Do you remember the NBC sitcom Cheers? Well I lived in Boston in the 80’s when the television series was launched. Friends and I frequented the iconic real-life bar and namesake on 84 Beacon Street.
The sitcom, almost canceled in its first season, eventually transformed into one of the most highly rated, nationally acclaimed hits, repeatedly nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series and nominated for 28 Primetime Emmy Awards. Its series finale was watched by 93 million viewers, almost 40% of the US population at the time.
I found Cheers riveting with its quirky yet lovable characters who inhabited their stools at the bar. Their stories, their relationships, the way they showed up for one another at life’s happiest and most difficult moments. A place where everybody knows your name.
That is the synagogue for me, or at least that which CEHV ought to be for each of us. And as with the sitcom Cheers, the early years of my time at CEHV were fraught with worry over the future of the congregation. Today our community is thriving.
I know for some of you, maybe even many of you, members of this synagogue have been there for you at your happiest moments and when you faced daunting challenges. But as our congregation grows, transforms, and strives to meet the challenges of 5783 and the years to come, it is necessary for us to take bold visionary steps in shaping our Jewish future.
So much is already happening. Many of you study with me on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays for varied adult learning. Others are Shabbat regulars who experience their lives in Jewish time. Many have become involved in our ongoing Tikun Olam initiatives, the Caring Community, Sisterhood, and other vital committee work. And many of you are part of the JLA parent community.
I believe that we are standing at an important moment; are we committed to continuing our transformation of CEHV into a force for the future? To remain relevant, we at CEHV need to cultivate a structure for authentic connections in which every member has opportunities to support, and be supported by, other members of our congregation, opportunities through which Jewish life is celebrated with friends.
Ecclesiastes says: אין חדש תחת השמש there is nothing new under the sun. In September of 1960, in Whittier California, the first chavurah was formed. The chavurah, an intentional group, whose root is חבר meaning friend, was originally created as part of a counter-cultural movement in the 60’s and 70’s by folks searching for a synagogue alternative, for a transformed and sustainable American Judaism. In its time, the chavurah movement was a revolutionary re-imagining, a revitalization of Jewish practice.
Back in Boston in the 80’s, across town from the Cheers bar, a group of academic Jews, political activists, rabbis and students forged Havurat Shalom, a lay-led group of peers that met regularly to experience spiritual prayer, celebrate Shabbat and engage in deep, meaningful Jewish study. My life in Boston intersected with members of Havurat Shalom, and it served as the ideal for the kind of Jewish community I hoped to shape as a congregational rabbi in the future.
Ultimately Judaism that succeeds is not Judaism that is done for you, but rather by you; we do not subscribe to a proxied religion. Our rabbis, cantors, teachers, and educators cannot replace your individual, personalized engagement in your Jewish journey. The shaping of chavurot within CEHV would be an opportunity for Jewish empowerment, the exploration of your unique Jewish passion and expression, and the sharing of that experience with like-minded members of our congregation.
So what would Chavurot look like? Chavurot created at CEHV by and for members would not be an alternative to congregational life, but rather a strengthening and transformation of your Jewish experience. Chavurot, by definition, are self-selected and self-directed, a group of people who are supported in taking the steps to shape an intentional group around a shared interest. Each CEHV chavurah would be egalitarian and democratic by nature, engaging with and highlighting shared interests, shared values, shared stages of life, or shared passions.
Depending on each group’s needs, each chavurah may meet once a month, twice a month, or once every two months. On our website, www.cehv.org, there will be a template for establishing a CEHV chavurah for the upcoming year 5783. This template can be filled out by any member who has an interest or passion through which they would hope to connect with other like-minded members of our congregation. You might be interested in a peer writing chavurah, a hiking chavurah, a Shabbat chavurah, a musical chavurah, a dancing chavurah, a parenting chavurah, a retiree chavurah, an LGBTQIA+ chavurah or a chavurah fashioned around Jewish text study through chevrutah (peer learning).
Chavurot can choose to meet in the synagogue building, members’ homes, a restaurant, a vineyard, a swim hole or mountain top. Like everything that we value in Judaism, we define ourselves not by that which we receive but by that which we bring. In the course of establishing CEHV chavurot, each chavurah is asked to participate in a minimum of one CEHV community wide event as a group four times a year, a Shabbat service, a holiday celebration, a rally, or a CEHV program. The chavurah may choose to take an active role in synagogue events by delivering a Dvar Torah during a Shabbat morning service, preparing a Shabbat lunch following morning minyan, preparing the Schpiel for Purim, or simply participating in a community wide activity as a cohesive group. Suddenly, the members of your chavurah will feel differently about attending Shabbat services when they share it with like-minded folks from your group and share the spirit of your chavurah with the larger congregation.
