Divine Feminine and Trans-ness in Judaism

REMAPPING THE ROAD FROM SINAI: A conversation between Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Judith Plaskow

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....

— Elliot

Excerpted from Sh'ma December 1, 2007

Julia Watts-Belser, "Transing God/dess: Notes from the Borderlands"

During my final year of rabbinical school, I wrote a Jewish thealogy of Goddess, in which I articulated how Goddess as a whole and holy being was a viable Jewish option for understanding and encountering the Divine. I examined how theological rejection of Goddess as a Jewish possibility grows out of often-unexamined cultural patterns that demonize the feminine, the pagan, and the earth - and declare them separate from holiness and from God.....

Jewish experience of Goddess can and does live alongside our traditions of masculine God. Let me be clear: I choose the word Goddess, rather natn a myriad of other more palatable Jewish names for the divine feminine, because names like Shekhinah come with a cultural, theological heritage that emphasizes their partiality and their receptivity to the masculine. The Shekhina, as a friend of mine once said, is like God's feminine side.The word Goddess is more provocative. It speaks of a primal feminine reality. A divinity who is whole and integral unto Herself. Goddess is not easily assimilated. She has the power to shake us up.

But let me be equally clear in another direction: I am not interested in hearkening back to ancient Israelite traditions of YHWH and Asherah. I don't want God with a girlfriend, even if She is an awesome presence and holy source in Her own right. I believe, as do many Jews today, that there are myriad manifestations and expressions of divine reality - that the Holy has many faces and expresses itself in more ways than I or you will ever know. And I affirm the power and promise of Jewish understandings of divine ehad, a profound unity and vast, all-encompassing reality that runs through all existence.

To further complicate the picture: I'm not interested in replacing God with Goddess. Jewish theaologies of Goddess need not reject Jewish theologies of God. We need not pit Goddess language against God language, setting the feminine in competition with the masculine. The feminine complements and complicates experiences mediated through masculine symbols - as well as those expressed in neutral or nongendered forms.

... Just as human genders come in a variety of expressions, divine gender is not a stable, reified finality. Jewish tradition speaks of God in masculine, feminine, and nongendered ways: as Tzur (Rock) and HaMakom (The Place), alongside Melekh (King) and Av HaRahamim (Compassionate Father) as Hakhamah (Midwife), Shekhinah (Indwelling Presence) and Rahemana (Compassionate One). Rather than splitting off the feminine from the masculine and declaring them distinct and separate spheres, Jewish affirmations of divine unity and wholeness suggest that God is Goddess. A Goddess who is God who is Goddess.

In contemporary Jewish contexts, it has become commonplace to assert that God is beyond gender. Ultimately, I suspect, in a realm that is far removed from our own, gender is actually insignificant. Ehiyeh Asher Ehiheh - the ultimate divine force that will be whatever it will be - has neither a womb nor a penis to tangle our thoughts. But we live in a world in which gender matters. We live in a world scarred by the denial of of the feminine sacred, wounded by the loss of Goddess. Reclaiming symbols and metaphors of the divine feminine offers a powerful way to counter androcentric religious tendencies that affirm men as the sacred center and relegate women to the periphery. Opening ourselves and our communities to to Goddess experience can bring powerful spiritual transformation to contemporary Jewish life.

This transformation also pushes us beyond the binary dichotomy of Goddess and God, to an awareness of the Holy that turns gender inside out and sets it awhirl. opening ourselves and our communities to the transness of God/dess offers vital, imperative thealogical insights for the present day. First, connection with the transness of God/dess acknowledges the way in which our efforts to 'gender' the divine are both profoundly meaningful and inherently incomplete. The transgender community offers witness to the significance of gender in terms of expressing identity and mediating relationships - the fact that gender matters. At the same time the trans community also testifies to the reality that the binary gender system fails to capture the full range of human expression, and that our cultural investment in having people play by the rules of socially constructed 'normative' genders does a profound violence to the human spirit. I suspect it does the same to God.

