Mixed Multitudes: The Firstborn Son

I should have felt resentful toward the Hebrews, for whose sake the curses of their God had befallen my people, but in fact all I felt that night as I lay in my bed waiting to die was an immense sense of relief. I remember thinking, My life is about to be over. After tonight, I will never have to lie to anyone about who I am again. Perhaps that in itself is a kind of mercy.

When I awoke the next morning, I was filled with confusion. At first I thought it hadn’t happened, that the Pharaoh had defeated the Hebrews’ God after all. I felt a pang of sympathy for the Hebrew slaves. Ah well, I thought, it just shows that it is better not to hope, not even for release. But then I heard the wailing from outside, a cry of anguish rising up from the houses of my town such as I had never heard, and a kind of wonder crept over me, for I knew that it had happened after all. But why had I of all the firstborn sons of Egypt been spared?

I went to see their prophetess. I found her with a group of other women, face and arms covered with flour, hurriedly mixing dough in preparation for their departure. 

“That will never have time to rise,” I observed.

She didn’t even look up, focused on her work. “We’ll make do. Now what is it you wanted? Better make it quick — as you can see, we’re in kind of a hurry.”

Haltingly, uncomfortably aware of the eyes of the women upon me, I told her who I was and put my question to her: “Why was I, of all the firstborn sons of Egypt, spared?”

Now she did look up, when her eyes met mine they crinkled up and she laughed. My heart went cold — somehow this daughter of slaves knew what I had never uttered to a living soul.

“Do you think anything is hidden from the eyes of God?” she said. “The firstborn son of your house is dead, but you were spared. If you ask me, I think you’ll be better off without him. Now come along and help me with this bread.”

Still smiling, I got down on my knees alongside the other women of Israel and began to knead.

Zohar on Parashat Tazria – Gender and the Spirit

Ran across an interesting discussion in the Zohar on parashat Tazria. If this kind of thing interests you, perhaps you should come by and study with us at RCBI for my regular Thursday afternoon class studying the weekly Torah portion through mystical text!

In this passage, the sages are discussing the question of how spirits end up in their bodies. One rabbi suggests that spirits issue forth as male and female together, but that they become separated into male and female. Assuming a person is worthy, they will be led in their lifetime to the male or female corresponding to the other part of their soul, and this person will be their appointed partner. But Rabbi Elazar objects:

“Rabbi Elazar said, Not so! For in every one male and female are combined together, and afterwards they are separated. But ‘and she gives birth to a male’ (Leviticus 12:2) – they are combined together from the right side. And if she gives birth to a female, female and male are combined together from the left side, such that the left side rules more over the right side, and the male on the right side submits such that it does not rule, and then that male which comes out of the female from the left side, all its ways are like the female, and it is not called male. But the male that comes out of the right, it rules, and the female that comes out of it submits because the left side is not ruling, and therefore it is written, ‘and she gives birth to a male.'”

(Note that in kabbalistic symbolism, the right side is strongly associated with masculinity whereas the left is associated with femininity.)

The language used here by Rabbi Elazar is somewhat complicated, but from what he says we can draw the conclusion that:

  • The soul of every human being contains both elements which are male and elements which are female.
  • That if a soul can nevertheless be said to have a gender, it is because one of these elements rules over and serves as an organizing principle for the others.
  • That even if there are e.g. masculine elements in a female soul, we do not call that soul “male” because those elements emerge according to the (feminine) organizing principle.

Notably absent from this formulation is any indication that the soul’s gender is determined by the body’s physical form. Gender is, at least primarily, a spiritual phenomenon.

Happy International Transgender Day of Visibility!

Parashat Shemini: Dvar Torah for the Trans Jews Are Here Convening

This convening was scheduled to coincide with the International Transgender Day of Visibility, which falls on Sunday. In recognition of this fact, I would like to talk a little bit about the issue of visibility in Jewish tradition and in our own lives. Fundamentally visibility is about the possibility of being seen, a subject which immediately raises issues of power. Everything in our society, our culture, conditions us to understand seeing as a manifestation of power over the one who is seen – simply put, sight is connected to knowledge and knowledge is a kind of power. This is why the experience of being observed by another can feel so invasive and uncomfortable – we instinctively feel that the gaze of the other puts a kind of hold on us, pins us to the wall and lays us out as an object of the other’s understanding. 

