What costumes can reveal

Purim-mask1

 

I remember the first time I saw a boy in drag and found him beautiful. It was fall of my freshman year. My first boyfriend lived in the entry next to mine, and he dressed in my clothes for a dance party thrown in Currier Ballroom by the organization that was then called the BGLU. He fit easily into my purple suede miniskirt and blue silk shirt. I made up his face the way I had learned to make up my own. And when his transformation was complete, he was gorgeous.

That I found him equally attractive when he presented as a femme man, and when he presented as a butch woman, was revelatory for me. (Those phrases sound binaristic now, but that was the language we used then.) That was my first step toward recognizing that the qualities that draw me -- intelligence, kindness, musicality, integrity -- aren't gender-specific. My boyfriend dressed in a costume that hid his everyday identity, and seeing him in that guise taught me something about myself.

Purim, which begins tomorrow night, is a holiday of masks and costumes. Everywhere around the Jewish world, people will wear costumes and veils, masks and disguises. Some of our costumes will be silly, or funny. Some will be random. Some will enable us to show sides of ourselves we don't usually get to display. Regardless: the act of putting on a costume invites us to think about the masks we wear every day, and in turn about what it would feel like to set those masks aside.

We all wear masks in daily life. Maybe we hide our vulnerability. Maybe we hide our yearnings. Here in this environment most of us don't feel the need to hide our intelligence -- intellect is valued here -- but we may feel the need to hide our hearts. We may hide a love interest we fear is unrequited, or compassion we don't feel safe expressing aloud. We may hide our strength. We may hide emotions that we learned, in childhood, it wasn't safe for us to manifest or express: fear, or anger, or joy.

The hero of the Purim story is Esther, whose name shares a root with נסתר / nistar, hidden. When Esther enters the palace of Achashverosh, on Mordechai's advice she hides her Jewishness. It's a lie of omission. She just... doesn't mention that part of who she is. Until, of course, the time comes when the only way she can save her community is to come out as a Jew and hope that Achashverosh's attachment to her will extend far enough to save her people too. Esther's willingness to stop hiding saves the day.

There's another figure in the megillah of Esther who's hidden, and that's God. God doesn't appear in this book at all -- at least not overtly. God's name is never mentioned. But our mystics tell us that God isn't absent; only נסתר, hidden. In our lives, too, divine presence may be hidden. But if we search for divinity, we can experience God everywhere: not just in the spaces that look holy, like Shabbat services, but also in spaces that might appear secular or profane, like costume parties or  a drag ball.

God's hiddenness, coming out, and drag balls: this d'varling may not be in everyone's comfort zone. (Maybe it's the drag that's uncomfortable for you; maybe it's the God-language.) I want to sit with that -- not flinch from it, not hide it, but embrace it. Because to say that God can be נסתר (hidden) is to say that we find God where we least expect to... including in and through our own spiritual discomfort. 

What are the things you habitually feel the need to hide? What would it feel like to have the safety to be your whole self -- not hiding, not silenced, not compartmentalized, but bringing all of who you are to every moment of your life? What would it feel like to recognize that you are a reflection of the Holy One of Blessing, made in the image and the likeness of God, not despite the things you usually tend to hide but precisely and absolutely in all of who you are?

The Esther story reminds us that there's a time for hiding, and a time for revealing. May we continually keep learning more deeply who we are and who we're becoming: when we choose to conceal ourselves, and when we choose to try on different faces, and when we choose to reveal our splendor and our light. May we be safe -- physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually -- when we veil and when we unveil, this Purim and always. 

 

This is the d'varling I offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Williams College Jewish Association. 


Feminism then and now

Screen-Shot-2015-07-02-at-2.26.42-PM-130x174Someday I'll have time to write for Lilith magazine again. (Somehow between my congregation, our five year old, and ALEPH, I don't seem to pitch many articles to editors these days. Go figure.) But I'm honored to be quoted in the cover story for Lilith's Summer 2015 issue, Erica Brody's Confronting Generational Tensions to Build Our Badass Jewish Feminist Future.

Here's a taste:

Last year, I was invited to an Upper West Side seder in New York with several Jewish women who had, literally, stood shoulder to shoulder four decades ago and marched into the American fray for women’s rights, creating a distinctly American, Jewish, feminist space. Included in an effort to share this experience and space with younger women, I was humming a tune of gratitude — “Well done, Sister Second Wave!” — when I kicked off my boots and lined them up next to my heroines’ in the hallway.

