Friday, November 20, 2015

Parashat Vayetzei - Mussar

            Every fall, my school has a retreat in which we spend three days together in study and in community. It is off campus and away from our homes, where we truly live together, sharing three meals and prayer services together daily, in addition to study sessions and a cabaret. It is a great time. This year, our retreat was on the theme of Mussar. Mussar may be translated to mean ethics, but it’s more than just being nice to each other or living a moral life. It’s about learning where your own strengths and weaknesses are, and learning to fix them so that you can be a better person, serve others more fully, and live a more thoroughly moral and honest life in every way. In preparation for this, the week before retreat, our retreat organizers shared a video: “The Making of a Mensch.” One of the things mentioned as possible avenues to mussar is learning when to be more patient and when to be impatient. I have spent a lot of time in the past learning to be more patient in social justice. I used to be angry all the time at the state of the world, and wanted to know how to fix it, all of it, right now. I learned to be patient, to see success in small victories, to appreciate the ways in which the world is better now than ten years ago or sixty years ago or 600 years ago. As a whole, humanity lives longer, healthier lives. We have amazing advances in technology, including medical technology, we are more connected to one another than ever before, and xenophobia is definitely less normal than it once was.
            Unfortunately, it is still fairly common. People still discriminate against others based on their differences, and plenty still carry out hateful and violent acts based on these differences. And many, many more react in indifference. When those we perceive to be like us are discriminated against or experience violence, we show solidarity and empathy. When the same things happen to those we perceive as different from us, we ignore it, or worse, if those perpetrated those acts of violence are a part of our in-group, we defend it. When we find ourselves in 2015 still living in a world where people are hurt just for being who they are and too many turn a blind eye to ongoing injustices, it is time to get a little impatient. In 2015, we don’t have time anymore to put up with systemic oppression or indifference to war. We’ve come too far in our understanding of these problems to allow them to continue.
            In this and next week’s Torah portions, we see Jacob dawdling. Avivah Zornberg writes in her commentary on Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, brings a Midrash that “insists that the root of all Jacob’s vicissitudes [misfortunes] on his return to the Holy Land is the problem of delay, that dangerous space of unawareness that separates the vow from its fulfillment.” He spends over fourteen years in Laban’s camp, acquiring capital and personal fulfillment. The time, says Torah of the first seven years and Midrash of the second, flies by for him as though it were only a few days, because of his love for Rachel. But meanwhile, the rest of the world keeps turning and for them, time is moving at a real pace, and Jacob is not doing anything to create goodness. Abraham welcomed strangers and argued with God for justice. Isaac was willing to allow himself to be sacrificed for God. And what has Jacob done, other than sleep and get married and tend sheep? He’s not a nice brother, he deceives his father, he is unloving to one wife and insensitive to the one he does love. He doesn’t acknowledge God until God comes to him in a dream, and he doesn’t interact with strangers. Where is his mussar?

            Eventually, after things start to fall apart a bit with his family in the next parasha, he does get going and fulfills his promise to God, allows God to continue the promise to Jacob and all the descendants of Abraham. For so many of us, it takes personal tragedy or at least a tragedy that hits close to home to wake up and realize how much time we’ve been wasting, to get going and fulfill the promises we made to ourselves or to our friends and families and communities, or to God. Let us not wait anymore. Let us feel some impatience. May we feel spurred awake today to take action toward improving the world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Parashat Toldot: Jacob's Performance of Masculinity and Life for Trans Jews

