From welcome to embrace: honoring transgender and bisexual Jews

Posted by on Jan 1, 2013

From welcome to embrace: honoring transgender and bisexual Jews


From welcome to embrace: honoring transgender and bisexual Jews

Rabbi Debra Kolodny


Torah’s declaration that we were created b’tzelem Elohim- in the image of G-d is a foundational text for human rights work. All of us, in our glorious diversity, were created intentionally in the image of the Holy Blessed One. Therefore, all must be accorded basic rights, respect and access to resources.


In and of itself this passage teaches that we must be kind, fair and honorable to everyone, whatever our skin color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, (etc.). But we can take its message much further for transgender and bisexual people.


Torah states: And Elohim created the earth being in G-d’s image, in the image of Elohim G-d created it, male and female, God created them.”


Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman is recorded as having said in Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, “When the Holy Blessed One created the first human, G-d created a hermaphrodite (fully male and female).” Rabbi Levi expands: “When the adam was created, G-d made adam with two body-fronts, and then sawed the creature in two, so that two bodies resulted, one for the male and one for the female.”


The original human was both male and female.


If this bi-gendered original human was in G-d’s image, obviously G-d is both male and female too. More likely G-d is female and male and everything outside of and in-between those categories.


Perhaps this strikes you as mundane, obvious and utterly un-noteworthy. It should! For centuries philosophers and sages have cautioned against anthropomorphizing G-d. Of course G-d transcends gender.


Yet the gender specific grammar of Hebrew has led to thousands of years of calling G-d “he,” imagining G-d as “he” and privileging those who use “he” as their pronoun. Mystics, feminists and those committed to radical inclusion have confronted this imagining with some success over the years.


Now we have the great fortune to expand our understanding of the nature of G-d and humanity even further. We can push the envelope all the way back to the original intent of Torah. Transgender, gender queer and bisexual theologians, ritualists, teachers, rabbis and advocates are leading the way. The teaching above is just the mundane tip of the iceberg.


Why is this important?


For we who define our lives around Torah’s teachings and her guidance, who seek solace, illumination, uplift and a path to G-d consciousness through her words, the opportunity to be in ever deeper, more authentic and more powerful relationship with her is beyond important.


Whether or not we are religious, for we who seek to create heaven on earth– where all feel loved, whole, seen and valued for their unique contribution, conversations that take us beyond our assumptions and our comfort zones and into the realm of expansive possibility and mystery is beyond important.


Every soul is here to teach its own Torah and every Torah is necessary. Our understanding of G-d, of Creation, of the central mitzvah, “and you will love your neighbor as yourself” is incomplete when bi/trans/gender queer Torah is ignored or marginalized.


If we are indeed created in the image of G-d, and we are serious about Jewish practice, deploying prayer, meditation, ritual, holy days, ethical development and mitzvoth as the path towards living into our most G-d seeking selves, aren’t we obligated to honor the Divine male and female within ourselves? And then, aren’t we compelled to learn about the variety of ways that each of us manifests this complex Divine consciousness? Isn’t that the only way to ensure that our spiritual work has integrity, our explorations are whole and we reach our fullest potential in relationship with Spirit?


Those who offer this insight and open these doors deserve far better than the cold shoulder many still receive, let alone the dismissal, hate, bullying and mocking that still tragically leads to suicide. We deserve far more than the tepid, uncomfortable welcome to join shuls, schools, organizations and friendship circles that is sadly all too common. Only when our wisdom, teaching and experience are celebrated can we Jews hope to manifest Isaiah’s vision of being a light to the nations.

Thank goodness this celebration is emerging. Seminaries are ordaining openly bisexual, transgender and gender queer rabbis who are speaking, writing and teaching. For the past dozen years organizations like Keshet and Nehirim have been including transgender and bisexual leaders, education and advocacy in all of their education and programming. May we who represent the tip of the iceberg foreshadow a sea change towards joyful celebration of all the myriad manifestations of G-d’s image, speedily and in our day.



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