There is a story that the rabbis of the Talmud tell: Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, the Gerer Rabbi, noticed that one of his talmidim (students) had been absent from the community for a while. The Rebbe questioned another talmid (student) concerning the wellbeing of the absent one, “Tell me, how is your neighbor, Moshe?” “I am not sure,” replied the second talmid, “Is there something I should know?” The Gerer Rebbi replied with great sadness, “You are neighbors, your children go to the same school, you study the same Torah, you pray in the same shul, and you don’t know how he is? If he needs help or advice, comfort or compassion? How will you possibly be able to show up for him?!”
What connects you to your Jewish identity? What is your philosophy of life? Is it based in intellectual exploration, social networks, connection to the earth and the outdoors, your children? Everyone at CEHV can find themselves in an intentional group. Talmud Pesachim uses the term Chavurah to identify the group of people who will participate in a critical ritual in the life of the Temple. Judaism is transformed through the cohesive group with whom you share the experience. The chavurah experience elevates an individual member’s commitment and involvement in becoming part of something bigger. The interpersonal relationships supported in chavurot have the power to transform the congregational experience.
Rather than creating a counter culture, we will create opportunities within our congregation for individuals, couples, and families to celebrate Shabbat and holidays together, experience communal Jewish life, and deepen Jewish living through study תורה, prayer עבודה, and Jewish living גמילות חסדים. Being part of a chavurah empowers the individual to personalize their engagement and participation in Jewish experiences. It promotes connection, fellowship, and community among the members of our congregation.
We are emerging from three years of the COVID Pandemic. So many of us have sustained our connection to congregational life over zoom and via livestream. The task of chavurot and for CEHV of the future is to humanize, personalize, and shape a Jewish future based on interpersonal relationships and shared experiences.
Imagine the bar in Cheers, Sam Malone, Diane, Coach, Carla, Norm, Cliff, Rebecca, Woody, Frasier, Niles, and Lilith, a dubious assembly, quite the eclectic, motley crew. In what world that you know would Frasier hang out with Norm? Now look around you in your congregation; the pulse of this community is that we are stronger together. Each intentional group of members under our roof serves as a spark that strengthens us all.
Whether we sit around a table and share good food and wine, lead and participate in Shabbat worship and Jewish learning together, celebrate the simchas of life, or walk one another through the saddest moments, Abraham Joshua Heschel enjoins us to be mindful that Judaism is a doing, and for that purpose we all need connection and community.
Being part of a chavurah with members of CEHV with whom you share experiences ultimately strengthens not only your relationship with one another and with your Jewish identity but also the very fabric and future of our congregation.
Cheers almost folded after the first season, but instead was transformed into a highly revered, nationally acclaimed hit.
CEHV has been around for 170 years and counting. Chavurot will play a vital role in sustaining our congregation and forging a Jewish connection for generations to come.
My first High Holidays with you, Congregation Emanuel of the Hudson Valley, was in September of 2001, 5762, 21 years ago. My children are grown and out in the world, but at that time Barr was just three years old, Nir five, and Shai eight. Back then we used the New Union Prayerbook, Shaaray Teshuvah, for the Days of Awe. There are so many things that I prefer about our present Machzor, Chadeysh Yameinu, but I admit the one thing I miss from the Reform High Holiday prayer book is the alternative Torah selection for Yom Kippur morning, Deuteronomy 29:9. אתם נצבים היום כולכם: “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai Eloheychem, the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, everyone in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers who reside in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water- to enter into the ברית which Adonai Eloheycha makes with you this day.”
We especially feel the power of the Covenant and what it means to live as a Jew during the Days of Awe.
The closing portions of Deuteronomy, the words uttered prior to rewinding the five books on Simchat Torah and beginning again with Bereshit, provide us with a model for how to begin to transition leadership.
Moses has been with the Israelites through thick and thin, trial and tribulation, forty years in the desert. And during his tenure, our people are lulled into a false sense of believing that Moses would always be with them. It is during these final portions of the Torah that they find themselves contemplating transition into the promised land without their leader. Never again will there be another leader like Moses, yet in the same breath we recognize the extraordinary leader Joshua who is endowed with רוח חוכמה, a wise spirit.
As we conclude the final words of Deuteronomy, “Never again has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses” ולכן המורא הגדול אשר עשה משה לעיני כל ישראל. And in the very same breath we begin again: בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ “In the beginning…” As we conclude so too do we start anew.
Look around you. This Congregation, 170 years old and counting, with a rich history and tradition, is also a magnet for young people looking for change, families looking for a home and a future, and new members exploring what is possible for their Jewish life. How, at once, do we honor our past, create our legacy of continuity, and realize our future?
Perspective is critical. Involvement is critical. Commitment is critical. Leadership is critical.
