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Here’s a dilemma which I think a lot of modern liberal Jews have to face whenever we go to the Torah looking for wisdom: On the one hand, we find these beautiful, life-changing values of community, justice and faith in God that really speak to us on a fundamental level. On the other hand, we find these values situated within the framework of an ancient culture whose fundamental assumptions are often radically different from our own. In the best of times this can be challenging as we work to understand just what the text is saying in its own context, and what it could mean in our own. But sometimes it can be profoundly alienating, especially when those cultural assumptions run so profoundly counter to our own values that the message gets completely lost in translations.
I think most of us have some of these “sticking points” – themes or ideas in the Torah that profoundly unsettle us. They’re a natural consequence of living our lives in more than one civilization, or as philosopher Jeffrey Stout would put it, speaking more than one “moral language” fluently. Whenever we encounter one of these sticking points, it forces us to stop and wrestle mightily with the text. In this struggle we sometimes come out on top, emerging with some fresh insight to lead us on our way. Sometimes, however, it is all too much for us and we are forced to come to terms with the fact that even in our most sacred texts there are elements which simply defy our efforts to derive meaning from them.
I’m sure everyone’s sticking points are different, but for me one of the major ones comes up at the beginning of Parashat Shelach-Lecha, in which Moses sends out twelve spies to scout out the land and its people. There is certainly a lot to be learned from this story – lessons about courage, loyalty and the importance of not selling ourselves short. One of my favorite takes on the story, to be found in Midrash Rabah, imagines the spies in dialogue with God:
“And we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves,” the spies say, recalling the gigantic stature of the inhabitants of the land. The Holy Blessed One said: [This point] I would concede to you, except that you then said, “And so we appeared to them!” Do you claim to know how I made you look in their sight? Who can say that I didn’t make you appear as angels to them? (Num. Rabah 16:11)
There is certainly much that is beautiful and true that we can learn from this teaching, but every time I come to read this passage I stumble over a single, unavoidable fact that often tends to be glossed over – that the fundamental purpose of the mission being carried out by Joshua and Caleb and the ten other men is to spy out the land in preparation for invading it and slaughtering its inhabitants, men, women and children.
This legacy of violence and ethnic conflict is often celebrated or simply taken for granted in the tradition, at least as long as it’s the Israelites who are inflicting the violence. As someone who grew up in a world haunted by the specter of ethnic violence – in Bosnia, in Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Israel/Palestine and my own home, the United States – this aspect of the Torah’s worldview is a major sticking point for me, a stumbling block I just keep tripping over each time I return to the text.
While I was thinking about this, I happened to come across a teaching in Me’Or Einaim, a Torah commentary by Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl. In his discussion of this parsha, the Chernobyler Rebbe addresses the complicated relationship between knowledge and choice. God, whose knowledge of the universe is perfect and incontrovertible, is aware from before the beginning of creation what every decision and its outcome will be. And yet, as humans, we have the freedom to decide what to do and to choose between right and wrong. How can this be?
Drawing upon the tradition of Lurianic mysticism, the Rebbe tells a story of how before the creation of this world God created many worlds but destroyed them all, finding each one in turn to be unsatisfactory. But the shards of those rejected worlds didn’t simply vanish. They remained, mixed together with the stuff of this world. Thus, our world and everything in it is a mixture of good and evil, and our task as humans is to choose the good, sifting through the discarded shards of might-have-beens to find the sparks of divine light concealed within.
The sin of the spies, explains the Rebbe, was not that they observed something negative about the land God had promised to the Israelites. It was that , seeing the bad things mixed in with the good, they essentially washed their hands of the whole affair, rejecting it entirely, and forgetting that our critical task as Jews and as human beings is to sift through the bad in order to find the good.
Reading this, I found myself asking: If this is so for the ten spies, then why not also for me, the reader? Perhaps all these stumbling blocks and sticking points are there for a reason – because our task, as readers as in life, is to search through the shards of a broken world in search of meaning.
Do you feel chosen?
One of the issues Jews have been struggling to deal with since the dawn of the modern age is how to reconcile traditional Jewish teachings about chosenness with the Enlightenment ideals of equality and universalism. Since time immemorial Jews understood themselves to enjoy a unique relationship with God, based on the covenant established between God and the Jewish people. This point of view was all well and good in a time when religious claims to exclusivity were quite common and the disagreement tended not to be about whether chosenness made sense as a religious concept but about which religious community, the Jews or the Christians, were the true chosen people of God. As the Enlightenment dawned, however, a new set of ideas began to enter onto the European scene – ideas of pluralism and religious tolerance, of ethical values based on reason alone rather than revelation – and these ideas soon became so widespread that they could not help but have an impact on the Jewish community.
