The Trans Life of Sarah

Dedicated to the memory of Leslie Feinberg whose anniversary of death was on November 15th and whose yartzheit is the 22nd of Chesvan, coming up this week. And whose works of great chesed and fierce protective gevurah encapsulate both of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah.

 

We are at the crux of the story of Abraham and Sarah’s familial story. In this week’s parsha we read of the beginnings of the first Jewish couple’s attempts to expand their family and the ultimately terrifying test of whether that family would continue – the Akeidah. Next week’s parsha is entitled Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah – and begins with her death. In honor of Sarai and the woman Sarah she became, I dug a little deeper into some trans and queer narrative aspects I found in the texts.

The most well known text that is often cited by trans folks about Sarai comes from the Babylonian Talmud in Yevamot 64a and 64b. Back in parsha Noach, at the very end as we’re tracing genealogy, we come across the verse 11:30 which states וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי, עֲקָרָה:  אֵין לָהּ, וָלָד. “And Sarai was barren; she had no child.” There is a tradition that there are no extraneous words in Torah therefore all seeming redundancies must be resolved. The rabbis therefore ask, Why does it say both that Sarai is barren /and/ that she does not have a child? Wouldn’t you be able to infer one from the other? Therefore Rabbi Ami says that both Abram and Sarai are both tumtum, of indeterminate sex. And Rabbi Nachman states that we can infer that Sarai was not just barren, but that she had no womb; she was an aylonit, a person assigned female at birth who fails to develop the usual secondary sex characteristics associated with their assigned sex.

And that’s usually where the trans narrative of Sarah begins and ends. But with that mindset in focus, with that tidbit of Talmud Torah on our tongues, I think many more possibilities of a trans narrative open in the text.

In parsha Lekh L’kha, Abram and Sarai travel down to Egypt and, before arriving, Abram states in Genesis 12:11 הִנֵּה-נָא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת-מַרְאֶה אָתְּ “I know that you are a beautiful woman to look upon.” Because of the verb’s tense, it can also be read as “I know now that you are a beautiful woman …” Rashi gives two readings. One is that this is simply to read through the plain meaning, that Abram has always been aware Sarai is beautiful and he worries for their safety in Egypt. The other reading comes from Midrash Tanchuma 5 and states that, because of her innate modesty, Abram had never truly noticed Sarai’s beauty until this potentially dangerous situation pushed him into realization.

But I think this line holds a spark of trans-ness in it. These stories are the narrative of our ancestors, their travels towards Judaism, towards forging a family, towards finding a homeland, and all the struggles and joys that arise during those times. Knowing they are tumtum, this journey is also one from a state where children do not seem possible, to being parents. We all have these moments in our lives, when many small changes coalesce and suddenly other people see. Trans people in particular know this feeling, the small changes that seem barely perceptable until you are suddenly seen as you. And when reading this last week at the Transkeit conference, I realized the midrash’s interpretation could be seen in a trans light. Not that Abram had never noticed how beautiful Sarai was before, but what a beautiful /woman/ Sarai was. “Behold please, I now know you are a beautiful woman to look upon.” Almost as if he is apologizing for not seeing this moment before, for missing the woman Sarai had become.

In their journey forward, comes another more obvious moment that resonates with trans folks; Abram and Sarai become Sarah and Abraham, trading old names for new.

Our next possible threads of trans-ness come in parsha Vayeira which starts with three angels informing Abraham that he will have a child of his own with Sarah. Sarah, overhearing this news, laughs. Usually the verse וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, Genesis 18:12, is translated as “And Sarah laughed within herself.” However, Rashi presents another reading: “And Sarah laughed at her insides,” that she looked at her body and asked “How is it possible these innards will bear offspring?”

Right before this is a description of of Sarah that states, in 18:11, חָדַל לִהְיוֹת לְשָׂרָה אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים “the course of women had ceased to be” Rashi again swoops in and lets it be known that חָדַל – ceased – can also mean “withheld.” Rashi, of course, upholds the normative narrative, that Sarah had a menstrual cycle and that it had ceased. But knowing our Talmud and knowing Sarah’s seemingly trans history, we can also know that perhaps it didn’t cease. Perhaps it never started because “she had not even a womb.” Especially given that the sentence right after this is the very sentence in which Sarah laughs at her insides, knowing with a bitter chuckle, that she has no way to birth a baby. She has no womb, she’s had no periods, how can she possibly have a child?!

The last verse I’d like to point out is Genesis 18:14, right after g-d hears Sarah’s inwards laugh Ze asks הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיי דָּבָר “Is any thing to beyond Hashem?” This would seem a very simple straightfoward sentence. Hashem works miracles and that’s that. However the word הֲיִפָּלֵא is an interesting one and Rashi, again, brings some enlightening contextual information. Rashi informs us that Onkelos, the Aramaic translation, renders the text as “Is it covered?” He continues with g-d saying “is there anything truly set off and separated and covered from Me?”

