe that it’s actually freedom and democracy that America is spreading across the globe at an alarming rate.

And many people come to college with a very common pair of misconceptions: There are only two genders: man and woman; and there are only two ways of expressing your sexual desire: homo or hetero.

Desire is one of three areas in life that can make our lives worth living: 

Who attended my workshop yesterday? You’ll recall I spoke some about the three areas of life that can make our lives more worth living: 

Identity… who are you? who do you wanna be? who are you role models? who are people just like you? who do you look up to? how do you wanna be treated in the world?

Desire… that’s wanting. As soon as you get your desire, you don’t desire any more. unless you desire more… which can become a problem if you don’t keep on top of it. Desire can be for anything, but for purposes of today’s talk—given who we are and how we identify—I’m gonna talk about sexual desire: who do you wanna fuck? who do you wanna be fucked by? where do you wanna fuck? do you wanna fuck at all? 

Power… and by that, I’m simply talking about fair access to the resources you need to make your life better for you and your loved ones, your family, your tribe. 

For thousands of years, humanity has governed itself by a politic of power that depends on authoritarian hierarchies. Our identities, our desires, and our power are all monitored by hierarchal systems of oppression, sanctioned and encouraged by the politics of power..

Power politics depends on obedience to those in power, or you die. 

“My way or the highway,” says the politics of power. 

“You’re either with us or you’re against us,” says the politics of power.

You never have to answer anyone who demands any either/or of you. 

Either/Or is the language of bullies. 

The politics of power has degenerated into global bully-ism.

Democracy is a sort of tranny politic: half way between a power politic, and an identity politic. Democracy is a great politic with two major drawbacks: 

1) If you’ve got enough money, you can thoroughly corrupt democracy and

2) In order to have a voice in a democratic government, you must be part of an acceptable demographic. None of us in this room has an acceptable recognizable identity.

In the history of humanity, we have governed ourselves using the politics of power and politics of identity. But there has never been a politic of desire. How about that? Never.


What do we Jews know about desire?

What do we queers know about desire?

As Jews, we are taught this: it was the desire for a binary system that led to the downfall of humanity. 

Maybe the Book of Genesis makes sense when read through the lens of postmodern queer theory: It was humanity’s desire for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil got us in trouble. God tried to warn us about the binary, but we weren’t listening. We wanted a world that was a simple either/or, good or evil.

As students of queer theory, as Jews who question everything: what does that mean, “The knowledge of good and evil?” 

And what motive did we have for that desire? 

Why does our culture desire the knowledge of good and evil? The serpent seduced us into wanting that.

Do you still desire the knowledge of good and evil?


I’m not saying that all binaries are bad. 

I’m saying that binaries are bad for us when we’re not conscious of binaries as simplistic statements of complex systems. 

Binaries become unconscious when they’re embedded within moral values. For what is morality but the knowledge of Good and Evil? 

So what is the Book of Genesis really telling us when it gives us a parable of world creation in which the downfall of humanity was humanity’s desire for morality? 

I don’t think it was ever God’s plan for sex to be part of any good-and-evil binary. He warned us away from that kind of thinking.

I don’t think it was ever God’s plan for gender to be part of any good-and-evil binary. He warned us away from that kind of thinking.


I’m not speaking against morality. Morality has great value to people who don’t trust themselves to decide for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong. Morality can teach us how to do good deeds.

All religions teach us to do good deeds according to each of their standards of good and evil. It’s frightening how many religions consider queers to be some kind of evil, isn’t it? 

And that is the basis of our conundrum, isn’t it? We want to belong to a religion who won’t accept us as members all because our harmless desires are somehow seen as morally corrupt. 

Please keep in mind that our harmless desires are only corrupt within in a system of morals that was after all the downfall of humanity.

As we learned more about Judaism—deeper than its flawed moral exterior—we learned that doing good deeds—performing mitzvah—is what makes us feel like we are indeed the chosen people. 

You and I are indeed the chosen people. And in the eyes of too many Jews, you and are still considered abnormal, apostate, and abomination.

Outlaws with hearts of gold, that’s us.

Demons with a conscience, that’s us.

Freaks on the cutting edge of a new politic of Desire.

That’s us.

Here’s good news: We can be told that we’re not real Jews, but no one can stop us from reaching our fulfillment through the performance of Mitzvah. No one can tell us how to enjoy our Sabbath.

And here’s the hard news: It’s living a life of doing good deeds: that’s what’s important, whether or not we are acknowledged as the Chosen People of Israel.


There’s plenty of room for good-hearted outlaws in Judaism. I’m sure there are scholars who’ve found a great many loopholes for good-hearted freak Jews like all of us.

Here’s two options I’ve found, and I haven’t looked all that hard:

We can agree with those who would cast us out of Judaism. We can say, OK, I’m not a Jew. And if we keep on performing mitzvah? 