It’s strange being a Generation Xer (ages 35–50 in 2015, if you go by Pew Research Center metrics), no longer the young guard, not yet the old guard, a small generation bookended by two mega ones: Baby Boomers and Millennials. I’d claimed the mantle of feminism as a 14-year-old purple-haired activist spewing Emma Goldman quotes, but it was only in my late 20s that I started thinking of myself as part of a long line of Jewish feminists, proud of their achievements, steeped in the criticisms, turning tides.

Ever since, from my perch — mainly behind a screen, as a writer, editor and strategist — I’d done my best to lift up progressive Jewish women’s voices, to build bridges. Yet for a long time, to be honest, I’d blocked out the white noise of tensions between generations of Jewish feminists. I tried extra hard when I was peppered with questions from some older feminists along the lines of Why aren’t you….? No one your age seems to care about….

My voice is one of 22 quoted in the article; we range in age from 18 to 76. It's an awesome piece -- go forth and read it online, and if you're moved by what you read, consider subscribing to the magazine or buying the current issue.


We have to build a better world than this

This post talks about violence against women. If that is likely to be triggering for you, please guard your own boundaries and read with care.

 

What can I say in response to the many awful things wrong in the world? The endless news ticker of atrocities both large and small, the many entirely legitimate reasons to be furious and to feel despair? This week my Twitter stream is peppered with posts about Gamergate and Jian Ghomeshi -- two currently-unfolding stories having to do with rape, assault, intimidation, and violence against women.

Violence against women -- from rape, to "doxxing," to other forms of silencing and intimidation -- is everywhere. We read about it in Torah (see On the silencing of Dinah) and we read about it in the news. I am trying to hold all women who have been victimized in my prayers. May they know healing and wholeness, safety and comfort, integrity of body and integrity of spirit. May they not be afraid.

It's harder for me to pray for the men who have committed these transgressions. I find myself thinking of the generation of Israelites who left Egypt and didn't make it to the promised land, their psyches too scarred by slavery to allow them the expansiveness of a new way of being. I wonder whether it's possible to redeem men who are so steeped in toxic entitlement that they would commit such acts.

And then I remind myself that ultimately forgiveness and consequences are in God's hands, not mine. (Thank God for that.) But I do have control over how I cultivate my own compassion and kindness. And I can do everything in my power to show the boys whom I teach, and the boy who I am raising, how to treat women with the respect due to one who is made b'tzelem Elokim, in the divine Image.

Pirkei Avot teaches that it's not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it. Creating a world where women can live without fear -- that's part of the work. We have to build a better world than this. Full disclosure: I'm not sure how. People hurt other people out of alienation, and I don't know how to heal that. I don't know how to fix a problem this systemic.

But I know that we have to try. That the world needs more kindness. That we all long to feel at-home and cherished for who we are. That Jewish tradition teaches us to cultivate hope in place of despair. It's not incumbent on us to finish the work, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it. Write, teach, help, listen, pray, mentor, be kind: what can you to do begin creating the world we need?

 

 

Resources:

 

 

 


Rabbi Haviva Ner-David on "women's mitzvot" and transcending gender binaries

Front-coverLast night I went to hear Rabbi Haviva Ner-David speak in Pittsfield at an event co-presented by Congregation Beth Israel (my shul), Knesset Israel, Hevreh, and and Rimon Center for Jewish Spirituality. Here's how we described the event on the flyers:

Rabba Haviva Ner-David is an author, pioneer in Jewish women’s post-denominational thinking, wife, and mother of seven living on Kibbutz Hanaton. She is also a dynamic speaker coming to share the experiences and thinking which led to her latest book: Chana’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing and Brightening (new from Ben Yehuda Press).

All genders are invited to join us for a talk followed by light refreshments and an opportunity to chat with the author and get books autographed.

I'd actually heard Rabbi Ner-David speak a few years ago at the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh conference Gathering the Waters -- I blogged about her remarks in the post The emerging mikveh movement in Israel. I've been a fan of her work for a long time, ever since I first read Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey Toward Traditional Rabbinic Ordination.

