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.
In this week’s parashah we read about the “baby wars” between Leah and Rachel as each try to outdo each other in giving their shared husband sons. It’s easy to dismiss as a misogynistic satire of two women fighting for their husband’s attention, but that’s only the top layer of this fascinating story. A closer look offers deeper insights.
Consider: Jacob was a follower of his father’s and grandfather’s G-d. But what was the focus of Rachel’s and Leah’s reverence? Note Leah’s words upon the birth of her second son. She exclaims b’oshri! which has been explained as a form of ashrey, “joy”. Leah names her son Asher (Gen. 30.13), and some scholars see a note of thanks to the Goddess Asherah in both the exclamation and the name.
Leah and Rachel name their children when they are born. (So does Eve.) When the world is created, G-d brings all the animals to Adam, and he names them. The power of naming is akin to the power of creating; to name something is to bring it fully into existence. When it comes to new human beings, the power of their names in is the mouths of their mothers.
What other powers did our Matriarchs wield, of which no hint has remained in the final redaction of our Torah text? And what else is buried in our Torah text, between the lines, half-hidden, covered over by later re-shapings of meaning and context?
My teacher, Dr. Byron Sherwin, taught me that everything a feminist needs to argue against Jewish patriarchy is already there in our ancient sources. One need only know how to look. So let’s look at words and their power in Judaism.
As the Psalmist has noted, clumsy human language is not suited to G-d’s praise; yet we, described in Jewish medieval philosophy as “the creature that speaks,” keep trying to name our sense of kedushah, holiness, and its Source. By definition, the One G-d is not defined by borders, by tribal ethnicity, by age or politics or nature; the irony of arrogating kedushah to an exclusive group is that it empties the term of meaning. Here the case of gender is enlightening. As feminist theologians have pointed out, naming G-d “he” at the expense of the use of the word “she” defines G-d as less than All: and this is the basic definition of idolatry, i.e. revering something less than G-d as G-d.
Restriction of kedushah by gender, or by any other means, is not a religious statement; rather, it is an example in antiquity as in modernity of a social expression, or even political use, of the concept of the holiness of G-d. Such definition suits limited purposes. To the extent that feminism stands as a corrective to patriarchy, and leads us toward the equal cherishing of all aspects of creation, it re-captures an ancient cultural weighting of the feminine. Life brings change; cultural perspectives come and go; each time, we must bring careful thinking about texts we respect and so expect to contain more than meets the eye. Each new challenge, met thoughtfully, can help us find a new balance between opposites that need each other to exist at all. Only the embrace of opposites brings one closer to the One Source of All Being.