Transgendered Hearts: Abraham, Sarah and Isaac

The Torah is strewn with transgendered hearts.

Creative Common/Mike Goldberg

Verses from the Torah about the human heart. Creative Common/Mike Goldberg

How can that be true? The Torah, as we know, is not written for or about transgender people, and in any case, “transgender” is supposed to be a noun or adjective, not a verb, an umbrella term for the millions of people whose gender identity or expression is more complicated than “male” or “female.” “Transgender” gathers gender-complicated people into a broad, simple category – the equivalent of “African American” or “Latino” – and implies that our identities, like those of other minorities, are a matter of fact that is not up for discussion. But though “transgender” has real advantages for describing ourselves to others, for many of us who identify as transgender, identity is an often-messy, ongoing process, not a simple, settled fact. For me, “transgender” isn’t just something I am – it is an active, terrifying, exalting process of unmaking and remaking a self that will never quite fit established categories of gender or identity.

Thanks to this process, my heart has been stretched and broken across the gender spectrum, assigned to and exiled from one identity after another, sacrificed for gender, enlarged by gender, squeezed in gender’s vise. That’s what I mean when I say that my heart has been transgendered. However I handle my gender identity, I will always have a transgendered heart.

As the Torah’s stories of Abraham, Sarah and their son Isaac show, you don’t have to be transgender to have a transgendered heart.

For example, at the end of Genesis chapter 17, God commands Abraham, then 99 years old and still named “Abram,” to circumcise himself, his son Ishmael and all the male members of his household. Until then, Abram’s identity fit neatly into Bronze Age patriarchal gender categories: a wealthy nomadic pastoralist, Abram was the unquestioned legal and spiritual head of an extended family unit, a husband, a father, even on occasion a military leader. Abram’s relationship with his family deity was unusually intimate, but all extended families had their deities, and in trying to keep his family’s deity happy (and thus to keep the blessings comings), Abram was doing what was expected of any man in his position.