This is one way of understanding the relationship between the one who sees and the one who is seen, but it isn’t the only one. In fact our parsha for this week, parashat Shemini, contains a different approach to understanding the power dynamics of visibility. In chapter 9, verse 6 it says:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה זֶ֧ה הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה הה תַּעֲשׂ֑וּ וְיֵרָ֥א אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם כְּב֥וֹד הה׃

Translation: And Moses said, “This is what HaShem has commanded that you do, so that the presence of HaShem may become visible to you.”

This statement is somewhat confusing for two reasons: First, because we may not be in the habit of thinking of God as visible. Regarding this, it is important to remember that God’s presence appears often throughout the Torah as a visible phenomenon, most often as a “cloud” resting over or within the sanctuary. God’s visibility is also closely connected with the festival holidays. Deuteronomy 16:16 reads:  

 שָׁל֣וֹשׁ פְּעָמִ֣ים ׀ בַּשָּׁנָ֡ה יֵרָאֶ֨ה כָל־זְכוּרְךָ֜ אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י הה אֱלֹקיךָ

Which is typically taken to mean: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before HaShem your God,” except that, given the odd use of the object marker אֶת, it seems more appropriate to read yeraeh as yireh, in other words: “Three times a year all your males shall see the face of HaShem your God.” This reading had its supporters even during the rabbinical period, as in the opening of masechet Chagigah where it is used to justify a ruling that one who is blind is exempt from the obligation of making pilgrimage during the festival. 

But there is another confusing aspect of our passage from Leviticus, and that is the way it reverses the equation when it comes to visibility and power. Here it is not the seer who gets to define the conditions of being seen, who gets to say, “This is what you must do in order to be seen.” On the contrary, it is the one seen, namely Ha Shem, who gets to define the conditions of Hir own visibility by saying, “This is what you must do in order for My presence to appear to you.” By reversing the equation, the dynamics of power between the seer and the one seen shift in surprising ways. No longer a position of command, the act of seeing here reappears in the vulnerability of desire, while God, the object of that desire, has the power to be seen or not seen according to conditions Zie Hirself lays out – in other words, the power to fulfill that desire… or to hold it in suspense. 

An important concept to consider in this context is the role of the garment. To the ordinary way of thinking, the role of clothing is to conceal the nakedness which lies beneath. Nudity is a shameful reality, clothing a means of covering up that reality. Thus, the first man, in response to God’s call, replies, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” (Genesis 3:10) In making this statement, Adam reveals that he has completely failed to understand the spiritual significance of the garment, which is not in fact to conceal, but rather to reveal. It is an important, if somewhat paradoxical insight of the sages of the Zohar that one phenomenon which becomes “clothed” in another is not concealed, but rather revealed by its garment. The spiritual essence in itself, denuded of its garments, is too ethereal and abstract to grab hold of. It is the “garment” which encloses and gives form to an aspect of reality which had hitherto been completely internal with no exterior existence, and thus it is precisely in the act of covering itself that the inexpressible reality lays itself bare to the other, concealing its essence but opening itself up thereby to the outside, and therefore to a new possibility, the possibility of communication.

So – in the mystical tradition garments fulfill simultaneously the apparently contradictory roles of concealing and making manifest that which is concealed. But garments have an additional function – that of transformation. In the opening pages of the Zohar Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son Rabbi Elazar explore together the relationship between two different feminine aspects of God, described as Mi and Mah, “Who” and “What,” Mother and Daughter. Ordinarily separated by a vast metaphysical gulf, on the day of the festival assembly when the Divine presence is said to make itself visible, the Daughter is adorned with “her Mother’s ornaments” and then, clad in male garments, is revealed before the assembly of festival goers gathered together in the Temple’s sacred precincts. It is in this moment that the higher aspects of God’s essence are drawn down and made manifest here on Earth as a visible presence before the assembled worshipers. That this sacred moment, in which divine absence is converted suddenly into presence, rests on an act of gender transgression is, I believe, no coincidence. For what is gender transition if not the trick of taking an absent but deeply felt reality and making it manifest in this world we all share as a palpable presence? In both cases what is at stake is visibility, or to put it another way, the leap in the dark necessary to bridge the gap between an impossible interior truth and an unbearable external reality.