The word tumtum, the very word used in Talmud to describe Abram and Sarai, means “hidden” or “covered” because the genitals of such an individual are covered, such that when they are born society can’t use its usual ways to sex the baby. This root of the word – פּלא – is also often connected with miraculous and mystical things. And that is, I think, the great miracle of Sarah’s life. Not just that she ultimately had a child, even in her old age, but that the threads of her transness were not hidden or set apart either from g-d or from her story.

All Vows We Prohibit Upon Ourselves

I once vowed to be the best girl I could be.

This day marks the overlap between National Coming Out Day and  Erev Yom Kippur, also known as Kol Nidre. These seem rather disparate holidays. One is a celebration of individuality and self, of standing up against an often cruel world and declaring who you are. The other is a fast day, a day of gruelingly long prayer and self denial. National Coming Out Day lends itself to rainbow and glittered hues, people posting pictures of them selves kissing loved ones, reflecting on their happiness and their self-worth. On Yom Kippur we to wear white, the color of death, as a reminder of our inherent mortality. We hold to certain communal standards and, in that very communal setting, reflect on our self failings. Kissing and bathing and leather shoes and other signs of comfort are forbidden.

But the overlap comes in that they are both days powered by introspection. Yom Kippur is full of self searching. The entire day, in fact the entire season, is a process in recognizing your failings and seeing yourself without our usual lens of self-indulgence. And without that safety we go into a packed synagogue and declare our guilt and our shortcomings together. National Coming Out Day is certainly a more cheerful version of that introspection, but each year it still demands that we look into ourselves and our relationship to others, to the world at large, and declare that relationship. And every year I see people in the LGBTQ community post about how their lives and even their orientations have changed. Each day demands that we delve deeply into the self and declare that self communally.

The interaction of these two holidays reminds me of a famous teaching:

‘According to Rabbi  Bunim of P’shiskha, everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: “I am but dust and ashes,” And on the other: “The world was created for me.”‘

The second slip comes from the Talmud Bavli (Sanhedrin 37b):

לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי
ללמדך שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל
מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו איבד עולם מלא
וכל המקיים נפש אחת מישראל
… מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיים עולם מלא
לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר
בשבילי נברא העולם

‘For this reason a single person was created (Adam was created alone)
To teach you that anyone who kills one soul of Israel
Is considered as if he has killed an entire world
And anyone who sustains one soul of Israel
Is considered as if he has sustained an entire world …

For this reason every single person must say
“The world was created for me.”‘

This seems the perfect slip for Coming Out Day! In a world where people in the LGBTQ community are often denied their true selves and are forced to hide – whether through blatant violence or quiet assumptions – it is a powerful thing to say “The world was created for me too.” Not just for straight people or cis people, but for me as well was this world created. “To harm a single soul is to harm us all.” The beautiful things that could have been, the infinite possibility of that world to come is snuffed out with every person who is killed simply because they are trans or gay or queer.”To save a single person is to sustain the world.” Having the power to come out safely has saved us. To offer even a simple word of support, a cup of coffee and a place to talk, a shoulder to cry on has saved many a queer person.

The first slip “I am but dust and ashes” “וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר” comes from Genesis, in the moment when Abraham is bargaining with g-d for the lives of the people of Sodom and Gommorah. This story has become encumbered with the detritus of homophobia over the years. But at it’s heart it is the story of a person standing up to g-d and saying “I know I am ultimately nothing, but I still must fight for other people.” This moment can not be downplayed. The founder of the Abrahamic religions stands up to g-d, argues that this divine being is wrong in condemning the entire city to destruction.

Yom Kippur is a day in which we contemplate that we are truly dust and ashes, that our mortal lives are short and terrifyingly limited. But it is also a day that focuses intensely on the self, raising self awareness and communal  acknowledgement to intense heights. It is a day where we beg for forgiveness and sometimes we also argue for it. We read Jonah, the epitome of someone arguing constantly with g-d and who yet somehow still merits a book in the Tanakh. We fight with our failings, with the promises we made to ourself and to g-d, with our very selves.

So, why did I earlier mention my oath to be the best girl possible? Tonight, when the sun sets, it will be Kol Nidre, a prayer service in which Jews repeat an Aramaic declaration nullifying all vows taken upon oneself or between oneself and g-d. The point of evening also marks the transition between National Coming Out Day and the beginning of Yom Kippur. In those evening hours they overlap. Before the sunset it is only National Coming Out Day. After midnight it is only Yom Kippur. But it is at that liminal junction that I find the most important part.

I once made a vow, a solemn oath to try harder to be a girl. It was a prohibition to stop my gradual veering into more masculine parts of myself and to embrace what I felt I was supposed to be, a young woman. I placed this vow upon myself in a desperate time. The word transgender had come into my vocabulary and with it the terrifying realization that it was a word that might describe me. In a last ditch effort to reclaim what the world wanted, I vowed this in the interior of my heart.

I failed.

It’s a not uncommon phenomenon. Many gay men try sleeping with or dating a woman one last time. Lesbians will sometimes marry to men. Trans people will jump into whatever heavily gendered experience they can to try and right the ship (which is probably why there’s a large number of ex-military trans women). We vow that we’ll be what the world wants.