She began her remarks by explaining how the process of writing her first memoir led to the spiritual and intellectual inquiry of this second book. "Life on the Fringes was about my childhood growing up Modern Orthodox in New York," she explained, "and my struggles as a feminist with Orthodoxy and tradition, and my decision to study to become a rabbi -- but wanting to get Orthodox rabbinic ordination."

That first book is memoir mixed with halakhic interpretation (Jewish-legal analysis), and one of its main themes is is women's role in tradition. Hair covering, women studying Torah, taking on the obligations which only men are technically obligated to perform -- the "positive time-bound mitzvot." (I've written about those before: Time-bound, 2010.) It occurred to me, as I heard her speak, that the combination of memoir and halakhic interpretation makes me think of midrash aggadah and midrash halakha, the interweaving of narrative and legal interpretation which makes up so much of classical Jewish tradition.

She wrote in Life on the Fringes about tallit and tefillin -- things which (in her Modern Orthodox childhood) men did, and women didn't do. Chanah's Voice explores how she came to recognize that in focusing so strongly on claiming tallit and tefillin for herself, she had neglected the mitzvot which women are traditionally obligated to perform. "I didn't know when I started writing the book what I was going to find," she noted. "But I decided to spend that year struggling with these three mitzvot."

The three mitzvot which are traditionally considered womens' mitzvot are challah (taking challah -- when one bakes a certain amount of bread, one is supposed to take out a portion of the dough and set it aside for the priests, and since today we don't have priests, one sets it aside and burns it), niddah (after menstruation one counts a certain number of days and then immerses in a mikveh before engaging in sexual relations again) and hadlakat ha-ner (lighting shabbat candles.) Together they're known by the acronym ChaNaH, which is a nifty confluence because Chanah is the Biblical figure who is considered to have invented prayer.

"As a feminist, I had a lot of baggage around all three of these [mitzvot]," she admitted, and all the women in the room chuckled.

Continue reading "Rabbi Haviva Ner-David on "women's mitzvot" and transcending gender binaries" »


Thank You, God, for making me a woman

It is morning at the Guest House, a beautiful retreat center which describes its mission as "[creating] opportunities for transformational work and [providing] a nurturing environment for those seeking to develop human potential and enrich the world." I walk down to the Jewish prayer space, a library with a few couches and shelves of books, where chairs have been arranged in a circle and a papercut mizrach (the word means "east" -- it's a piece of art denoting the direction of Jerusalem) leans against one wall. I enfold myself in my rainbow silk tallit and wrap my arm and head, my strength and consciousness, in tefillin. And then I sit down to pray.

I forgot to bring a printed siddur, but that's okay, because I have a digital one. I don't use it often, but I like having it on my tablet and on my phone -- makes it easy to daven wherever I am! But the digital siddur has a few quirks to which I am unaccustomed. One of them is that it features the most traditional version of every prayer text, and that in turn means that as I'm davening the birchot ha-shachar, the morning blessings, I bump smack into "Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Source of all being, Who has not made me a woman." (And, of course, its companion blessing intended for women to say -- "Who has made me according to Your will.") The siddurim I typically use don't include either of those. In their stead is a single version -- "Who has made me in Your image" -- appropriate for all to recite, regardless of sex or gender expression.

As I encounter these words this morning, I wonder how the Muslim women here would respond to them. Already, on our first evening together, the small group I was facilitating entered into a free-flowing conversation about what women are and aren't traditionally encouraged (or permitted) to do in our traditions. We talked about how people read us as religious women -- how do people respond to a woman wearing hijab? a woman wearing a kippah? What do people project on us based on those signifiers? How are those two religious identifiers similar, and how are they different? How do we respond, as religious women, to places where our traditions have encoded patriarchy as normative? I think I know what rueful smiles I would see on the faces of (most of) my Jewish colleagues if this blessing came up in conversation. I suspect that the Muslim women here would empathize.

I've written before about reclaiming (and rewriting) the "Who has not made me a woman" blessing -- as "Who has made me a woman!" -- during menstruation. I return to that practice almost every month, when I catch myself thinking disparaging thoughts. ("oy, is it really time for this again?") I use the blessing in those moments to remind myself that this female body is sacred and holy and that I am grateful for its many possibilities -- including its capacity to bear and nurture life. When I use that blessing at that time, it's aspirational. The words are meant to remind me to cherish the body I have, even when it's inconvenient. But the rest of the time, I tend to forget that that old line of prayer even exists.