Given the degree of power associated with seeing in a society increasingly structured around systems of surveillance, it is valuable to consider for a moment that the reverse is also true: There is power in being able to establish our own conditions for being seen. This power, which in our tradition falls under the heading of tzniut or “modesty,” does not often register for us as a form of power because its strong associations with femininity tend to render it invisible or trivial in the context of patriarchy, which seizes hold of what could have been a source of power and leverages it as a source of oppression. Nevertheless, the power to set our own terms for visibility can be a deep wellspring of self-determination and self-affirmation for those of us who have spent so many years of our lives literally begging to be seen – by family and friends, by the healthcare professionals we rely upon to provide lifesaving care, by employers and government officials. In a world in which being seen is so often associated with vulnerability, there is something profoundly transgressive, not to mention revolutionary, about taking on the authority to dictate to others the conditions which must be met to get a glimpse of our own transcendent and ineffable presence.

The kavanah I want to leave us with this shabbat morning is that we, like God, have a presence which brings blessing to those who are privileged to look upon it, and that, like God, we are the ones who ultimately get to define the terms of our own visibility. May we all be blessed in our lives to behold the divine presence, and may we all give blessing to others by the light of our own presence in the world.

Another Excerpt

Another excerpt from my upcoming book, Magical Princess Harriet:

As the door swung shut behind her Harriet stood there for a moment, leaning against the doorpost, her heart beating a mile a minute. The bathroom was a long, narrow, poorly-lit room, its walls tiled in a particularly unpleasant shade of muted yellow-green that put one in mind of things rotting in a swamp – or perhaps that was just the smell. Along the wall facing the door were a row of stalls, with a row of urinals opposite them. Next to these were a number of shabby-looking sinks that looked as if they’d been installed around the time Eisenhower was president. The rusty faucets were dripping incessantly and the sound of the drops falling into the cracked porcelain basins echoed weirdly off of the room’s abnormally high ceiling.

She had been so upset when she came in that it took a minute before she realized she wasn’t alone. The room’s other occupant wasn’t immediately visible, but Harriet could hear them breathing in weak, shuddering gasps. The sound was amplified strangely by the room’s odd acoustics, so that at first she wasn’t certain where the sound was coming from. Bending down to examine the empty space along the bottom of the bathroom stalls she spotted a pair of black-on-black canvas sneakers that clearly belonged to someone standing on the other side of the last stall, in the space between it and the green-tiled wall.

“Hello?” she called out softly. “Are you okay?”

The echoes of her voice sounded metallic and distorted. When there was no response she crept tentatively forward and leaned around to see what was going on. Harriet gasped, eyes widening in alarm at what she saw. The boy – he must be in her grade, but he was so small and slim that he looked much younger – stood, or rather slumped, against the side of the bathroom stall, his eyes open but unseeing. The lower part of his face was obscured by the shadowy, amorphous form of a creature much like the one that Azrael had loosed on her the previous day in the upstairs hallway. It was clinging to the boy’s body with its long, wispy tentacles, its body slowly expanding and contracting, while beneath its translucent gray skin what looked like little clusters of glowing bubbles were gently pulsating with a ghastly violet light vaguely resembling the chemical phosphorescence of a glow stick.

A shudder ran through Harriet’s whole body. Her mind went back to those horrible moments, to the dreadful chill that had invaded her body when the creature had latched on to her and begun to feed. Gritting her teeth, she reached out to grab hold of the thing, meaning to pull it off the boy. When she did however she found that her hands passed right through its body, clutching nothing but empty air. She grunted, half in exasperation and half in pain as the cold, tingling sensation she remembered from before began to creep up her arms.

Taking a step back, Harriet’s hand went automatically to the pocket of her jeans where the little paper rose lay but it paused there, not quite touching it, her eyes darting nervously to the door through which she’d come. What was she supposed to do in a situation like this? Clearly the boy needed help – his breath was coming out in shallow wheezes that made her wince in sympathy just to hear them. But was she seriously considering bringing on the transformation right here in the middle of the boy’s bathroom? What if someone were to come in to use the toilet? What was she supposed to do then — shrug and say, “Sorry guys, guess I must have taken the wrong turn?”

As she stood there, paralyzed with indecision, Harriet’s eyes went back to those of the boy. They were wide and staring and utterly blank – the eyes of a human being on the verge of being totally lost. Shivering, she found herself recalling the words that Nuriel had spoken to her just before it disappeared:

You are a caring soul and your eyes have been opened to a danger which threatens people you care about, the angel had said. You have been given a gift which you are only beginning to understand, something which might otherwise have remained hidden from you for years to come. No one can hope to win in a fight against their own true nature. When the time comes and you are faced with the choice whether to live by that truth or betray it utterly, you will act.

