Shipwrecked with God

Shipwreck Credit: awallin

Shipwreck. photo credit: awallin

Communities, institutions, families and friendships create a sense of common identity, a sense of “we.” Since no two people – no two Jews, or gay men, or lesbians, or transgender people, or Orthodox Jews, or even identical twins – are the same, that sense of common identity is always created despite our differences, as when my family saw my sister as one of us despite the fact that she was the only blond, blue-eyed, left-handed member. Those were trivial differences, but they still made us uncomfortable; my parents teased my sister about them, and when she was small she would sometimes cry, because she didn’t want to be different. She wanted to be one of us.

I knew how my sister felt. Even though I looked the way a member of my family was supposed to look, I knew that I was different – different in a way I feared would, if it were discovered, permanently exclude me from my family, the Jewish people and, for that matter, the human race. My body was male, but my gender identity was female. I looked like and tried to act like a boy, but my male body and identity felt deeply, disturbingly, wrong.

Though we teased my sister about her differences, my parents and I understood them as part of the normal range of human variations. My parents knew that even among Ashkenazi Jews, children can be born blond, blue-eyed and left-handed. But I knew that my difference would be incomprehensible to them. Differences like mine didn’t appear in TV shows or movies, they weren’t referred to in school, they weren’t acknowledged by authority figures who always seemed to address children as “boys and girls” and adults as “ladies and gentlemen.” When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there wasn’t even language for differences like mine. The umbrella term “transgender” hadn’t been invented yet; a few (very few) doctors treated “transsexuals,” but that word wasn’t used by anyone I knew. So no matter how good I was at acting like one of “us” – a member of my family, one of the boys, a Jew – I knew I was different in a way that couldn’t be spoken about, that no one could understand.

I grew up hiding my true self from my family, from friends, from the entire human world. My disguise worked. No one knew who I really was. I was safe from rejection, but I felt utterly alone, shipwrecked on the desert island of my difference.

But my isolation came with a consolation. I was alone, but I was alone with God. My difference from others, my detachment from an identity I knew wasn’t really me, my constant wrestling with the body that tormented and interminable questioning of who and what I was – all the things that distanced me from people brought me closer to God. God knew who I really was, knew how I felt, was always there, day or night, to hear my anguish. Like me, God was something other than human, someone who didn’t fit in, who couldn’t be seen or understood.

I lived on that island, shipwrecked with God, for more than forty years – my entire life as a male. My family wasn’t Orthodox. I didn’t have any authority figure to tell me that God wouldn’t be close to someone like me. I read the Torah regularly, so I knew about the verse in Deuteronomy in which Moses declares that God abhors men who wear women’s garments. I had some legal questions about the verse – did it apply even when I was a child? Did it apply to those who male bodies who felt female? But I knew that even if God “abhorred” me, God was there. Abhorrence is a visceral reaction. If God “abhorred” me, God must be very close.

This anecdote shows that far from alienating me, my LGBTQ identity brought me closer to God. Is it a Jewish story, a story about a kind of relationship with God that is recognized in Judaism’s sacred texts? LGBTQ identities tends to be thought of a secular phenomena, either opposed to or simply outside religious life. But I suspect that for many religious LGBT religious Jews, our relationships with God have been profoundly shaped by our sexual orientation or gender identity, not because being gay or trans is inherently spiritual, but because when religious people wrestle with suffering, isolation, and fundamental questions about who we are and how we should live, we tend frame our struggles in terms of our relationships with God.

But can relationships with God that are shaped by LGBTQ identity, like my sense of being shipwrecked with God, be Jewish, or does the LGBTQ element render such relationships, and the experiences of God that grow out of them, foreign to Judaism and Jewish tradition?

For me, that question is answered every Yom Kippur afternoon, when we read the story of Jonah, a man who runs as far as possible from the life he was created to live, and finds himself in the belly of a fish, shipwrecked with God.

Many LGBTQ Jews have lived our own versions of this story, so desperate to flee our LGBT identities and the lives they would entail that we hurl ourselves into the depths of depression, into the jaws of death – and find ourselves alone with God, the One who made us as we are, who formed us in the womb and preserves us even in the midst of death.

