My first Hebrew professor was named Rivkah*. She wore denim skirts, spoke with an Israeli accent, always looked a little farblonged, and was brilliant. Teaching both clueless American Jews and grammar-challenged Israelis looking for an easy A, Rivkah made even the most complex grammar rules seem accessible.
And so — my apologies in advance — here’s where the grammar lesson comes in.
Like in other languages, Hebrew words come in masculine and feminine. Book, table, war, shofar — all words in Hebrew have a gender. Sefer, book, is masculine. Milchamah, war, is feminine.
The plural forms, too, are gendered. Masculine plural words have an im ending. Yeled, boy. Y’ladim, boys. Sefer, book. S’farim, books. Feminine plural words have an ot ending. Yaldah, girl. Y’ladot, girls. Milchamah, war. Milchamot, wars.
Usually the rule holds just fine. But some words don’t go the way you’d expect. Shofar, for instance, is masculine. Based on the rules, you’d expect the plural to be shofarim. But it’s not. It’s shofarot. An exception. A masculine word with a feminine ending.
Rivkah — wise, kind, and very Orthodox Rachel — had a name for these words that were one gender but took the ending of another gender.
She called them “transvestites.”
(In case you’re wondering, that word never appeared in any of my Hebrew textbooks.)
No judgment, no snark. Rivkah just used it because it was succinct and it got the point across.
Rivkah was, like I said, brilliant. When I was her student, she was doing serious graduate-level work at NYU. But, she told me, she could never get her doctorate. As an Orthodox mother, she would never be afforded the time, or the choice, to do so.
Hebrew noun endings, it would seem, are not the only ones who have trouble with gender.
I was reminded of Rivkah by this week’s Torah portion. The parashah, Ki Teitze, includes a panoply of laws about civil society — how to loan money, how to treat your workers, how to handle lost objects.
When suddenly, in the middle of chapter 22, we find this odd mitzvah. Lo yihyeh kli gever al ishah. “There shall not be the vessels of a man upon a woman.” V’lo yilbash gever simlat isha. “And a man shall not dress in a woman’s garment.”
Which leads naturally to the question: why would the Torah care about that?
Our rabbinic sources go in two directions. On one side is a group I’ll call the “paranoid hyperventilators.” They freak out about gender boundaries. Like, a lot. So much so that they take this verse to some wild places.
Take, for instance, Rabbi Chiyya, whose fear of transgressing gender boundaries leads him to interpret this verse to mean that a man could never shave his armpits — and furthermore could not even scratch his armpits. Even through his shirt.
Rabbi Eliezer interprets this text to apply to just about any man whose is concerned with his appearance in any way. For instance, he forbids men to dye their hair, or even to pluck white beard hairs out from among dark ones — something I can tell you I have done, absent-mindedly, probably in the last five minutes.
On the other side of this group is a group I’ll call the “curious utilitarians.” Wondering, like us, why such a strange mitzvah could exist, they try to create some sensible guidelines out of the confusion.
Consider the famous 11th century French wine-maker and Torah and Talmud commentator Rashi. Rashi says the Torah is concerned about a woman dressing up as a man, such that “she will resemble a man and go out amongst men for the purpose of adultery.”
Rashi concludes not that the clothes themselves are the problem, but rather that “the Torah is forbidding garments that leadto such off-limits behavior.”
In fact the same part of the Talmud that devolves into chatter about armpit scratching proposes, at first, a rather common sense principle. Dressing in another gender’s clothing is not a problem in and of itself. Rather, the Talmud teaches, the prohibition pertains to using clothing to deceive.
“A man should not put on a woman's garment in order to mix with women,” our sages teach, “nor a woman a man's garment in order to mix with men.” In other words, don’t trick people into thinking you’re someone you’re not.
The issue, as we are learning these days, is that who we are isn’t so easy to determine.
For some people, biology and body parts just aren’t reliable indicators. We understand that these people are not transvestites — folks who dress up as another gender for play or performance — but transgender, people whose physical characteristics do not necessarily indicate their gender. You may have heard terms like trans, which is short for “transgender.” You may have also heard someone describe themselves as genderqueer or genderfluid, not fitting on either side of the gender binary.
For those of us whose biology and gender match up — what is known as cisgender — this can be confusing, to say the least. It can be hard to imagine what it’s like to experience your body and your gender in different ways. But we all can sympathize with someone with an injury or chronic illness. Similarly, a person whose body doesn’t match her identity can feel like their body is betraying them. Changing how they identify themselves may be confusing for you or me, but it may be liberating for them.
