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.”

A Prayer for Healing in the Time of COVID-19

Source of Healing, help us find healing.

We seek strength for our spirit, resilience

that will carry us through this plague in peace.

Compassion that saves us,

Heal the body of everyone struck
with the threatening virus,

and heal the souls of all who suffer.

Remember those who have died.

Heal us and we shall be healed,
save us and we shall be saved,

Source of our strength and our hope.

Creator of freedom, inspiration for all who are bound up in these days of quarantine,

As the gates of our homes are shut,
open for us the gates of our hearts.

Liberate us from our fear and anxiety.

May the great wind that hovers over the abyss bless us to find a place to stand firm in holy presence

with open hearts where there must be closed doors.

In the Presence of holiness we are taught that nothing is too difficult.

The Source of both death and life

Is the source of wholeness and peace.

We offer up our gratitude and praise
for healing, for wholeness, for hope.

רוֹפֵא חוֹלִים, רְפָא נָא לָנוּ.

הַגְבֵּר אֶת רוּחֵנוּ וְטַע בָּנוּ חֹסֶן

שֶיַּעֲבִירֵנוּ בַּמַּגֵּפָה הַזֹּאת בְּשָׁלוֹם.

רַחְמָנָא לִיצְּלַן, רְפָא-נָא
לְגוּפֵי הָהֻכִּים בַּנְּגִיף,

רַחֵם-נָא עַל נַפְֹשוֹתָם הַסּוֹבְלִים,

זְכוֹר-נָא בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִים
אֶת נִֹשְמָתָם שֶהָלְכוּ לְעוֹלָמָם.

רְפָאֵנוּ וְנֵרָפֵא, הוֹשִׁיעֵנוּ וְנִוָֹּשֵעַ,
כִּי גוֹאֵל חָזָק אָתָּה.

מַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים, עָזְרֵנוּ בִּימֵי הֶסְגֵּר.

בְּעֵת נְעִילַת שַעֲרֵי בָּתֵינוּ,
פְּתַח לָנוּ אֶת שַעֲרֵי לִבֵּנוּ.

שַחְרְרֵנוּ מִכָּל פַּחַד וַחֲרָדָה.

הָרוּחַ הַמְּרַחֶפֶת עַל תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ

בַּרְכִינוּ בְּמָקוֹם נִיצָּב לְפָנַיךְ וְלִפְנִים,

בִּלְבָבוֹת פְּתוּחִים עַל יָד
הַדְּלָתוֹת הַסְּגוּרוּת.

עֵין הַגְּבוּרוֹת, מִי דוֹמֶה-לָךְ? 

מֶלֶךְ מֵמִית וּמְחַיֶּה וּמַצְמִיחַ יְֹשוּעָה.

בְּרוּכָה אתְּ, עֵין הָרְפוּאוֹת
וְרַבָּה לְהוֹשִׁיעַ.

inspired by R. Peretz Rodman

For Those Who Resist

dedicated to my comrades in our streets and those in our hearts

For those who resist

For those who plan and strategize

For those who gather at a moment’s notice

We give thanks

For those who serve as witnesses

For those who are civil and disobedient

We give thanks

For those who speak up at local meetings

For those who carry signs and snacks and first aid

We give thanks

For those who hold tight to their protest buddy

For those who bring their medic skills to give aid

We give thanks

For those who document and record

For those who de-escalate

We give thanks

For those who contribute in bursts

For those who make it their life’s work

We give thanks

For those who do their work at home

For those who march on legs or on wheels

We give thanks

For those who refuse to budge

For those who organize votes

We give thanks

For those whose hearts are breaking

For those whose anger overwhelms

We give thanks

For those who maintain the ability to love

For those who find courage they never knew they had

We give thanks

For those who gather with friends and allies

For those who stand alone

For those who resist

We give thanks

Adapted from A Prayer for Today by Trisha Arlin 

Shabbat Lekh-L’kha: Making Light in Darkness

(image: close up in Torah scroll of Genesis 1.4 ויבדל אלהים בין האור ובין החשך G*d divided between the light and the darkness.)

Shalom Shir Tikvah learning community,

It’s getting darker every day now. How shall we trust our footsteps when we can’t see them? Where is the light that will dispel this hoshekh, this unnatural darkness that weighs us down?