This morning, though, here at this retreat for Jewish and Muslim emerging religious leaders -- a retreat which this year, for the first time, was conceived and created as an explicitly all-female space -- I am struck by the sheer ridiculousness of that classical line of blessing. I know its historical context. I can cite the reasons why its authors thought it was entirely reasonable to thank God for not having been born female. But this morning when it pops up on my iPad I daven a blessing of gratitude to God for having made me a woman, and today, a woman surrounded by an exquisite, creative, and powerful ad hoc community of other religious women. Damn right I'm grateful to be a woman! And grateful to be able to learn from, and with, this extraordinary group. How blessed I am.

 

Deep thanks to the Henry Luce Foundation for their gracious support of this incredible retreat program.


All of us, bringing our all: a d'var Torah for Bo

Funny story: I went to prepare this Torah portion for services, and gravitated toward these verses. I had these thoughts. I thought, "hm, this seems familiar, have I written about this before?" but I searched my divrei Torah index and there was no d'var Torah on this theme. So I wrote this one. A few days later it occurred to me to go through my archives from last January post by post, and sure enough, in 5773 I wrote a d'var Torah for parashat Bo which works with these very same ideas. Whoops! (I've now edited that index to include last year's d'var Torah.) Anyway, I wrote a new one to offer at shul tomorrow (which will appear here on Sunday.) So here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week which I'm not going to use!

 

Last week we read about Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh, asking for permission to take their people into the wilderness to make offerings to Adonai. Pharaoh, not surprisingly, said no. God's response was the first several plagues.

In this week's Torah portion, the plagues continue. And for a moment, Pharaoh relents. "Go worship your God," he snaps to Moses and Aaron. "Who's going with you?"

Moses replies, "We will all go, with our youths and elders; we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds." The phrase "youths and elders" is a rhetorical figure of speech which uses two extremes to convey a totality. The text says "young and old," and we're meant to fill in "and everyone in between."

The Eskenazi and Weiss translation reads "We will all go, regardless of social station." Rich and poor and everyone in between. Those who had assimilated into Egyptian ways, and those who had retained strong Hebrew practices, and everyone in between. Those who had power, and those who were powerless, and everyone in between.

How powerful that in this moment, as Moses has first taken on the mantle of leading our people out of slavery, he insists that making offerings to Adonai is something which all the people must do.

The Hebrew word עבודה (avodah) means service, as in the service of sacrifices we once offered, now replaced by the service of the heart which is prayer. We will read soon in Torah about how the priestly system of sacrifice began in the wilderness, and then about the priestly apparatus which existed once the Temple is built. But here in this moment before the Exodus, Moses offers a glimpse of a radically egalitarian future in which all of us are called to be servants of the Most High.

Not just the priests. Not just the men. Not just those with social standing. All of us.

Continue reading "All of us, bringing our all: a d'var Torah for Bo" »


On the silencing of Dinah, and rape culture today

This post focuses on an act of Biblical rape, and on silencing and rape in our own world.
If that is likely to be triggering for you, please feel free to skip it.

 

That same night, he got up, took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, and crossed at a ford of the Jabbok. (Bereshit/Genesis 32:23, in this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach)

Looking-out-of-the-red-tent-renee-kahnI'll say more about Jacob's encounters on the banks of the Jabbok in my d'var Torah this coming Shabbat. (If you don't live locally and can't make it to services, never fear, I'll post it here on Sunday.) Today I'm focusing on a different aspect of the parsha. Note that Torah refers here to his eleven children, but we know that Jacob had twelve children at this point -- eleven boys, plus Dinah. Why, then, does Torah say eleven? Rashi explains, quoting Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) that Jacob hid Dinah in a box so that Esau would not see her and seek to marry her. Jacob was so afraid of his twin brother's animal appetites that he concealed Dinah in a coffin to keep her safe.

That may seem ironic when we reach the very next story: Dinah's encounter with a local man named Shechem, which some translations call seduction, though most translations name as rape. Afterwards, Torah tells us, Shechem falls in love with her, speaks tenderly to her, and sends his father Hamor to procure her as a wife. Later in Exodus 22:15 we will read that "If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to anyone and has sex with her, he must pay the customary bride price and marry her" -- perhaps a troubling practice, to our modern sensibilities, but apparently an accepted one in the ancient Near East. And that's exactly what Shechem does.