Moses was a great leader, and Moses was flawed. He was a visionary who brought our people out of Egypt, and he had a temper. He held high expectations, and he found it difficult to relinquish control. He was capable of engaging with the Divine פנים אל פנים, face to face, but he frequently missed opportunities with his own sons, wife, brother, sister, and nephew. But with all of his strengths and weaknesses, Moses understood as a leader the importance of relinquishing his power to make room for the future. And in the final portions of the Torah, when it becomes clear that Moses will not travel with the people into the Promised Land, he is both woeful and accepting that he must help guide his leadership and his people toward next steps.
No matter how significant one’s tenure has been, all leaders, from Moses to members of the CEHV Board and the Rabbi must actively initiate, make room for, invite, and support the future by prioritizing new leadership. This responsibility of leadership is an intentional act of tzim tzum. Tzim tzum, a Talmudic concept, is when the one who holds the space makes their presence smaller to enable new voices to increase, thrive, and flourish. Notwithstanding the success of any given leader, there comes a time when we are responsible for embracing change. In Parashat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 31:2, Moses went and spoke these words to all of Israel: לא אוכל עוד לצאת ולבוא “I can no longer go out and come in.” Moses recognizes that it is time for the next generation to guide Israel into the future. Joshua is there; he has been there all along. But it is only when Moses identifies Joshua before the eyes of all Israel saying, חזק ואמץ “be strong and be courageous,” (Deuteronomy 31:7) that Joshua is transformed into a future leader. Hoshaya הושע, endowed with the responsibility of leadership, becomes Yoshua יהושע (Numbers 13:16).
True leadership is responsible for ushering transformation. As Moses says, “Be strong and be courageous.” Transitions are daunting. It is not easy to relinquish control. As inertial beings, we resist doing things differently. It takes vision and fortitude to truly embrace a path toward the future, to actively engage and make room for new leadership.
Rabbi Beth Ellen Young provides a model for transitions of leadership in her commentary on Parashat Pinchas:
- Take stock of accomplishments
- Speak out on moral issues
- Facilitate a succession plan
- Publicly endorse your successor
- Acknowledge that things will change
We have accomplished much. The Congregation has been sustained. From a small upstate New York quiet community with water leaking from the roof we grew to a forward-thinking, thriving congregation, welcoming new members monthly. This past summer we welcomed 16 new member units! Once there were no Saturday morning services; now we have a viable learning minyan every Shabbat morning along with our upbeat, Kabbalat Shabbat experience on Friday nights. During COVID we led the way with livestreaming availability and integrated members and guests from around the world. Some weeks we have many hundreds of viewers on our livestream! Our number of in-person participation continues to rise each week and will likely eclipse our robust, pre-pandemic, in-person participation shortly. During my tenure we have cultivated creative outdoor programming that marks our Congregation unique such as Second Day Rosh Hashanah at Poet’s walk, Tashlich at the Hudson River, Shavuot Sunrise Services, Tisha B’Av in the park, Sukkat Shalom, annual mikveh in mountain swim holes, and outdoor summer services. We now boast a powerhouse student Chazanit as our Cantorial Soloist and an accomplished promising Rabbinic Intern bringing depth, thoughtfulness, and creativity to the pulpit. Our programming has expanded into crucial social dimensions such as BLM, LGBTQIA+, Restorative Justice, Housing, Homelessness, and Interfaith engagement to name a few.
We have shaped a warm, spiritual, welcoming prayer space. We are prioritizing learning, Tikkun Olam, Jewish life rhythms and celebrations. Adult classes are ongoing throughout the week. Our Jewish learning adventure is thriving for our children. We are growing.
We have become the address for progressive Judaism, inclusivity, and challenging authority. This is the growth and change we can expect when we open ourselves up to new perspectives and direction.
We are blessed to have new leadership stepping up in our Education, Tikun Olam, and Rabbinic Search Committees. On Rosh Hashanah you were greeted by Randi Zinn and Franny Silverman. As co-chairs of the Search Committee, they will facilitate the search for your new Rabbi who will join you in June 2024. Franny and Randi are laying out the process of a Rabbinic Search and ways that you can express your needs, stay apprised of the process as it unfolds, and eventually meet candidates. Each of you has a role in the success of our transition of leadership. Your voice matters; your needs matter. You must stay the course, be present, step up, and simultaneously make room for and embrace new voices and change.
Inevitably things will change. When CEHV can embrace this change with courage and wisdom, possibility and blessings will overflow.
Assemble the people, all of the people, so that everyone has a voice. The passage from Nitzavim recognizes that the voices to be considered extend even beyond those who are present. Engaging new leadership honors voices of the past and prioritizes voices for the future. Growth opens the door to new perspectives, needs, and approaches. Implicit in our identity as a Reform Congregation is the commitment to speak out for and to embrace change. That which we have always done will not be sufficient to move toward and embrace the future.