The dilemma faced by Jews was this: The Enlightenment values of universalism and tolerance seemed to hold out the possibility, virtually unimaginable in the pre-modern world, that Jews could be accepted into the wider European society and recognized as citizens on an equal footing with their non-Jewish neighbors. On the other hand, these ideals were difficult to reconcile with the idea that the Jews were a special people chosen by God to bear witness to the Torah and live in accordance with its laws. If we were a chosen people, then what about all the other people who weren’t chosen? So long as Jews l tended to live in largely self-regulating communities made up exclusively of other Jews, these questions didn’t seem particularly pressing. Once Jews began to enter into the broader society, to study, live and work alongside non-Jews, they became much more immediate and perplexing.
I won’t go into the history of the debate. Suffice it to say that a number of solutions have been proposed to this dilemma, but that it remains a relevant issue in our own time. It is certainly possible to say, in accordance with traditional Reconstructionist thinking, that the idea of chosenness has outlived its usefulness. And yet, in the absence of chosenness, we are left with the tricky question of why it is that we continue to practice Judaism. Is it really enough to say that Judaism is the religion of our ancestors, and that this in itself carries with it a certain kind of obligation? This position is hard to maintain in the modern world, especially in a society like that of the United States in which so many individuals change religious affiliations at least once in their lives. Furthermore, it does not address the experiences of Jewish converts, of whom there are a growing number, who elect to cast their lot with the Jewish people. As a Jew-by-choice with no known familial connection to Judaism, it is hard to frame my decision to convert in terms of “heritage” and “peoplehood.” These have become factors in my life, of course, but they were not there from the start. Something else was required to bring me through the doors of that Oklahoma synagogue back in the winter of 2007.
That “something else” is difficult to define, but one way of describing it might be “spiritual learning style.” The idea that students have different learning styles is now widely accepted in the world of education. For example, a student who learns visually may pick up a lot more from a helpful diagram than they ever could from reading a chapter in a book. I believe that these pedagogical learning styles have their parallels in the spiritual world as well. People, by virtue of some combination of natural inclination and upbringing, tend to be more inclined to connect spiritually in some ways than in others. Furthermore, just as some teachers tend to be better at engaging with certain learning styles than others, so too some religious traditions are better at engaging certain spiritual “types” than others. That these spiritual learning styles are at least partially learned is clear from the fact that so many people throughout history have tended to remain within the religious tradition of their birth. That they also have deep underpinnings in the psychological and even biological temperament of the individual is shown by the fact that there are so many individuals who, following their own mysterious inner calling, abandon the tradition they were raised in for a new one.
This language of “spiritual learning styles” is a helpful way for me to frame the ways in which I do and do not feel “chosen” as a Jew. As a child of the modern world, it is impossible for me to identify with the idea of chosenness as it has traditionally been understood. In my life I have encountered many different people from diverse religious backgrounds and found that each had their own invaluable Torah to share. It simply doesn’t make sense to me to try and establish a hierarchy when it comes to all these people’s relationships with God. At the same time, however, it is impossible to deny that the Torah of my adopted people calls out to my being in a way that feels uniquely right for me. In this way, I can say that while I do not feel that Jews or Judaism are uniquely chosen, I do feel strongly that I am uniquely chosen to be Jewish, as are all those others, converts and non-converts, with whom I share this community.
As all around this country some of us are preparing to stuff ourselves silly in honor of Thanksgiving, while others are heading out into the snowy streets once again, putting themselves in harm’s way to protest in support of the fairly simple idea that a police officer should not be able to gun a person down in the street simply because he is black. Meanwhile, I feel the need to talk a little bit about faith.
People talk about faith as if it means the same thing as belief. When someone tells you something which you have no independent way of verifying, you either believe them or you don’t, or else you choose to suspend belief until such time as more evidence comes along. Who we choose to believe, and for what reasons, is a desperately important question in a time when it is becoming clear that the testimony of any number of eyewitnesses isn’t enough to get a single police officer indicted so long as the they are black. Nevertheless, this question has very little to do with faith, because faith (אמונה) isn’t about belief, it’s about commitment to the truth we’ve witnessed with our own eyes.
