I’m Rabbah Rona Matlow. I’m a retired Navy officer, disabled veteran, transgender woman and rabbi. I use she/her pronouns. This coming Monday, November 20, we will be observing the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual commemoration of transgender people who have lost their lives during the past year, whether due to suicide or homicide. This year has seen the most violence against transgender people on record. Particularly at risk are transgender women of color, due to the intersectionality of racial prejudice and transphobia.
To start with, I’d like to set the stage with some Trans 101. I know that many of you will know this already, but it’s always best, I think, in public speaking, to ensure that everyone knows what I’m talking about.
GLAAD, formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, defines Transgender (adj.), trans for short, as
An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.
The older term transsexual is used to describe one who has medically transitioned their gender. So, for instance, while I describe myself as transgender, I am technically transsexual, since I have received various medical treatments to transition.
Please note that one NEVER should ASK about what treatments a trans person has had.
If you are not sure what pronouns a person uses, use their name, or ask. That is appropriate.
Also note that transgender is an adjective. We do not say transgenders (plural noun) or transgendered (the passive form).
There are many other terms used for people who do not identify as cisgender, but for simplicity I am just using trans.
Queer is a term that is used particularly by younger people. It is an adjective for those not strictly hetero. It has been reclaimed by the LGBTQIA+ community from derogatory slurs. It is now used more broadly to represent anyone who is not cis/hetero/binary.
Cisgender – one whose gender identity matches sex assigned at birth.
Heterosexual – attracted to opposite binary sex/gender
Binary – male and female are only possible genders. Current understanding of gender changes this.
So, Genesis 1:27
וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקִים | אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם:
God created the Adam in God’s image; in God’s image God created the Adam, male AND female God created them.
Genesis Rabbah 8:1: Rabbi Yirmiah the son of Elazar said: when the Holy Blessed One created the first Adam; God created Adam Androgynous (Intersex). Thus it is written: male AND female God created them.
Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5: So, to tell of the greatness of the Holy Blessed ONE; when a person makes many coins from one mold and all are alike, and the Ruler of All Rulers, the Holy Blessing One, formed all people from the mold of the original Adam, not a single person is like another person.
As we see from these texts, and we know God has myriad characteristics, that humans have myriad characteristics as well. Thus from this, it is better to understand that gender is a spectrum in multi-dimensional space, rather than two discreet points, or points on a line.
If one identifies as cis/hetero/binary, then they are not queer, which is the umbrella term for LGBTQIA+. I use queer to simplify things because the acronym is in flux. It is important to note that transgender needs may not be the same as those for lesbians and gay men, or for Intersex people. But because all queer people are seen as marginalized compared to the cis/hetero/binary normative, we include all queer people as a group.
Some people will say that gender is purely biological. And transphobic people, of course, will say that your assigned sex at birth is the only gender you can have. There is much research to show that there are, in fact, biological aspects to gender identity. The ones many know are the 46th chromosome, where people who are XX are normally assigned female, and XY normally assigned male. I say normally because I know people of both karyotypes who were not assigned a birth sex that matched those chromosomes.
There are other biological factors as well, which go into determining gender. These can include structures in the pituitary gland, in the brain, as well as various genetic variations, too many to explore here.
Other people will tell you that gender is sociological. That gender roles are defined by society, and people are expected to comply with those roles, based on their birth sex.
In reality, gender identity is a combination of biological and sociological factors. Only a person themselves can tell you what gender they identify with. Medical science can determine certain biological markers of sex assigned at birth, but cannot identify with certainty what a persons identified gender is.
Along with gender identity is gender expression. This is different, in that it is how people present to others. This can include transsexuals, but it also includes people such as drag performers and cross dressers. As we will see in some Torah exploration later, it can also include queering of roles in society. So when we consider these texts, we will see a different perspective of them than is traditionally presented.
The other part of queer identity, along with gender, of course, is sexuality. These two terms can be stated quite simply. Gender is who you ARE. Sexuality is who you are WITH. Common wisdom says that these are unrelated. In my studies and experience, it’s not that simple.
