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.  

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