That makes us Chassidey Umot HaOlam.

That makes us the righteous among nations,

If we’re thrown out of the synagogue, we can say good-bye for now, and we can become righteous gentiles. Who cares what we’re called so long as we perform mitzvah? That’s one way to leave Judaism and still maintain our ruach as outlaw Jews with hearts of gold.

There’s another option to abandoning the identity of Jew. Some Jews may refuse to recognize us, but there’s another doorway through which we can find a path to practice our Judaism: There’s the tradition of the hidden Tzaddikim: the hidden Jews whose ruach dictates that they anonymously take on the suffering of others 

Some Jews insist there are 36 Tzaddikim walking through the world. Some say they can prove there’s thirteen. In either case, you can bet that right this minute at least one of them is dying and that means that God is going to need a replacement Tzaddik. Well, that’s where we come in. 

We sign up for the job, and we live our lives performing mitzvah—abnormal as we are, apostate as we are, abomination as we are. We dedicate our lives to mitzvah.

The Jewish Tzaddikim and the Buddhist Boddhisatva alike wear the mantle of the despised for the purpose of anonymity.  

The Jewish Tzaddikim and the Buddhist Boddhisatva  alike sign up for the thankless and most rewarding job of taking on the suffering of the world.

And excuse me, but, who says there can only be 36 Tzaddikim at any given moment? Why not 360 of us? Why not 3,600 of us? Why not 3.6 million Tzaddikim taking on the suffering of the planet?

That oughta scare us up a messiah or two… and then? 

Then we’re on the road to fun, fun, fun, 

…and that’s called queer activism!

You do excellent work. I hope you observe and enjoy excellent Sabbath.


Sabbath is honoring the goodness of yourself. That’s difficult. As a rule, most of us don’t give ourselves nearly enough credit. We’ve listened to people call us freak and bad and evil for so long, we default into thinking that way about ourselves. That’s got to stop.

No matter how many mitzvahs we try to accomplish, it takes a great deal of practice to truly honor our goodness. In Sabbath we honor our goodness through the exploration of our outlaw desires: as wet or as hard, as sloppy, as chaste, or as bloody as our outlaw desires may happen to be at any given moment. 

We move through life in Mitzvah. 

We rest and renew in Sabbath. 

That’s how we learn to trust ourselves to determine our own identities. 

We move in mitzvah, we rest in sabbath. 

That’s how we learn and enjoy the nature of our desire.

We move in mitzvah, we rest in sabbath. That’s how your generation will discover the blueprint for a politic of Desire, a politic to replace the oppressive politics of power and identity. 


Ls, Gs, Bs, and Ts are taking on more and more power in today’s world, I hafta tell you: I am not at all proud to be entering mainstream American culture… not as a queer, and not as a Jew. It is far too sex negative and gender rigid for me to have any fun in. And when I do live out the fun of my harmless desires, mainstream American culture is downright mean to me. Mainstream American culture is nothing I want to be on the front lines of. So, what front lines of queer action do you want to be part of?

Over the past couple of decades, a great many kind, generous, and inclusive lesbian women and gay men stood fast on the front lines of queer action when they added the B and the T to their movement. At that moment, the lesbian and gay movement blew wide open—beyond an either/or sexuality to a more fluid expression of sex and gender. 

Over the last ten years or so, Queer Studies has brought about a redefinition of straight and queer, lesbian and dyke, gay man and faggot. Queer and straight became less about who you were fucking, and more about supporting or opposing sex positivity and gender anarchy. So we have in parts of the world more and more straight lesbians and gay men who want nothing more than gay marriage, joint stock certificates, and Gay Days at Disneyland. Thank goodness, there are also more and more queer heterosexuals who enjoy and support alternate sexualities and wacky gender expressions.

And those are the front lines of the queer revolution, because the front lines are always way out there on the dangerous edges of a culture. That’s where we live when we come to terms with our individual desires and dare to express them in a world that would rather see us dead. Any queer revolution must embrace of a Politic of Desire. So, what would that look like? 

A politic of desire would look like great sex: consensual, unpredictable, respectful and truly yummy. A politic of desire would embrace sex positivity and gender anarchy. 

Who is having sex with whom would matter less than the love and joy of sex itself. Gender would be more of a game and less of a power struggle. A politic of desire would follow the example of the brave lesbians and gay men who decided to be inclusive, back when they first added the B and the T to their movement.

LGBT is an uneasy, unstable coalition. LGBT can and does fall apart at any bend in the road. We divide ourselves by saying things like: “let’s leave trannies out of the non-discrimination act,” or “let’s make marriage equality our number one issue”—all at the expense of everyone who doesn’t have the great good fortune to pass and afford to live and pass with an identity acceptable to the George W. Fucking Bushes of the world. I dunno about you, but I don’t wanna be acceptable to the likes of George Fucking W.

