ReMapping the Road from Sinai

December 1, 2007
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Jillian Cogan

Dear Judith,

When I was a teenager exploring Judaism, I read your book Standing Again at Sinai. What struck me most vividly was your insight that deep within Jewish thought a hierarchical rejection of difference exists that goes far beyond the marginalization of women. Inviting women to shape the future of Judaism, then, leads to fundamental theological shifts within the tradition, as it questions all the binary distinctions of Jewish life and law.

In the 17 years since you wrote that book, quite a lot has happened in the Jewish world. Women’s mounting participation in Judaism has continued to reshape its essence. At the same time transgender liberation movements have increasingly questioned gender itself and asked whether the categories male and female can (or should) be the basic way we divide up humanity.

Sometimes the goals of feminist and transgender thought appear to be at odds with each other. And yet I believe that to raise the voice of women and trans people within Judaism, we must begin with similar agendas and goals: recognition of marginalization, rejection of hierarchical binary thinking, and an attempt to create more space within the covenant for a variety of identities and embodiments.

How might women and trans people support each other in this project of renewing the tradition? How can we deconstruct the binary divide between men and women while working to lift the subjugated voice of women within Judaism?

You asked nearly two decades ago how the central categories of Jewish thought would be altered by women shaping Torah. What does Sinai look like to you now? How will the tradition be transformed as we begin to find ways for women, transgender, intersex people, and everyone else to also stand again at Sinai?

— Elliot Kukla

Dear Elliot,

When I reflect on Standing Again at Sinai and the work I have done since, I see the most fundamental theological question I raise as that of authority: Who has the authority to define the ongoing meaning of Judaism? Who has been included and who has been excluded from the conversations through which Jewish life takes on meaning? How do hitherto marginalized groups mobilize the authority of tradition and authorize ourselves to enter into the process of shaping the Jewish future?

I’m excited by the ways in which the entry of transgender and intersex persons into Jewish debates about gender and sexuality both highlights dimensions of the tradition that have long been ignored and expands on some central feminist insights. Feminists first drew a sharp distinction between sex and gender in order to make the point that neither the psychological and emotional characteristics of men and women nor their social roles are biologically or divinely ordained. Transgender activists argue that the sex/gender distinction is itself problematic and that the very notion of only two sexes is produced by the same set of social processes and power relations that create gender hierarchy.

The challenge as I see it is to formulate feminist and transgender issues in ways that draw connections between our struggles. I say this because I worry that the Jewish community has a short attention span! Despite women having reshaped Judaism in profound ways in the last decades, an enormous amount of work remains to be done. It is much more interesting and fun to put programming time and energy — and even funding — into the latest hot issue than to look yet again at the more intransigent aspects of sexism.

How then do you talk about transgender issues in ways that don’t “change the subject” from that of the continued subordination of women? And from my side, how do I talk about the continued subordination of women in ways that challenge the gender binary?

— Judith Plaskow

Dear Judith,

You ask how we can talk about transgender issues in ways that don’t “change the subject” from the continued subordination of women. For me, transgender issues are not a new “subject” at all but rather a continuation of the conversation about how gender-based oppression impacts the lives of all people whether we identify as women, transgender, intersex, gender queer, sissy boys, or something else.

Sexism affects trans people in multiple ways. Male-to-female transgender women are held to impossible and damaging misogynist ideals of beauty in order to be seen as “real” women. Female-to-male transgender men are often regarded as not “male enough,” unable to be seen for who they are or to wield male social power. Furthermore, binary hierarchical gender norms make the lives of people who live between male and female genders invisible.

Likewise, transphobia (the fear of gender variation in society) circumscribes women’s lives. Women continue to be oppressed not only because femininity is devalued but also because of the narrow boundaries that define “acceptable” female appearance and behavior.

I respect your desire to not get caught up in the latest hot issue, but it is important to be clear about what is at stake for my community in this conversation: transgender people face unemployment rates that hover around 80 percent; they experience significant obstacles when accessing healthcare, education, protection from violence, and other basic services. Mostly, this treatment stems from the belief that there are only two ways of being created in the image of God — male or female.

I’m curious about how the growing awareness of genders beyond male and female impacts your own theology. My generation is indebted to you for advancing feminist thinking. What tools can we use to continue to shift gender boundaries to include the liberation of people of all genders?

— Elliot

Dear Elliot,

Moving beyond the notion that there are only two genders will mean asking new questions of tradition and expanding the categories of Jewish thought in a way that builds on the feminist transformation of Judaism. For example, while contemporary Jews have trouble thinking beyond the gender binary, the rabbis of the past were quite aware of the existence of persons who did not fit into a dichotomized gender system. The tumtum and androgynos (hermaphrodite), who today we would label “intersexed” persons, are categories that appear many times in rabbinic literature. The rabbis defined the tumtum as an individual who is actually a man or a woman, but who appears to have no genital organs because his or her genital area is covered over at birth. They defined the androgynos as someone who has the genitals of both sexes, so that it is impossible to determine whether s/he is male or female. Although the fundamental approach of rabbinic texts is to use these categories as thought experiments that serve to clarify and bolster a rigid gender grid, contemporary Jews could seize the opening they provide to extend or undermine a binary understanding of gender and to question our own gender dimorphism.