But Dinah's brothers, outraged by this act of violence against their sister, devise a plan. (Some have argued that they were more outraged by Shechem's non-Israelite status and by their sister's act of premarital intercourse than by the suggested marriage -- see Dinah: Bible at the Jewish Women's Archive.) They explain that they couldn't marry off their sister to a man who isn't circumcised. They say to Hamor that if every man in the village will agree to be circumcised, then they will let their sister marry into this community. Then, when every man in the village is incapacitated and healing from this elective surgery, the brothers slaughter all of them. They kill every male in the village, and take their wives and children as captives. They take all of the wealth and livestock which belonged to that village.

Throughout this narrative, Dinah never speaks once. Her voice is entirely absent from the black fire of our text.

Continue reading "On the silencing of Dinah, and rape culture today" »


Joy Ladin's Through the Door of Life

5021

Joy Ladin's extraordinary memoir Through the Door of LIfe: A Jewish Journey Between Genders begins with a short chapter I wish I could excerpt in full. Instead, I will link you to it; it was published in Zeek, as the essay A Blessing Over Progesterone. Here is how it begins:

Every day I say a blessing in Hebrew over my medication: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, who has kept us, preserved us, and brought us to this time.” That blessing is traditionally said at the beginnings of holidays, on the eating of new kinds of fruit, and at any joyous occasion at which Jews want to heighten their sense of gratitude by becoming mindful of the singularity of the moment and the precariousness of the lives that have brought us to it. It is not said on the taking of medication; it is specifically not to be said over daily events, for which there are different blessings; and it is never said over a disease.

The medications I take — progesterone tablets, which I swallow whole, and sweet circles of estrogen that I dissolve under my tongue — are synthetic versions of the powerful hormones that naturally define and regulate many of the physiological characteristics of normal female bodies. I don’t have a normal female body. Born without the capacity to produce more than trace amounts of female hormones, for decades my body instead has produced testosterone, masculinizing my face, bones, muscle, hair, and skin. Though there are few aspects of my physical form unravaged by testosterone’s effects, thanks to my medication, those effects are diminishing. For the first time in my life, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who has begun to resemble — me.

Every trans person has a coming-out story. Most of these stories involve struggle for acceptance -- from oneself and from others -- and often these stories are heartbreaking. Joy's struggle takes a very particular form: she dealt with the impact of her transition while teaching at the women's college of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodoxy. She writes:

Orthodox Judaism, like most traditional forms of religion, considers the things transsexuals do to fit our bodies to our souls to be sins. In my case, those sins included wearing women's clothing and taking hormones that destroyed my fertility. I was also violating customs and conceptions of gender that, while not mandated by Jewish law, are held to with religious conviction by many Orthodox Jews[.]

That conviction is so strong that Joy feared that even receiving tenure at Stern would not be enough to keep her in her job once she transitioned. And transition was necessary. "My gender identity crisis had destroyed my marriage, shattered my family, and turned me into an unwelcome stranger in my own home," she writes. Upon receiving tenure, she moved out of the home she had shared with her wife. "My children were grief stricken, angry, and baffled by the double blow of losing their happy family and the strange transformation of the father they loved."

When she explained to her dean that she was beginning the process of transition, she was forbidden from setting foot on campus. But she was allowed to return to teaching in 2008. After much negotiation (including which bathrooms she would be permitted to use), she returned to her life as an academic.

Finally, September arrived, and with it, my first happy day in a long time. After years of hiding and pretending, I was finally going to stand before my students and colleagues as the person -- the woman -- I knew myself to be. More important, after centuries of intolerance, an institution representing Orthodox Judaism was about to welcome an openly transgender employee...

My office was heaped with the same stacks of papers, the same teaching anthologies, but the name beside the door said "Dr. Joy Ladin." It was a miracle. I -- the real me -- was here, in plain sight. I walked through the halls, waiting for my transition to matter to someone. It didn't. Teachers rushed to and fro, students talked on cell phones or swayed back and forth in prayer. People had more important things to do than think about my gender.

Continue reading "Joy Ladin's Through the Door of Life" »