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.

Why Fantasy?

As a rabbi, one might argue that my proper purview in life is things like God, Torah, Israel, Justice and other matters commonly held to be Serious Business. Why then, you might ask, am I devoting my time to something so frivolous as writing a fantasy novel for teens?

Inkedstraw-man_LII’m glad you asked, Mr. Rhetorical Straw Man! Here’s the deal: Throughout its illustrious history, the Fantasy genre has often been maligned as a form of escapism. Those who read fantasy, the argument goes, are unable to deal with reality and so escape into an imaginary world where they don’t have to deal with their problems. This argument is problematic for several reasons – first, and rather ironically, it paints reality itself in a really negative light. If reality were genuinely so bad that people had to resort to fantasy novels to escape from it, then it seems as if that would be a serious indictment of reality, not fantasy. Second, because fantasy fiction doesn’t really hold up as an effective means of escape – no matter how much I enjoy re-reading The Lord of the Rings for the 100th time, my problems are still going to be there when I put down the book. Third, and most importantly, the “fantasy as escape” argument tends to ignore the many ways in which fiction and reality interact with each other.

No work of fantasy, however creative, can ever separate itself completely from all connection with the lived reality of the author or the reader. While J. R. R. Tolkien may have celebrated fantasy as a form of “sub-creation,” a way in which human beings can emulate their Creator by giving birth to worlds of their own, he did not mean by this that the new worlds we create can ever be completely devoid of reference to our own world. Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable for the reader is the way it often has of taking some idea or issue from the world we live in and re-examining it through a different lens. The Lord of the Rings evokes the despair and heroism Tolkien witnessed serving in the trenches during World War I. Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time deals with issues of authoritarianism and the hazards of conformity that were supremely relevant when the book was published in 1962. Ursula K. Le Guinn deconstructs the patriarchal assumptions of most medieval fantasy in the later Wizard of Earthsea books, and thereby holds a mirror up to patriarchy in our own time. None of these classics of fantasy fiction make much sense when viewed in terms of “escapism” because each of them wrestles with the very real issues important to their authors in ways comparable to more “realistic” fiction.”

But the real importance of fantasy fiction comes into light not when we examine the impact reality has on fantasy, but that which fantasy has on reality. The notion of “reality” is a tricky one – it seems to presume something fixed and unchanging, an underlying substrate we can point to as the “real” as distinguished from the merely “imaginary.” But the nature of humanity is such that we tend to reshape our reality in accordance with the values and concepts that inform our lives. Technology, systems of government, economic relations, politics, art – all of these are means that humans employ to change the “given” reality around them into a form in keeping with their desires and preconceptions. In other words, the nature of the human imagination is such that the imaginary is constantly spilling over into the real and remaking it in its image.

Given this fundamental fact of human life, what we spend our time imagining may be just about the most important thing for us to consider. The realm of the imagination prefigures and ultimately determines the forms which can be assumed by the world around us, and so if we are to have any hope of changing this world for the better, it becomes vitally necessary to do the work of imagining what that world would be like and how it could be brought about. This is precisely the work that fantasy fiction is ideally suited for. Fantasy (along with its twin sibling, science fiction), is the conceptual test ground for the world we are in the process of constructing, and what that world is like will be ultimately determined by what we find it possible to imagine and what will remain literally “unimaginable.”

Furthermore, imagination is one of the ways in which we can reach out and grasp the ineffable, whether that is understood in terms of the theological/metaphysical underpinnings of reality or the barely-understood mysteries of our own identities. Growing up as a closeted transgender girl, for a great deal of my life my own truest self was something that existed solely in the realm of my own imagination. This wasn’t about escapism – on the contrary, my imagination was for me a place where I could hold those truths which were for me so true that at least for the time being there was no way they could find themselves into the unimaginable world in which I found myself. Fantasy can be an incredibly powerful way for queer and otherwise marginalized youth to connect to and explore their identity when the world around them gives no other space in which to do so. It can also be a tremendous way of forming contacts and relationships with other “dreamers,” thereby creating the social networks that will become the basis for bringing their dreams to life later on.

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?