This week we see that Abraham had precisely the questions we have.

As we make our way through the second year of the Triennial Cycle we move into the details of the more famous stories which make up the title images of each parashah. In the case of LekhL’kha, there is a famous introductory image of the fearless Abraham leaving everything familiar behind and setting off into a completely unknown future. 

This year, however, we are in the weeds. Abraham is a transient, a homeless wanderer, a landless stranger in a strange land in which he has had to fight to keep his family safe. Abraham and Sarah have no children, and no sure sense of their future. 

Then one day, the Torah relates in our parashah, the Presence of HaShem comes to Abraham:

אַחַ֣ר ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הָיָ֤ה דְבַר־יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם בַּֽמַּחֲזֶ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ שְׂכָרְךָ֖ הַרְבֵּ֥ה מְאֹֽד׃ 

Some time later, the word of HaShem came to Abram in a vision saying “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהוִה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י 

But Abram said, “O HaShem, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless?” (Genesis 15.1-2)

The commentator Rashi explains that the word ערירי ‘ariri “childless” here really means “rootless.” The further implication in ancient Hebrew is that all one’s work is for nothing unless one creates something that outlasts one.

That ancient anxiety which defines the meaning of one’s life as that which outlives it has turned many of us into builders for the future, and even we Jews, who are taught that there is no sure existence other than this one, occupy ourselves in planning for the future and peopling it, in our imagination and, for some of us, with our offspring.

But what do we do in uncertain times when the future is not assured? If our work is only for the future, how can we possibly value the present moment for itself?

The haftarah for Shabbat Lekh-l’kha seems to speak directly to us in these moments of existential uncertainty: 

לָ֤מָּה תֹאמַר֙ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וּתְדַבֵּ֖ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל נִסְתְּרָ֤ה דַרְכִּי֙ מֵֽיְהוָ֔ה וּמֵאֱלֹהַ֖י מִשְׁפָּטִ֥י יַעֲבֽוֹר׃ 

Why do you say, O Jacob, Why declare, O Israel, “My way is hid from HaShem, My cause is ignored by my G*d”? (Isaiah 40.27)

Isaiah underscores what HaShem is trying to say to Abraham in the parashah: Trust is All. And so we ask, trust in what?

Not the future, which is uncertain. 

Only in ourselves, and each other, and our shared path – a three-part strength that creates a light strong enough to dispel the darkness around us.

All our lives are rehearsals for the moment when we need to know in our souls what to do and why. I’ve always felt that Jews are particularly lucky in that we have a spiritual mandate of doing and connecting which is always inviting us in. (When I lived and worked in Ukraine in the mid 1990s I met post-Soviet citizens who no longer knew who they were; the Jews with whom I lived knew exactly who they were, and what they could do.)

Community gatherings for learning and prayer and doing kindness can become meaningful in themselves to you, not for some future purpose but for blessing this day with the light that you yourself can create.  Through your engagement in the mitzvot that structure the acts and ethics of Jewish life you create the light of meaning not only for yourself, but for the person next to you who needs it as badly as you do. 

Now matters. This moment is all. What is the mitzvah you can do right now? If you do not know, ask. Believe in your ability to bring light to us all enough to ask.

Abraham went on after the moment of questioning the meaning of his life. He learned to trust in the path he was on. Because of this, we are taught, he became a source of light not only for his companions but for the Source of Life, as we see later in this same parashah:

וַיְהִ֣יאַבְרָ֔םבֶּן־תִּשְׁעִ֥יםשָׁנָ֖הוְתֵ֣שַׁעשָׁנִ֑יםוַיֵּרָ֨איְהוָ֜האֶל־אַבְרָ֗םוַיֹּ֤אמֶראֵלָיו֙אֲנִי־אֵ֣לשַׁדַּ֔יהִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְלְפָנַ֖יוֶהְיֵ֥התָמִֽים׃ 

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, HaShem (finally) appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am the Source of your Creativity. Walk in My ways and you will be whole.”

And the Midrash explains that what HaShem was really saying here is this:

בּוֹא וְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנָי

“Come, and light the way before Me.” (Bereshit Rabbah 30)

The multi-wick flame of the havdalah candle reminds us that our shared lights are brighter than any individual can generate. Come, and let us light the way together.