It was only years and several Kol Nidre services later that I realized this was a vow that I should have cast away like so much bread at Tashlich. It was a vow made to myself that I could never keep. I was already on the path of self discovery and to vow myself into hiding was an act of self-negation that could not stand. I wish now that I had argued with g-d instead, had refused the world’s calling. The oath was never mine to make; the world made it for me without my insight. Such an oath, such a vow, is no vow at all.

In Judaism an oath or vow made under duress is not a true vow. A vow must be made by the person. Even a vow taken without duress could be nullified through the “door of regret,” circumstances which the person taking the vow had not taken into consideration or known about at the time, circumstances which would have prevented them from taking that vow. Many of us in the LGBTQ community are mired in oaths we have made to ourselves under the duress of the world – pretending to be straight, wearing that suit when all you wanted was a dress, refusing to have children . These vows of duress even continue after we come out- gay men wishing to be “straight acting,” trans people trying to fit the binary.

So on this Yom Kippur, deeply read the translation of Kol Nidre and take it upon yourself to undo those vows of duress, to throw away the oaths that weigh your self down, the prohibitions the world forced upon you.

“All the vows and oaths which I swore and vowed upon myself, from this Yom Kippur to the next, I repudiate them. All of them are undone, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, not in force, and not in effect. Our vows are no longer vows, and our prohibitions are no longer prohibitions, and our oaths are no longer oaths.”

And remember: “Though I am but dust and ashes, the world was still created for me.”

G’mar chatimah tovah, dear friends. May you be sealed for good and for life in this sweet new year.

Water Water Everywhere – Miriam and Issac’s Wells

וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם. וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם לָעֵדָה

And Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation.

Numbers 20:1-2

There is a rabbinic tradition that verses are connected in the Torah for a reason. So our rabbis teach that Abraham rushing to offer hospitality was even more amazing because the verse right before records his circumcision. This is taken as a sign that he was barely recovered from painful surgery and yet still rushed to help strangers. This hermeneutics are also used for halakhah, for legal readings, and not just midrash. So, for example, the verse forbidding shaatnez – a mix of linen and wool – is followed by the verse about tzitzit. The rabbis use these connected verses to pull deeper meaning and more rulings from the Torah.

In that vein, the Talmud in Ta’anit 9a records that the reason there was no water after Miriam was because a well followed the people through the wilderness all on the merit of Miriam. And so, when Miriam died, the well died too.

It’s a rather beautiful story. And one which gives Miriam a much larger role than she is given in the Torah. The story of Miriam’s Well is a popular one. It gets told and reinterpreted, particularly with many of the modern feminist tellings of Torah.

Wells in the ancient world were intensely important. Just a cursory remembering of Torah/Bible stories can show you that. Wells meant life or death. Wells were also a communal gathering area for people. Moses meets Tzipporah at a well. And Rebecca waters the camels of Eliazer, Abraham’s servant, at a well. People fight over wells and water. People meet and make contracts and discuss marriage at wells.

But Miriam is the only one whose water follows her around.

A while back, I wrote about Issac (https://eishzarah.wordpress.com/2013/11/02/toledot-5774/). Isaac isn’t a terribly popular Jewish ancestor. However, there is a wonderful enigmatic story about Isaac digging wells. Redigging the wells of his father. We don’t actually hear much about Abraham digging these wells, but we hear about Isaac trying to re-establish them, to find them again, to clear out the dirt and rubble and use them. At the time I compared it to the erasure of LGBTQ history and how we keep having to re-dig the wells our ancestors dug. But I also see it now in an internal way.

Isaac was searching, traveling and digging, trying to find a living water – the mayyim chayim – to sustain his family. But Isaac had to search where others had started.

Miriam had something even more precious and miraculous. Miriam’s well was completely her own, a well that went where she went. Miriam didn’t require an old well to start. Miriam didn’t re-dig at every new location in that 40 year journey. Miriam simply went and her Well came with her.

In Bava Kama (Babylonian Talmud 82a) we are told that Torah is like water, that Torah is vital to Jews as water is to humans. We’re even told that – based on the story of the waters of Marah – that a Jew shouldn’t go longer than three days without Torah (the amount of time the people were without water in that story).

Issac’s wells are an important part of the story. He tries to find water where he can. He searches where he know water existed for his father. But some of us don’t know where the water of our ancestors is. Or we go and dig, but the well is dry for us. We must find our own wells.

But, I hear you say, what about the fact that Miriam’s Well disappeared when she died? Are we supposed to cultivate this internal well that waters our chosen family, only to have it dry up upon death? Haven’t we all seen that too much? Organizations started by a passionate person who burns out and the organization burns out as well? A person with deep meaning to our community whose words were never recorded properly and their teaching diminishes when they leave? Or leaving a long time home, does this lesson mean we lose that deep known source of water? Should we be cultivating Miriam’s well over Issac’s if it means the loss of the well when we lose the person? Isn’t it too much to lose both?!

