Twilight Journeys: The Torah isn’t so clear on gender divisions after all

Twilight Journeys: The Torah isn’t so clear on gender divisions after all

The third instalment of The Ponderings of a Transgender Jew, a new blog by Surat Knan who is a female-to-male (ftm) transgender person on a transitioning journey. Click here for previous instalments

  • Blog 3: In the Image of God (Part II)

The Rabbi’s Rabbi says that Bar Mitzvahs aren’t for cats (tututut). 

I ask him what’s the difference between a human and a cat. 

He replies that God made man in his own image. 

I ask him to show me a picture of God.’ (The Rabbi’s Cat, Joann Sfar)

Surat Rathgeber Knan. Photo: Ajamu
Surat Rathgeber Knan. Photo: Ajamu

‘Laptop? Yes. Any liquids? No. Anything metallic in your pockets? No. Ok, over there please!’

The female officer appears uninterested, but her male colleague on the other side of the metal detector inspects me, nods and I walk through. I smile. Proudly. I’m pretty sure I passed as male. Bleep. He steps toward me. Panic sets in: what if he body searches me now? I must have looked mortified; the officer re-directs me toward the full body scanner.  I step in.

After a 14-hour flight via Dubai, squashed between two rather corpulent Australians, and now hurriedly changing planes, I wasn’t in the mood for this. I was on my way to the AIDS 2014 Conference in Melbourne to present a paper on faith & sexuality.

‘Arms up!’ the officer prompts me. The screen in front of me not only shows my transparent, naked to the bone self, but also starts flashing ‘FEMALE’ in bright red. The male officer looks far more bewildered than I just did a minute ago.

He snaps at me: ’Passport, please!’ A few seconds later, all is fine for them, my passport says female. I get ushered on. For me, nothing is fine. I walk away feeling a mixture of emotions: anger, embarrassment and despair.

The airport body scanners look straight through to your naked body
The airport body scanners look straight through to your naked body

How can such detectors be permitted? I appreciate in the age of terror we need to secure our borders and ensure safe travel. But stripping people down to the bone, visually? No wonder there has been such a controversy about these machines. Is this not totally against human rights?

And, what will I do when my passport status changes to ‘male’? Does this mean if I don’t have FULL gender reassignment surgery, I will be in trouble every time I catch a flight? What would happen if I were to travel to a country that is less open-minded?  Would I be questioned, ridiculed, or even detained?

Living in the twilight zone is not trouble-free. 

Where did it start? I have always loved Genesis. As a child, reading the creation story was just like reading a swanky extravaganza; reminiscent of Ende’s The NeverEnding Story.

Well, I’ve never believed for one minute that Genesis Chapter 2 meant that women were inferior to men just because the first woman appears to have been created out of a man’s rib. In actual fact, on some level, I used to sympathise and identify with Adam, this lonesome being who wanders around the Garden of Eden communicating with animals and not being bothered about gender binaries.

And, eventually, this earth being breaks open to create another being. I must have instinctively felt that this resonated with my ‘other me’, the ‘other-gendered’ me, the little tomboy, who was at some point in time ready to break out of this female body that he was born to – and had to inhabit by default.

The fact that there are two creation narratives in the book of Genesis, has always been for me the definite proof that the story was a lot more whacky than the run-of –the-mill interpretation at cheder (‘informal Jewish education’).

Genesis Chapter 1 describes in some way the concurrent creation of all genders. Even the early sages consider the possibility that G-d’s first humanoid creation was essentially bi-gendered, intersex, or non-gendered. Classical Jewish texts deliberate recurrently and openly on a number of sexual categories. So, me thinks, the Torah isn’t after all only about binary genders and duality – as it seems at first sight.

Why do these passages seem to have been forgotten by modern scholars? Perhaps because they bring an alternative voice to the ongoing discourse on equality, feminism and diversity? And is this perhaps something ‘middle-of-the-road’ religion wants to avoid at all cost?

I shall mull such things over further in my next blog.

Joy Ladin transitioned from male to female in 2007
Joy Ladin transitioned from male to female in 2007

But, in the words of Joy Ladin, the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution, what always really attracted me to Genesis was ‘the character of God’*.  I was an outsider; most other children thought I was too ‘alien’, too outlandish, to bother making friends with. Everyone else seemed to be so ‘normal’. G-d was different. G-d was someone I could relate to. G-d was part of me.

G-d tends to be referred to in the male form.  And, as one of my favourite Liberal London Rabbis says, we can find visualisations of G-d as a male figure all over the scriptures  – as creator, warrior, a royal, a king. Few images reveal G-d as the ‘female’ nurturer. However, on the other hand, images of G-d are forbidden in Jewish tradition. Again, controversies and ambiguities everywhere we look. But I guess this is the beauty of Judaism.

Well, we also know that Hebrew utilises gender as a grammatical system, and not necessarily a biological one (even a table has a gender!). And G-d is referred to mostly in the masculine plural form. So, what does this mean? Who or what is G-d? Does this mean that God is multi-gendered, all-gendered or non-gendered ? Maybe defining G-d in terms of gender is just not ok?

The Torah states that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim—in the divine image. This definitely comes as a relief for us LGBTQI* people, and the passage is more than often used as proof that there’s nothing wrong with us, that we don’t need ‘fixing’ or damaging conversion therapies.

The Rabbi's Cat
What does God look like? asks the Rabbi’s Cat

Yet, coming back to my experience at the airport security, the reality of living in this binary world that G-d apparently created, hits back. Even if I change my gender status, my birth certificate, my passport, and my looks, the body scanning machinery may still detect me as ‘female’. In that sense, biological gender seems as fixed as the binaries in the Torah.

A Tweet I found online said: ‘Transgender is an abomination. You are mutilating your God given bodies.’ What this person misses out is that many transgender people do not alter their bodies at all. But they are still transgender. B’tzelem Elohim.

Perhaps, it’s time to move away from defining people by their genitalia? Are we not also spiritual  beings, with different minds and characters? Are there not many more layers to us than just the body?

Perhaps, we could move away for one moment from the obvious and ordinary? And remember that our Jewish tradition also acknowledges those ‘in between moments’, the twilight.

As we read in the Babylonian Talmud: “Our sages taught: As to twilight, it is doubtful whether it is part day and part night, or whether all of it is day or all of it is night.….’ (me thinks: or female and male?).

The next morning, having arrived safely in Melbourne, rather jet-lagged, coffee in one hand, aspirin in the other, I checked in at the AIDS 2014 registration desk.

I was told my delegate registration could not be verified. Although this mishap was never explained to me entirely, I strongly suspect it was because my passport did not match my speaker’s registration details. Well, the application form did give me the option to tick ‘transgender’ and add my preferred title and name. But in reality, the registration desk staff had never heard of any of it.

No, it’s really not easy being in the twilight zone.

*A big thank you to Richard Stern for introducing me to The Rabbi’s Cat.

*Reference to Torah In Transition by Professor Joy Ladin

*Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning and Intersex People. The Asterix  symbol * signifies that it is an umbrella term that refers to all identities within the spectrum.


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