This week is transgender awareness week, it is the week leading up to Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day that our community memorializes those who have died to transphobic violence. It is a week of celebration and mourning. This year at Torah Studio we wanted to take this opportunity to talk all things trans Torah. We know (as everyone who works here is Queer and/or Trans) what it is like to feel both completely invisible in a space, and that feeling of being too visible. The uncomfortable and unsafe feeling, the double-edged sword of visibility and awareness. Before I dive deeper into some Torah, I wanted to remind all our trans community members that Torah studio is a safe place to be as loud and as visible as you want to be, it is a place to learn, grow, and explore your relationship to Judaism, we love you!
Now on to Torah. I thought a great place to start us off would be…well…the beginning. Bereshit, creation. In Bereshit we read of the creation of the first man, or human. I think many people come to this story with a preconceived notion, baggage even, that this is a story of the creation of men and women, of the gender binary. But if we dig, in this case into the Hebrew, if we open ourselves up to how expansive our interpretations of stories can be, it’s easy to see our trans selves in these stories –the lines blur.
The first creation story (there are two) says in Hebrew:
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃
“And Gd Created The Adam in Gd’s image, in the image of Gd, Gd created him; male and female Gd created them” (Genesis 1:27)
If we dig into the Hebrew here we can start to see the lines of the binary blur. The word “אֹתָֽם” means “them”, it indicates a plural form, which could be read as two separate entities, a male and a female. Though we can also understand this as God creating primordial Adam with feminine and masculine aspects together as parts of one who being –these parts that make up Adam pluralize the form of the verb. We see this is other Hebrew words like the word for water, mayim, many parts make up a whole. In Midrash biblical interpretation that was created by rabbis in the 3rd-6th Centuries also helps us question the binary. Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 8:1 tells us that “when the Holy One created Adam, God created Adam as an androgynous person. “Male and female God created them.” This midrash provides us classical rabbinic insight into the difficulty of defining who was the first human. In this reading we can see that God perhaps created the first human as both man and woman, with masculine and feminine parts, there was no binary created, just one human holding it all.
Another way we can challenge the traditional reading of this story is by looking at the second creation story. The first human does not recognize themselves as different and distinct from the rest of the world until God asks Adam to name the animals in the second creation story. It is only then that Adam realizes that there is no one else like them and becomes lonely, so God creates a companion. “So Gd cast a deep sleep upon the man; and, while he slept, He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that spot” (Gen. 2: 21). God makes a human out of the “צֵלָע”, “צֵלָע” is usually translated as rib, though it may be translated as side as well, we can see this use in Exodus when describing the “צֵלָע” or side of the tabernacle. Once again, we can turn to midrash. Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 8:1 considers this translation as well. Arguing that God created a double-faced person and then split them into two. Rather than out of the ribs, God made two backs for the person by splitting Adam and taking one of Adam’s sides or Tzelah to Chava, the second human.
If one understands “צֵלָע” to mean side, then God creates a human as a mirror image or reflection of Adam by cutting the back of Adam in half. Primordial Chava is created so that primordial Adam can recognize kinship with other humans even if they look different. The distinction between male and female is less about roles that each play and ascribing “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics to each; rather, it is about companionship.
At first, Adam only notices the differences between physical sex as a signifier of who Adam’s companions can be. There is not inscription of value, just a signifier. Gender then begins once Adam recognizes the differences between his “female” counterparts. Joy Ladin, in her book (highly recommend reading this by the way!) The Soul of the Stranger discusses just this: “Adam is human before he is gendered; his humanity does not depend on him fitting into a binary gender system, on being a man as opposed to a woman. The Torah presents gender not as a built-in aspect of humanity decreed by God, but as a human creation, born out of Adam’s response to Eve (p.31). By this logic, God creates humanity in Gods likeness, and it is us humans who define the distinct differences and values on sex and gender.
So hopefully you have made it here, to the end of this journey of digging around the creation story with me. And I hope I have helped to lead you to waters, the waters of expansive, inclusive, creative, and healing trans Torah. If you have felt alone, discarded, and excluded –I certainly have, I am here to say to you that our texts do see us, they really do! We have always been written in these stories; we just must know how to look, and of course, Torah Studio is here to help you. With all the love in my little trans heart, I wish you all a Trans Awareness Week that brings you empowerment, contemplation, and love.
Rebecca Chess (they/them)