So let’s talk about the mitzvah of inclusion. As inclusive as it’s become, LGBT is only the beginning. There are a fuck of a lot more letters with whom LGBT Culture can ally itself. In the burgeoning world of sex positivists and gender anarchists, in addition to LGB and T, there would also be:

Q for Queer

Another Q for Questioning

A for Asexuals

Another A for Adult Entertainers

S for Sadomasochists

S for Sex Workers

S for Swingers

And another S for Sex Educators

There would be I for Intersex

There would be an M for men who have sex with men.

And a W for women who have sex with women.

There would be a G for Genderqueer

And a T for Two-Spirit

There’d be an F for Feminists, and an F for Furries.

To include all of our sex positive, gender active family, there would be a K for Kinky

P for Pornographers

P for Pansexual

And another P for Polyamorists.

And while we’re at it, give me an H for sex positive, gender fluid heterosexuals.

Give me an E, a T, and a C for et cetera, 

And give me an A and an I which can stand for either ad infinitum or kinky artificial intelligence.

That’s a lot of letters, and I’d fight on the front lines of a coalition of desire like that. And that’s just the beginning.

Queer is the ever-expanding edge of Desire of any given culture. How can your generation articulate a vision and take action on an even larger frontline? You could put together a truly intersectional, international coalition of all the people in the world who form the ever-expanding edges of Identity and Power. 

That would be a lovely Mitzvah for your generation to perform. Because we cannot come together as a coalition of desire without including in our fight all the other people who are pushed out to the edges of the dominant culture.

Sure, it’s your religion, your sexuality and your gender expression that make you a target of both Jews and Queers. For some of us, age makes us a target. Your race makes you a target. Your class makes you a target of the dominant culture. Your looks, your ability, your citizenship all can make you targets of America’s bully culture that says to us: if you want any power in this world, then it’s our way or the highway. Choose one or the other. Well, either/or has no place in the politics of desire. 

You create a politic of desire whenever you desire well-being for people besides yourself and people just like you. It’s called generosity. It’s called compassion. Everyone in this room has known love like that. Mitzvah is always more than doing something solely for yourself or for people just like you. 


I’m going to leave you with a few words about sex that I hope you carry with you into a Sabbath that opens your heart to the true nature of your Desire. This is from my latest book, Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws.

Sex doesn’t have to mean marriage, children, or even I love you. 

Sex can be right this minute or next year some time. You get to decide. And you get to change your mind about that whenever you want to. 

Sex can be a passionless quickie. 

Sex can be any way you imagine it can be.
Sex doesn’t have to be any way you don’t want it to be.
Sex doesn’t have to be with one person all the time, or even with one person at a time. Sex doesn’t have to be with anyone but yourself. You get to control the guest list. 

Sex doesn’t have to happen only with other Jews. Sex can be with anyone of any race, religion, gender, age, class, education level or body type as pleases you. 

And sex doesn’t have to be for free. You can buy or trade sex for things if you need and want to do that. 

Sex doesn’t mean you’re a slut or a whore, unless of course that’s what you’d like to be. 

Sex doesn’t have to be genital and you don’t have to do it in private. 

Sex doesn’t have to end with an orgasm for everyone. 

During sex, you can be any gender you want to be. You can be any age, race, class, animal, object or alien life-form that you’d like to be as long as you both or all agree that’s what you’re safely being together. 

Sex doesn’t have to be in the missionary position. 

Sex doesn’t have to happen on the bed in a bedroom in the dark. 

Sex can be really yummy, sick-o, gross, painful, scary, bloody and/or degrading when you all or both agree to do it that way safely together. Sex can be hilariously funny. 

Sex can be a lovely gift you give someone or someone gives you. 

Sex can be a blessing, a prayer, and a generous act of healing. 

Sex can involve costumes, props and a script. 

Sex can be on your way home this afternoon, or even before I’ve finished speaking.


Look—and I’m wrapping up now—the ONLY way that the politics of power can deal with sex is to demonize, silence and invisibilize sex.

The ONLY way that the politics of identity can deal with sex is to police it.

The ONLY politic that can LIBERATE sex is your personal politic of conscious desire, your personal politic of love. 

When I was a little boy, I made up prayers every night. 

Every night, I prayed to be a girl.

I’m working on a new prayer now, and I’d like to offer this prayer as my wish for you, my most cherished children:

May all your deeds be Mitzvahs.
May you find the fulfillment of your Desire in Sabbath.
May your power increase with every shred of power you give away in service to another.
May you realize the goodness in yourself by admiring the goodness in others.
May your face be the face of your most cherished Deity.
May you come to respect yourself
whether or not anyone else gives you the respect you wish for.
May you know your own worth to humanity 
whether or not anyone else knows this about you.
So say we all… Amen.