Faith isn’t what happens when someone tells you something and you accept it as true without checking first. It’s what happens when you have an experience – a big, important experience – and the value of that experience is so high that you can’t simply let it go, even when you’re told to do just that. Instead you take it and hold on to it, enshrine it in your heart so it will be there with you throughout your life, a little flame of truth to be cherished and nourished with all your being despite the best efforts of the world to blow it out.
To have faith is to remain true – to your convictions, but also, to the authenticity of your own experience. It is no coincidence that in Jewish tradition Satan (or more accurately, the satan) is represented as a prosecuting attourney. For the role of the satan is precisely to challenge that fundamental faith in the importance and validity of our most important experiences. In the bible, as well as numerous Jewish texts, the satan is depicted sometimes as challenging the faith of humans in the goodness and power of G-d, but more often as challenging the faith of G-d in the goodness and worth of humanity, asking both us and G-d the pointed questions that, in our most vulnerable moments, may tempt us to go back on our word and deny the evidence of our own senses. It’s not a term of moral censure, it’s a job description. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t our job to do our best not to listen to what he says.
This is why faith demands the deepest and fullest commitment to our own perceptions, feelings and intuition. The position of faith is to reject the overwhelming flow of received narratives broadcast by the powerful and repeated by the morally lazy, to stand firm in the midst of the flood and say – that’s not how I see it. And that’s why I’m praying on this Thanksgiving day for you who are going out into the streets to defend yourselves and your communities from the authorities who seem determined to dehumanize you, that you be blessed with the faith you need to continue speaking your truth louder than the voices of the people whose job it is to shut you up. And for the rest of us, citizens of a nation that has so often broken faith with its communities of color, may we be willing to listen, and listen hard, to what they are saying.
Oh You my Love,
You whom our fear of love
And brutal callousness reduce
To a “God of the gaps,”
We need you now
Need perhaps those very gaps
So much more than ever
You whom we praise
For separating dark from light
The ground from water
The holy from the workaday
Can You not cleave us from ourselves
A little bit
A gap, a space
Enough to see
Just where our insides
Are taking us?
A gap, oh please,
My Love, between
Our origins and our actions
Between the angry churning
Of our bellies and
The workings of our minds
A gap between the words we say
And the ears of those we speak against
A gap between our better selves
And the evil urge
Between every bomb, every blade,
Every bullet, brick and rocket
And its intended target
Between our suffering
And the death of compassion
And if we somehow find our way
Through this madness that we’ve made
Of this, Your good Earth
Then we’ll see you on the other side
Of the gap
10 Things I Learned This Year At Philly Trans Health Conference:
- There’s a lot of ableism in the way I habitually speak and I need to spend some real time working on that.
- There are a remarkable number of different ways to spell “Aiden.”
- There are so many trans Jewish converts out there I’m surprised we didn’t get our own section in the PEW report.
- It turns out I like the way I look in a bathing suit.
- Sometimes the familiar is more scary than the unknown. (Thanks Hannah)
- People on the autism spectrum always have the best toys.
- As Janet Mock said with so much more eloquence, self care is great and all, but we’ve really got to take care of each other.
- Apparently I missed out on some great fan fiction during the 90’s.
- Convention center staff can be summoned merely by uttering their True Name.
- My name in ASL from now on is apparently this:
“Will you wait here, please?”
The young man at the security desk scurried off to consult with his superior, leaving my travelling companion and I looking at each other across our massive pile of luggage as if to say, “Well, here it comes.” There’s a certain sense of inevitability that follows you when you’re travelling as a transgender person, the understanding that if this checkpoint goes smoothly, there’s always the next … and the next. Travelling long distances is disorienting for anyone, but for me it isn’t simply a matter of the time zones separating my destination from my point of origin, but of what I have come to think of as gender zones – those ill-defined fields of perception and official recognition within which my social gender is liable to fluctuate wildly in ways I can neither predict nor clearly perceive.
Gender zones are a fact of my existence. I move through them constantly every moment of my life. No matter where I am or who I am with, I’m never entirely sure how I’m being perceived. Nevertheless, there are some times in my life when the feeling is more intense. These are moments (going through security while preparing to board an international flight, for example) when the need to present identification or provide an official account of myself forces a breach in the barrier between all my different selves — the public and the private, the internal and the external, who I am for myself, and who I am in the eyes of others, particularly strangers. Under the gaze of officialdom the waveform collapses and all the complexities of my identity are forced, however incoherently, to speak in one voice.
