Many years ago, I was leading a birthright trip to Israel. Early on, one participant very nervously came to talk to me. She shared with me that she was a lesbian and she wasn’t sure how the other folks on the trip would be with that. Being pretty sure of our Reform Movement group, I encouraged her to be open if she wanted. She shared and thankfully, the whole gang was loving and supportive.
Then we arrived at the Kotel—the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. If you’ve stood before this holy place, then you know that it is physically divided. The men pray on the left side, and the women pray on the right side. And mixing is not allowed. As the group members each walked toward their side of the Wall, I noticed this same participant had tears streaming down her face.
I asked what was wrong? And as I tell you the rest of this story, I’m going to switch now to this person’s correct gender. He told me that in fact, he was not a lesbian, but rather, he was transgender—born into a female body, but identified as a man and was, in fact, in the process of transitioning. He was not only terrified to tell me that, but as he cried, he said to me: I wanted so badly to approach the holiest site of our people, but I don’t belong over there (gesturing to the right side), and nobody wants me over there (gesturing to the left). I will never forget the pain in his eyes, in his voice.
Jonah—that’s his name—Jonah explained to me it was the same painful experience—and often dangerous—for him every time he needed to simply use a restroom.
My eyes were open that day by Jonah’s struggle. And his courage.
Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. It’s a day each year that honors the memory of those killed in acts of anti-trans violence. Murdered either for identifying as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth, or for being gender non-conforming or gender-expansive, identifying as neither male or female.
As a community that believes that every single person is created in the image of God and as a home to transgender individuals that we know and love—we are profoundly diminished by such acts of violence, and remembering and honoring is the beginning of changing that story.
And it’s a rough story. Over the past several years, we have seen transgender people become even less safe. Transgender individuals have been written out of the application of anti-discrimination laws in a bid to say there is no such thing as transgender and just a few months ago, these callous policies were applied to healthcare, in the middle of a pandemic. Imagine if a law were passed stating that you don’t exist and that doctors are not required to care for you. Imagine how much less safe you might feel in this world.
As I’ve learned these things, I’ve thought about how terrifying this must feel to our transgender kids and our congregants, friends and neighbors.
And then I read this week’s Torah portion and it revealed something important for this conversation. Actually, it revealed a generational echo important for this conversation, so I want to take us first to an interaction between Sarah and Abraham. Sarah and Abraham enter into a territory that makes Abraham afraid—he’s worried that the king of that land will kill him in order to take Sarah as his own wife. So, to protect himself, Abraham asks Sarah to lie about her identity— to say that she is his sister, instead of his wife. Sarah concedes and hides who she really is. Ultimately, God intervenes, coming to the king in a dream to tell him that Sarah is actually Abraham’s wife. The king is deeply apologetic, and God says—basically—don’t sweat it. I knew you didn’t know her true identity, and so I didn’t allow you to touch her. But now—now that you know, God says, you MUST restore her and affirm who she actually is—or I will destroy you.
This is an important text for us to understand. There is great human cost to Sarah having to lie about who she really is. It leads to confusion, fear, and threats of death. It is literally dangerous, our tradition teaches us, to ask someone to hide who they are for the sake of another person’s fear or discomfort. And, once we know a person’s true identity, we find, we are not permitted to be a party to making them live as someone they are not.
Here, the situation is repaired for Sarah, but then it is repeated again for Rebekah and Isaac in this week’s Torah portion. This lesson about what is at stake in being able to embrace one’s own full identity is one we seem to have yet to learn.
So how, then, does this value weave itself into how Jewish tradition engages with the question of gender identity specifically? In so so many amazing ways! If that surprises you, you are probably not alone, but then let us be joyfully surprised together.
When God creates human beings, the text says: “And God created “adam” (the first human being) in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created him; male and female God created them.” There is a beautiful grammar discrepancy with this verse. Torah refers to God’s creation of one adam, as a “them,” both male and female. So midrash, composed in the 6th century, comes to explain that God creates this first human in God’s image and, indeed, as “androgynos”—a Greek rabbinic term used in Talmud meaning being both male and female.
As early as the 3rd century, the Mishnah explains that a person categorized as androgynos—is a bria bifnei atzmah—a created being unto itself. What does that mean? That this person is their own gender category—neither male nor female. Not an aberration, not someone strange. Just a person, who happens to be a reflection of God’s image.
Now, you might be thinking: Three genders in Jewish tradition? That cannot be right—I do NOT remember learning that in Hebrew school. And you’d be correct. There are not three genders in Jewish tradition. There are at least six genders in Jewish tradition. Each mentioned more than 100 times in classical Jewish texts.
The rabbis raise all kinds of questions about folks in these categories. Who can blow the shofar? Who can say the blessing after a meal? Who can marry whom? Why do the rabbis spend so much ink talking about all of this? Because they saw who was part of their community!
So they did what the rabbis did—they made laws. They did not, however (and notably so) make judgements. About who is real, who is worthy, or who is good.
We in our Western culture do talk about a gender binary—meaning we generally acknowledge two genders—male and female. But even our own Jewish tradition has for millennia painted a much richer and more expansive picture than that.
But transgender people today continue to be targeted for violence. So what can we do to be a community that embraces a full spectrum of gender identity and expression? We can make sure our spaces and language are welcoming to all genders. Like how our physical building has a gender-neutral bathroom and how we ask our b’nei mitzvah kids by what gender they wish to be called to the Torah. We can speak up when we hear anyone bullied for their gender identity. We can work toward laws that protect our transgender family. And we can keep educating ourselves. If there were terms I used tonight that you didn’t recognize—that’s great—let’s learn them together—and so much more. If all this makes you nervous because it’s new to you—okay—saying that out loud with a desire to open our hearts—that’s a beautiful place to begin. So that no one in our community feels they must hide who they really are.
Whether you are female or male or transgender, or gender-expansive, how beautifully created in the image of God you are. We see you. And we remember tonight all those beautiful souls who were taken from us just for being bria bifnei atzma, the unique creations that they are. Shabbat shalom.