Gender in the Image of God

Image result for transparent tv showLike all interesting television, there was a cutting edge premise.

In 2014 Jill Solloway produced a comedy drama for Amazon studios that went on to win multiple Golden Globe Awards. The series was based on her own experience of her father coming out as transgender. In the series, Transparent, the story was told of a Los Angeles Jewish family, the Pfeffermans, whose father – Mort – transitions to become Maura.

For those of you who have seen the series, you will know that many of the themes are distinctively Jewish, including a well-portrayed female rabbi, Holocaust switchbacks and a trip to Israel.  Also, many of the neuroses portrayed are Woody Allen style stereotypically Jewish – from food obsession to personal angst and guilt.

But the primary purpose of the series is not its Jewish story-line, but rather to explore ideas of gender identity through, as Jill Solloway worded it: “a wounded father being replaced by a blossoming femininity.”[1] In order to make sure that this was authentic as possible, Jill Solloway set about to create a transfirmative action program, hiring transgender individuals to write, work and consult on the show.

A Jewish transgender television series in 2014 might be conceived as cutting-edge to mainstream America, but from a Jewish viewpoint, this concept was not a radical endeavor.

Our Torah portion Vayera begins with Abraham sitting in his tent in the hot sun, when three strangers/angels wander by and Abraham hurries to offer them hospitality, enlisting his wife Sarah in this project. At the finish of the meal, the strangers ask where Sarah is, and they are told she is inside the Tent. The visitors then predict that, at this time next year, Sarah will bear a son. We are told in the Biblical text that Abraham and Sarah are old. Sarah beyond child-bearing years. And Sarah laughs. Abraham however questions Sarah’s mirth – for is anything beyond the power of God?[2]

The Talmud, in Yebamot, pursues an interesting tangent from this biblical text.[3] The rabbis seek to understand why our forefather and foremother are infertile.

Rabbi Ami… and this is where it gets interesting… Rabbi Ami suggests that Abraham and Sarah were Tumtumim, people whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured, and God turned them into male and female gender, specifically for the purpose of procreation.

Then the Talmud surprises us with a differing viewpoint… Rab Nachman quotes Rabbi Bar Avuh, and he declares that Sarah was an  Ay’lonit, an individual identified as female at birth, but who develops male characteristics at puberty, and hence is infertile. He offers as a proof-text the words of Genesis 11, “she had not child,” to indicate that she did not have a womb.

We tend to think of Abraham and Sarah, the original progenitors of our people, as a man and a woman colored by our growing up in a world that has seen binary gender as normative.

On our birth certificates the doctor declares us male or female. Forms ask us if we are masculine or feminine. We attend Camp Airy if we are a boy. Camp Louise if we are a girl. Genesis 1 declares that in the beginning God created Adam and Eve, male and female God created them. American society is greatly influenced by Christian values which understands gender as simply male or female.

Reuben Zellman tells the story of a College student walking down the street of a major U.S. city when a woman shouted out and began following the student down the street. “Hey,” she yelled. “I’m talking to you! Are you a man or a woman?” as she cut off the student’s path. “Just tell me what you are.” When the student did not respond, the woman said: “You’re a woman right? I knew it, you are a woman.” Finally, the student responded: “No.” “Well, fine, you’re a man then.” And again, the student responded: “No”. The woman began to scream “Which are you? Why won’t you tell me?” The student swallowed and said as evenly as they could: “I’m neither man nor woman. I am neither. I am both.” The woman, and her friends, began to laugh incredulously. “You’re both! You can’t be both.”[4]

You can’t be both.

President Trump and his Administration have taken such limited view of gender as binary. This stance has received much press in the last week. An article in The Guardian explains: “US officials have been pushing for the rewriting of General Assembly policy statements to remove what the administration argues is vague and politically correct language, reflecting what it sees as an “ideology” of treating gender as an individual choice rather than an unchangeable biological fact.”[5]

Our Jewish tradition from Mishnaic times, would disagree with this understanding of the existence of only binary gender. Our rabbis saw the world as being filled with gender diversity, defining at least six possible genders that they understood as present in this world.

Their first two categories are the traditional male and female many of you were raised with as normative. Zachar, or male, is a word derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. Nekevah, or female is based on the word for crevice and refers to the female anatomy.