So take for instance a butch lesbian. She may identify as a woman, yet if she is dressed in what is perceived as male clothes, she may also be considered to be expressing masculine gender. Thus you cannot tell, just by looking at this person, whether they are a butch lesbian, a non-binary, transmasculine person, or some other identity completely. The only way to know is to politely ask the person, in an appropriate setting, how they identify and how they should be addressed.
Next, I want to point out a few ways in which Bible may be studied. Many of you many have heard the term feminist criticism. This is an approach to reading Bible that looks at it from a feminist perspective. This is not to say that the text celebrates women or women’s experiences in Bible; rather it explores ways in which the text would tend to marginalize women.
So, in the end of Lekh L’kha, God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a child in a year. Abraham laughs, and God is okay with that. Yet at the beginning of Vayeira, when Sarah hears the prophecy of Isaac’s birth, she laughs as well. First note that Sarah did not get the prophecy herself, rather the angels in the form of men, told Abraham and Sarah overheard. Why couldn’t Sarah receive this prophecy? This question would be feminist criticism.
Secondly, note that God is happy when Abraham laughs, yet angry with Sarah when she laughs. A traditional reading would be that Sarah scoffed, and did not believe God, hence God saying “Is anything too difficult for God?” But a feminist critique would challenge why Sarah couldn’t get a prophecy, and why she is challenged, when Abraham is not.
I have studied feminist criticism and disability criticism in the past. I took a class in disability criticism at seminary, because I was developing disabilities from injuries I suffered in the US Navy. Thus this is a very important topic to me, and it continues to be very pertinent. Disability criticism explores ableist texts of Torah, and challenges them, in ways that feminist criticism explores sexist texts of Torah. Ableism is the point of view that marginalizes people with disabilities.
So an example of an ableist issue might be the fact that the Hebrew Bible places very high value on physical perfection. As we read the Joseph story in coming weeks, we will see that he is described as beautiful of appearance and form. Yet, when Moses went to Sinai, and God caused his skin to be radiant, Moses was forced to wear a mask when facing Israelites, because they were put off by his appearance, which could be seen as a disfigurement. This was the topic of my research when taking this class at Seminary.
I am currently studying queer and transgender criticism, given that I am a transgender woman rabbi. I teach frequently about transgender issues, including religious ones, so it is important that I focus study in this arena.
I mentioned intersectionality earlier. This theory developed in the study of women of color who experienced far higher rates of marginalization than might be expected, when considering women, and white people. Similar kinds of criticism can be seen when studying the texts we will be looking at. I am approaching them from transgender criticism, but they can also be seen as feminist criticism.
Now that we have set the stage with terms, we next need to get to what we are exploring tonight, which is some Torah text from this week’s Parasha, Toldot.
A couple notes here. All translations are my work, and when we encounter the name of God commonly translated as The Lord, I use the term HaShem, which means the name. People may recognize this as the orthodox traditional way of referring to God, but it has benefit in queer studies too. The term The Lord, and its Hebrew, Adonai, presume a gendered identity of God, that of male, which as we already saw, is not realistic. Further, it is a classist title, and anthropomorphizes God, that is, it assigns human traits to God. So by using a traditional title, I can avoid challenges to these alternative names.
One last note, before we get into the texts of interest, I am not saying that the people we will be exploring are binary transgender, e.g. male to female, but rather that their actions and presentations queer their gender and make these stories of interest.
So let’s first consider Genesis 25:22-3.
So let’s first consider Genesis 25:22-3.
(Gen 25:22-23) And the two sons grappled inside her, and she said, “if so, what is my purpose”, and she went to inquire of H’. H’ said to her, “two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall separate from within you, and the might of one shall pass to the other, and the older shall serve the younger.”
All the classical commentaries assign this as Rebecca receiving this through an intermediary, either a prophet or messenger. Why can’t the plain reading of the text be what it is? The text says that God spoke to Rebecca. From a feminist critique, we would see that it seems the traditionalists can’t stand the idea of God speaking privately to a woman. This is a violation of Yichud, the idea of a man being in a space alone with a married woman, not his wife. This is rife with problems from the feminist space, and it completely anthropomorphizes God.