Shabbat Noakh: Time to be stiff-necked

Once upon a time I was asked, “Rabbi, who was it who first called the Jews ‘stiff-necked’? It seems anti-Semitic.” I had to laugh. “Well, actually, it was G*d, in Exodus 32.9.”

It seems to be the one thing that friends, enemies, and HaShem all agree upon, from Biblical to Talmudic to much later days even unto our own: the Jews are stubborn. Some have said it insultingly, others admiringly. 

A story from the Talmud:

Two Jews were taken captive in the Galilee, and their captor was walking behind them. One captive said to the other, ‘the camel walking ahead of us is blind in one eye.’ The slave driver said ‘hey, you stiff-necked people, how do you know this?’ They replied, ‘because the camel is eating the foliage along the way only on one side, the side it can see.”

Why did their captor call them “stiff-necked” at that moment? Because, says one commentary, despite their suffering, they were obstinate enough to spend time on a brain-teaser. Despite conditions of exile and slavery, they continued to be discerning and wise.

We Jews have been known for millennia as a stiff-necked people. 

It’s a quality that we very much need right now. To quote Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, known as the Piacezner Rabbi, who taught in the Warsaw Ghetto and perished at Treblinka (his yahrzeit is today, 5 Heshvan, corresponding this year to October 23):

Being stiff-necked is one of the most transcendent virtues. Whoever is not stubborn and obstinate is inconstant and irresolute. In dealing with a person who cannot make up their mind, it may be impossible to arrive at any conclusion. In particular, when faced with temptation or a test of resolve, the inconstant one will fail. An obstinate person, on the other hand, is straightforward when spoken to. The more stiff-necked and stubborn a person is, the more they will endure, even if their conviction comes to be tested in some way.

We are being tested, my beloveds; we will continue to be tested in the days to come. As Jews we have a great teaching before us. Tests come and go, just as empires do; but there is that which does not change. To be stiff-necked is to hold on to that which we know is immutably true and holy, and be strengthened by that steadfastness.

What does it mean to be stiff-necked in our time? For some of us, it was the determination to sing even louder on the Shabbat two years ago when some of us were killed in a shul in Pittsburgh during Shabbat davening. In a few days we will observe the second yahrzeit of the Tree of Life massacre; on October 27 there will be a national virtual memorial hosted by Bend The Arc which you can join: https://www.bendthearc.us/1027 

To be stiff-necked, it seems, is to hold on to that which is just, and kind, and holy, even when we are experiencing personal, and justifiable, fear. It is to be determined not to let the fear win. It is to continue to find ways to reach out, to support, to give, even through a mask, even through fear. It is to care about each other even as the waters of the great Flood rise.

To be stiff-necked, teaches the Piacezner, is to be immutable, just as HaShem is: “I am HaShem; I have not changed” (Malakhi 3.6). Regardless of what happens to us, that which is holy will remain holy; that which is true will remain true. In all the chaos, such as the great destruction experienced by Noakh in our parashat hashavua, what holds us steady? The Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto maintains that it is the great stubbornness of the Jewish people. The slave driver of the Talmudic story “had not realized that the Jews were so stiff-necked that they could still think clearly and cleverly even in the midst of slavery and pain.”

To be stiff-necked and continue functioning as practicing Jews, to endure and to perform the mitzvot incumbent upon us, involves a high level of stubbornness. In addition to this, to actually engage fully in study of the Torah, entering deeply into the knowing of it, is an even greater challenge – for regardless of the troubles besetting us, there is no great difficulty in putting on tefillin or fulfilling other practical mitzvot. But to study Torah, and especially to enter into the depths of the Torah, is extremely difficult.

We can’t compare ourselves to those who came before, neither Jews in the Roman Empire nor Jews in the Third Reich. What we face is not Noah’s Flood; we do not yet know what it is. All we can do in the face of the challenge of our own days is to carry on what they passed down to us: in the face of upheaval and the threat of worse, we can be stubborn. We can be stiff-necked Jews, in the best tradition of our ancestors. We can keep on doing tzedakah, studying Torah, singing loudly as we daven, and all the while believing in and working toward a better world. We can continue to declare that Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn – We Will Outlive Them.