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

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  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.”

Shabbat VaYera: Sodom and Gomorrah

Our parashah this week is VaYera, “he saw”, referring to Abraham, and his ability to see the Image of G*d in a stranger.  

Our reading, from the second year of the Triennial Cycle, brings us to one of the most infamous passages in the entire Torah, perhaps the entire Bible: the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, or S’dom v’Amora as they are called in Hebrew. It’s an example of how a text that had one meaning was interpreted into a different meaning by a different culture and possibly a third entirely different meaning by yet another, vastly influential culture – perhaps an ancient example of the “fake news” we are hearing about in our day, right now.

Here’s the story: two men, messengers of G*d in disguise as simple travelers, arrive in Sodom toward evening. Abraham’s nephew Lot is sitting in the gate and, seeing two strangers, invites them home with him – a normal act of hospitality in the ancient (and modern) Middle East. It is also precisely the same act that his uncle had just performed with these same travelers the previous day.

But Sodom is not a normal place, and that night a gang of thugs shows up, beating on Lot’s door, demanding that he bring out the strangers. Their intent was not friendly, and Lot refuses to transgress the vital mitzvah of guaranteeing the safety of one’s guests. The messengers of G*d, angels as it turns out, strike everyone blind and rescue Lot and his family from the mob. It doesn’t turn out well for Sodom.

What was the sin of Sodom?

In ancient Jewish writings, the Rabbis only ask a question to settle the answer, so we can glean from this that they already were not so sure what caused G*d to doom the entire city. Working from the evidence of the text, they teach that the sin of Sodom (and Gomorrah, the sister city down the street) was lack of hospitality – the failure to welcome and guarantee the safety of strangers.

“Behold this was the sin of Sodom…She and her daughters had pride, excess bread, and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy” (Ezekiel 16:49)

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow explains that “the people of Sodom insisted on preserving their high quality of living to such an extent that they established a principle not to let the poor and homeless reside in their city. Consequently when a destitute person would come seeking help, they would revoke his right to any welfare–public or private! By doing this they figured they would preserve an elite upper class community who would monopolize the profits that the bountiful land offers without having to distribute any revenues to a “lower class” of people.” 

You may have heard that the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was homosexuality, because that’s what another (very influential) culture interpreted down the historical line. But the sin depicted in the Torah is one of violence against the stranger, including but not limited to the sexual violence of rape. By the time we get to the false idea that it’s a text that tells us that gay love is a sin, it’s already part of a deadly game of telephone which has distorted the original meaning in a frightening way: this interpretation moves it out of the moral realm of daily action and into a much narrower definition that implicates a minority, rather than all of us.

Understanding the deeper truth does not erase millennia of falsely caused hatred, horrific in its effects. But perhaps in this way also, learning can help us see the light of a deeper truth more clearly. Let that light flood your own dark places with its promise that, some day, the darkness of every intolerance will be lifted. 

There is a teaching in the Jewish collection of ancient wisdom called Tanhuma in which it is pointed out that the eye has both a dark part, the pupil, and a white part – and it is out of the dark part that we see light.

I invite you to consider how you might increase the light when you kindle your Shabbat candles this evening: perhaps you will join me in adding one extra candle, for the duration. You can begin now, in the wake of the election, to encourage yourself to fight against the darkness of your own fear; you can begin at the inauguration as a sign to yourself and everyone else that you are committed to bringing light to bear against whatever darkness may come. Whatever you do, never doubt your ability to lift up light.

And help us lift a light this Sunday, November 20, on National Transgender Remembrance Day; it memorializes trans individuals who have died because of anti-transgender discrimination and victimization. To learn more go HERE.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other!

Shabbat VaYetze: Trans Torah on Trans Day of Remembrance

On Shabbat VaYetze we read of Jacob’s leaving his family under threat of death from his brother. His escape is hurried and frightened, and his path traces an ironic reversal of Abraham’s, as Jacob has to leave his family home, the homeland promised to his grandfather’s and father’s descendants, and his people just to survive.

At this point in the story, Jacob is alone, hunted, and vulnerable. He will survive and thrive, and he does so because he successfully transitions from who he thought he was to be, in order to find who he was really meant to be. In the process he will become so fundamentally different that he will become known by an entirely new name. But this new sense of self, and the ability it will bring with it to reconnect to family and to create his own family, is a long, difficult struggle.

It could have been much different. In his lonely vulnerability, Jacob could easily have been killed. This parashat hashavua is well suited to today’s date. Today, November 20, is recognized as International Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set aside to commemorate and honor people who are murdered for being who they are – because their gender identities do not fit within the constrictions of their cultures. Although there are records of people throughout history and around the world who lived outside of the gender binary (a polarized construction of ‘masculine males’ and ‘feminine females’), in our own, less tolerant place and times, these people are subject to scrutiny, oppression, discrimination, assault, and sometimes even murder. 

Why take a day to focus on something so heart-wrenching, when there is so much to celebrate about transgender visibility and wellbeing? We can see famous actors, musicians, and athletes share their gender-variant lives. The White House hired the first openly transgender staff person, and President Obama included trans people in his ‘State of the Union’ address. This year Oregon became one of the first states to ensure that trans people can benefit from medical coverage they were previously excluded from receiving. Multnomah County made a commitment to gender-accessible bathrooms. And out and proud trans people play vital roles within our shul. 

But in 2015 alone, 24 trans people, disproportionately women of color, were murdered due to transphobic violence. Worldwide, one trans person is murdered every three days. In the United States and in other countries, the people who bear the brunt of societal discomfort with ‘atypical’ gender expression are overwhelmingly trans women, those who live partly or completely outside of the male sex they were assigned at birth. These women are often poor, often people of color, forced outside the safety networks that many take for granted. Trans and gender-variant people are more likely to be ostracized from their families, discriminated against at work and school, living in poverty, profiled by police and dragged into criminal systems. 

As we know, and can see playing out on the national stage, religious communities have a powerful opportunity to influence either the welcome and affirmation of trans and gender-variant people, or their rejection and marginalization. Our Jewish tradition recognizes the reality of people who lives outside of the gender binary – but most of us are never told those stories. Nor should we really need to hear them in order to finally learn the basic lesson that G-d created all of us, and we all reflect G-d’s image, equally precious beings, all needed to bring about the better world we long to live in.

According to our tradition, Jacob had to journey to Haran, where his grandfather lived (with a name which also means “anger” in Hebrew) and through Mt Moriah, where his father was almost killed by his grandfather. Although he may have left home to try to escape his family, Jewish teaching makes clear that we transition from who we are to who we are meant to be only by walking a path which leads through, not around, those from whom we inherit so much of the puzzle of who we are.

All of us transition in our lives; all of us weather changes in our world. Like Jacob, we have a long, difficult road before we truly become the Israel we are meant to be: unafraid to be compassionate, aware of our own strength, with no further need to be angry – and able to fully love.