But here’s the end of the story. Later in this parsha, after traveling through enemy territory, the people are again thirsty. And suddenly there is mention of “to the well; that is the well of which HaShem said to Moses ‘Gather the people and I will give them water’” (Numbers 21:16). Rashi appropriately wonders where this new well suddenly appeared from. And Rashi’s answer? That the well of Miriam reappeared because of the merit of Moses and Aaron and the people.

Torah does not disappear. It is within us and within the text. We lose people. We lose people to moves and emotional distance and yes, to death, but their Torah – the Torah they dug for and struggled with – does not disappear. Even with the loss of a prophetess as integral and exemplary as Miriam, we can still recover the well and its water. Through memory we carry their wells with us.

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia:
“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?”

May we merit our own wells and the wells of our ancestors and may these wells never run dry.

A Land That Eats Its People – Sh’lach 5775

The main story of this parsha – Sh’ach – is one that many folks are familiar with. The spies go into the land to see what it’s like and come back with giant fruit and with horror stories about the current inhabitants. And it is this pivotal moment, this lack of faith in g-d, that causes the Israelites to wander in the desert 40 years.

I have been making myself read each parsha for almost three years now – a Jewish New Year’s resolution I made in an attempt to know my texts better. Sometimes I read more carefully than others, sometimes I skim – hello chapters detailing animal sacrifice. Sometimes I read the commentary to help sound the depths and sometimes I barely have time to read the translation. Sometimes a phrase sticks with me and I can’t shake it.

When the spies return with their report they speak of how strong the people of the new land are, how huge and terrifying. And they use a phrase: אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא “A land eating it’s inhabitants.”

This phrase stuck. A week later it was still there, rattling around. Two weeks. I felt such a connection. Sometimes I feel like I’m already living in a land that eats its people. I feel like the place I live swallows my identities. My queerness, my transness, even some of my Jewish-ness all lie beneath the ground here, dormant and waiting to bloom in some other soil. In worrying about my safety, I’ve allowed parts of me to be eaten.

We all do this to some extent. We all have characteristics and quirks and interests that we hide from everyday people. And the spies do this too. They let their fear eat up the part of them that wanted a new land, the part of them that had faith that good things could happen. But at the same time, I can hardly fault the spies, just as I can hardly fault myself and so many others in hiding. It’s a scary world. A world which kills and hurts. And hiding or not moving forward is just another way to protect yourself sometimes.

Last year I thought this as the phrase continued to play over in my head. And with those words in my head, I reread the parsha this week and added a new layer.

This is the point where the Israelites are condemned to wander for 40 years. Directly after the spies’s report is the point g-d tells everyone they will die in the desert. The very next parsha has Korach and his band literally swallowed by the earth.

We are scared that the land ahead of us, our promised future, is a land that will eat us as it already eats its inhabitants. But the truth is also this, that this land we’re already on will eat us too. No Israelites except Caleb and Joshua survive the 40 years in the desert. The wilderness swallows them all.

We’ve all been scared to move forward before, to find our way to our personal Land. It’s a scary thing, the future. Last year, this parsha taught me to  empathize with the spies. This year it taught me that, even with that empathy, we can’t take their path. Time moves on, even if you don’t. And, ultimately, every land eats its inhabitants whether it is the land you’ve longed for or the land you’ve relegated yourself to.

Let’s not take 40 years to find our promised land.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Miriam – Behaalotecha 5775

So this week (well last week’s because the sun is down) parsha was Behaalotecha. Towards the end of the parsha Miriam and Aaron both speak against Moses because of the Cushite woman he marries. They then  state, both siblings upset at the divine love shown seemingly only to their brother: “Has HaShem only spoken with Moses? Has HaShem not also spoken with us?” (Numbers 12:2)  G-d, hearing this familial jealousy, appears in a pillar of cloud and speaks of how Moses is above all other prophets. And when the cloud and g-d depart, Miriam is stricken with leprosy.

(Addendum 1 – Yes, only Miriam gets leprosy/tzaraat. Yes, there’s plenty of apologetics about Aaron being High priest and such. Yes, it sucks and is quite unfair that only she gets punished.)

I can hardly blame them for being jealous, for being upset that they – the High Priest and a prophetess with a magical well – are still somehow second string. That is a statement I think many of us understand. And because I think many of us understand that feeling, I want to look instead at the first part of their anger, the part that often seems ignored in many a d’rash.

So instead, I want to focus on the Cushite woman.

The biblical Cush is traditionally associated with the Ethiopia through an explanation of Josephus in “Antiquities of the Jews.” There are some fascinating midrashim about a young Moses traveling and marrying this Cushite woman, sort of a young-coming-of-age prequel to the well known Moses narrative. There are rabbinic apologetics that this woman is really Moses wife Tzipporah. And I’ve heard many modern rabbis discuss the sin being that they didn’t discuss their jealousy and anger with Moses.

But ….

