Transgender Day of Remembrance: Reflection and Prayer

The first independent human act, we are told, was a crossing over of a boundary: from obedience to curiosity, from Eden to the world.  Human life has been marked by transition ever since: from childhood to adulthood, from ignorance to knowing, from solitude to community.

My community, the Jewish people, was a tribe that passed through a wilderness to become themselves. They transitioned through fire and water to become who they would be. The Hebrew word for Jew is ivri, which literally means “the one who crosses over.” Our holy book declares that we are created female and male, not one or the other but both. Sexuality is not binary, it is a spectrum, a rainbow of different expressions, all beautiful, holy, all blessed.

Transition from one state to another is a natural phenomenon for the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly, for the carob tree that changes gender, and for the day that changes into night and back into day again.

It is the experience we all share: it is said that “we are all twilight people. We can never be fully labeled or defined. We are many identities and loves, many genders and none. We are in between roles, at the intersection of histories, or between place and place. We are crisscrossed paths of memory and destination, streaks of light swirled together. We are neither day nor night. We are both, neither, and all.”

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance my prayer is for a world in which Trans people are recognized for the prophetic vision they demonstrate by the way they live their lives; they inspire all of us to envision a world in which we can see that we all  experience transition. We give thanks today for the learning we are offered by every trans life. May we gain understanding. May we reach, someday, wisdom.

אל מלא רחמים in the name of Compassion, may their souls be blessed, all those who are in our hearts on this Transgender Day of Remembrance. Today we say the names of young and old, of every race, faith, and gender experience who have died by violence. We remember those who have died because they would not hide, or did not pass, or did pass, or stood too proud.

Today we say their names: the reluctant activist, the fiery disturber of the peace, the warrior for quiet truth, the anonymous one. As many as we can name, there are thousands more whom we cannot.

All of them are holy; all of them are blessed; all of them are precious.

We mourn the senseless deaths as we give thanks for the lives, the teachings, and for the brief glow of each holy flame. We seek the strength to carry on their legacy of vision, of bravery, and of love.

We remember those who lives were ended by murderous hate, by the hand of another, or by their own, desperate, hand.

We say their names, and in their names we will root out the injustice, ignorance, and cruelty that caused their deaths and our own despair.

We say their names and declare that Creation has many holy faces, many holy genders, and many holy expressions.

Blessed are they who have allowed their divine image to shine in the world.

Blessed are we who have been illuminated and warmed by that light.

Blessed is the Source of all light and life, in which nothing is forgotten, and every living light is gathered in.

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Shabbat Lekh L’kha: Go Forth, in Jewish

This week we cannot assert that the Jewish lifelines of Torah study and prayer are irrelevant for our day. This week it is almost unnerving how much the Torah and our Jewish tradition have to say to us to guide our thoughts and decisions.

The haftarah for this Shabbat asserts:

The coastlands look on in fear,

the ends of the earth tremble. (Isaiah 41.5)

There have been those who have told me, in the past and more recently, that they prefer my messages when they do not overtly refer to politics. In that, those who have shared such a thought with me are in good company with our ancestors and with our Jewish community today; we all would like to simply go home and rest at the end of a difficult week, with no thoughts of more that we are called upon to do.

But the Jewish answer is this: you can go tell it to Jeremiah and Isaiah, to Micah and Elijah and Huldah. Our great prophets declared, for then and for always, that to be Jewish is to engage with G*d’s creation in all its forms. G*d is expressed in the world in every human breath and every planetary utterance, and it is hutzpah to assert that we will curate our response to the mitzvah to exclude that which troubles our rest.

We can feel an urgency echoing over the millennia since our ancestors first told the story of Lekh L’kha, pulling at us – and this is the sound of G*d’s voice calling, although you may prefer to call it by some other name. It does not matter what you call it, it only matters that you hear it. 

We have gathered in larger communities and with each other, feeling a new feeling of needing to answer the call of this week’s parashah: Lekh l’kha, “go out from what you know, from the “homeland” of past certainties, the “parents’ house” of assuming safety and security, the “kindred” of spending time only with those who agree.