And may literally save their life. And as we know, pikuach nefesh, saving a life, takes precedence over almost all other mitzvot.
A person who has always felt like a man, for instance, but been forced to dress like a woman — in the Talmud’s words, “put[ting] on a woman's garment in order to mix with women” — may feel deep shame or self-loathing. Those emotions may cause them to harm themselves. Or worse.
And even if trans people value their own identity, they may still be endangered by culture that refuses to. Fully 75% of trans students report feeling unsafe in school, facing verbal and physical abuse.
And while the President’s ban on trans soldiers serving in the military has been put on hold by the generals, the message to our trans kids is clear — you are not fully human, not fully deserving of the rights and privileges of your friends and neighbors.
Thank God, a new understanding of gender — allowing everyone to live like themselves — is allowing for a flourishing of creativity and a burgeoning respect for the diversity of God’s creation.
What’s even more exciting about this new understanding of gender is the discovery that, in Jewish text, it’s not so new. The Talmud, when it’s not prohibiting hair dye, actually recognizes seven different genders. Yes, you heard that right. Seven.
There are the familiar male, zachar, and female, nekeivah. But tractate Yevamot adds the Androgynos: a person who has both male and female physical characteristics; the Tumtum: a person whose physical characteristics are obscured, making their sex uncertain; the Aylonit: what the Talmud calls a “ram-like” woman, who fails to produce signs of female maturity by the age of twenty; and the Saris: a male who does not produce signs of maturity by the age of twenty.
The category of saris can be further broken down into two: a saris khama is a male who fits into this category because he was born that way, and a saris adam, a male who now fits into this category through surgical means.
Lest we think that these were identities to be shunned, the same tractate of Talmud says that no less than Abraham and Sarah were each a tumtum.
Imagine what that means for a moment: the couple who we call the first Jewish man and woman may have, in fact, been neither.
And in a world still grappling with evolving conceptions of gender — imagine what it would mean for the trans and genderfluid members of our Jewish communities if we raised the original Jewish mother and father as being genderfluid themselves.
And in a country in which some people – some in the most beautiful cathedrals and in the most lofty offices of power — refuse to honor the full humanity of every soul — imagine what it would mean for the Jewish world to lead the change for dignity and respect.
And in a synagogue that is so loving and welcoming — imagine what it would mean to not hide that love and that welcome, not (in the Talmud’s words) “mix in” with those who would shun trans and genderfluid folks.
Imagine what it would mean, what it would look like, to openly proclaim our love for all humanity, regardless of sexuality and gender, to proudly fly the flag of acceptance and celebration, the flag of promise and possibility and pride.
Imagine if we avoided the fate of my brilliant teacher Rivkah, who could have pursued a doctorate, but could not because she was a woman. Thank God as a progressive Jewish community we don’t give the same message to our girls and women. Imagine if we extended the same respect to everyone, regardless of their gender expression.
Imagine if we refused to abandon our sweetest potential inside a prison marked “gender boundaries.”
Imagine if we didn’t have to imagine.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius declares “clothes make the man!” But Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia, is driven to madness by the crazy gender expectations she faces. Surely we can do better.
The simple fact is, rather than clothes making the man… man makes the clothes. By themselves, garments don’t mean much. It’s the expectations that we place on them that create the reality we inhabit.
How much does it affect me if you wear clothing I don’t expect you to wear. If you use a pronoun I don’t expect you to use? That’s really up to me. In the full breadth of your humanity, is it really that important?
What if we didn’t actually split people up by gender if it wasn’t necessary?
What if we trained ourselves to love and celebrate all our children, regardless of the gender they grow up to claim?
What if we asked people what pronouns they preferred to use — and then we used them?
What if we realized that God has created a glorious spectrum of people all along the gender continuum — and any discomfort we feel around them is not their problem, but ours?
Soon Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur will be upon us. Each day of the month of Elul, in minyan, we’ve been sounding the shofar to herald the coming of the new year – and to remind ourselves what it will demand of us.
At Beth Elohim, this year as in the past, the individual shofar will give way to our beautiful “shofar chorus,” each shofar a miracle of sound, regardless of size, shape, or color.
And the shofar, the masculine word, will give way to the shofarot, the masculine word with the feminine ending, the diversity distilled into unity, the feminine completing and now together with the masculine, suddenly and sublimely indistinct at that first tekiah –
All the shofarot and all their sounds —
joining together in one gorgeous chorus, indistinct because they are now a glorious, irreducible, unassailable ONE.