But what if this Cushite woman really is from Ethiopia, a region associated with darker skinned black people (all the way back to Egyptian times)? What if Miriam and Aaron really do have a problem with Moses different-looking wife? What if they really are being racist?

(Addendum 2 – Yes, race was a very different concept back in this time and during rabbinic times. And I do not think g-d thought “I’m going to punish you, you basic white girl!” especially given that the Israelities were in no way white. However, I am living now. And now many American Jews are white. And many American Jews are not as welcoming of people of color as they should be, particularly into the family of Judaism. Given how the rabbis are always [re]interrpreting and storytelling with through the lens of their time, I see no reason to not allow the same for us.)

And what better punishment for racism against someone now would now be considered black than leprosy/tzaraat – a disease characterized of whiteness? By disparaging a woman of color, Miriam is stricken with a whiteness that is punishing, that is painful, that cause her to be a social outcast. It is one of the most delicious cases of the punishment fitting the crime.

Beyond the blatant Torah story, we also have rabbinical attempts at explaining away the Cushite woman. The rabbis attempt to literally expunge this potential wife of Moses by saying that Cushite was simply a code for Moses “real” wife Tzipporah. Rashi gives us a small taste of these rather pathetic apologetics:

the Cushite woman: [Moses’ wife was a Midianite, not a Cushite, but] Scripture teaches that everyone acknowledged her beauty just as everyone acknowledges a Cushite’s blackness.” (Tanchuma Tzav 13)

Cushite woman: She was called “the Cushite” [the Ethiopian] on account of her beauty, as a man would call his handsome son “Cushite” to negate the power of the evil eye. (also Tanchuma Tzav 13)

The first acknowledges that Tzipporah was beautiful and must not be black, otherwise why use the Cushite’s blackness as a foil? The second is even more blatant in stating that Tzipporah is the opposite of a Cushite woman – if she is beautiful, they must be ugly. While in the original Torah story, I feel I am reading racism in – and that it could just as easily read as tribalism – Rashi brings the racism fully to the forefront. All the while denying that the Cushite woman even exists as a actual wife of Moses.

I kind of wish Rashi could have been stricken with tzaraat after that.

So many of you reading this will know racism is bad, that we should be welcoming of all in our shuls and synagogues, that white Jews are not the only Jews that exist. Many of you reading this will read these statements that insinuate Cushite equals ugly and you will be suitably annoyed at Rashi’s use of stories that clearly think black isn’t beautiful.

But I want to end with the end of the parsha. No, not when Moses’s heartfelt prayer, so short and perfect and lovely in the Hebrew – “El na r’fah na lah” “G-d, please heal her, please.” But the aftermath. The part where Miriam still sends seven days in exile outside of the camp, post tzaraat. Despite that much quoted prayer, g-d still commands Miriam to fulfill the traditions of tzaraat, that she remain outside the camp the full seven days until she is again declared ritually clean. In the final sentence of this parsha, the people travel to a new location and pitch their tents and camps there. But not without waiting for Miriam.

We all have work to do. Some of that work is pointing out problems in other people (hopefully gently). Some of that work is allowing others to point out our problems. Most of that work is trying to work on those problems. Miriam (and Aaron) screwed up. Miriam was punished and shunned. But even so, the people waited for her. They waited for her to heal and to – hopefully – learn from the experience.

Our synagogues are full of people who need to work to be better – better about racism and ableism and homophobia and a litany of other issues. Sometimes when confronted with that litany, people can feel as if they’re being punished, as if they’re being shunned. Just as Miriam would have gone through steps to declare her ritual cleanliness before returning to the camp and to the sanctuary, they to will have to do the work of realizing where they fell short. But when they do, we must welcome them back. We can’t move on by leaving everyone behind.

Sotah and the Jewish Agnostic – Naso 5775

Note: Of late I’ve cared less about how well my writing for this blog – which began as a personal attempt to read completely thoroughly through Torah – reads. When I started I usually tried to write something that flowed well, that read well. While I was search for my own narrative strands in Torah, I was also writing for other people. Now, while I’m still posting, I admit that I’m less concerned about how good my writing reads and more concerned about just getting these things out there. If something doesn’t follow or doesn’t seem to make sense, please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question or email me (eishzarah@gmail.com)

 

Last Simchat Torah I had a vision.

Our shul’s tradition is to roll out the entire Torah scroll with the congregation carefully supporting it underneath. Then the rabbi reads the very end of Deuteronomy/Devarim and then rushes to read the very beginning of Genesis/Bereshit. Its a fun way to celebrate the cyclical nature of our Torah reading.

So my partner and I were down by the end, palms carefully cradling the underside of the scroll. One of our town’s rabbis – the amazing Rabbi Debra Kassoff – was reading the Hebrew and translating into English for us, her hands carving through the air, gesturing with each phrase. And suddenly I was gone.

In that brief moment I’d had a very visceral image of myself of eating the Torah scroll. Taking great handfuls of tearings of Torah and greedily stuffing them into my mouth. The ink in rivulets down my neck, reforming new words and letters. My eyes wide.