When I arrived here 21 years ago, I looked and led differently from Rabbis Eichorn and Blum. Until my arrival, this Congregation had never had a woman Rabbi, and when you brought me on board I was at that time the only woman rabbi in the Hudson Valley. This is no longer the case. 21years ago, members of this Congregation expressed skepticism that a woman and single mother could meet the needs of all of the members of CEHV, all the men, women, and those who would become part of our future. You trusted the unknown and your power to change. And our community has flourished as a result. The next generation of Rabbis earning Smicha ordination see and meet the world differently than I. Now is the time for new leadership to guide us into the future.
As our Jewish community continues to change, needs will evolve. Continuity is important, but openness to new ideas and possibility is equally, or perhaps more, important. Consistency is invaluable, but only with the commitment to flexibility.
As the congregation and the Board of CEHV paves the way for your new Rabbi there is an opportunity to continue to grow, to cultivate and empower leadership at CEHV that reflects our changing world and our future. We have cultivated a wonderful community; what do you want our future to be?
We have a lot to accomplish in the next year and a half. As we begin the New Year, I am cognizant that next High Holidays, 5784, will be my final New Year as your Rabbi.
Leadership matters; great leadership empowers succession. Moses, leaders on the CEHV Board, and your Rabbi have the responsibility to facilitate transitions. Leadership is not forever. Change is holy.
Some wanted George Washington to stay indefinitely, but he had the vision to step down from his most unique position as this country’s leader. He understood the wisdom of passing the baton, empowering healthy transition.
Many of you saw Hamilton, and others have listened to the soundtrack. Listen now to an excerpt from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s guide for transitioning leadership:
One last time
Relax, have a drink with me
One last time
Let’s take a break tonight
And then we’ll teach them how to say goodbye
A most compelling biblical moment, retold every Rosh Hashanah, is Hagar’s torment as she finds herself adrift in the wilderness with her son Ishmael, believing in that moment that he will die of thirst as she cannot provide the water for his survival. This year, in our congregation, we listened to this passage on the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah, standing on the land of Poet’s Walk and overlooking the Hudson River as we read Torah, blew Shofar, and reminded ourselves of our best Jewish values.
Her flask empty, bereft of hope, she places Ishmael under a bush, sits at a distance, and bursts into heart-wrenching tears.
By 2050 twenty-five percent of the world’s population, one in four people will not have water. As the climate crisis dries the water sources of the American west, experts warn that two of the largest reservoirs in America which provide water and electricity to millions are in danger of drying up. NASA currently predicts that California has only enough water to last one year. We are Hagar, averting our eyes to the fate of our children and the generations to come.
בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כפור יחתמון.
On Rosh Hashanah it is recorded, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away? How many shall be born? Who shall live and who shall die? Who in the fullness of years and who before their time? Who by fire and who by water…
And as Hagar sits a distance from her son, knowing that he is about to die, I imagine that she verbalized, for and with him, vidui, the Jewish end-of-life prayer. “God, we hope for life and healing, but we know that we are mortal. And if this be our last breath, we pray that any mistakes we have made, any choices or decisions that we wish we had done differently, any words or deeds left unsaid, may they be forgiven. And may the goodness, the good that we have done in life, go before us, and may we find shelter, wholeness, and peace under the wings of your Sacred Presence.”
The Days of Awe remind us of the magnitude of our own losses, the fragility of life, and what it means to carry on and affirm life in the wake of losing someone we love. It is impossible for me to stand here, on Kol Nidre, without acknowledging the losses members of this congregation have sustained this past year and in years past. I have walked with you in your wilderness of grief.
What does it mean to be a parent who loses a child? How do we cope with the death of a spouse, a soul mate, a best friend? How do we begin to orient ourselves in the wake of life-changing moments, the death of a sibling, parent, or beloved relative?
There are moments in which we ask why? Why did my loved one die that way? In Genesis 25:22, Rebecca questions the pain she is enduring, “If this is the case, למה אני why me, or ל מה אני for what is my purpose?” In the face of such human fragility, we come face-to-face with existential questions concerning our life’s purpose.
When we learn to live with grace, resilience, and meaning with that which is beyond our control, we become our best selves. These are the darkest moments in which we have no choice but to accept that which is, leaning into “radical vulnerability”. And when we do, we find that light emerges from darkness, hope from brokenness; in the struggle we gain access to hidden dimensions of our love, our lives, and our inner selves. For these instances, sitting face-to-face and heart-to-heart with mortality is a consequence of being alive.
End-of-life vidui is uttered only when one is letting go of one’s hold on life. With no time left to make changes or act differently, we stand before Ha-Shechinah in the hopes that we will be judged favorably and find wholeness, peace, and be bound up with the bond of eternal life based on how we lived.
But what about when there is still life before us? What of the moments in which we do have choice, when our actions will impact what can and will be?