Our earliest ancestors – from whom we are all descended, not by bloodlines but by intentional and loyal acts – were known as Ivri, “the one who crosses over”. We are called upon this week as they were with the mitzvah, the obligation, of lekh l’kha, “get going”.

And our tradition does not abandon us there but is with us, with wisdom from our past to help us figure out where we are going. The text itself does not say: it simply commands “Get up and go from your homeland, your family home and your kin, and go to a land that I will show you.” (Bereshit 12.1) 

We’ve been here before, and we know what to do and how to do it. We understand that this command speaks to us personally: Lekh l’kha, “go to yourself, for yourself” – what do you need to change in your life to be a more whole person?

We understand that this command speaks to us communally: Lekh “go to yourself” outward, into the world, in order to find what is l’kha, “for you” inside you.

And we understand that this command speaks to us holistically: Lekh l’kha, one cannot go forth without going inside. None of us is alone, and we must not allow anyone to forget that.

This Shabbat let the ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah inspire you and remind you: we have been here before. As Jews, our history and our tradition support and guide us and we do know what to do, even if we do not know where we are going: we must link hands and go forward together. Without demonizing the other, without ceding the high ethical ground, without losing hope.

They draw near and come,

each one helps the other, 

saying to each other, “take courage!” 

Not only for ourselves in our Jewish community, but beyond “kindred” to communities and individuals across all lines of division, we must reach out: 

The woodworker encourages the smith,

The one who flattens with the hammer 

encourages the one who pounds the anvil.

They say to each other, “it is good!”

and they support each other’s work

that it may not fall. (Isaiah 41.5-7)

May it be for you a Shabbat of spiritual and emotional strength gained from Torah, prayer, and g’milut hasadim, acting with loving kindness, that we may not fall.

discrimination is so last century

The news that Rev Louie Giglio has withdrawn from the Inauguration because of an inauspicious sermon is both too bad and an encouraging sign. It’s too bad because the Jewish tradition I follow suggests that he should have been given room to atone for words spoken many years ago, and not judged on a position that he may or may not still hold, at least not until he has been given the opportunity to update it. We are all growing spiritual beings, after all, and one learns many things over time. We evolve, as our President has said about his own perspective on marriage equality.

And it’s also an encouraging sign that being gay is becoming a protected status, in our society if not yet under the law. There is a new willingness on the part of our government to express a certain sensitivity to the concerns of gay constituents, and that is a welcome development. One day we might yet become a people equal before the law as well as before God.

The Book of Genesis, which so many “religious” leaders like to quote to their own fancy, is not so easy to rally to the side of those who want to condemn homosexuality. Genesis 1.27 states

“God created the man in his image in the image of God he created him male and female he created them.”

This sentence, which is already a translation of the original Hebrew (and not the only possible translation), is somewhat difficult to understand unless you insert commas. But where to put them? Try this:

“God created the man in his image – in the image of God he created him, male and female – he created them.”

Modern biology has taught us that we are each made up of male and female aspects – we all have both estrogen and testosterone in our hormonal makeup. What if Genesis is expressing this idea, that all of us are both male and female, made up physiologically of both genders, and that gender itself is a spectrum in each one of us? some more male, some more female….a whole shading of gender identities suddenly appears along this speculative spectrum.

At the very least, it doesn’t say “in the image of God, they were created male, white, and heterosexual”. There are many things that the holy texts do not say, but we find what we want to read into them when we need something to divert the public conversation away from thoughtfulness and toward judgments which may or may not be supported by the facts in evidence.

For a long time American society has been laboring under some false impressions about Biblical truth that are more narrowly cultural than transcendently spiritual. In the 21st century we will only make spiritual progress if we are able to open our hearts and ears past assumptions about the text made by others who want to influence us, and toward true hearing with our own ears. The world is upheld through justice, and compassion, and kindness – not through discrimination.