In the Shema we read: “וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם,” “Teach them to your children and speak with them.” “Them” (בם) has been understood as an acronym for the first word of Genesis, “בראשית” and of the opening Mishnah of the Talmud, “מתי” (when). The word “מתי” comes from the Mishnah’s opening question, when do we begin reciting the Shema of the evening? Together, these words stand for the entire written and oral law.
Part of the lesson we are meant to impart to children is that whenever we start something new, there is a desire to ask “when will we get there.” On the journey of Rabbinic Allyship for gender nonconforming b’nai mitzvah, we are just getting started.
Everyday, as cis-clergy at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the largest LGBTQ synagogue in the world, we think about what it means to identify as a woman or as a man, and about how to continue becoming the people we aspire to be, culturally, socially, and spiritually. Serving CBST means that we are frequently asked to provide language and guidance for gender non-conforming kids who are looking for a ritual that supports who they are, rather than forcing them into the binary of either bar or bat mitzvah (son or daughter of the commandments).
Serving CBST means that we are frequently asked to provide language and guidance for gender non-conforming kids.
How can we structure this ancient rite of passage so that it inspires children to transition into Jewish adulthood, while also being sensitive to the struggles they face in a community that does not provide gender affirming language beyond the binary?
The Gaon posits that the first Mishnah is focused on Shema because when a child becomes an adult at sundown, it will be the first biblical commandment for which they are responsible. As adults, when we find ourselves in uncharted territory, the Shema continues to be a helpful tool. It offers navigational advice for the new traveler asking, “Are we there yet?” or “When will we finally achieve social change?”
No one knows where or how long our path goes, and all we can do is reach for the best in each moment. For us all that means: קורין את שמע, read the shema, because whoever we are, wherever we find ourselves, we seek to be grounded in our connection to G-d, who is everywhere at all times.
No one knows where or how long our path goes, and all we can do is reach for the best in each moment.
We believe the Torah contains the details that are important in our relationship with G-d. The time of a b’nai mitzvah is when G-d says that we are mature enough to take responsibility for our own unique and intimate relationship with G-d. It is when we’ve reached the age of consent, and know enough about who we are and how we should be behaving to be held accountable for our choices.
The Shema invites us to connect with G-d not just through an aspect of our identity, but rather to love G-d with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our might. These words have been the last ones spoken for millions of our ancestors as they were reunited to the creator, no longer in need of a physical body. The Shema itself testifies that Israel heard, was present, and connected with G-d, all in one moment. When we say it we are meant to unify and become one with The One. Thus, the union that occurs during the Shema is one that allows us to transcend the needs of the physical body.
The Shema itself testifies that Israel heard, was present, and connected with G-d, all in one moment.
Rosh Chodesh Elul, the day that Moses ascended the mountain to receive the second set of tablets, is a month designated for self reflection on where we are in our relationship with G-d, and what course corrections may be necessary for us to return to our true selves.
The verse in Song of Songs 6:3, אני לדודי ודודי לי, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” alludes to this closeness by spelling the name of the month, Elul, with the first letter of each word. It additionally reminds us that we must first acknowledge ourselves as individuals before we ask someone else to accept us for who we are.
In the mystical work of Sefer Yetzirah, Elul is ruled by the letter “י” and corresponds to מעשה, action. Our patriarch, Jacob, was proactive in taking this letter from his brother as they struggled in the womb. Esav (עשו), meaning complete, should have a “י” at the end to spell out “עשוי,” and Yaakov (יעקב) means heel (עקב) and does not need a “י” at the beginning. The Genesis verse hints that the struggle was over this letter: וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יָצָא אָחִיו וְיָדוֹ אֹחֶזֶת בַּעֲקֵב עֵשָׂו. The midrash reads “וְיָד֤וֹ” as a “י,” rendering the verse: And then, this brother emerged grasping his “י.”
The Zohar teaches that the consequences of the struggle are also reflected in the calendar in that Esav dominates the destructive and mournful three weeks leading up to Tishabav, while Jacob reigns over the contemplative month of Elul. As children of Israel, we respond to the Shema’s call for individualized presence in personal relationship with G-d. This moment of exploration can be thought of as providing a religious framework for those struggling with gender identity.
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This moment of exploration can be thought of as providing a religious framework for those struggling with gender identity.
The Slonimer Rebbe teaches that the evil of Esav comes from the false sense of being fully formed and complete, believing there is no further need for transformation. By contrast, Jacob’s holiness comes from the constant commitment to growth and self actualization. His life is one continuous transition and evolution, modeling for us how to embrace many identities.
All beginnings, every change, starts with recognizing that something is missing and we want to do something about it. This month invites us to also recreate ourselves, in the most authentic, embodied way.
Our permanent identity is as a child of G-d, including and directly as a result of our many, varied forms of gender identity and expression. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, where we revisit the creation and the blessing of all things, we recognize it also as the day that the original, primordial “Adam” transitioned to a new expression of man and woman.
If cisgender folks would be as conscious and deliberate with our religious identities as trans and gender non-conforming people are with theirs, there would be no question about Jewish continuity. Holiness is achieved only through unrelenting struggle, and becoming a Jewish adult comes with the acknowledgment that not everything that we observe is acceptable. There are many voids that need to be filled, wounds that need to be healed, and eternal truths applied to a changing world.
As a new year approaches and our world continues its own ongoing transition, we are reminded that we each have unique roles to play, and a great deal to learn about ourselves and each other. As rabbis we teach students, and our students have a lot to teach us as rabbis. As you come forward to take on a new mitzvah for the first time, as the community elevates you and brings you into relationship with Torah, how would you like to be called?
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.
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