                This past Monday evening, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Joy Ladin speak at an event host by the National Council of Jewish Women. Ladin is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She received her tenure teaching at Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University as a man, and then began her transition and gender reassignment. Her talk on Monday was very frank, explaining that she knew it was a decision that negatively affected her family, but that she had reached a point of depression and dysphoria where she really felt her only other option was suicide. She simply could not go on living as a man. Now fully transitioned and living as herself, she is teaching again at Stern, has published several books of poetry, a memoir about her transition, was featured on NPR’s On Being with Krista Tippet, and serves on the Board of Keshet, the national organization devoted to full inclusion of LGBT+ Jews in the Jewish community.
            On the train ride to the Upper West Side, where the NCJW is housed, I had already begun my weekly reading of Avivah Zornberg’s The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis for this week’s parasha, and had noted her focus on verses eleven and twelve of chapter twenty-seven: Jacob says, “If my father touches me I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” Zornberg notes it is not the deception itself that is troubling to Jacob, but the fear of being found out, and of being judge negatively for it. The Hebrew word used here, metateia, is also used in contexts of mockery, a dissembler, and for those who make mockery of Jewish worship by worshipping idols. In this context, it means that Jacob fears that Isaac will think he’s mocking him, when that is not actually his intent. In playing the role of his brother, Zornberg says, “Jacob risks having his own authentic reality misunderstood.” A Midrash on Proverbs asserts that to neglect that which is most essential to one’s authentic being is a criminal act of mocking God. From here, Zornberg quotes Polonius from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To thine own self be true… Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
            And so, as of early Monday evening this week, my brain was already churning all the ways in which each of us lie to ourselves and lie to others; obscure who we really are so that we might be accepted, and try our best not to be found out as the tricksters we all sometimes are. Then, during Ladin’s talk, she was explaining how she was raised by pretty secular Jewish parents and did not have a strong religious identity and for various reasons she did not have a formal Jewish education. But she did like to go to synagogue and read the Bible during prayer services she did not understand. In reading the Bible without guidance, she says she was able to always find the things that connected with her and validated her relationship with God, who, like her, was a being without a real body (for that was how her dysphoria processed her image of the body she had – that she simply didn’t corporeally exist yet), and who other humans did not understand. But when she would get to this part of the Bible, this week’s parasha, she would simply skip it. Again, the perks of reading it on her own and without guidance or formal education meant she only had to read the parts she liked. And she did not like this part. She said, “Reading about Jacob’s need to perform his masculinity in a forced way was a little too close for comfort.”
            I realized that while all of us have parts of ourselves we must hide or masquerade, that we must lie to ourselves or others about, ways in which we don costumes of what we think other people want us to be so that we may get what we need out of them, we still live in a world that particularly requires this from trans and non-binary people. Also on Monday, an essay by Leah Falk was published on the Jewniverse, a blog dedicated to forgotten bits of Jewish knowledge. Falk acknowledges traditional Judaism’s enforcement of the gender binary: men pray three times a day and wear tefillin; women go to mikveh once a month and light the family’s Shabbat candles. However, she says, even the Talmud, the ancient source for Halakha, recognizes six gender identities. Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first trans rabbi ordained by Hebrew Union College, explains the Talmud references those who are male, female, androgynous or having both male and female sexual characteristics, those who are tumtum or having indeterminate sexual characteristics, ay’lonit or identified as female at birth but developing male characteristics at puberty, and saris or identified as male at birth but developing female characteristics at puberty and/or becoming a eunuch later in life. Of course the Talmud doesn’t fully discuss the differences between gender identity, presentation, and chromosomes or genitalia, but they seem to get pretty close to understanding how diverse human representation of gender can be. It’s a little disturbing to think that in some ways, society has actually gotten further away from this understanding and tried harder to force people into discrete boxes of gender binarism.
            We must all work harder to make this world a place in which none of our fellow Jews need to fear “seeming like a dissembler.” We should strive to both be more honest with ourselves about our own self-presentations and perceptions, and also more open to differing presentations of others. Zornberg brings into her discussion of Jacob’s trickery and performance of masculinity the scholar Lionel Trilling, who writes in his study Sincerity and Authenticity, that we have often receive the message through culture that
“sincerity is undeserving of our respect,” that people should detach themselves and hide themselves in order to achiever power in society. But, Zornberg expounds on Trilling by saying, “to detach oneself from imposed conditions, from the roles assigned by birth and social rank, is to lose oneself, but thereby to gain access to a new authenticity of self.” When Jacob puts on the sheepskins and pretends to be Esau, he is able to develop a more complex, nuanced, and sincere sense of himself. I think we can probably all relate to this on some level, and yet, many people in society still seem to have a hard time being empathetic to this exact struggle in the trans community. To shake off the perceived gender assigned at birth may well mean losing everything, but it also may allow someone to truly become their self. If being inauthentic is an affront to God, as the Proverbs Midrash said, how can being one’s authentic self be ungodly? How can religious institutions bar someone for this?

