It's Transgender Awareness Week (November 14 - 20), and people and organizations around the country are participating in events and outreach campaigns designed to raise the visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people. The week culminates this Friday, November 20, the Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDoR), an annual memorial to those who have been murdered as a result of transphobia.
Congregation Beth Sholom invites you to connect with Keshet, a national organization working for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Jews in Jewish life, to learn more about Transgender Awareness Week events and programming in the Bay Area. Also, mark your calendars for this Friday’s San Francisco Trans Day of Remembrance community gathering at the LGBT Community Center in San Francisco.
We at CBS feel strongly that LGBT and transgender causes are also Jewish issues. Our Jewish history is our Jewish present, and we know firsthand the challenges, suffering, and tragedy experienced by “the other,” the “stranger.” Year after year, we’re reminded that “the strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19: 33-34) A few short decades ago, American Jews were on the front line of the Civil Rights Movement, but as we’ve grown more comfortable with our (much improved) social station, we’ve grown somewhat complacent. Many of us struggle to live out the Leviticus mandate; it’s been reduced to a platitude, albeit one we take pride in even as we (too often) willfully insulate ourselves from or deny the suffering of so many “others” in our midst. Sadly, the transgender community is an excellent case in point.
In a short video produced by I AM: Trans People Speak, a project to raise awareness about the diversity that exists within transgender communities, a rabbinical student observes,
“As a Jewish educator, I am passionate about creating spaces for trans and queer Jews, if that’s in prayer, or educational spaces, or community. I think that right now, Jewish community is not a safe space, and there’s a lot of work we need to do. I am really looking forward to the day when a Jewish community does not need to create a safe space, it is a safe space; that Judaism in itself is a safe space for queer and gender-variant folks.”
Indeed, there are few "safe spaces" for transgender people today. Joanna Ware, Keshet's Boston Regional Director and the Lead organizer of Keshet's Jewish Guide to Marking Transgender Day of Remembrance, writes that transgender people face “cutting words, cold shoulders, exclusion, and discrimination, and sometimes…violence.”
With this daunting reality in mind, CBS encourages our Jewish community to do two things. First, learn more about transgender and gender non-conforming people and how synagogues and other Jewish institutions can take steps to make our Jewish communities more welcoming — indeed, embracing — of genderqueer identities. Second, turn to our tradition for insight about the complications of gender. The rabbis responsible for compiling the Mishnah identified not two, but six different gender categories, described in brief here.
Zachar: This term is derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. It is usually translated as "male” in English.
Nekevah: This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English.
Androgynos: A person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics.
Tumtum: A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured.
Ay’lonit: A person who is identified as “female” at birth, but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile.
Saris: A person who is identified as “male” at birth, but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking a penis. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam).
Although it’s undeniable that the rabbis privileged the zachar, the conventional male identity, over all others, it’s instructive to acknowledge that non-reproductive, ambiguous, and hybrid gender categories were not considered degenerate. They were merely less common. Additionally, one Mishnahic rabbi interpreted the foundational text of Torah in an especially compelling way.
“G-d created the adam [the first human being] in G-d’s own image; in the image of G-d He created him – male and female [G-d] created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
"Said Rabbi Jeremiah ben Elazar: 'When the Holy One, blessed be the One, created the first adam [human being],
[G-d] created him [an] ‘androgynos.’” (Midrash Rabbah 8:1)
While it may raise a few eyebrows among biblical literalists, Rabbi ben Elazar’s interpretation is in keeping with contemporary sociological notions of gender and sexuality. One’s sex refers to the individual’s biological and physiological characteristics, whereas gender refers to the behaviors, roles, expectations, and activities of that individual. Framed another way, sex refers to male and female, while gender refers to masculine and feminine. And sexuality is a continuum of attraction and behavior, not a binary, gay/straight assignment. In other words, we’re born with our sex, but our gender and sexuality are yet to be defined.
CBS embraces Rabbi ben Elazar's freeing, beautiful take on Bereshit -- G-d created us androgynous. Together, let us toast our multifaceted creation and celebrate gender difference and genderqueer identities in our community.