Transing God/dess also offers profound resources for resisting the idolatry of grasping too tightly to any single image or idea of the Divine. A trans God/dess is characterized by fluidity, a shifting nature that refuses to resolve itself into a single manifestation or gender expression. Feminist theologians commonly point to a vitality of shifting images and multiple metaphors as a way of guarding against the idolatrous tendency to cling too firmly to any single mode of speaking about God. ... Goddess language and imagery can be as idolatrous as any other human language that claims to capture our experience of the Divine.

But transness, by its very nature, rejects the static single imagery characteristic of idolatry. Transness suggests that a fundamental characteristic of the Divine is an unwillingness to be pinned down to a single manifestation, to a single form, to a single image. The Divine draws us into an encounter with mystery, toward a presence who will never be the same twice. God/dess refuses to ever be fully and finally known. Divine vitality is manifest in His unfolding, in Hir boundary-breaking, in Her transformative Presence. May that transspirit bless you, as it has blessed me. May it bless us all.

Excerpted from Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community, 2010

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What are some of the the essential messages and questions raised by feminist theology?
  2. Looking at the dialog between Dr. Plaskow and Rabbi Kukla and the excerpt from Julia Watts-Belser, what additional dimensions and questions are raised through trans and intersex frameworks?
  3. What observations or questions would you add to their dialog?

Leiah Moser, "Speaking Tradition"

The truth is that in Judaism, the authority to speak has always been manufactured to cope with the matter at hand and then retroactively read back into the framework of what came before. Given the high degree of emphasis placed on continuity within Judaism, successful revolutionary groups (such as the sages of the Talmud) have always found some way to place themselves in the camp of traditional authority and paint their opponents as dangerous innovators. The value of this approach is that it has allowed us to creatively re-appropriate aspects of the tradition that might otherwise have faded into irrelevance. The danger is the tendency to forget that there are moments when the continuity of the tradition can only be preserved through a sincere and open-hearted discontinuity.

What I am concerned with is the difficulty of creating truly new language within Judaism, language capable of giving expression to a fuller range of human experience and bringing it within the bounds of the tradition. If the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai truly embraces God's Creation in its entirety, the realization of this ideal is conditional on our ability to make it speak in and through the life of the community, all of it, without exception. According to Rabbi Shim, tamud (study), is an essential part of revelation. As long as some voices are silent, unable, or unwilling to reveal the Torah that they alone are uniquely able to teach, this revelation can only be partial and fragmented. This understanding keeps me embedded even as I struggle to find myself within my tradition. I recognize that as much as I need my tradition and my community to help shape and define myself as an ethical and spiritual human being, so too do they need my own particular contribution in order to become more fully like the transcendent Torah, which shines forth from Sinai without ever fully revealing itself.

Excerpted from Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, & Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay, 2015

Questions for Discussion

  1. What, if anything, strikes you as radical or new in Leiah Moser's argument?
  2. What would it take for you to count yourself into the conversation of ongoing revelation of Torah? What might be a roadblock?
  3. What might be the unique Torah that you are here to reveal?

Texts to the Holy (Velveteen Rabbi Blog, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat)

Shechina is riding shotgun.
Her toenails are purple.

She's tapping at her smartphone
sending texts to the Holy.

What's it like, I ask her,
being apart? Do you wake up

melancholy and grateful
all at once, and fall asleep

thinking Shabbos can't come
soon enough, is always too short

you're always saying goodbye
and your own heart aches

to know he's hurting too?
And she looks at me

eyes kind as my grandmother
and timeless as the seas

and says, you tell Me, honey.
You tell Me.

When we observe mitzvot with whole heart and intention -- says the mystical tradition -- we unify divine immanence and divine transcendence, for a time.

In my deepest yearnings, can I imagine what it's like for one part of God to ache for another part?