Friday, December 4, 2009

Wrestling with Identity

Parshat Vayishlah,
17 Kislev, 5770; December 4th, 2009

     There are questions you expect out of life, and then there are those you never see coming. The issues that Transgendered and Transsexual Jews have brought to Judaism surprised, shall we say, the hell out of me.
     In fact the intersection between Torah and questions of gender identity is growing and developing. One rabbi in particular, Rabbi Elliot Kukla is speaking to the Jewish world as one who both fully inhabits her genderqueer and religious identities (check out
And there is a home for this issue in the Parsha.:

Genesis 32:25   
And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke.

     The paradox here, that he was both alone but wrestling with someone else, is an elegant metaphor for issues of identity, especially sexual and gender identities: they are issues that live in an individual life, or an individual relationship, but they are argued out there in the public forum. We are both deeply alone and completely in the presence of the public in our sexual identity and gender roles; and no group more so than those who change what most think of as fundamental nature, whether we are a man, or a woman.
     This questioning through action of our sexual identity provokes often brutal backlash, including violence and murder.  The gender theorist David Halperin explains by saying “It is this alienated queer perspective on socially validated values that reveals those values to be not essences but performance.”* What he means is that trans people question whether deeply held values are immutable truth, and some would rather kill the question, even if that includes killing a person, than answer it.
    But not only can’t we kill the question - technology, psychology, and the worldwide flow of information have taken care of that - we shouldn’t want to.
    We live in an age of such questions. What will define this generation, possibly even this century and the last, is the upheaval in questions of identity: this is what it used to mean to be a Jew, but no more; this is what it used to mean to be an American (or any citizenship), but no more; this is what the roles of men and women used to be, but no more. There are a lot of ways in which things aren’t the way they used to be. And we should recognize, at the very least, an immense bravery that those asking the most difficult of these questions possess.
     Torah’s blessing on these matters is also the genesis of our people’s name. “And the angel said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but rather Yisrael. For you struggled (ki sarita) with God and human beings and were able.” (Genesis 23:29)
May we up to the struggle.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Scott Perlo


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