My Drash from Transgender Remembrance Shabbat:
I came to Judaism alongside coming into my trans* and bisexual status. I had been the daughter of a Southern Baptist preacher before he left the Southern Baptist Convention to join the Unity church. When I first discovered that religion, gender and sexuality were not a fixed point, it was in my early teens when my paternal grandmother was revealed to be Jewish, about the same time I discovered that my best friend’s step-father was transitioning to become a woman and one of my classmates came out as bisexual. Up until that point in my life, everything seemed set out before me as I traversed the world with G! d right beside, there were no outlets for any of my thoughts and feelings until I found my home in the liminal space.
Not only had I always felt a difference in my soul all the years of my life, but in my body as well, perhaps these things were the reason that I felt so out-of-place. Outside of the norm for my family, my friends, my communities, my body was on a Jewish, bisexual and trans* male trajectory. In Jewish tradition there is a term called beyn ha-shemashot – literally “between the suns”. This “twilight” is defined in the Talmud as neither day nor night. Twilight is that liminal time before the three stars shine in the heavens when boundaries are not delineated. In a reading from Pirkei Avot, or the Chapters of the Sages, there is an expectation of miracles to happen when the twilight is about. “Ten things were created on the eve of [first] Shabbat at twilight. These are they: the mouth of the earth [where it swallowed Korach]; the mouth of the well [of Miriam, that provided water for the Israelites in the desert]; the mouth of the donkey [Balaam’s]; the rainbow; the manna; the staff [Moses’]…” etc.
I have since identified with the twilight in the way that my religion, gender, and my sexuality have always been in transition. There will never be a time in my life going forward when my body, or what I do with it, is considered “normal” by societal standards. As all of us change and our bodies become aged and their youthful appearance fades, we will all have the issues of not feeling like the norm. Trans* people especially have a keen insight into the body as a non-standard vehicle. Our tires may crack and our paint job dull, but we are all on this journey together as humans.
In this week’s Parshat we come up across the angel who struggles with Yaakov from night to dawn (another form of twilight). “Now Yaakov was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the rise of dawn. When [the man] saw that he could not overcome him, he struck Yaakov’s hip-socket, so that Yaakov’s hip was dislodged from the socket as [the man] wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go; dawn is breaking!” But [Yaakov] said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me!” The other said to him, “What is your name?” and he said “Yaakov.” “No more shall you be called Yaakov, but Israel,” said the other, “for you have struggled with G-d and with human beings, and you have prevailed. - Breishit (Genesis) 32:25-29” This powerful image is one that sticks in my head. We have all wrestled with our own health, our bodies and our minds in one way of another. This angel is creating a new identity for Yaakov, for Israel, and we as trans*, bisexual, lesbian and gay Jews or blessed in other ways in our various struggles are also creating new identities constantly from those struggles. Can these struggles that we go through in our day-to-day be joined and aided by others.
In the book In Living Colour, pp 113-139, in the chapter "Liberation as Pastoral Praxis," Emmanuel Y. Lartey speaks about the Liberation Theology as a catalyst, building movements upon movements. Liberation Theology as a means of pastoral care across the Jewish, bisexual and trans* spheres interests me as a spiritual home. The idea that one must first, as a preliminary state, immerse oneself into a community and be committed to ending the oppression felt by that community is palpable. This ideal of immersion is an essential part of the liberation that seats us in the social context of that particular community, but what if one straddles communities? At times I feel torn between struggles in my various communities. Which one should I immerse myself in to liberate myself and others from their oppression, is there a correct answer?
In Created by God: Pastoral Care for All God's People, Peggy Way points out that pastoral care and Theology are both about understanding the human condition. In this way here is an intersectionality that allows for understanding ones fellow and ones connection to G!d in a real and personal way. My connection to G!d, has morphed over the years, beginning with my doubt that G!d ever existed, and ending with my firm faith that G!d is in action continually throughout my life. Compartmentalizing in not an option. I cannot simply take off my gender, sexuality and religiosity and hang them up in turn. Pastoral care and Theology are not parallel paths to human nature, they are intertwined and one feeds the other. Without Theology of some sort or another there could be no pastoral care. Wouldn’t it be lovely if all of us in our various identities could create a community of care, where we all aided in others struggles?
Hospitality and empathy play another fundamental role in Judaism and the pastoral care process. From the time of Abraham and Sarah, people have welcomed others into the community, and empathized with their pain. In Parshat Vayera a few weeks ago, we were introduced to the idea of Hachnasat Orchim, or Welcoming Guests, when Abraham ran out of his tent to greet the three strangers. “Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, "My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch you a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on--seeing that you have come your servant's way.” In some commentaries I have heard that his tent was open on all sides, so that he could greet everyone that came across his caravan in this way. This welcoming gesture of running out to greet his guests is one of his, and our nature. Abraham embodies Hachnasat Orchim in his hospitality, for all people, even the stranger.
Abraham was a comfortable man, he didn’t need to prostrate himself and run out to welcome these men, yet he did. And out of his welcoming gesture of hospitality Sarah got the promise of a son. If every day I were able to run out to meet the stranger in my life, I would be a happy person. The same passage speaks to Abraham’s empathy for the stranger, as he bargains with G!d for the lives of the people of Sodom, asking that if just ten worthy men are found that G!d not destroy the city. There is a caring nature within us all, which if accessed helps us wish only the best for our fellow humans. Empathy is a difficult task. The expansion to include another’s story is an immense undertaking, which needs to be done for the other to truly feel heard. These are the ways that really help us feel the pain and joy of others in a deep and meaningful way.
Hospitality, Empathy and being someone living my life in that liminal twilight space in place and time are all aspects that I bring into my own pastoral care pursuits. And in turn, the people whom I have listened to, and really heard their stories, have also touched me with their humanity and beauty. This is not to say that all the stories that I hear are good and kind, but we have to take everyone’s stories of their own humanity into ourselves and bear their struggle for a time to connect with what they are saying. As a twilight person, I see myself as a bridge builder, living in the liminal space allows for me to see and hear many positions and hold space for those on the fringes and those in the inner circles.
On this Trans* Remembrance Shabbat we are reminded of the 40 plus people, mostly trans* women of color, who have lost their lives to anti-trans violence, and with the recent attack on an agendered youth in Oakland, and others in the East Bay, these attacks are again so close to our lives here. However, I cannot give up on empathy as a remedy for what ails us, we are all capable of deep empathy, and respect for the other. At the Graduate Theological Union, I have created real connections with people of all faiths who are very much allies in the struggles of the LGBTIQQ community. In my pastoral care class, especially the people who I have met have all been working toward a day when we will not have to have these services as a remembrance of any person who has passed on due to violence.
It is human nature to want to cling to what we know, but having empathy helps us to let go and hear, see, and feel what the other is giving us, their story. Opening our hearts and taking in stories from the other is like working out for the soul, flexing that empathy. Each time I take on another story about someone’s life or pain, I am transformed into a part of their own spirit. As humans we need these authentic connections, they are essential for both liberation theology, and for my twilight theology of liminal spaces. Without taking the step to truly see the person that you are speaking with, to feel their pain, to draw their story out and immerse yourself in their worldview then there is no real healing of the body and soul. In this way we can truly merge all of our wrestling and struggling and hold down that angel until they bless all of humanity, not just one aspect.