“Is something wrong?” I asked the rather beautiful woman in a severe ponytail and an airport security uniform who was walking in my direction with a look of mild concern on her face.
“There is a question about your passport,” she said a bit hesitantly, fumbling for the words in English with which to politely articulate the problem. I doubt I could ever have explained to her how much the effort meant to me, but she needn’t have bothered. I knew without looking what part of the page she was pointing to. “It says here…”
“Yes,” I said, trying to keep as much of the fatigue and exasperation from my voice as possible. I’d already been waiting at the airport for several hours to be able to check in. “I’m transgender. I consider myself to be a woman but my passport still says I’m male. I haven’t been able to get my documents changed yet.”
“Oh,” she appeared to consider this for a second. “Alright. Did you pack your bags yourself? Are you sure someone didn’t maybe give you something to hold for him? …”
The usual round of repetitive security questions finished, we moved on to get in line to get our boarding passes. I was craning my neck to see how many more people were in line ahead of us when a voice called out behind me.
At first it didn’t occur to me that we were the ones being called to. When I turned around it was the same woman from security. “I will give you the name of my superior. When you go through the baggage check, ask for her so that you will not have to explain about these things again.”
There’s a certain sense of inevitability that follows you when you’re travelling as a transgender person, the understanding that if this checkpoint goes smoothly, there’s always the next … and the next. But sometimes, at this one, something happens — something you can take with you, to help face all the checkpoints to come.
Once upon a time everything was one, vast body of water, flowing and surging with the wild energy of creation and destruction. Because there was nothing to hold anything apart from the mass, everything that came to be would cease to be as soon as it emerged. Or, because there was nothing separating one thing from another, nothing could be perceived for what it was. This state of matter without form, of being without existence, is called תהו ובהו (tohu va-vohu).
Then something happened –we could call that something “God”– and light became separated from darkness. In the light of this primal separation the waters became separated, one above and one below. Because separation implies difference, the two waters took on different characteristics, hitherto joined together, but now held apart. The great water above retained the character of light and nourishment, while the great water below retained the character of darkness and creation, and in between them the expanse of heaven.
Floating on the waters below is the land. It came into being when the waters below drew back, forming a place where they were *not*, and the land retains this character of negativity — it is watered by the moisture welling up from below, but it can continue to exist only so long as the waters below continue *not* to be where it *is*. At the same time, we and everything else that lives cannot exist without the flow of nourishing rain from the waters above, but if the expanse of heaven were to open up without restraint we would all be flooded into oblivion. Thus, we are all doubly dependent — and doubly threatened — on the waters that bracket our lives, forming and sustaning the space within which we are able to live.
Viewed in a certain way, God is the principle of the harmonious relationship that makes this precarious existence possible. Viewed in another way, God is the One who desires and mandates that this harmony should come into being. Either way, our task in this world is to build a house for God, a site wherein this harmony can be actualized. This site is the Temple. The Temple is built on a mountain — the meeting point between the earth and the heavens — and its foundations sink all the way down into the deepest waters below. Thus, while existing within the space we know and inhabit, it transcends this space, connecting us with what is above and below and knitting all three together into a whole that can only be described as Divine.
So long as the Temple is kept whole and free of defilement, the waters of heaven nourish us and the waters below the earth sustain us without overrunning their respective boundaries. If this divine channel is allowed to fall into disrepair, however, the balance is upset and we find ourselves at the mercy of a world whose forces we can neither predict or control.
This is one version of how the biblical authors imagined the world, but it can also be a way to think about ourselves and our relationship to the mysterious forces that shape our souls and give us the energy we need to be happy, healthy, spiritually awake human beings. Just like my ancient ancestors, I find myself standing on a ground that is really just a thin boundary separating everything I call “me” from what lies beyond. This “beyond” goes both ways. Internally, it is the complex muddle of emotions, dreams, spiritual insights and unconcious mental states that underly and inform my conscious self without being fully “of” it. Externally, it is the world in which I am bound up in a network of relationships that define my identity in ways I can influence but not necessarily control. Somewhere in between these two beyonds is where I have to build my Temple, working to establish a point of balance where I can be nourished and sustained without being utterly overwhelmed. This is the fundamental task of spiritual life.