This past Saturday, Keshet Staff Member Joanna Ware joined Temple Hillel B’nai Torah to deliver a d’var Torah on gender justice and gender variance in Jewish text, as well as the effects of transphobia today. We have shared the text of Joanna’s d’var Torah here.
Shabbat Shalom! Thank you to Rabbi Penzner for the invitation to bring some Torah to all of you today. Rabbi Penzner asked me to speak in honor of the other holiday we’re marking today, International Women’s Day, and how it reminds us to work toward gender equality and justice. First though, I want to start with the text we just read.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, is the first in the book of Leviticus, and it lays out for us a set of laws of ritual, sacrificial preparation. Sacrifices were the ancient Israelite’s way of honoring and nurturing their sacred relationship with the divine. We nurture relationships every day, with our loved ones and with what we understand to be holy and sacred, and while we no longer do so with ritual sacrifices, today prayer, study, mitzvot, acts of loving kindness, and tikkun olam serve as our stand-in for temple sacrifice; our means of nurturing our relationship with God, with Sacredness. What Vayikra reminds us, however, is that this relationship isn’t accidental or happenstance, and that God models for us an expectation of intentionally stepping in to relationship. The opening text of this Parsha, the opening text of the entire book of Leviticus, reads:
וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד
Vayikra al-Moshe, v’yedaber Adonai elav, meyohal mo’ed
And God called out to Moses, and Adonai spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting
We have a curious repetition here in the narrative, first God calls out to Moses, and then God speaks to him. Why both? Rashi teaches that God’s initial calling out to Moses is indicative of a loving relationship, of an invitation into an intentional, purposeful relationship; this text is read in juxtaposition to how God speaks to the prophet Balaam, where we are told that God “happens upon” Balaam; it is accidental rather than intentional. And then? We are taught that God’s relationship with Moses is loving, whereas God’s relationship with Balaam is “impure.” So we have one piece of a model for building loving relationships: act with intention, thoughtfulness, and care.
This delineation between intentional and accidental speech, between loving and impure relationships, also offers a bit of foreshadowing for the rest of Leviticus. Leviticus spends a lot of time drawing distinctions; sorting the world, our behaviors, and in particular our ritual obligations into categories – usually just two categories – and identifying for us which one is pure, which is impure. Vaykira draws lines: between the priest and the Israelite, the Temple and everything else, the permitted and the prohibited, the sacred and the profane. Vayikra, more than any other book, sorts a chaotic world into neat and clear binaries, and it is this act of God calling out, of inviting Moses into loving relationship, that kicks us off.
But what of the reality we actually live in, which is much more complicated than this binary sorting might lead us to believe? What do we do with the things that don’t fit neatly into one category or the other? What happens when the line between these binaries is transgressed, when we are living in the grey area?
Despite the attention our text pays to outlining binaries, the rabbis were particularly concerned with this question as well, with what to do with the moments, places, and people who fall in between. My friend and colleague Rabbi Elliot Kukla asks us to consider twilight, a time that is neither day nor night. In the Babylonian Talmud we read: “Our sages taught: As to twilight, it is doubtful whether it is part day and part night, or whether all of it is day or all of it is night.… Rabbi Yosi said: “Twilight is like the twinkling of an eye as night enters and the day departs, and it is impossible to determine its length.” And what of that time? What is it good for? Elsewhere in the Talmud we are taught that this liminal, in-between, boundary-blurring time is the best time for prayer.
The ancient Rabbinical consideration of how to sort and categorize that which does not fit neatly doesn’t just apply to time, though, it also applies to people. My work, at Keshet, is in large part dedicated to those people. Keshet’s mission, to work for the full inclusion and equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Jewish life, means that it is my job to wrestle with and work towards answering the question of how Judaism and Jewish communities can embrace people who don’t fit neatly into some of these categories.