But let’s look at it from a trans lens. God usually speaks to men, and not directly to women in Torah. So for a woman to receive a prophecy from God is a total queering of a gender role. Rebecca is doing something normally reserved for men. Thus her gender presentation could be read as a queer or trans presentation, in that she appears to take on a male role, in accordance with the traditional lens of the Torah.
To be honest, this is a little bit of a stretch, but the point is to engage in thought, and to look at the Torah with a different lens.
Now we are going to shift gears from Rebecca to Jacob. Everyone knows he was quite the ladies’ man, so to speak, after he left home. Rescuing Rachel at the well and opening it so she can water her flocks, marrying four women, having 13 children as told in Torah. Midrash says that every son was a twin with a sister, so that would have been 25 children. But let’s take a look at his early years.
(Gen 25: 27-8) The boys grew up and Esau was a hunter, a man of the field; Jacob was a simple man, who sat in tents. Isaac loved Esau because he could eat game, but Rebecca loves Jacob.
This text and ones that follow paint Jacob as a sort of a “mama’s boy”. The stereotype of such a person is sort of like the nebbish, weak and ineffectual. But is Jacob really so? Let’s consider a commentary:
Kli Yakar Because he (Esau) was not usually near his mother Rebecca did not love him; so she loved Jacob because he was (always) near his mother and her desire was for him.
Remember that in the beginning of the Isaac Rebecca story, Isaac loved Rebecca. Who does she love? Her son Jacob. Is this Oedipal? Is this a queer situation? We can’t really know, but this is an unusual situation to be sure. Part of queer studies includes alternate forms of sexuality. Kli Yakar says Rebecca’s desire was for Jacob, her son, not Isaac, her husband. So we might have an incestuous relationship. Certainly not something we want to accept, but it is there nonetheless. Queer study of Bible can be very unsettling.
So, let’s now consider another perspective. While it is certainly true that we see men in their tents on occasions, usually the men are out in the field, either being hunters/gatherers, tending their flocks, or tending their fields. Where are the women usually, in Bible? In their tents, tending to their children, perhaps milking the mother goats, and spinning wool. But except in rare occasions, we do not find women in action outside.
So Jacob being found sitting in tents is troubling to the classical rabbis. Their solution? He sat in the tents, read Academies, of Shem (Noah’s son) and Eber, Shem’s great grandson. This is a textual tool the rabbis use to explain problems with text. But the simple solution is that the young Jacob was not yet developed in masculinity, and by the lens of the Torah at the time had a feminine side. This is a trans/queer reading of the text, and again, makes you confront a difficult text in a different way.
As a transgender rabbi, in addition to writing trans/queer commentary on Bible, I am a communal activist for transgender people. I mentioned at the beginning, that we observe Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) every November 20. This year it comes this coming Monday. The list of transgender people lost to violence is very long this year. So as is the custom on TDOR, I would like to read this list now:[i]
This list comes from the Human Rights Campaign, www.HRC.org
- Mesha Caldwell, 41, a transgender woman of color Canton, Mississippi,
- Sean Hake, 23, a transgender man in Sharon, Pennsylvania,
- Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, 28, an American Indian woman who identified as transgender and two-spirit, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
- JoJo Striker, 23, a transgender woman of color, Toledo, Ohio,
- Tiara Richmond, also known as Keke Collier, 24, Chicago A transgender woman of color,
- Chyna Gibson, 31, a transgender woman of color.New Orleans
- Ciara McElveen, 26, a transgender woman of color, New Orleans
- Jaquarrius Holland, 18, Monroe, Louisiana, on February 19. transgender woman of color.
- Alphonza Watson, 38, Baltimore, Maryland, on March 22. transgender woman of color.
- Chay Reed, 28, a transgender woman of color, Miami.
