From queer text study and institutional inclusion to profiles of queer clergy and youth voices, the Keshet blog features new ideas and reflections by and for LGBTQ Jews and their allies. The blog is produced by Keshet, a national organization with offices in the Bay Area, Boston, and New York that works for full LGBTQ equality and inclusion in Jewish life.
What the Four Children Can Teach us about Gender Fluidity
By Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky
Q: We are taught to ask questions at the Passover seder. We are not instructed to give answers because answers aren’t the essential part of the seder experience. It’s the asking of questions that is most important. The four children ask a variety of questions that represent their identities and relationship with supposed societal norms.
The second Q in LGBTQQIAA stands for questioning, when someone questions their sexual orientation, gender identity, or isn’t sure how to label themselves. The four children represent the wide spectrum of gender identity and understands that we do not live in a binary gender system.
The Haggadah refers to four children: the chacham, the rasha, the tam, and the She’Ano Yode’a Lishol, often referred to as the Wise One, the Wicked One, the Simple One, and the One who Doesn’t Know How to Ask. However, these labels couldn’t be further from the truth. These labels represent that which is expected of them, or the societal stereotypes put on them. If we look at the four children as a way to gain insight and come to understand the fluidity of gender, these labels are placed on these children by a binary gender normative society. These labels don’t reflect truly who these children are. Rather, they reflect how society has forced them to conform for too long.
What does the Chacham ask? “What are the testimonials, statues, and laws God commanded you?” You should tell this child about the laws of Passover, that one may not eat dessert after eating the Passover offering.
The supposed ‘Wise One’ is hardly smart. This child simply accepts societal norms. The Wise One was taught not to question, but rather only to do what was told. The Wise One fits into a set system and falls into the stereotypes of this system. The Wise One is certainly cisgender — someone whose identity conforms with the gender associated with their biological sex – but also is only able to see and understand a gender binary system. This child isn’t wise at all; wisdom is misconstrued here as “conventional wisdom.” This child is not interested in pushing societal norms. Unfortunately, it’s these supposed “wise” children that are responsible for promoting transphobia. They are the ones who should be labeled “wicked.”
What does the Rasha say? “What does this mean to you?” To you and not to the child. Since this child chooses to be excluded from the community, this child has denied a basic principle of Judaism. You should blunt the child’s teeth and say: “It is for the sake of this that God did for me when I left Egypt. For me and not for you. If you were there, you would not have been redeemed.”
Wicked is not a fair definition of this child. We tend to think of those who are inexplicably evil as wicked: murderers, terrorists, dictators, etc. There is nothing that this child does that is evil. Yet our tradition uses this label because the child questions societal norms. The supposed ‘Wicked One’ does so in hopes of finding purpose. This child doesn’t settle for societal parameters or stereotypes. Instead, this child challenges norms, to find meaning to accept one’s true self. This child is far from wicked. Maybe that is how Judaism traditionally referred to this child. But, this child is simply transgender or gender non-binary — someone whose gender expression or gender identity differs from the sex one was assigned at birth, someone whose identity is different from the stereotypes of society. This child though doesn’t deserve to be labeled or discriminated. This child must be loved, just like every other child.
What does the tam say? “What’s this?” You should say to the child, “With a strong hand God took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude.”
The supposed ‘Simple One’ has been taught something their whole lives and only now has
been exposed to something else. The Simple One never knew about the diversity of the gender spectrum. It is our job to offer a simple explanation to a simple question; to educate the Simple One by teaching our children about the gender spectrum. A study from the Medical University of Vienna reveals that there is a neurological distinction between gender identity and biological sex. This scientific study is the basis of what we should teach our children – that we don’t live in a binary gender system, that gender is fluid.
And the She’Ano Yode’a Lishol, you begin, as the Torah says, “And you should tell your child on that day, saying ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.’”
The child who is silent is not silent out of ignorance. This child is silent out of fear. This child grew up in a society that taught that one cannot challenge the binary gender system, that one’s gender identity must be related to their biological sex. However, silence is scary. A study by the
Williams Institute reveals that 41% of transgender youth have attempted suicide, compared to 4.6% of the overall population of this country. But a study out of the University of Washington suggests that transgender youth that are supported and loved by their families, teachers, friends, and clergy are no more anxious or depressed than any other child their age. This study reveals that love and acceptance saves lives. This child is silent because this child remains in the closet. The child is closeted because of fear of exclusion or rejection by community. We must respond to this child’s silence by simply showing this child love and support, and honoring who they are, made in God’s image.
At our seder tables, on a holiday that celebrates freedom, we still declare: This year we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free people.
This year, despite progress that we as a society and as a Jewish community have made, transphobia, homophobia, hate, and bigotry still exist. May we continue to build inclusive communities so that next year, we can celebrate the uniqueness of all of us.
Action item at the Seder: Go around the table and ask each person what their preferred gender pronouns are. To ensure that all around the Seder table feel welcome, make sure that you refer to them in a way that corresponds to their gender identity.
Rabbi Jesse Olitzky is rabbi and spiritual leader at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, New Jersey. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can tweet him at @JMOlitzky