And just as suddenly I was back, my partner Louren raising an eyebrow and mouthing “Are you okay?” I just nodded.

This week in parsha Naso we read about the Sotah trial, the Ordeal of Bitter Waters. A woman accused of adultery is taken before the priests and drinks a potion of holy water, dust from the temple floor, and the dissolved ink of a written oath. If she is guilty her “belly will swell and her thigh fall away.” If she is not guilty, the potion will have no other effect then probably tasting like inky mud.

So, why the story about me devouring a Torah scroll?

You see, I’m not really sure how much I believe in g-d. While I’m not an atheist, I’m not a theist either. I’m a rationalist who truly doesn’t know. And … well … the prophets have a few unpleasant words towards those who betray HaShem, the one true g-d of the Israelites, for any other gods. Or, in the Talmud, lack of god/s.

 

Hosea 1:2 “for the land commits great harlotry by departing from the Lord”

Jeremiah 3:20″Surely, as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel”

And that’s the basic stuff. That doesn’t even include the really blatant stuff about lusting after lovers with “genitals like donkeys” (thanks Ezekiel!) and having no compassion for “the children of harlotry” (thanks Hosea!).

Over and over again, the prophets use the metaphor and symbolism of adultery for Israelites that “cheat” on HaShem. Over and over we read this language of adultery and “harlotry” used against those who don’t believe only in the Israelite god. In the language of many of our prophets, I’m an adulterer. My agnosticism is the sign and symbol of my religious adultery.

Part of the ritual involved the priest writing an oath onto parchment and then scraping the words off into the potion to be drunk. Ancient cultures often recognized a great power in written words, whether inscribed in stone or scrawled on a pottery shard. It’s a power many Jews still remain aware of, particularly when it comes to the name of g-d. The Tetragrammaton, The Name, the yud-heh-vav-heh, is rarely written out by many traditionally observant Jews because such a powerful name should not be destroyed or tossed away. Jewish tradition teaches us that Torah scrolls and siddurim (prayer books) should be treated to a proper burial all because they contain The Name.

And yet this ritual erases the very name of g-d to dissolve it into, what seems to our modern sensibilities, a superstitious potion.

In Nedarim 66b we read a rabbinic response to this specific part of the ritual: “And that, to make peace between a man and his wife, the Torah said: My name, that is written in sanctity, shall be blotted out in the waters curse.” Rabbi Yehuda’s point in this statement was that if the sanctity and peace of the house – shalom bayit – is so important that the very Name of G-d can be blotted out, then it’s certainly more important than complaining about your partner’s cooking or some other tiny issue. (I also acknowledge that bringing your wife foward on a charge of adultery to make her drink a potion of dust and ink isn’t likely to keep a real sense of shalom bayit either)

Judaism is a family. It’s a big, complicated, family with its fair share of in-fighting. Sound like any families you know? Our shalom bayit is important. Is the shalom bayit of Judaism important enough to include Jews whose beliefs, or lack of beliefs, about g-d is a bit different from the traditional narrative?

In my vision, my daydream, I was eating the Torah and – in doing so – destroying the scroll. But the ink and the words embedded themselves in me, flowed over my skin. While I don’t truly believe I’m destroying Torah, sometimes I feel like my Judaism and my attempts at finding myself in it are seen as destructive. In the sotah ritual, the priests destroyed the name of g-d in the hopes of preserving a marriage being torn apart by jealousy and doubt. I’m sure the people accused of adultery didn’t want to destroy the name of g-d for their marriages, but there they were in front of those priests drinking that potion to save themselves.

This isn’t a coherent argument. I know that. And I certainly haven’t drawn these strands together tightly. Instead I present them as I’ve encountered them thus far, connected loosely. I know I won’t be taking a sotah trial for my agnosticism, but I know I’ve been judged before for bringing it up. And I know the shalom bayit of Jewish-ness is big enough to allow agnostic/atheist Jews, but I it doesn’t always feel like the shalom bayit of Judaism is. And perhaps in your eyes I am obliterating the name of g-d, but I do so to save myself.

 

“There are times when the cancellation  of Torah may be the foundation (of Torah).”

