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. Continue reading
If it takes holy chutzpah to argue with God, Jonah has it in spades. God’s word steers him to Nineveh, the great Babylonian metropolis whose wickedness is driving the Divine to distraction, but instead of traveling to Nineveh to “proclaim judgment upon it” (Jonah 1:2) as God asks, Jonah books passage on a boat heading to Tarshish, in the opposite direction. Angered that Jonah would turn “away from the service of the Lord” (1:3), God sends a storm to shake up his ship. While the sailors pray and bail water, Jonah sleeps down below in the ship’s hold. After the sailors toss him overboard in the hope of calming the storm and deflecting God’s anger, Jonah spends three nights in the belly of a giant fish, and finally gets coughed up onto the beach of Babylonia. There, he makes a half-hearted pass through the city, proclaiming destruction in forty days.
I remember Yom Kippur when I was 13. I was in synagogue, proudly wearing the tallit I had been given for my bar mitzvah some months earlier, sitting with my family in the seats we traditionally occupied throughout the High Holidays, four rows back from the bimah and the Ark where the Torah scrolls were kept. It was the Ne’ilah service, the closing moments of the holiday, and the congregation was rising for one final recitation of the Vidui, the collective confession of sins. With the infamous words of Leviticus 18:22, part of the traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon, still ringing in my head, I too stood up and began to recite the litany out loud along with everyone else. But one sin, one above all, spoke up and demanded I confess it, repent from it, and pray for divine forgiveness: the sin of being a transgender person.
“For the sin that we have committed against You by identifying with a gender other than that which we were assigned at birth” isn’t part of any confessional liturgy I ever learned—it was more like “For the sins which we have committed against You both in the open and in secret”. But it didn’t matter that I could barely even express what I was thinking. I placed my hand over my heart, struck my breast, and begged God to forgive me for all the indiscretions within me: for desiring more than anything to be someone or something other than what I was, for having failed to fulfill the divine plan for me, whatever it was, for not having been strong enough to resist my yetzer ha-ra, my inclination to do evil. I prayed fervently, cried a little even, wishing that God would take away my transgender nature, and hoping He would make me, well, normal. Somehow.
The recitation of the confessional ended, and shortly the service came to a close with the words Adonai Hu Ha-Elohim, “The Lord is God”. The final shofar blast was sounded, and I remembered the verse: Vayomer Adonai solachti ki-d’varecha, “And God said: I have forgiven, as you have asked,” and I knew—or really thought I knew—that, like the people Israel after the High Priest had performed the Yom Kippur sacrifices, I had been cleansed. I went home happy that night: everything would be okay.
As I recall, that lasted two or maybe three weeks.
The next year, feeling even guiltier, I made the same supplication on Yom Kippur. And the year after that. And the year after that. I prayed earnestly for God to forgive me, to take it away, to make me normal, just like everyone else. When I grew older, and was beginning therapy in earnest, one of the questions I was asked was “Why do you believe you are transgender?” When I was younger, I believed it was because God had made an honest mistake. But as I got older and somewhat more theologically
sophisticated sophomoric, I believed it was some kind of test, the purpose of which I could only guess at, and I wasn’t sure whether it was benevolently or malevolently intended. However, every time I prayed for God to “take the transgender away,” it only got stronger, and I ended up feeling, over and over again, miserable and worthless, like I’d failed the test.
I now know something I didn’t at the time: that many other people—trans, queer, both—have prayed that very same prayer alongside me. I was never alone; I always had company. I was not the first, and I will not be the last.
And every time I prayed it, it was an earnest, genuine prayer. But I discovered another prayer, a cry from my soul, that is even deeper, even more earnest and genuine. It took me long enough, but I finally heard it calling, from my kol d’mamah dakah, the “still small voice” within me.
The rabbis teach that all the rituals of confession, all the prayers for forgiveness, all the external trappings of Yom Kippur can only serve to atone for sins that are between a human being and God. Yom Kippur, they teach, does not bring atonement for sins one person commits against another, until the person who did wrong seeks forgiveness from the person who was wronged. This is one of the fundamental lessons of repentance and forgiveness in Judaism. The Hebrew word for “repentance” is teshuvah, which means, among other things, “returning.” The time between the start of the year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called the Ten Days for teshuvah, for turning and returning inward, for the rediscovery of our selves. Yom Kippur asks us to return to the truth about ourselves; not to hide from it. It asks us to be genuine with ourselves; when we deceive ourselves, we cannot forgive ourselves.
I want to ask my younger self to forgive herself for not being perfect, for wronging herself by denying her inner nature, her truth, for failing to heed the kol d’mamah dakah within her. I want to reassure her that everything will be okay, that God doesn’t hate her, that she will eventually find and build a loving, accepting, and affirming community. I want to seek her pardon for the years of denials, purges, secrets, half-measures, traumas, deceptions, and lies I will inflict on her future self.
But the temporal continuum only works in one direction for us mere mortals, which means this exercise is doomed to failure. I cannot literally commit teshuvah by going back in time; I shall have to content myself with a metaphorical teshuvah. But I trust the kol d’mamah dakah within me, which tells me that this teshuvah must be more genuine than any other I have ever professed to make. I have to be willing to forgive my past self for not knowing that things would change, and both my past and present selves for being so hard on themselves, for demanding such perfection, for not giving themselves permission to fail. And I can try to return the courtesy to my future self: to give her permission to screw up, to fail, to commit wrongdoings and to learn from them. It’s a small comfort, but it helps.
A very wise friend of mine told me that beating myself up, as so many trans people do, for not having transitioned earlier is pointless. Whatever happened in the past, she pointed out, whatever decisions I made, were necessary at that time, because they kept me alive and got me to where I am now. When I introduced my blog (with this very point!) as “my record of surviving,“ I was not speaking metaphorically. And I am learning that part of survival—more than simple survival, actually; part of living—is having the ability to forgive myself.