Heaving a sigh of resignation, Harriet closed her fingers around the rose.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this, why not consider donating to my Kickstarter and help Magical Princess Harriet come into the world?

Announcing the Magical Princess Harriet Kickstarter!

Kickstarter Banner

I am proud to announce that the Kickstarter campaign for Magical Princess Harriet is finally underway!

If you haven’t been following this saga as it has developed, MPH is a Young Adult Fantasy novel about a Jewish middle school student named Harriet (neé Harris) Baumgartner who is charged with dealing with a family of Nephilim who are trying to take over her town, all while having to deal with her growing awareness that she was never meant to be a boy. Yes, that’s right – I wrote a novel that is basically a queer, Jewish version of a magical girl anime. So there.

You can find out more by visiting the Kickstarter page here. Watch the video, check out the characters, and please consider donating if you can!

Being A Woman

For me – and, I imagine, a lot of other trans women out there – the recent flurry of media attention around the appearance of Caitlyn Jenner in Vanity Fair has given rise to a whole complicated array of feelings, not the least of which may be longing for a time when everybody will finally stop talking about Caitlyn Jenner.

Partially, this is due to the way in which the discussion of Jenner’s transition in the media serves as a constant reminder of the painful dilemma which every trans woman with the audacity to want to live and be recognized as the gender she feels herself to be faces every day of her life: If she doesn’t “pass” – which is to say, essentially, if she doesn’t manage to live up to this society’s incredibly narrow and unforgiving standards of female attractiveness and feminine behavior enough to fly under the radar of those who would evaluate and pass judgment upon her femininity – then she is in constant danger of rejection, public scorn and even physical violence every time she walks out her front door. On the other hand, if she dresses or behaves in a way that comes across as too “stereotypically feminine,” or if she appears to take pleasure in any aspect of looking, acting or dressing in a feminine manner, then she opens herself to rejection and ridicule of another kind, this often coming from self-described feminists who, frankly, ought to know better.

If this dilemma sounds awfully familiar to cisgender women who at some point in their lives have had to deal with similar issues around body image and the toxic double standards of a society in which it is often just as unacceptable for women to be “too feminine” as it is for them to be “not feminine enough,” then it ought to give one pause, given that one of the many accusations which trans women find ourselves saddled with on a regular basis is precisely that we will never “count” as “real women” because we lack the “experiences” and “socialization” which constitute authentic female identity. Leaving aside the sheer blindness to cultural, racial, medical, economic and class differences inherent in the claim that that there is one unifying set of experiences which unambiguously establish one’s status as a woman, it is a source of constant amazement to me how comfortable certain people feel in making claims about the lived experience of others – especially when these claims are leveled for the purpose of invalidating the identities of an already marginalized group of people.

Frankly, I am tired of the debate about how to define womanhood – the standards in this debate are simply too prone to shift at a moment’s notice in any way necessary to support the preconceived notions of those for whom the invalidity of my identity is a foregone conclusion. Is it any wonder that trans people, faced with the constant, overwhelming pressure to justify themselves to a world which isn’t willing to accept them on any account, sometimes have recourse to simplistic explanations involving the brain or the notion of having been “born in the wrong body?”

The simple truth of the matter is that gender identity is an incredibly complicated phenomenon whose origins and nature have never been satisfactorily explained. Is gender physical? Neuro-chemical? Psychological? Cultural? Legal? Does it have its origins in our anatomy or our life experiences or in some mysterious realm of the spirit? If we are being truly honest with ourselves, the answer to all of these questions is an unqualified “maybe.” We simply don’t have the language to deal with something as complicated as identity with any degree of comprehensiveness. About the only concept that truly does it justice to gender identity is one which has sadly fallen out of favor in our hyper-materialist, over-medicalized society: the soul. It used to be that “a soul” was synonymous with “a person,” and the nature of a person’s soul was a deep, inner mystery shared between that person and the divine source from which it flowed. To presume to know another person’s soul required an incredible amount of time, patience and intimate closeness. In our efforts to reduce everything in the world to that which it is possible to analyze and critique in the space of an online journal article, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something along the way, something that would be tremendously useful in understanding gender.

In the absence of a clear understanding of everything that goes into making us who we are, all that I and people like me can do in the face of an unsympathetic world is to assert our experience – not some abstract, essentialist version of a unifying “male” or “female” experience, but the messy, concrete, lived experience of real people who know who we are, even if we can’t always show you the math of that equation in a way that would make sense to anyone but ourselves. And really, isn’t this inability to fully articulate the mystery of ourselves just another example of an experience with which all of us, no matter what our identity, can identify?