Rabbi Resh Lakish BT Menacot 99b

Queering L’dor Vador

The Blessing over children on Shabbat night. The commandment to be fruitful and multiply. The constant statements of making the future better for our children and our grandchildren and the generation that follow.  L’dor v’ador. Unbidden and unexamined, these phrases are spoken again and again in synagogues throughout the Jewish world. Last week’s Torah portion – B’midbar – spends much time counting the sons of all the tribes for a military census and tallying strength by the number of biological offspring. It teaches us about the redeeming of the firstborn son – pidyon haben (פדיון הבן). Again and again it includes only certain people, all of them counted through tribal affiliation and through patrilineal descent. But what about those of us without children? How do we come to grips with a societal culture and a religious text so steeped in the importance of biological children? What about those of us with our own non-traditional, non-biological families? וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת אַהֲרֹן, וּמֹשֶׁה: “And these are the generations of Aaron and Moses:” Numbers (Bamidbar) 3:1 This verse begins a chapter-long discussion of how the work of the Levites is split according to subtribe and where they will be positioned near the sanctuary. However, this short seemingly-insignificant introductory verse prompts Rashi to ask a very large Why? The children mentioned as the “generations” are all children of Aaron and none of Moses offspring. So why are Nadav, Avihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar named also as the “offspring of Moses”? Rashi’s answer: “…  because he taught them Torah. It teaches us that whoever teaches his friend’s son Torah, scripture views him as if he had fathered him.” (Rashi commentary to Numbers 3:1) In a chapter and a book and an entire Torah full of toledot – generations – Rashi creates a non biological family, one based on Torah learning, on the chavruta of shared study. When the sun set last night and the Torah parsha of B’midbar gave way to Naso, we also began the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is the end of the long journey from Pesach – escaping Egypt – to the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. On Shavuot we traditionally study all night, eat delicious dairy food – Yay cheesecake! – and read the book of Ruth. The book of Ruth does focus around the harvest and Shavuot is a harvest festival. In fact some traditions state that Ruth arrived in Israel around the time of Shavuot. But it also very notable that Ruth accepts the Torah and Naomi’s g-d during her beautiful impassioned plea: וַתֹּאמֶר רוּת אַל-תִּפְגְּעִי-בִי, לְעָזְבֵךְ לָשׁוּב מֵאַחֲרָיִךְ:  כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ, וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין–עַמֵּךְ עַמִּי, וֵאלֹהַיִךְ אֱלֹהָי. “And Ruth said:Do not tell me to leave you and to turn away from you. For where you go, I will go and where you live, I will live. Your people, my people and your g-d, my g-d.” Ruth 1:16 Just as the Jewish people accepted Torah on Shavuot, Ruth accepted Torah and entrance into the tribe at this time. Just as Ruth is a ger – a stranger – we are repeatedly reminded by g-d that we are strangers in a strange land, strangers to this new way of life that the Torah calls for. But Ruth did not just accept the Torah at this moment, but also accepted a new definition of family – one that bound her outside of her biological bloodline. She bound herself to her former mother-in-law and created a bond beyond the expected. And, using Rashi’s commentary, when Naomi taught Ruth Torah, it is as if they were biologically linked. These simple small readings can give so much to those of us without biological children and to those of us that have created our own families. Shared learning and shared experience, the teaching of Torah – a word literally meaning instruction – can be as strong as biological bonds. The rabbis ask why was the Shavuot-revealed Torah given in the wilderness – Bamidbar, the name of our parsha – instead of in the land of Israel? Many answers are given – of course. One midrash states it was given outside of Israel so that no particular tribe would be able to lay greater claim to it. But Rava answers (BT Nedarim 55a) that when people open themselves like the wilderness, g-d gives them Torah. Moses, in revealing his own Torah to Aaron’s children, became another father to them. Ruth became a daughter to Naomi through marriage, but her partner through Ruth’s powerful oath. We all became children of Torah when we stood together at Sinai. When I study queer and trans Torah with my friends, when we open our hearts to the wilderness of each other, we become chosen family. And today – when we read Ruth and study together – we all become each other’s family. Let us bless more than just genealogical children, but children through teaching.  Let us continue l’dor vador beyond biological bounds and increase our blessings through friendship and study and the beauty of chosen family. Let us be fruitful in our own Jewish way.

Personal Purim – Breaking Boundaries

Rava said: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai”  (BT Megillah 7b)

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Purim is a strange holiday to explain to my neighbors, many raised in Southern dry-county (no alcohol sales allowed) culture:

“Wait … you’re … you’re supposed to drink?!”

“Yes.”

“But … but not at the church?”

“Synagogue. And yes. Sometimes at the synagogue.”

“Wow. I should totally be Jewish. Ha ha!”

*repeat ad nauseum every Purim of every year with every coworker*

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Many of my Jewish friends have more complicated histories with Purim than the above simple exchange. But my complicated history with Purim isn’t from childhood. After all, I only discovered Judaism in college.

You see, on Purim you traditionally drink until you can no longer tell the difference between ‘Blessed be Mordechai’ and ‘Cursed be Haman.’ And my first Purim, I did just that.

I went to an acquaintance’s house. Truthfully, I no longer even remember who the person was, though to this day I remember where the house is because I spent 15 minutes sitting in my car before steeling myself to ring the doorbell. I was awkward and uncomfortable. It was a phase of body-disembodiment that caused me to eschew anything but pants no matter the heat. My T-shirts were always covered by an outer shirt as well. All shoes were closed toe lest my feet feel a freedom that my brain couldn’t handle. My social skills and cues were as walled off as my body. When I realized I knew no one and no one wished to know me, I promptly drank two large bottles of cheap sangria.

But then, I’d been doing that for awhile.

I didn’t drink often, but when I did it was always to a point of excess. To the point where I couldn’t tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.’ Until the point where I could no longer tell the difference between anything. Until I couldn’t even tell who I was.

First time celebrating Purim and here I was a natural.