Unlike end-of-life vidui, the vidui which we utter on Yom Kippur necessitates a commitment to act differently, to repair, and improve upon our mistakes, choices, and decisions. Through teshuvah we are required to do differently, to repair our wrongs in the coming year. It is only when Hagar looks up that she can perceive the presence of the well, mayim chaim, life-saving water, the answer that existed all along.
Yom Kippur is about recognizing our Jewish responsibility and our Sacred purpose on earth.
בראש השנה יכתבון וביום צום כפור יחתמון.
On Rosh Hashanah it is recorded, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
God appears to Hagar and implores her to lift her head, to look up, and when she does, she sees a well with ample water to sustain Ishmael.
Humanity is facing an existential climate change emergency. The science has unequivocally indicated that global warming is making our earth unsustainable and yet we are wholly insufficient in our response. I don’t need to tell you; you have witnessed it week after week, season after season. Unprecedented warming has brought us face-to-face with higher temperatures and devastating heat waves, increasing droughts and wildfires, more destructive storms, warming oceans, and rising sea levels, all of which are destabilizing the climate and creating economic, political, and social havoc. As I write this sermon, California faces unprecedented flooding and dangerous winds following record-breaking drought, wildfires burn out of control, and one third of Pakistan is under water. Imagine one third of the United States under water. Picture the social, economic, political, and human devastation that would occur. No corner of the world is exempt from climate change.
Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:13 teaches, ”Upon creating the first human beings, God guided them around the Garden of Eden saying, ‘Look at my creations. See how beautiful and perfect they are. I created everything for you. Make sure you don’t ruin or destroy my world. For if you do, there will be no one to fix it.’”
What are we doing? What needs to happen for us to place sustainability of the earth as a priority for each of us, for our nation, and for the global community?
We are destroying our children’s world. Young adults have expressed to me that they are choosing not to bring children into this world because they don’t believe the earth could sustain them over a normal lifetime. Judaism teaches us that we are responsible not only for our own wellbeing, but specifically for future generations.
The Talmud (Taanit 23a) teaches, “Once Honi was walking along the road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked, ‘How long before it will bear fruit?’ The man answered, ‘Seventy years.’ Honi asked ‘Are you sure you will be here in seventy years to eat from the fruit?’ The man replied, ‘I found the world filled with carob trees. Just as my ancestors planted for me, so I will plant for my children.’”
And as I scratch the surface of climate change and global warming, and we listen to the dire warnings for our planet, we are each Hagar, standing bereft in the desert. But we learn that Hagar has the power to look up, and when she does, there is water. This is not a miracle, but rather the willingness to look beyond ourselves, beyond our indulgences and comforts, and prioritize sustainability in our lives and for the future.
Nor is there a miracle technology that will enable us to maintain our lives of over-consumption, indiscriminate polluting, and burning of fossil fuels as we do now. To be sustainable for the future we must adopt a multi-faceted, visionary commitment to sustaining the earth.
On Yom Kippur, we pray היום; today is the day to hear the clear clarion voice that requires us to take stock and act as if our lives depended on it.
Climate change is not a natural disaster; it is a human-made catastrophe. And as such, we can choose, like Hagar, to look up and see the answers right in front of us.
We have the ability to protect our families, our businesses, our country, our world, and a future for our grandchildren and generations to come. Our Jewish imperative is to provide l’dor vador, from one generation to the next.
The Bible tells us that God placed Adam (humankind) in the Garden of Eden to “till and protect”, לעבדה ולשמרה. That is Adam’s purpose and humankind’s. The Hebrew word for “protect”, לשמרה, is used to imply a legal sense of stewardship. Our Jewish responsibility, and our human responsibility, is to pass on a sustainable earth “from generation to generation”.
Here is my rabbinic how-to for each of us today:
- Face facts and hold ourselves accountable for being part of the problem and the solution.
- Take meaningful, personal steps to mitigate our carbon footprint on this earth.Avoid plastics, expand our commitment to upcycling and recycling, and maximize sustainable energy choices for our home, vehicle, investments, our synagogue, and places of work.
- Vote for candidates who are committed to, and will further, renewable energy.
- Purchase from companies that promote equity and sustainability.
- Insist that our nation take its place as a world leader in radically reducing fossil fuels.
No one of us alone can solve the problem, but every one of us is responsible for the solution.
לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנה.
It is not for us to complete the work, but nor are we exempt from participating in it.
It is no wonder that radical vulnerability is an implicit part of the themes, the liturgy, and the experience of Yom Kippur. Through our face-to-face engagement with mortality, we clarify who we are and who we need to become.
Our vidui today on Yom Kippur requires us to make the changes that are necessary for saving the earth. On Yom Kippur, we are asked to sit face-to-face, פנים אל פנים, with our most authentic and heightened awareness of self, to notice and act on where we are and how we choose to move forward. “I put before you the blessing and the curse, life and death. Choose the blessing so that you will live.” There are things that we do control and can affect; our choices will determine the life before us.