Space Invaders

A sketch by the author

I’ve been thinking a lot about space recently: About the ways it shapes our lives, about the ways access to space is granted or denied. Space is one of those things — like any form of privilege really — that you don’t really tend to notice unless you’ve experienced for yourself what it’s like to have the right to the space you need to live challenged or taken away. The country where I live has a lot to say on the subject of space, of who belongs where, and why. I suspect that no matter where you live, you could say the same.

What really got me thinking about the subject of space was all the work we’ve been doing at JCUA this summer around immigration reform. During the course of my time working for Or Tzedek, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of brilliant, passionate activists working for immigrants’ rights and to hear their stories and the stories of many others who have been impacted by the utterly shameful mess that is the United States’ immigration system. Listening to all these stories, it has sometimes been surprising how familiar they seem. The experience of living your life in limbo, of occupying a space that doesn’t officially “belong” to you for reasons too complex and personal to be understood by those who are deeply uncomfortable with your presence — this is something that speaks to the core of my own experience and motivates me to be an ally for undocumented immigrants in their struggle for recognition.

There’s a blessing I say regularly, twice each day, when I am taking the hormones that are slowly working to make my body feel more like home. I believe it was originally composed by Elliot Kukla, and it goes like this:

ברוך אתה יי אלקינו מלך העולם המעביר לעוברים

Blessed are you our God, ruler of the universe, who brings across those who cross over.

There is a lot packed into this one, deceptively simple, little sentence. For starters, there is the terminology it uses to refer to transitioning and to those who transition. עבר in Hebrew is a verbal root meaning “to cross.” Its associations in Judaism are complex: On the one hand, it can carry the sense of “crossing over a moral boundary line,” as for example in עבירה — “transgression.” On the other hand, the idea of “crossing over” is fundamental to the Jewish concept of redemption. The two great redemptive moments in the Hebrew Bible — being taken out of slavery in Egypt and being brought into the land of Cana’an — both involve the symbolically powerful act of crossing over a boundary represented by a body of water.

In using עבר to refer to a transgender person’s move to transition toward living the gender they identify as, Kukla seems to be making a rather radical statement about the place of trans experience in Judaism — removing it from עבירה, the rejected periphery of transgressive behavior, and placing it right smack dab in the redemptive center of the Jewish tradition. Margaret Moers Wenig, in her article “Spiritual Lessons I Have Learned From Transsexuals” (in Balancing on the Mechitza), goes even further perhaps when she attempts to determine a proper Jewish term for “transsexual” and eventually settles on the word עברי — which also happens to be the Hebrew word for Hebrew!

Both Kukla and Wenig make the point that the experience of crossing over into a new and more authentic life is central to both Jewish and transgender experience, and hence that these two identities are not as unrelated or even contradictory as some might assume. In the seemingly radical act of creating a blessing for gender transition, Kukla is merely asserting what those of us who are trans already know in our hearts — that, legal or not, accepted or not, sanctioned or not, the need to cross over is inscribed in the book of our lives, written in letters too deep to be effaced, by a hand greater than our own.

It is that same need — the need to cross over, to be recognized and counted, to come out of the shadows and into the light — that I recognize in the stories of the millions of undocumented immigrants who live among us, who share the same space and contribute to our society in a thousand unacknowledged ways, and who nevertheless are frequently denied even the most basic elements of human dignity. It is in the courage of undocumented youth who, at incredible personal risk, come out of the shadows to protest the injustice of deportations and the denial of legal protection from discrimination and exploitation. It is a need that, like all human needs, is grounded in the lived experience of real people who deserve to be seen and to be heard, not hidden behind a smokescreen of anxiety and misinformation erected by those who would use our fear of a largely imaginary “other” to cement their own power and influence.

Access to space is important — space to live and to grow, to share and to prosper. To be denied that necessary space is to be denied an important part of one’s humanity. This is something I believe all of us know, deep down, although the stories we tell ourselves of danger and scarcity sometimes make us forget that truer, deeper knowledge. As the debate in Congress over comprehensive immigration reform continues, and as we perhaps consider whether and how to add our voices to that debate, may we not lose sight of that fundamental need — and of the ways in which each of us, in our own manner, has been impelled by the circumstances of our lives, or our own nature, or by the mysterious hand of the Divine, to be crossers-over.