Transgender can be understood as an umbrella term for people whose knowledge of their own gender identity in some way transgresses the fairly rigid binaries of male and female that we are offered at birth. Our society generally conflates physical sex – the particular mix of hormones, chromosomes, and genitalia that we largely group into male and female – with gender, which is both a socially constructed set of norms, behaviors, and roles for men and women, as well as our internal knowledge of how we fit, or don’t fit in relation to those categories. Despite that conflation, there are many people for whom those things don’t line up. Those of us for whom they do align can be described as cisgender, and people for whom they don’t are transgender or gender non-conforming. This can include, for example, people who, at birth, are assigned as male but later – sometimes as early as 3 or 4 – know themselves to be girls. Many transgender people choose to undergo social and sometimes medical changes so as to be seen in the world as the gender they identify with, including potentially altering their name, pronouns, hair, mannerisms, clothing, and body. This is referred to as a person’s transition, and no two trans people’s transition looks the same. Transgender can also include gender non-conforming people who may occupy more of a middle ground, that twilight space. People who don’t feel comfortable as either male or female, men or women, but whose gender identity and expression may include some combination of both masculinity and femininity, sometimes shifting over periods of time. Some gender non-conforming people use words like “genderqueer” or “androgynous” or “gender fluid” to describe themselves.
While the Rabbis of the Talmud and Mishna didn’t have words like “transgender” or “genderqueer,” and they didn’t have any distinction between sex and gender, their societies very much included people who didn’t neatly fit into the proscribed binaries. Our traditional texts lay out 6 different sex or gender categories, four of which are assigned at birth and two of which reflect a person’s development later in life. The four assigned at birth include zekhar and nekevah, male and female, as well as Androgynos and Tumtum, both of which are categories for people of indeterminate gender. The two others are saris, to describe a person who is born male but later develops female characteristics, and aylonit, a person who is born female but later develops male characteristics.
What is particularly remarkable is that these categories do not necessarily relegate people to the margins of society! Certainly, the rabbis wrestle with how to categorize people who don’t fit the gender binary, with what their ritual obligations are, but also, we are taught that some of the most important figures in our history were gender non-conforming! The Midrash posits that Adam – the first human being – was an androgynos. And in the Babylonian Talmud, we are told that Abraham and Sarah were tumtumim. The very foundation of our peoplehood is built on gender variance, the first person and the first Jews occupy these liminal gender spaces, and it is from their lives that the entire history of the Jewish people has emerged.
If I hold onto this knowledge, that gender variance has been central to the Jewish people’s story, and I turn my attention back to the text in front of us then, there are two questions that rise up before me:
1. What do we do with the enforcement of binary thinking in this parsha, even as we try to notice and celebrate the liminal experience?
2. If we take as a model God’s relationship with Moses, what does it mean to “Call out” to the whole of our community, to intentionally invite trans and gender nonconforming people into loving, sacred relationship?
In answering the first question, I turn to this week’s Haftarah portion, which is a reading from Isaiah.
As a prophet, Isaiah tends to work to keep the Israelites in line, and unsurprisingly, this portion includes a reproach; a chastisement for the ways in which the Israelites have screwed up their sacrifices. But then, immediately after a bulk of text about how the Israelites have failed to honor their relationship with God by properly nurturing it with sacrifices, God invites the Israelites into conversation, God calls out again to the people, this time through Isaiah: “Help me remember! Let us join in argument, tell your version, that you may be vindicated.” (Isaiah 43:26)
It is this, right here, that I come back to. God is explicitly and intentionally inviting us into relationship, again, but unlike in the Parsha where we have a one-way directive, here we are invited into contentious conversation, into argument!
This is, unequivocally, a Jewish response. We have a well-established tradition of loving argument and disagreement as fundamental to what it means to be Jewish. We have Yaakov, who wrestled with the angel and then became Yisrael, one who struggles with God. We have the houses of Hillel and Shamai, who every day for three years argued over their interpretations of Halakhah. Day in and day out, they challenged each other. Until after three years, God intervenes. Bat Kol, a voice from God, breaks through the stalemate, saying “eilu v’eilu” – both these and these – “divray elohim chayim hen” – are the words of the living God. (Eruvin 13b)
When we see a tension in the text, between what is laid out and sorted and what our studying, ethics, and Jewish values direct us toward, what is our response? Is it to turn away? For some, yes. For plenty of trans and gender non-conforming Jews who see Judaism’s rigid gender binaries and roles and can’t see themselves in it; they turn away in the interest of self-preservation. Is it to concede that we simply don’t understand the true wisdom of the Torah, but that the words on the page are unquestionable truth and so we live by them? For some, yes. But Isaiah today reminds us of our alternative, to step into that relationship with God, and argue.