Boundless: A Gender/Queer Reading of the Akeida
The first time I engaged critically with questions of gender I was six years old and madly in love with Lynda Carter.
The Adventures of Wonder Woman landed on Canadian TV in the early 80s, well after it aired on US Primetime, and was broadcast on re-run each day in the after school hour just as the latchkey generation – or what us Gen Xers call ‘day orphans’ – settled in to watch literally whatever was on.
Of course, I couldn’t tell you even now what the show was about (or, if you had asked me then, who Lynda Carter was). I was 6. She was a crime fighter? Maybe? I really don’t remember. What I remember is Wonder Woman’s trademarked golden eagle emblem, silver gauntlets, single-star tiara, lasso of truth and red culottes. And, that she could fly. I remember that too. I had the same costume, you see. It was meant for dress-up, but I wore it most days. Until, that is, one day, when I climbed atop the garage roof, brought my gauntlet clad wrists together and… jumped!
I would learn later that it was Wonder Woman’s invisible jet that enabled her to fly. And that the gauntlets helped protect her from fall damage (though they didn’t protect me). My costume was perfect. My choreography was perfect. I was a superhero. This I believed with perfect faith. So how come Wonder Woman could fly and I couldn’t? People can’t fly. I know that now. But to my sweet, bleeding, six-year-old, superhero self the only reasonable explanation for why Wonder Woman could fly and I couldn’t was because I wasn’t a woman. Never mind that I didn’t know what a woman was (or that I didn’t know any women who could fly). Never mind that I still don’t know what a woman is. What I do know is how experiences of being ‘not a woman’ or ‘not the right kind man’, ‘not ourselves’ or ‘not enough’ keeps us all from flying.
- Is gender something you are?
- Something you do?
- Something you choose?
- Is it an experience of body? An experience of being?
- Is it a costume that you put on in order to feel like yourself?
- Is it a costume that you can take off and still be you?
Torah teaches that before first light, there was or had been chaos, and somehow also water (which curiously predates its creation), and that when the infinitely varied SOURCE began to create the heavens and the earth, the utterly singular ONE refracted their oneness (like light through a kaleidoscope) and separated day from night, sea from sky, one day from the next and, with the creation of Adam, female from male (Genesis 2:22). There were bodies and breath and each body owed each breath to G-d.
Torah also teaches that when G-d created Adam, humans, humanity (who G-d fashioned from the earth and formed בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים , in G-d’s own plural masculine image), that G-d created them… these ‘earthling’ dirt forms זָכָָ֥ר וּנְּקֵבָָ֖ה male and female (Genesis 1:27).
So which is it? One act of creation or two? Male and female or female from male? Bearing in mind that Adam is (or are) human before he or they are gendered (and that gender… the genesis of gender and the stratification of bodies into rigidly defined, heavily surveilled and largely inequitable social roles would come later), the answer is: Yes!
Both accounts are true in that truth is what we get when we consider them together.
And though it doesn’t sound true, we read in Ketubot 8a:9 דְּכוּלֵי עָלְּמָא that ‘everyone agrees’! Everyone agrees that there was only one act of creation. That, as we read in Eruvin 18a:23, G-d thought to create two humans, but created only one. One who, according to R. Yirmiyah ben Elazar, was created wholly female and wholly male. One who, according to R. Shmuel Bar Nachman, was created half male and half female and then split at the back (Vayikra Rabba 14:1). One who, according to R. Tanchuma in the name of R. Elazar, was an infinite, genderless mass. And One who, according to Rashi, was a man, from who’s side a woman was taken (Genesis 2:22). One. A single human entity who, according to Bereishit Rabbah 8:1, was an androgyne.
Now, this grammar may sound anachronistic but androgynos, who the Mishnah Torah describes as having both ‘male’ and ‘female’ sex characteristics (MT Marriage, 2:25), are referenced in the rabbinic literature nearly 500 times and are part of a rabbinic taxonomy of differently sexed bodies (of bodies that are not sex-stable), that also includes: Tumtum, whose sex characteristics are indeterminate (MT Marriage 2:24); Ay’lonit, who are identified as ‘female’ at birth but who develop ‘male’ sex characteristics at puberty (MT Marriage 2:6); and Saris, including Saris Hamah, who are identified as ‘male’ at birth but who develop ‘female’ sex characteristics at puberty; and Saris Adam: men whose first fruits have been cut off, removed or crushed (MT Marriage 2:13-14).1
The rabbinic reading of Adam as an androgyn is consistent with interpretive traditions that identify androgynes as du parzuf (as two-faced humans with a two-fruit form)2 and with creation motifs dating to classical antiquity, when two-headed figures were used to depict ‘the first Adam’. And rabbinic debate regarding the du parzuf’s separation from itself (was it…back from front, top from bottom, one side from the other…diagonally!?) suggests – no matter how you slice it – an openness to difference. And, looking back to the beginning, the du parzuf orients us to aspects of creation (light/dark, sea/sky, male/female) that appear as opposites, but that are better understood as merisms (Wenig 2009, 76).3 What is a merism? Flesh and bone is a merism.