That spiritual paradox – flight from true self leading simultaneously toward death and intimacy with God – is the core of the Book of Jonah. Jonah’s flight from becoming the person – the prophet – God created him to be is portrayed not as sin, but as suicide. At first, it looks as though Jonah is merely running away, but the narrative make it clear that Jonah’s slumber during the storm that has everyone else frantically trying to save the heaving ship is no ordinary sleep, just as the storm is no ordinary storm. Both register as metaphors for Jonah’s psychological state, suggesting the deep sleep of depression into which he has sunk in order to endure and ignore the crisis precipitated by fleeing from becoming the prophet he is. When the sailors wake him and tell him to call to his God for deliverance, Jonah responds not with prayer but with a self-destructive gesture, telling the sailors to throw him overboard. Jonah’s suicide seems to resolve the crisis: the storm is quieted, and Jonah, having nobly sacrificed himself for the sake of the community threatened by his presence, sinks down toward death, “into the depths, into the heart of the sea” (2:3), far from the human world of sailors, prophets, cities and kings, to the bottom of the food chain, where he is “swallowed” by a fish.

But the closer Jonah comes to death, the closer he comes to the God he fled. As Jonah sinks, God singles him out for miraculous deliverance, turning what would ordinarily be a mode of death (being eaten) into a means for Jonah to survive in the depths. In the belly of the whale, Jonah finds breath, warmth, protection – and recognizes that God is literally surrounding him, keeping him alive. Jonah, so desperate not to become what God made him that he literally tosses away the life he was created to live overboard, finds himself shipwrecked with God.

Yes, this relationship with God – the shipwrecked relationship to which my stifled trans identity led me – is a Jewish relationship, a relationship envisioned by the Torah and highlighted by reading Jonah’s story on Yom Kippur afternoon. That recognition comforted me during my decades of life as a man I knew I was only pretending to be. Though I felt cut off from the contemporary community of Jews who, I feared, would never accept my true self, the Book of Jonah reminded me that my life was still part of the millenia-spanning life of the Jewish people, that I was shipwrecked with God not only as a transsexual, but as a Jew.

When I was living as a man, my life-story, and my identification with Jonah’s, ended in the depths, in the belly of the male persona I adopted to avoid becoming myself. To me, as this poem suggests, the Book of Jonah wasn’t about deliverance, gratitude and teshuva, but about the comfort I found in despair:

Letter to Jonah
It must be cozy there, in the belly of the whale.
The whale knows you aren’t the end of his world,
his enormous heart

pumps unbroken in the dark.
God reverberates quietly inside you,
a psalm you sing as you dissolve

in his gastric juices.
Dissolving is safer for all concerned
than growing into who you are.

And aren’t you really closer to God,
there in the belly of the whale,
dissolving into gratitude and krill

and a story sailors tell
about a man who slept through a man-killing storm
and when they woke him up to pray

said “Throw me overboard.”

Like the Jonah I imagine in this poem, I was so desperate to avoid becoming the person I was created to be that I was happy to choose death over life, despair over hope, isolation over human. Even in the midst of family and friends, I was alone at the bottom of the ocean. It was cozy down there, and though I was miserable, I was safe from rejection: no one but God knew or could touch me. I was lonely, achingly lonely, but God was there, surrounding me, holding me, keeping me alive; even as I tried to dissolve in the depths of that darkness, I clung to the God who sustained me, the God who held me and never let me go.

In the Torah, Jonah responds to God’s deliverance with teshuva-inspiring gratitude: he turns from death to life, from fleeing to facing the life God created him. When the fish vomits him out on shore, Jonah overcomes his reluctance to publicly present himself as a prophet – one of those crazy people who disrupt the peace of the community, draw unseemly attention to themselves, and demand that people question social norms and values with which most seem quite happy – and heads to Nineveh. The post-whale Jonah isn’t perfect. He kvetches right to the end of the book, and always seems more concerned about himself than about God or other people. But Jonah’s gratitude to God for his deliverance prompts him to risk living a life in which he is publicly, patently different from those around him: a life in which he is true to himself, true to God, and true, however grudgingly, to his obligations to humanity.

Unlike Jonah, I responded to God’s preserving presence neither with gratitude nor teshuvah, but by making myself at home in the depths of despair. God didn’t want me to live, I told myself. For the sake of my family, God wanted me to hide my true self forever. As long as I – the real me – never surfaced, no one would be hurt by the truth about the son, husband, father, they loved. That’s what it means to love, I told myself: to pretend to be what others want me to be. To suffer in silence. To live in misery and fear. God had made me transsexual so that I could sacrifice myself for others, had formed me in the womb and sustained me through anguish and despair so that I could be what I have heard called “Divine roadkill,” the collateral damage of a Divine plan I wasn’t supposed to understand.

I didn’t, and still don’t, understand God’s plan either for humanity or for me in particular. But thinking of myself as Divine roadkill – not as a human being, but as something that only existed to fulfill others’ expectations – made it impossible for me to serve God with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my might. Indeed, living in the belly of despair made it hard to serve God at all.

