Gender Diversity in the Image of God: Knowing Before Whom We Stand (Vayigash)

Posted on December 10, 2021

Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis
Temple Shir Tikva, Wayland, MA  •  December 10, 2021  •  7 Tevet 57
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Many of you joined us a few weeks ago for the talk we hosted by Dr. Jeremi Carswell, the Director of the GeMS (Gender Multispecialty Service) Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and her colleague, psychologist Kerry MacGregor, who coordinates GeMS’s Training Program.  Dr. Carswell, as many of you know, is a longtime, beloved member of our community here, and it is greatly to our community’s benefit that she and Dr. MacGregor were able to spend this time with us on a Sunday morning, speaking about the changing landscape of gender diversity in our time.  If you have not yet had the chance to see their presentation, please reach out to us in the Temple office, and one of us will be so glad to send you a link to the video of the event.

The time of change we are living in how has meant redefinitions for so many of us around how we see ourselves and our neighbors in the world. Twenty-one months ago, our way of living crashed to a halt. For some of us, that meant immediate isolation from the world and those we love. For others, it meant suddenly being forced to be up close with others all of the time. For professionals in the world of physical, emotional, and spiritual care, it meant a steep ramping up of caretaking of others. For many, it meant that the professional jobs we had were redefined or disappeared altogether.

It was within this landscape that more and more of our young people—children, teens, and young adults—began to find the strength within themselves to begin to talk about the words and identity markers that didn’t seem to fit them. Words that almost all of us use to describe our own identities and the identities of those around us:  I am a she, and you are a he. You are a boy and I am a girl. Those words may fit us well, like putting on a comfortable, stay-at-home-for-months-on-end sweatpants.  Or they may not.  But even if the word “woman” does feel to me like it fits me well, does saying that mean that I am entirely feminine?  Where is the language that embraces the interplay between yin and yang that all of us carry, in some balance or another?

English has its limits. Hebrew has even more. And yet, many of our young people are leading the way in helping us use new framing about the fact that gender is not only bifurcated, split in two, with female fully on one side, and male fully on the other.

 

It may seem to some like this is a new phenomenon. But, if it appears that way to us, it is only because our culture, traditions, and language have not made room for the range of what understanding ourselves through the lens of gender can more fully be.

Now, I am speaking as a rabbi and an ally, and in no way as an expert. I count on many of you here and beyond these walls to help correct and guide me and to fill in the gaps as needed. But I can share with you as a rabbi, as a student of Jewish text, that the idea that gender is only male or female and nothing more is not at all new. Ancient Greeks were aware of it. Many indigenous cultures of this continent have long been aware of it. And in the Talmud, nearly 2000 years ago, the ancient rabbis made reference to a variety of ways to understand gender. Though they, like most of us now, defaulted to the male-female dichotomy (zachar and n’keivah), they also made reference to four other categories of gender: androgynos, tumtum, aylonit, and saris. These categories do not map neatly onto the terms for gender that we are developing today, with our young people leading us on the way, but the fact is there that our ancestors—our Jewish ancestors; our rabbinic ancestors—knew that the world is not so easily divided, female and male.

And they didn’t only talk about this with regards to Jewish law.  There were rabbis all those centuries ago shaping the way we tell the Torah’s stories through their questions about gender. When the Torah says that God created the first human being in the image of God—in the image of God, who has no gender—Rabbi Yirmiyah ben Elazar said that that meant that that first human was both male and female at once (Bereishit Rabbah 8:1). When the Torah says in another place that the first woman was made from the rib of the man, R. Shmuel b. Nahmani pointed out that that word being translated as “rib” (tzela in Hebrew) is used elsewhere in Torah to mean an equal “side,” as in the sides of the tabernacle (Bereishit Rabbah 17:6), suggesting that neither our masculine nor feminine aspects should be subservient to the other.

If the ancient rabbis knew that gender is, perhaps, a little bit complicated, I am sure that we can understand that too. So much damage has been done in our world in the name of the statement that gender identity must be all one thing or the other—while our tradition teaches us again and again that every one of us is made b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), that every one of us can love and should be loved: loving each other as ourselves and loving each other as we love God. This means, I believe, that it is among our deepest obligations to give honor and respect to the ways that our children understand and define themselves around gender, and beyond—as we would hope that they will honor and respect others as well.

It is with this in mind that we are announcing the establishment in the months ahead of a Gender Diversity Inclusion Task Force here at TST.  I am fortunate to get to support our Trustee for Inclusion, Tara Sagor, in creating this task force and the intentional spaces it will require for our community as a whole to talk about what it means to nurture a sense of safety and belonging across any and all gender identities in our community. We know we have work to do here in service of our Shir Tikva mission of “fostering and strengthening an open, welcoming and inclusive Jewish community where everyone feels at home.”  It is time for us to work with deliberation and empathy in our ongoing commitment to maintaining a culture of support, safety, and acceptance, knowing, as we do, that the diversity of our membership makes us stronger and brings us ever more in line with our vision for what this world can and should be..

While the Task Force itself will work to guide our efforts, it will do so through creating opportunities for conversations that will contribute to our understanding of what is needed.  If you are interested in contributing to this taskforce, hearing more about future initiatives in this area, or feedback to share that will inform this process, we would love to hear from you. Please reach out to Tara or myself—or anyone else on staff or the task force (once it is announced) with whom you feel comfortable.

 

In this week’s Torah portion, Judah, many years after he led his brothers in betraying their youngest brother Joseph and selling him into slavery, has a chance to redeem himself—not knowing that he is in fact standing before Joseph, who stands disguised before him in a position of power. Having himself been through pain in his adult life, Judah expresses the anguish that he now knows a parent feels at the threat of the loss of a child. He does not know that he is asking forgiveness from Joseph, because he doesn’t know that that is the person before whom he stands.

For many years in the Jewish community, perhaps even within these walls, we have caused pain for many who could not trust that their gender identity belonged and would be honored within our space. We have the chance now to acknowledge and express our anguish about having been in circumstances that caused pain, to say to those in our community who may be feeling even now that they have to live in disguise about their gender: we are here, with empathy, as neighbors who love you as we love ourselves, for whatever ways you want to bring your gender identity more fully into this space.

Perhaps, as Joseph says to Judah and his brothers, the divine forces of this world have orchestrated things so that we at last can be together. Thank you to those of you already in this conversation, and to those of you who have already opened yourself to sharing or learning. You are our community’s guides as we continue to learn how to come together as the wholeness of identity that we are.