So this is my Yom Kippur prayer this year. May I learn to accept and embrace the person I am, even if I do not know who she is yet. May I have the strength and the courage to forgive myself for the wrongdoings that I have committed against myself in the past, or will commit against myself in the future. May my teshuvah be sincere, and may it bring me closer to knowledge of my own truth. May I learn to recognize and to listen to the kol d’mamah dakah within me, and may I write my own Book of Life in that voice this year. May I love myself, may I remember that I am loved, and may I be at peace. Kein yehi ratzon—may this be so.
The High Holidays are nearly upon us, and while it’s wonderful to carve out time for reflection, contemplation and community, the holiday season can also be stressful (dealing with family, long days in synagogue, confronting a challenging year). For LGBTQ Jews and our families, there is the added element of stress: during the Torah service on the afternoon of Yom Kippur we read from Leviticus. This reading includes the verses from the Torah frequently used as a religious prohibition of homosexuality.
So this year, Keshet’s providing you with a little extra High Holiday reading. Whether you make good use of these resources at home or slide them into your machzor (High Holiday prayer book) — we promise we won’t tell — we hope they enhance your understanding of the holidays, and add layers of meaning to your experience of them. You can find many more resources for the holidays in our Resource Library.
Days of Awe: Turning to Do Good
Dr. Joel Kushner, the Director of the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, examines the Al Cheyt prayer, used in the High Holiday liturgy, to look at how we deal with LGBTQ inclusion. The prayer lists all of our sins and Dr. Kushner uses them as a focus for how we are culpable for — and how we can fight against — transphobia and violence against transgender people.
Plus…You’ll never look at Leviticus the same way again:
Interpreting Leviticus: Contemporary Voices
One of the most challenging aspects of Yom Kippur for LGBTQ Jews is the portion of Leviticus read for this holiday which includes the injunction against men “lying with other men as with women,” and which is cited in several faiths as the textual basis for prohibitions against homosexuality. In this excerpt from the Hineini Curriculum Resource Guide, six scholars – Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rabbi Bradley Artson, Dr. Rachel Adler, Thomas Herz, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, and Rabbi David Greenstein – provide close readings and interpretations of Leviticus. Through historical context and interpretive translations, these scholars reveal a number of fascinating Jewish values and ancient prohibitions, none of which would condemn LGBTQ people in our time.
Homosexuality: An Insider’s Look at the Conservative Movement’s Halakhic Process
Another way to look at Leviticus: Yom Kippur is an excellent occasion to examine how one major Jewish movement has dealt with the Levitical injunction from a Jewish legal standpoint, and Rabbi Michael Beals’ sermon from 2006 — just before a major change in the Conservative Movement’s treatment of gay and lesbian Jews — shows how that thinking has evolved.
A Kavanah — Directing our Hearts and Minds: A Declaration of Intention that we bring to the reading of Leviticus 18 on the Afternoon of Yom Kippur
In a different examination of these same troubling verses, Rabbi Victor Reinstein of Congregation Nehar Shalom (a long timefriend of Keshet and host to many Keshet events) redirects our kavanah, or intention, in reading them, transforming them from a condemnation of homosexuality to one examining unequal power dynamics within a relationship. (You might remember Rabbi Reinstein from an earlier post featuring rabbis who spoke out for the Transgender Equal Rights bill in Massachusetts. You can read his beautiful testimony here. It’s the second one from the top.)
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Joshua Lesser looks to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah to find a more expansive vision of Judaism.
“Folks, in a moment we are going to hit the birth canal,” the leader of our spelunking trip chuckled. I felt the air thin as the 20 of us, mostly strangers, gasped at his description. Up ahead in the cave was a narrow tunnel that would require us to get on our bellies and contort and wriggle our bodies to make it through to the other side. Already muddy, I did not relish this part of the trek. I imagined spiders lurking in the dark. Taking deep breaths, I proceeded in line on hands and knees. Our headlamps provided little help as we moved forward, feeling the sides narrow. I imagined being trapped and buried under the earth. I heard the grunts and whimpers of those around me, straining to make it through, as we all lost any remaining sense of grace or composure.
My brief time in that cave is exactly how I feel about Leviticus, particularly when the texts of Leviticus are used to constrict Judaism and to squeeze people out of faith communities. I am frequently asked to speak about Judaism and homosexuality and how to reconcile Leviticus, its prohibitions, and its declarations of abominations. Recently I came to an important realization: using Leviticus as the starting point or the end game to talk about Judaism and homosexuality is a trap. By doing so, we buy in to a fundamentalist view that there is a narrow path to God and only a limited few can get there. Using Leviticus this way is to agree that Judaism is a religion of narrow laws that do not always have meaning, and that we have to contort and squeeze ourselves to make it through, often leaving our sense of dignity behind. I reject this Judaism because it is faith described as a weapon. I reject this kind of Judaism because it says blind allegiance to law is more important than people, and thus, misses the entire point of being Jewish.
Those who see Jewish law as an end in and of itself, and not as a means to a wider purpose, would subject us to a labyrinth of narrow places, with only the tool of a dimly lit headlight to look for cracks and fissures in order to breathe. Searching for breathing room in the legal loopholes is a stimulating intellectual exercise, but too often it can remove meaning and even God’s presence from the text. But the greater trap for us is to get completely caught up in railing against and rebelliously rejecting this Jewish way of living. Doing this we allow our “religion” to be reduced to what we don’t believe in, what angers us and what seems unfair. This may keep us out of the labyrinth, but it is not nurturing and does not support spiritual growth. It is a negation of faith, not an affirmation of God’s presence in our lives.