Do you know how much we queer folks drink to forget? How often we self medicate to deal? Do you know how much we all do, when you’re an outsider, when you’re the disenfranchised one. Do you know how many studies back this up? How much personal experience repeats this? When you’re queer and trans you spend so much time building protection for yourself. Acres and acres of labyrinthian walls and fences around your heart. Preferably with large scrawled signs declaring “Keep out!” and “That means you!” and maybe “Post no bills!” Sometimes drinking is the only way to shut off, to shut out the world a bit, to lessen the pain.

Those walls were necessary. Some are still necessary, especially the public ones. I used to drink to break them down because I didn’t have any other way to be open. If I’m truthful, sometimes I still do.

Purim is supposed to be a time when up is down and black is white and everything turns upside down. Except it doesn’t. The boundaries are still there. In some strange ways, they’re even more present. I see racist costumes and blatant misogyny (and the ever present problem of transmisogyny). I see many putting on masks that reveal who we already are. And I see those of us in hiding putting on masks that are simply the continued trappings of societal expectations.

I need boundaries blurred, I need these binaries broken down. Because my very life is nothing but blurred boundaries – the Protestant who became an agnostic who became a Jew; the girl who became a man who became something else. My very body is the sight of boundaries breaking apart and merging together, of new ancient frontiers, of co-existing partitions and the internal battles they bring. And I need those boundaries gone. I need the ability to safely move and stretch and shift and change.
And I need to be able to do it without drinking.

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Now I’m off to bed. According to Rambam that’s another way to no longer tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.’

Personal Pesach

It finally happened.

I had a surgery consultation this Thursday. Thanks to so many of you wonderful folks out there, thanks to your words of support and your funding (http://www.gofundme.com/d4o8bs), and thanks to an amazing local surgeon recommendation from a friend, I had a consultation and set a surgery date.

And now I can’t help but have Pesach on my mind. Not just because we’re smack dab in the middle of reading through our Exodus in parsha Bo and Beshallach. And not because my partner and I are already discussing our seder this year. And not even because we’re exhorted to remember the Exodus every day. Truthfully, its because every year I try at the seder to feel as if I too have escaped Egypt and every year I fail. Now I’ve been in many narrow places and I am in yet another one as Mississippi continues to constrict more and more tightly. I know I’ve dealt with things that should make me feel as if I’ve escaped a personal Egypt. And I know I’ve made it through them, through fighting to get hormones, through sleeping in my car, through the break ups and personal hurt, through my own growth and the massive mistakes and foibles that come with that. Each year I enjoy the seder and the symbolism and the community and I still feel as if I haven’t escaped Egypt.

But most of all, you see, I have Pesach on my mind because I set my top surgery date right after Pesach.

It wasn’t exactly intentional. My partner and I were waiting for necessary news that will only happen during April, so that kicked the date back till then. And of course, my work needs enough time to plan their schedule as I’m in charge of training new techs. I definitely didn’t want to miss a Seder or any Pesach activities, but I still wanted it as quickly as possible. And of course there was a the doctor’s schedule to deal with. So there it was. Right after Pesach.

So this year, I will celebrate the Seder and after I’ll be liberated from a part of myself I never wanted. And you all made that possible. Now that I have the funds to do this, I can stop literally constricting my body with an article of clothing that has caused me more and more pain. Physically my shoulders and back and hips are starting to suffer. Emotionally my sense of self suffers, squeezing into something painful simply for safety, simply for the ease of others. It would have been enough if I could have had this surgery without all this support, but – Dayeinu – I am still so grateful for the support.

I’m also thinking of Pesach because … well, I’m leaving Mississippi.

My partner and I are lucky enough to be moving. We’re lucky enough to have the funds and the ability. We’re blessed to have picked states with PhD programs for her, health care that will take care of me, and laws that will protect our partnership. I’m leaving my 15 years of Jackson, my 23 years of Mississippi. I’m leaving what I’ve known as an adult, the city I’ve been in since college, the job I’ve had for 9 years. I’m escaping a life that has become more and more cramped, more painful each year. I’m leaving people I love, but a place that has harmed me in more ways than I can recount. I’ve had enough personal plagues. I’ve had enough metaphorical locusts eating what little greenery is in my life, enough palpable darkness. I’m making an Exodus.

This year in Mississippi, next year in the North East.

Unmaking the World

120 years building the ark

And seven days mourning Methusaleh

And a year living with the flood

Weren’t enough to mourn

The unmaking of the World.



Dayan Ha-Emet,

You judged them unworthy

And left me with the mess.



So I lined my heart with pitch

Inside and out.



How could I mourn

With all the work You left in my hands,

The work of keeping the world together?



Is it no wonder I turned to the vine?



After the heavens opened

And the waters above crashed into the waters below

And the deluge swelled from the ground.



As the foundation stones quaked

And the sun stopped

And the stars became unmoored.



After watching the corpses of my neighbors

Float by, flooded, bulging.

Trapped in my own coffin.



You turned the rainbow into a sign of death.

I turned to wine to forget.