Blood and guts is a merism. Head and heart is a merism. Each one calls to mind the whole body, including the bits in-between and beyond the binary.We read in Mishnah Bikkurim 4 that:
- There are ways in which the androgynos is like men;
- There are ways he is like women;
- There are ways in which he is like men and women;
- There are ways he is like neither men nor women;
- And, according to R. Yossi, there are ways in which the androgynos is utterly unique, a category of human bifney atzmo hu, a category of creation ‘unto itself’.
And while a lot of rabbinic ink has been spilled discussing ‘exceptional’ bodies, the rabbis primary interest was in how people functioned legally in relation to the halakha and when – like, specifically, when – non-binary bodies were to be considered male and when female. For the rabbis, contradictions are not evidence of a breakdown in coherence, they are the exception that proves the rule (and the rabbis were really into the rules). Is a man who has relations with an androgyne (who is in some ways like a man) in violation of the laws of Leviticus? (b. Yevamot 83b). And can he get a marriage license in Kentucky? What is the ritual status of a priest who’s fruit has been cut or culled or who’s figs are diseased or disfigured? I mean what kinds of…cut fruit are kosher? Cut too little and you’re in violation of the covenant, cut too much and…well, treyf (b. Yevamot 8:2). Is an aylonit (who is ‘like a woman’ but also ‘like a ram’, but infertile, Ketubbot 11a) obligated to marry their brother’s widow in the event that he should die childless (b. Yevamot 8:4)? And can they access gender affirming care… anywhere in this country?; Are tumtum, who’s fruit is confusing or concealed or not-yet-ripe and who’s halakhic status is uncertain, required to observe commandments from which women are exempt (but to which men are obligated)? Can they serve on a chevreh kaddishah for a man or enter the women’s mikveh? What about my DC Comic issue Wonder Woman costume? Is it permitted to them? What pronouns should they use? Which box should they check?
Adjudicating the halakhic status of sexually ambiguous bodies was not meant to be subversive (although R. Yossi’s assertion that androgynes transcend the gender binary altogether is a radical, if accidental, form of subversion). And, while the classification of humans has never been a politically neutral act, the rabbis’ ultimate agenda wasn’t political; it was practical. And, no one was exempt. Not even Abraham and Sarah, who’s halakhic status the rabbis debate in Masechet Yevamot 64a:9-64b:2, in which the kasha (the rabbinic question) is not whether Abraham and Sarah are something other than male or female (according to the rabbis, they weren’t), but whether Abraham and Sarah were both tumtum or whether Sarah was, in fact an aylonit).
Rabbinic attempts to regulate diversity according to a binary (and to force congruence between sex and gender by establishing legal codes that modify rather than reflect reality), suggest that according to the rabbis, sex was not immutable or fixed, but circumstantial and subject to change. The same is true for gender. It was only after Adam named Chavah in relation to himself that the differences between them began to mean something (Ladin 2019, 32)4. And it was only after humans violated G-d’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge that gender became a source of color-coded disparity.
Despite efforts to establish/enforce binary conceptions of sex and gender (and to affix one to the other), fixedness is not a fact. The fact is, bodies (which are not binary) change over time, such as through puberty, aging and injury. And identity? Identity is, as a matter of becoming, as we are becoming, always in formation.
The fluidity of sex and gender are reflected in Jewish text/tradition like one’s image is reflected in a funhouse mirror in that they convey, paradoxically, both a sense of constancy and of motion. And while gender crossing functions narratively to precipitate change in and throughout the Torah/story, the subversion of gender roles is a motif that serves ultimately to reinforce them.
G-d is a plural entity (Genesis 1:27); G-d is a male entity who enacts femaleness (Deuteronomy 32:6, 13, 18); G-d is a female entity who gives birth to Israel (Isaiah 42:14);
The Torah is female (Proverbs 6:18-20, 8:22-30);
Israel/Jerusalem is female, except in relation to the Torah/wisdom (b. Yevamot 62b; 63b);
In relation to the Torah/wisdom, Israel is male (b. Eruvin 18b);
G-d is Israel’s groom (Hosea 2:4, 18; Isaiah 54:5), Israel is G-d’s bride (Bereshit Rabbah 11:9);
Shabbat is Israel’s bride. Israel is Shabbat’s groom (b. Shabbat 119a).
