Shabbat Toldot: Naming our Transgender Children

Today, Friday November 20, is Transgender Day of Remembrance. During Portland’s observance (last night on the eve of the day) we called the names of those who were murdered in the U.S. during this past year for no reason other than their transgender identity. 

We remember them, and mourn the loss of these irreplaceable Images of G*d. They existed in all their personal created glory, and we refuse to let them disappear into the void of nonexistence. We say their names. 

In Hebrew, the verb for “read” is קרא k.r.’ which also means to ‘say out loud.” In ancient Jewish tradition, to read was to speak audibly; there was no “silent reading.” The power in naming is in hearing as well as seeing. The first humans became partners with HaShem in the act of creation by naming the creatures that they encountered. To name is to bring fully into existence; to name is to recognize relationship between the namer and the named.  

To name someone or something is to declare that there is reality here. Here is a reflection of the All in the part.

We are sometimes wary of naming, sometimes afraid, and sometimes simply insensible to what we have not recognized. Peeling back the interpretive layers of what we assume, we can find astonishing depths.

The Torah is often astonishingly coincidentally relevant to our own circumstances, and this week is one of those times. Last week in parashat Haye Sarah we watched Rebekah, daughter of Betuel, as the center of the narrative’s action, from welcoming the stranger to deciding her own future. This week in parashat Toldot she is still the focus as she acts to decide the future of her family – and the Jewish people. Judging by her acts, Rebekah behaves more like a patriarch than Isaac.

But we don’t tend to see that; our ability to see and to name Rebekah as head of her family is hampered by our assumptions. She must be a wife and mother, and any other impression must be an exception to the rule.

But what if we recognize her full reality, and Isaac’s too? Mystical speculation on the nature of femaleness and maleness led to the insight that Isaac was transgender:

It is known that when Isaak was born, he was born with the soul of a female, and through the Akedah (the binding) he got a male soul … this is known according to the Sod (Secret/Mysticism) of the cycling of souls – that at times, a female would be in a male body, because of gilgal (the cycling of souls) [Or HaHayim, 18th century Hasidic commentary]

Ancient Jewish tradition is conversant with much more than a rigid gender binary. The research of Rabbi Elliot Kukla shows that at least six gender expressions were part of normal life and legislation in Talmudic times (listed below).

We can only talk about what we recognize; we are able to name only that with which we are in relationship. Let this be a cautionary lesson as well as an encouragement: even as we are taught to learn and recognize and interact, so we are unable to do so if we do not have the opportunity to have naming experience. We can’t name Rivkah if we don’t really know her. Let this Shabbat be a chance to learn more about the glorious spectrum of gender identity and sexual expression throughout our world, and the Jewish ways we learn to respect all Created Beings.

hazak hazak v’nithazek, may we be strong and strengthen one another!

shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

________________________

  1. An androgynos has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics, and there are 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st-8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd -16th Centuries CE). 
  2. A tumtum’s sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. 181 references in Mishnah and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes. 
  3. A person identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile is called an aylonit (80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes). 
  4. A saris is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking a penis (156 references in Mishna and Talmud; 379 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes).
  5. Nekevah, usually translated as “female.” 
  6. Zakhar, usually translated as “male.”

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