Now, what about my second question? What can God’s intentional, explicit invitation to relationship teach us about how we relate to one another? Specifically, how we relate to trans and gender non-conforming people in our community?
This world, as a whole, can not be assumed to be a safe place for people who transgress gender norms. Transphobia, the physical, emotional, structural, and spiritual violence that trans people face has profound implications on how trans people must move through the world in order to survive.
According to a 2011 survey, the most comprehensive survey of trans people in the US to date, 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide. For comparison, the number for the general population is 1.6%. 78% of gender non-conforming children report experiencing harassment at school. 35% report physical violence. The rates of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, HIV, police harassment, incarceration, and hate violence are similarly staggering. Transgender people, especially transgender people of color who must navigate the intersections of transphobia and racism, can not assume a safe passage from one day to the next.
What this study also showed, though, is heartening for us and our work. The strongest protective factor against these negative outcomes for trans people? Family and communal acceptance.
Our faith communities are powerful places to model and ground acceptance, and as Jews, we have, again, the words of Isaiah to guide us. Discussing the value of keeping God’s commandments, even when there are obstacles, Isaiah says:
Happy is the one who does this,
the one who holds fast to it:
Who keeps the sabbath and does not profane it,
Who stays his hand from doing any evil.
Let not the foreigner, who has joined himself to God, say: “God will keep me apart from God’s people.”
And let not the saris say: “I am a withered tree”
For thus says God:
As for the sarisim who keep My sabbaths,
Who have chosen what I desire
And who hold fast to My covenant—
I will give them, in My house, and within My walls
A monument and a name, better than sons or daughters. I will give them an everlasting name that shall not perish.
If that promise, to build a monument and an exalted, lasting name isn’t a message of acceptance, I don’t know what is. But how many trans and gender non-conforming people who doubt their place in Judaism turn first to Isaiah chapter 56? It’s not enough for those of us who are already in this room to know that the texts that celebrate gender non-conforming figures in our tradition exist. We have to take our cue from God, we have to call out, to issue an invitation. Because trans people have learned that they cannot assume safety and welcome without hearing that call. It is incumbent on us – cisgender allies who want to affirm k’vod habriyot, a respect for human dignity, and our belief that we are all B’tzelem Elohim, sacred beings fashion in the image of God, to be proactive. It is incumbent on us to do the calling, to issue the invitation.
In closing, I want to share with you a blessing written by Rabbi Rueben Zellman, entitled Twilight People:
As the sun sinks and the colors of the day turn, we offer a blessing for the twilight,
for twilight is neither day nor night, but in-between.
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.
May the sacred in-between of this evening suspend our certainties,
soften our judgments, and widen our vision.
May this in-between light illuminate our way to the God who transcends all categories and definitions.
May the in-between people who have come to pray be lifted up into this twilight.
We cannot always define; we can always say a blessing.
Blessed are You, God of all, who brings on the twilight.
A note of gratitude from Joanna: All of my learning about the richness of Jewish tradition’s engagement with gender and sex diversity has been guided and shaped by incredible trans and gender non-conforming friends, teachers, rabbis, rabbinical students, and activists. Some of their work is directly referenced here, but all of their teaching is reflected in what I bring to any conversation about gender justice. Much thanks for how your work has impacted me, whether you’ve known it or not, to: [soon-to-be Rabbi] Becky Silverstein, Rabbi Elliot Kukla, Rabbi Reuben Zellman, Joy Ladin, [soon-to-be Rabbi] Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbi Emily Aviva Kapor, Micah Bazant, and many many more. Thank you for bringing your Torah into into the world with wisdom, grace, and bravery.