Defining my life as Divine roadkill not only erased my sense of my own humanity, it defamed the God who created me, by denying God’s love for me. God’s love formed me in the womb, fed me, sustained me, enabled me to grow. As I huddled in the depths of suicidal, self-hating despair, it should have been clear to me that if God didn’t love me, I couldn’t survive a moment.

That’s what Jonah realizes in the belly of the whale – that he exists because God wants him to exist, that despite his flight from God and from the life God created him to live, God’s love was so great that it literally kept him alive in the depths of the sea, transforming what would normally be a place of death into a bubble of deliverance.

Like Jonah at the bottom of the ocean, I was floating in the midst of death, preserved by the bubble of God’s love. But unlike Jonah, though I felt God’s presence, I couldn’t feel God’s love, because I hated what God had created me to be. I hadn’t only run away from becoming my true self because I was afraid of hurting my family, friends, students and colleagues, or because I was afraid of their rejection. I had internalized my culture’s hatred of my difference. “Internalized” is a fancy way of saying that I not only knew my culture hated people like me, I participated in that hatred: I hated myself for being different. God could preserve my life amidst the soul-dissolving acids of bitterness and suicidal despair, but as long as I hated myself for being what God had made me, though I could feel God’s presence, I couldn’t feel God’s love.

God kept Jonah alive in the depths for a day or two. God kept me alive there for decades, but I wasn’t grateful to God for preserving a life I wished with all my heart, all my soul and all my might, would end.
Every year, when Elul’s horn began to sound, it woke me up to how low I had sunk. But no matter what I vowed during the days of Awe, I knew I would keep living as a cardboard cut-out of a man, day after day and year after year. God could keep me alive in the depths, but even God couldn’t deliver me from them unless I made teshuva as Jonah made teshuva, by dedicating myself to living the life God created me to live.

Of course, despite his deliverance and teshuvah, Jonah wasn’t thrilled by the life God created him to live. As he makes clear toward the end of the book, he still didn’t want to go to Nineveh, and he still thought it was a waste of time to play the prophet. I didn’t want to be stared at, treated as an embarrassment or public menace. I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, to challenge or change the social order. I didn’t want to be a transsexual, a this-slash-that, an other. I just wanted to live as a woman.

But God didn’t give me that option: I could continue to hide, shipwrecked with God in the cold wet darkness of my male persona, or I could become myself.

But why would God give me such a choice? I could imagine the harm that would result from being true to myself – who would be hurt, who would hurt me – but what good could possibly come of revealing that I was different?

Jonah would have understood my quandary. Even though he is ready and able to question God’s purposes, Jonah never understands why God needs him to publicly live as the prophet he is. Won’t God be just as merciful without him? It’s a reasonable question, but at very the end of the book, God suggests that Jonah’s reluctant but courageous public prophecy was a necessary part of the process of teshuvah and redemption. Perhaps that’s the ultimate message of the Book of Jonah: that even though we don’t know why, God wants us and needs us to become our truest, wholest selves, not just for our sakes – Jonah doesn’t seem to enjoy being a prophet, and living as an out trans woman definitely has its drawbacks – but for the sake of those around us.

By being true to who he is and living the life God created him to live, Jonah is able to inspire teshuvah even in the people of Nineveh who, God says, “don’t know the right hand from the left.” We don’t have to look far to see that same dynamic in our own time, in our own community. I have seen Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Miryam Kabakov and many others inspire change by through their openness, their courage, their determination to be true to themselves and the God who created them. In response to their presence and their example, whole communities have engaged in teshuvah, questioning norms and assumptions that have lead them to bully, browbeat and exile their LGBTQ members.

Even if we aren’t leaders, visionaries or prophets, by living the lives God created us to live rather than hiding in the depths of despair, we become living examples of the power of teshuvah, proof to those around us that no matter how scary it seems or how difficult it is, we all can become who we are created to be. Every relationship in which we are accepted for who we are becomes a more honest, loving relationship; every community in which we are welcomed becomes a more embracing, loving community. Those who despair of becoming who they truly are see as our lives as beacons of hope, possibility, proof of God’s life-changing, soul-sustaining love. That is the tikkun olam we do when we, like Jonah, show our gratitude to the God who created us by being true to ourselves.

The Book of Jonah makes it clear that no matter how far Jonah wandered from his people, God was with him. Whether or not we have Jewish communities that are ready to embrace us, God is with us, sustaining and loving us not despite but because we are who we are. And I have faith – three thousand years of faith – that wherever God is, Judaism will follow.

Posted on September 11, 2013

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