            Thankfully, as Reform Jews, we can rejoice in knowing we are part of a religious institution that supports this authenticity. The URJ just passed its resolution for further inclusivity for trans Jews, and here at Temple Beth Emeth, I believe we are willing and able to meet all the URJ's expectations on this front. May we all continue to spread acceptance and sincerity of self throughout our communities, and pray for a time in which all people may be treated with equality and respect. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

Abraham's Peace: Parashat Chayei Sarah

            Shabbat Shalom! In this week’s Torah portion, we start to transition from the story of Abraham and Sarah to the story of Isaac and Rebecca. The portion, named Chayei Sarah, or, “the life of Sarah,” starts off with Sarah’s death, followed by Abraham’s pursuit of a wife for Isaac. Once Isaac is married off, our Torah is almost ready to shift the focus completely to him and Rebecca, but first we have some loose ends to tie off with Abraham.
Widowed Abraham gets married again and has more children, this time to someone our text names as Ketura but our tradition tells us is Hagar, the mother of his first child. When the hour arrives for Abraham to prepare for his own death, the Torah tells us that he gives all that he has to Isaac, which presumably refers to land and the inherited role of the family’s patriarch, because the next line says that Abraham also gave gifts to all his sons but he sends them to the east away from Isaac. Just as he had sent Ishmael away to preserve the family peace and ensure Isaac inherited all the land promised him, Abraham does the same to his younger children, this time without having to be told. Our father Abraham, ever the intuitive peace-maker.
After Abraham dies, “God blessed his son Isaac.” The classic midrashic text, Bereshit Rabbah, offers a parable on this:
Not blessings but gifts Abraham gave Isaac. This is like a king who owned an orchard and gave it to a tenant-farmer to tend. Two trees grew there, entangled with one another: one grew vital potions, and one grew fatal poisons. The farmer said: “If I water the vital tree, the fatal one will be nourished too. But if I don’t water the fatal one, how will the vital one live?” He concluded: “I am merely a tenant-farmer, in temporary charge of the orchard. Let me finish my duty and then let the owner decide what to do.” So said Abraham: “If I bless Isaac now, the sons of Ishmael and Ketura will be included. And if I don’t bless them, how can I bless Isaac?” He concluded: “I am merely flesh and blood – here today and gone tomorrow. I have already done what I had to do. From this point on, let God do what He wishes in His world.” When he died, God revealed himself to Isaac and blessed him. (Bereshit Rabbah 61:5)
I think this could be read as saying that the other children of Abraham are like the poisonous tree: inseparable yet unwanted; dangerous yet entangled with us. You could read God’s decision to bless Isaac Godself after the death of Abraham as saying that Isaac was somehow wholly better than his brothers, more deserving of goodness, and use that as justification for the Jewish “chosen-ness.” Themes of nationalism and supremacy do exist in our texts, and this could be read as one of them. But it could also be read as the ultimate move in Abraham’s life of peace-keeping. He knew, as God had told him, it would be through Isaac that the true heirs of Abraham’s blessing would come into the world. But he still couldn’t bring himself to play favorites with his children. In next week’s portion, we will hear the words of Esau, distraught that Jacob has received his blessing, as he cries out, “Bless me too, Father. Have you only one blessing?” It appears that indeed, there is only one blessing to go around for each generation of this family, and Abraham is not willing to make Ishmael or his younger sons feel the way Esau will feel at Isaac’s silence. So, he blesses none. He withholds the blessing that was granted for him to give, and he gives away only his earthly possessions, dividing them, albeit unevenly, among all his children. Our father Abraham, ever the intuitive peace-keeper.
In world with a sad lack of peace, let us all strive to be a little more like Abraham. May we see the world in all its complexities and nuances, may we seek to treat those around us fairly and equally, and may we ever be more concerned with peace and justice, within our families, our communities, and the world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.