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.

The works of our hands

One of the fundamental ways in which the Torah conveys meaning is through juxtaposition – the deliberate placement of two pieces of text close to one another so that it becomes natural to read the one in the context of the other. This notion of meaning drawn from proximity was known to the rabbis, and they made it one of the basic principles of midrash, the uniquely rabbinic mode of scriptural interpretation. In our own time, as we become more aware of the historical process of the Hebrew Bible’s composition through the editing together of many pre-existing texts, we are once again struck by the ways in which juxtaposition plays an important role in the literary technique of the Bible’s editors as they stitched together the various legal and literary traditions of to form a greater whole.

In parashat ‘Ekev, two passages in particular strike me as interesting for the way in which they are placed side by side in such a way as to speak together:

The first passage is an injunction to the people of Israel not to forget, once they have been firmly established in their land, not to forget that it was not by their own might and virtue that they came to conquer and settle the land, but by the power of God who delivered them from Egypt, who led them through the wilderness, and who delivered the land’s former inhabitants into their hands.

The second passage is Moses’s retelling of the story of the golden calf. In this story Moses is gone for forty days and nights up on the mountain, fasting and praying in preparation for God to deliver the tablets of the covenant into his hands. In his absence, the people grow impatient and make themselves a golden calf to serve as an object of worship in Moses’s absence. God makes the people’s transgression known to Moses and he storms down the mountain to reprimand them, destroying the tablets in the process.

After both Moses and God have calmed down a bit, God once again gives Moses the tablets of the law – but this time, in a different way. Rather than simply giving Moses the tablets ready-made, God instructs him to carve the tablets himself which God will inscribe, and furthermore to build an ark to contain them.

The message I draw from these two passages is this: that though it is certainly important to remember that it is not by our own power alone that the healing of the world can be accomplished, nevertheless true transformation cannot take place without the involvement and participation of those who are to be the beneficiaries of the change.

In the story of the golden calf, both of the objects of veneration, the original tablets and the golden idol, were doomed to destruction from the start – the calf because it was the work of the people without the participation of God, and the tablets because they were the work of God without the participation of the people. It is only by the coming together of the two, working together toward a common goal of sanctification, that a lasting and truly sacred home for the laws can be built.

In the same way, as we work for social change in the world, we must remember that justice is never simply handed down from on high, nor can it ever be the sole possession of a single individual or group within society. Rather, real change is built by many different hands working together, each contributing what they can to the common goal. And if, as the Torah tells us, it is not by “my own power and the might of my own hand” that justice is forged, neither can it happen without the contribution that we ourselves bring.