Abram subverts his gender role (and the responsibilities incumbent on first born sons), modifies his body through circumcision, and is renamed Abraham (Genesis 12:1; Ladin 2019, 42-45); Sarai manifests an expression of gender for which there is no precedent (an old woman who’s also a new mother) and is renamed Sarah (Genesis 18:11; Ladin 2019, 46-51); Rebecca is referred to using the masculine singular noun na’ar and described as a young man, not once, but five times over (Genesis 24:14,16, 28, 55, 57); Jacob, an effeminate tent dweller manipulates gender in order to win his father’s blessing (and inherits the future by feigning virility (Genesis 27:11; 25:25-26; Ladin 2019, 38); Esau, a rough ‘man of the field’, relinquishes his birthright and cries like child for his father’s blessing (Genesis 27:33-34); Joseph, with his pretty coat (or what II Samuel 13:18 calls his ‘princess dress’) is also described as a na’ar and, like Rebecca, exists somewhere outside the realm of masculine and male (Genesis 39:6).5
And then, there’s Isaac. Isaac, who (according to traditions rooted in Zohar) had a ‘feminine soul’ but who the Torah only ever portrays as a boy who does exactly what he’s told (Ladin 2019, 54). Unlike Abraham and Sarah, who’s ‘becoming’ required a kind of gender crossing, Isaac is not required to change or to be changed in order to be who he is (Ladin 2019, 51). Isaac, it would seem, is free to be himself. But Isaac is so devoted to being who he is supposed to be (as the de facto firstborn), he sacrifices himself along the way. The text doesn’t tell us how Isaac experiences his gender, but his fate is clearly connected to being male. Abraham took his favored son, Isaac, the son who he loved, and offered him to G-d as a sacrifice. But once offered, neither speaks to the other again. Neither speaks to G-d again. For no matter how G-d uses gender (and the subversion of gender roles) to bring about the future that was promised (from Adam to Joseph and beyond) or how favorably G-d might regard Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Isaac follows his father without question, makes no objection when asked to carry the wood for the sacrificial fire (Genesis 22:5-6), and offers no resistance when bound for the altar (Genesis 22:9) because according to the conventions of gender, sons obey their fathers and fathers protect their sons. And, while Abraham may or may not have failed G-d, Abraham fails Isaac. For Isaac, Abraham’s willingness to subvert gender does not make him a model of post-gender potential; it makes him a bad father. Bound on the altar of his father’s devotion, Isaac learns what queer and trans people have long known: that it is not only those who transgress the binary who suffer gender. For as much danger as there is in transgressing gender expectations, there is also danger in conforming to them. Binary gender tells us what it means to be good men or real women and insists that we comply even if it means betraying who we are (and pretending to be someone we’re not). And for those of us who don’t conform? Binary gender tells us simply not to exist. And whatever suffering can be heard in Isaac’s silence, Isaac remains faithful to a set of gender expectations that nearly costs him his life.
Isaac survives the Akeida (or maybe he doesn’t, let’s discuss!), but he lives his life as little more than a silent specter of his father. Isaac occupies the same land (Genesis 26:6), encounters a king by the same name (Genesis 26:8), tells the same lies (Genesis 26:7), and digs the same wells as Abraham (Genesis 26:23). He even take his wife into his mother’s tent (Genesis 24:67). Who Isaac is supposed to be prevents Isaac from being himself. Rendering him not only silent, but invisible.
As our identities are in some ways affirmed and validated by being seen, self-expression is a matter of life (of a life lived with authenticity and joy) and a kind of living death. Only for queer and trans people, being seen and not being seen incur the risk of death. Only for queer and trans people, death is not metaphorical, but real, often tragic and all too common. Self-expression requires safety. This is true for everyone. We all seek safety. And, while safety is subjective, it’s safe to say that for queer and trans people synagogue has not always meant sanctuary.
On Rosh Hashana, we are challenged to consider an expanded version of ourselves – as individuals and as a community. I mean, what can a Jewish community be? Safe? Perhaps. Safer? No question. Sanctuary? We’ll see. In the meantime – for anyone who needs to hear this – don’t jump! People can’t fly. And it’s a hard fall. Rather, fly your flag (as we at CEHV are now proudly flying ours). Fly your flag and sissy that walk! It’s tradition!
- For a thorough discussion of Androgynes and Eunuchs in the Rabbinic literature see Strassfeld, M. 2022. Trans Talmud: Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature. University of California Press.
- References to the du parzuf are found in Genesis Rabbah 8:1, with multiple parallels across texts and time, including in Genesis Rabbah 1:26; Leviticus Rabbah 14b; Berakhot 61a, b; Ketubot 8a, b; and b. Eruvin 18a.
- Wenig, M. 2009. “Male and Female God Created Them” in Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer, NYU Press, pp. 151-156
- Ladin, J. 2019. The Soul of the Stranger. Brandeis University Press.
- Yohanan (who is so beautiful that Reish Lakish mistakes him for a woman) sits at edge of the mikveh in order that the women passing by might regard his beauty (and have children who are as beautiful as he is) Bava Metzia 84a:7-12.
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