- Kenneth Bostick, 59, Manhattan homeless transgender man
- Sherrell Faulkner, 46, a transgender woman of color Charlotte, North Carolina
- Kenne McFadden, 27, San Antonio River transgender woman of color.
- Kendra Marie Adams, 28, transgender woman of color.
- Ava Le'Ray Barrin, 17 Athens, Georgia transgender woman of color.
- Ebony Morgan, 28, Lynchburg, Virginia, transgender woman of color.
- TeeTee Dangerfield, 32, transgender woman of color Atlanta, Georgia.
- Gwynevere River Song, 26, Waxahachie, Texas, on August 12. “femandrogyne” bisexual
- Kiwi Herring, 30 transgender woman of color, killed by police during altercation with neighbor
- Kashmire Nazier Redd, 28, transgender man, killed by his partner.
- Derricka Banner, 26, Charlotte, North Carolina transgender woman of color.
- Scout Schultz, 21, killed by Georgia Tech campus police during a “mental breakdown” white transgender woman.
- Ally Steinfeld, 17, gender fluid teenager
- Stephanie Montez, 47 transgender woman, Latinx
- Candace Towns, 30, transgender woman of color. Macon Georgia.
This list is complete as of Thursday November 16. It only includes the United States though. Worldwide the total number is more than twice what we have here, but other than Brazil, the US is the most dangerous place for a transgender woman to live.
At this point, I would like to recite the Memorial Prayer for those we have lost. This comes from Ritual Well, and is found on my website at www.RabbahRona.us. I would ask that the congregation please rise.
אֵ-ל מָלֵא רַחֲמִים, שׁוֹכֵן בַּמְּרוֹמִים, הַמְצֵא מְנוּחָה נְכוֹנָה תחת כַּנְפֵי הַשְּׁכִינָה, בְּמַעֲלוֹת קְדוֹשִׁים וּטְהוֹרִים כְּזֹֽהַר הָרָקִֽיעַ מַאִירִים מַזְהִירִים, אֶת נִשְׁמוֹת הַאַמִּיצוֹת, הַטְרַנְסְגֶ'נְדֶרִיוֹת וֲהַאַנְדרוגִינוֹסִיוֹת, בְּנוֹת אָדָם ֹשֶעֲבְרוּ בֵּין גְדֵרוֹת הַמְגַדֶר בּכֹל מָקוֹם בֲּעוֹלָם אֲֹשֶר נִֹשְבְּרוּ וְנֱהָרגוּ וְנִרצֲחוּ וְנִדָחְפוּ לְהִתאֲבְדוּת בֹּשֶל שִֹנאַת חִינַם בְּלִיבָּם ֹשֶל הֲצַרִים. בְּגַן עֵֽדֶן תְּהֵא מְנוּחָתָן לָכֵן בַּֽעַל הָרַחֲמִים יַסְתִּירֵין בְּסֵֽתֶר כְּנָפָיו לְעוֹלָמִים, וְיִצְרוֹר בִּצְרוֹר הַחַיִּים אֶת נִשְׁמָתֵיהֶן, ה' הוּא נַחֲלָתָן, וְתָנַחנָה בְּשָׁלוֹם עַל מִשְׁכִּבוֹתֵהֶן. וְנֹאמַר אָמֵן.
G!d, full of compassion who dwells in the heights, find a fitting rest under the wings of the Shekhina, within the ascent of the holy and the pure, whose splendor shines and radiates as the firmament. May all of the fierce souls of the trans*gender people, human beings who transcended between the borders of gender in all the places of the world where they were shattered, murdered, destroyed, and pushed to suicide because a deep seeded hatred that was in the hearts of their oppressors. The Garden of Eden will be a resting place to them, Please! Source of Compassion, safeguard them forever beneath the safety of Your sheltering wings, and bind their souls with the chords of life. G!d is their heritage, they shall rest peacefully in their places, and let us say: Amen
And we will now recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. Rabbi Kinberg:
Thank you for listening to a very challenging exploration, and I’m looking to learning with many of you tomorrow morning. I will be happy to answer questions about tonight’s talk then.