The concept of transgender may also be a much more fruitful way to think about God than simply adding female images to the overwhelmingly male language of tradition. Using male and female imagery for God, as do some new prayerbooks and feminist liturgies, tends to reify and reinforce stereotypically masculine and feminine qualities. Imagining a transgender God builds on the feminist project of recovering the female aspects of God but highlights the shifting nature of the divine gender and the ultimately problematic nature of gender categories. It incorporates the idea of multiplicity and fluidity as well as insistence on the inadequacy of male metaphors.

Both the category of androgynous and the notion of a transgender God raise a major question. Should the goal of these changes, on both the theological and the communal levels, be the dissolution of gender or the multiplication of genders? I am not willing to surrender the category of woman while people called women continue to be discriminated against — but I would like to hold that category more lightly.

— Judith

Dear Judith,

It seems that only the multiplication of genders and not the dissolution of gender can serve the goals of both feminism and transgender activism.

A post-binary gender identity is only liberating for those of us who truly see ourselves as post-binary and feel trapped and invisible when held within the categories of male or female. Some transgender people identify wholly with their preferred gender. For example, a person might have been assigned male gender at birth and raised as a boy but now see herself as completely female. For that person the category of “woman” is the most liberating gender there is, as it reflects her inner sense of self.

Gender liberation is multifaceted. On the one hand, we must fight to create space within genders for more complex and diverse ways of being male or female. At the same time, we need to allow room between genders for post-binary identities that encompass more ways of being human.

I agree that we can draw upon classical Jewish texts — the tumtum and androgynos — as a resource in these goals. Although I concur that the rabbis’ primary approach to these gender-variant figures was to use them to bolster a rigid gender grid, other voices emerge from our tradition that offer different perspectives.

In the Mishna, Rabbi Yossi says that the androgynos is neither essentially male nor female but a “created being of its own.” This phrase is a classical legal term for exceptionality; it is an acknowledgement that not all of creation can be understood within binary systems. In my reading, it is also a theological statement. It is a proclamation that God creates diversity that is far too complex for humans to understand or ever fully categorize. There are parts of each of us that are uncontainable. All of us — whether we see ourselves within or between male and female genders — are uniquely “created beings of our own.” This idea allows for infinite gender identities that are all created in the image of God.

I continue to be inspired and encouraged by your ideas. How do you answer your own question? Do you seek to multiply or dissolve gender? I am captivated and deeply moved by your image of God as transgender. What sources from within Judaism might we draw upon to bring this image into our liturgy and theology?

— Elliot

Dear Elliot,

I agree entirely that, in the world in which we live, the multiplication of genders best serves feminist and transgender objectives. So long as social, political, economic, and religious power and resources continue to be distributed along gendered lines, I cannot imagine surrendering gender categories. Moreover, I don’t see how there can be real change in gendered power relations unless the multiple perspectives and insights that emerge out of women’s and transgender experiences are recognized and valued. Still, I understand gender — including the sense that it reflects one’s inner self — to be partly a creation of social institutions and practices. Therefore, to my mind, your goals of creating space within and between genders — goals I affirm — press toward the dissolution of gender. I want to see a society in which gender is simply one of numerous facets of identity and is far less salient than it is in ours. So for me, there is a fruitful tension between the idea of multiplying and dissolving genders.

The image of God as transgender is an attempt to capture this tension. The sources within Judaism that might be used to develop this image are largely the sources that feminists have been talking about for the last 40 years: the existence of female images, such as Shekhinah, that have been overlooked and left out of the liturgy; the natural images that suggest that God is beyond gender; the gender-crossing imagery in which a “male” God has the so-called feminine qualities of feeding and nurturance as well as the feminine divine that represents justice; and the new female and natural images that are part of many feminist liturgies. I also want to include the metaphoric shifts in the way the people of Israel are imagined in Jewish texts — most often as a male community but sometimes as a feminized community (to maintain a heterosexual position in relation to the deity).

The entry of women and of transgender people into Jewish leadership roles multiples the metaphoric potentialities for envisioning the relationship between God and Israel and thus the nature of God. There’s an analogy between undermining the gender binary by multiplying social genders and exploding

the notion of a male God by multiplying metaphors for God and our relationship with God. We can think of God as masculine, feminine, female, male, both, neither, in various combinations, and in terms that have nothing to do with gender, so that through multiplying, we dissolve.

— Judith

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Judith Plaskow, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College and a Jewish feminist theologian, and Rabbi Elliot Rose Kukla, a Chaplain Resident at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center and a transgender activist, writer, and educator, explore the potential and limits of a shared transgender and feminist movement.

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