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.

Though Abram’s relationship with God had led him into decades of wandering, God didn’t unsettle his identity as a man, until God told Abram to circumcise himself – to undergo elective genital surgery whose sole purpose was to permanently reassign his identity. Circumcision transformed Abram from a successful Bronze Age patriarch into a kind of man who had never existed, one for which even the Torah doesn’t provide a word: a Jewish man, a man who, no matter how successful he is in patriarchal terms, acknowledges that his will and power is subordinate to the will and power of an invisible, omnipresent, supreme God.

Abram makes this transition by publicly cutting his phallus, the physical sign of patriarchal identity and power. By literally and figuratively cutting open whatever even today some would call his “manhood,” Abram grows into his truest self, a self defined not by patriarchal categories but by his relationship with God. God marks Abram’s transition by changing his name to “Abraham,” adding a syllable to signify that he is no longer just the head of his extended family but the “father of multitudes,” fountainhead, through his sons Ishmael and yet-unborn Isaac, of entire peoples.

Like contemporary gender reassignment surgery, Abraham’s circumcision doesn’t just change what his genitals look like (presumably no one other than Sarah and a concubine or two would have noticed); it changes who he is to himself, to his family, to God, and to a world in which he is now permanently “other.” Abram was a man among Bronze Age men, at ease in the highest echelons of society. Abraham, though, is something else; his identity is inexplicable to anyone outside his family. No one else will even know that he has become “Abraham” unless he tells them. (You can imagine the awkwardness of those conversations: “Peace be with you, Abram.” “Thank you – but actually, my name is Abraham now.” “Oh, why is that?” “Well, the creator of Heaven and Earth told me to take a flint knife and cut off – never mind. Please just call me Abraham.”) God doesn’t explain the rules governing Abraham’s new identity, doesn’t specify when and to whom Abraham should come out as his new self, and when should he allow others to mistake him for the man he used to be. If he doesn’t explain his identity, no one will understand or even recognize who he has become. And if does, he risks the rejection, mockery, hatred and violence so many of us encounter when we reveal our otherness.

Our father Abraham had a transgendered heart.

So did our mother Sarah. As the Torah tells us, by the time of Abraham’s circumcision, Sarah was “advanced in years” (she’s close to 90) and, not surprisingly, “had stopped having the periods of women.” (Gen. 18:11) But even when Sarah was young and menstruating, she was unable to conceive the child she desperately wanted. By her culture’s standards, Sarah’s inability to build up her husband’s house with children or provide him with an heir makes her a failure as a woman. But at the beginning of chapter 18, newly circumcised Abraham offers hospitality to three angels, one of whom has come to tell Sarah, long resigned to being her identity as an elderly, infertile woman, of her impending pregnancy – a public, culturally incomprehensible transformation of body and gender identity even more radical than Abraham’s circumcision. There were – there are – no words, no gender roles or social customs, through which to describe, understand, or relate to a woman Sarah’s age who becomes pregnant, gives birth, and nurses a child. As with Abraham’s circumcision, God marks Sarah’s transition from the familiar kind of woman she has been to this brand-new kind of woman by changing her name, which before her pregnancy is announced to Abraham had been “Sarai.”

When the newly-renamed Sarah hears the news that she will become pregnant, she has a marvelously human reaction: she laughs. But this isn’t just any laughter. It’s the special laughter provoked by the violation of fixed categories of identity. If you want to hear this kind of laughter from a three-year-old, say something like “the cow said `neigh’;” if you want to hear it from an adult, present yourself as not just as male or female but as something, like a pregnant Sarah or a pregnant man, that violates established gender categories.

Sarah’s gender-violating transformation from aged infertile woman to at least partially rejuvenated motherhood is surrounded by laughter. Nowhere in the Torah is laughter mentioned more frequently. Abraham laughs when God tells him Sarah will have a child. Sarah laughs to herself when the angel passes the good news on to her. When God asks why Sarah laughed, Sarah, presumably afraid of being thought disrespectful or ungrateful, denies that her laughter, but God says to Sarah, “You did laugh.” When Sarah bears her son, she says, “God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh at me.” (Gen. 21:6) Laughter is so central to the miracle that God commands that the child be named Yitzhak – Isaac – which means “laughter.”

It’s lovely to hear laughter in the Torah, but when Sarah says “everyone who hears will laugh at me,” she shows that she knows how fragile her new gender identity is, how likely the idea of Sarah as new mother is to provoke not only laughter but skepticism, doubt, and gossip. According to the midrash, Sarah was well aware of that others might doubt that she had in fact given birth to and nursed her son. That’s why Abraham “held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned” (Gen. 21:8) – so that Sarah, like a transwoman I heard of who unbuttoned her blouse to convince police that she wasn’t a female impersonator, could prove she was a real mother (a real fertile woman) by publicly nursing Isaac.

Our mother Sarah had a transgendered heart.

Jews are children of Sarah, children of the transgendering miracle that led to the birth of the son God named “Laughter,” and we are also children of Yitzhak, children of the laughter provoked when the finger of God confounds human categories of identity, inviting us to grow into new, previously inconceivable modes of being.

Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy confounded the conventional categories that had till then defined her as a woman. But even as it complicated Sarah’s gender identity, Isaac’s birth reinforced patriarchal ideas about the importance of maleness. Sarah’s gender would have been transformed by any pregnancy, but according to Bronze Age conventions, she and Abraham could only become the mother and father of the Jewish people if the child she bore was male. Only a son could inherit Abraham’s family and fortune, and, because God had chosen Abraham’s family as the seed from which the Jewish people would spring, Isaac had to be male to inherit and pass on Abraham’s relationship with God. In other words, God used Bronze Age patriarchal conventions to create the Jewish people, establishing a link between Divine purpose and male privilege that continues to shape (and deform) Judaism and other Abrahamic religious traditions.

Isaac’s maleness was overdetermined, ordained by God, social convention, maternal and paternal longing, and the destiny of the Jewish people, and in terms of gender privilege, Isaac hit the jackpot. Even circumcision, which must have been a physical ordeal for his aged father, was easy for Isaac, the first Jewish boy circumcised on the eighth day after birth.

In addition to being painful, Abraham’s circumcision had been a bold step into the unknown, a blood-oath sealing his allegiance to an invisible God with no trace in human history, myth, law or custom. But Isaac was born into that allegiance. For him, God was not a mysterious voice from beyond the givens of family and society; God was a part of his family, a deity he inherited and whose favor he could take for granted, for without God, as his parents no doubt told him, Isaac would never have been born.

The only threat to Isaac’s status as Abraham’s son and heir was his older half-brother Ishmael, born to Abraham when Sarah, desperate to give Abraham a child, urged him to take Hagar, an Egyptian slave, as his concubine. When Hagar became pregnant, Sarah, rather than feeling her gender identity bolstered by giving her husband a child through a surrogate mother, felt that Hagar was looking down on her (Gen. 16:5), and treated her so harshly that the pregnant Hagar fled into the wilderness, where she met an angel who told her to go back, promising that her child would be a son, Ishmael, and give her many descendants. Hagar did as she was commanded, and Ishmael grew up and was circumcised as Abraham’s only son. Though God had already prophesied Isaac’s birth, many no doubt saw Ishmael for what he was: Abraham’s first-born son, and arguably his natural heir.

So it isn’t surprising that after Isaac’s weaning feast, Sarah demanded that Abraham “Cast out that slave-woman and her son,” as she seems to have called Hagar and Ishmael (Gen. 21:10). Abraham, assured by God that he should do as Sarah said, rose early the next morning, and sent Ishmael and Hagar into the desert with “some bread and a skin of water.” (Gen. 21:14) The just-weaned Isaac woke up to find his older brother gone. We don’t know how Isaac felt about Ishmael’s disappearance from his life, but it’s clear that his brother’s exile eliminated any competition for his father’s paternal affections, and cemented Isaac’s position as Abraham’s sole son and heir.

A few verses later, Isaac learns that Ishmael is not the only son his father is willing to sacrifice.

In chapter 22, the interlocking blessings that comprised Isaac’s gender identity – relationship with God, the love of his father, and his status as sole heir – lead Isaac into the nightmare our tradition calls “the Akedah,” the binding. The nightmare begins the way Isaac’s life-story began, with Abraham hearing the voice of God. This time, though, God is not foretelling Isaac’s birth but commanding his death: “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering.” (Gen. 22:2) As he did when banishing Ishmael, Abraham gets up early, taking Isaac and two servants on a three-day journey into the wilderness. When Abraham realizes that they are approaching the place of sacrifice, he sends the servants away. Now he and Isaac have to do their own shlepping. When Abraham saddles Isaac with “the wood for the burnt offering,” his son becomes curious:

Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he answered, “Yes, my son.” And he said, “Here are the firestone and the wood; but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them walked on together.

They arrived at the place of which God had told him. Abraham built an altar there; he laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. (Gen. 22:7-10)

As this excerpt shows, the Akedah narrative constantly highlights Isaac’s gender, repeating the words “son” and “boy” 12 times in its 19 verses, reminding us, even at the horrific climax, that God has told Abraham to sacrifice not just his child but all the hopes and blessings bound up with Isaac’s maleness.

Isaac probably wasn’t thinking about his gender as he lay there on the altar, but his gender is what brought him there. His status as favored son marked him for human sacrifice; his one-to-one intimacy with his father (how different this scene would be if Ishmael were still around) led him to unquestioningly follow Abraham into the wilderness and to accept being bound on the altar. The gender identity that has gave Isaac so much privilege and security has turned inside-out. His doting father has become his murderer; the God who upended the laws of nature to bring Isaac into the world has become his destroyer; and Isaac’s status as son and heir has made him a choice “sheep for burnt offering.”

Our father Isaac had a transgendered heart.

How many trans people have stared like Isaac into the pitiless faces of those who said they loved us? How many of us have suddenly realized that our families see as us not as children, siblings, parents, spouses, but as creatures that must be sacrificed to unyielding gods of gender, rage, ideology and shame? How many of us have longed to cry out to God, but cannot, because God, we are told, is the reason we must be sacrificed?

Given how frequently religion is invoked to justify for transphobia, it’s not surprising that practicing trans Jews are often asked how we reconcile being trans with being Jewish. Whatever conflicts some may see, when we read Genesis’ stories of the origins of the Jewish people, we see that trans and Jewish identity are profoundly connected. Like all Jews, trans Jews are children of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, children of self-othering circumcision, of gender-category-violating miracles, of a child named Laughter bound like an animal on the altar to fulfill what his father believed was the will of God.

Our transgendered hearts are descended from those of our ancestors. The Torah is strewn with transgendered hearts.

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