But there is more diversity in gender. In the Mishna and the Talmud and Classical Midrash, a period spanning from the 1st through 16th centuries of the Common Era there are exactly 499 references to the Androgynos. This is a person with both male and female sexual characteristics. The first Androgynos was Adam in Genesis 2 – a human who then was split into two genders.

Already we have heard arguments over Abraham and Sarah’s gender. Rabbi Ami suggests that both our ancestors were Tumtumim. The Mishna, the Talmud, the Midrash and Jewish law codes have 516 references referring to people who are Tumtum.

Rab Nachman quotes Rabbi Bar Avuh suggests that Sarah is an Ay’lonit – a person who is female at birth but develops male characteristics at puberty and is infertile. Mishna, Talmud, Midrash and Law Codes speaks of such individuals 120 times.

Then there are Saris, a person who identifies as male at birth but develops female characteristics at purberty, and, may or may not be lacking a penis. According to 535 references in Mishna, Talmud, Midrash and Law codes one can be a natural Saris, or one may become one through human intervention.[6] Our rabbis even knew of transgender surgery!

It is clear in our texts, that Jewish tradition has historically understood that there is diversity of gender, even if in the more traditional communities the marriage of a man and a woman is seen as an ideal. The acknowledgement of a richness of gender is part of what Judaism sees as the reality of the world. No surprise then that a Jewish sitcom, Transparent, should be one that brings to the fore of American consciousness a discussion of gender diversity.

Caitlyn Jenner, once a male Olympic athlete, then a minor character in a reality TV show, and now a transgender rights advocate and author, wrote an opinion piece in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled: “I thought Trump would help trans people. I was wrong.” [7]

Caitlyn writes of her dashed hope to work within the Republican system on transgender rights. She speaks of her many trips to educate and lobby members of Congress, Washington policy makers and powerful influences.

Following two years of efforts, Caitlyn laments: “The recently leaked Department of Health and Human Services memo that suggests – preposterously and unscientifically – that the government ought to link gender to one’s genitalia at birth, is just one more example in a pattern of political attacks. One doesn’t need to look back far to witness the president assault our nation’s guardians with a ban on trans people serving in the military or assail our nation’s future with a roll back of Obama-era protections for trans schoolchildren.”[8]

Rightly, Caitlyn Jenner sees people denied humanity.

It is important to see humanity in all its diversity. Our rabbis saw this diversity. If writing today, they may have even been even more nuanced than the six or seven genders recognized in our text.

Last summer, when I attended the new 6 Points Jewish Arts Academy, each child who attended, each adult on staff, was asked what their preferred gender pronoun was. I am seeing this question asked more often in schools, at conferences, in houses of worship and at camps. Seeing people for who they are acknowledges and celebrates their humanity.

The impact of Jill Solloway’s TV show Transparent, and its exploration of multiplicity of gender identification, was and continues to be profound in the American societal context. From a Jewish point of view, it is not a cutting-edge premise, to acknowledge what is the reality of gender identification, in a TV show or in daily life.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us that every human being – each of us, is made, B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. God cannot be perceived as one gender, or another gender. God is beyond gender. God is all genders.

As a Jewish community, with a long historical understanding of a multiplicity in gender, we need to promote what is real and true. Like the rabbis before us, we must advocate for a world where people are people, defining themselves in a way that is comfortable for them to be authentic. Inspired by Jewish text and perspective, let us lobby for equal treatment and recognition under the law.

It is our mission to be part of tikkun, mending, to create a world, where all are honored, because we are all perfectly- made in the image of God.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.

 

 

[1] Prudom, Laura (July 12, 2014). “Amazon’s ‘Transparent’ Season 1 to Debut Late September

[2] Genesis 18

[3] Yevamot 64a, 64b

[4] http://transtorah.org/PDFs/Holiness_of_Twilight.pdf

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/24/trump-administration-gender-transgender-united-nations

[6] Terms for Gender Diversity in Classical Jewish Texts by Rabbi Elliot Kukla, 2006 in Transtorah.com

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/caitlyn-jenner-i-thought-trump-would-help-the-lgbtq-community-i-was-wrong/2018/10/25/3c4cd61e-d86a-11e8-83a2-d1c3da28d6b6_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3d4f5c76a3c7

[8] ibid

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