Posted by: Emily | 20 January 2014

But I wish to be purple

This is one of my favorite bits of Greek philosophical literature. I too wish to be purple.

Διὰ τί; ὅτι σὺ σεαυτὸν ἡγῇ μίαν τινὰ εἶναι κρόκην τῶν ἐκ τοῦ χιτῶνος. τί οὖν; σὲ ἔδει φροντίζειν πῶς ἀνόμοιος ᾖς τοῖς ἄλλοις ἀνθρώποις, ὥσπερ οὐδ᾽ ἡ κρόκη πρὸς τὰς ἄλλας κρόκας θέλει τι ἔχειν ἐξαίρετον. ἐγὼ δὲ πορφύρα εἶναι βούλομαι, τὸ ὀλίγον ἐκεῖνο καὶ στιλπνὸν καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις αἴτιον τοῦ εὐπρεπῆ φαίνεσθαι καὶ καλά. τί οὖν μοι λέγεις ὅτι Ἐξομοιώθητι τοῖς πολλοῖς; καὶ πῶς ἔτι πορφύρα ἔσομαι;

Think of yourself as one thread in the cloth of a toga. One white thread is not distinguished from any other. And just so, you could live your life and be indistinguishable from everybody else. But I wish to be purple, a small bright-colored thread, which makes all the rest appear graceful and beautiful. Why should I make myself like everybody else? If I did, how would I still be purple?

From Epictetus’ Discourses, 1.17–18, my translation.

Noted philosopher, cultural critic, and bestower of opinions about things he really doesn’t understand Slavoj Žižek wrote a piece in that bastion of people opining about things they don’t really understand, the Guardian‘s “Comment is Free” section, in which he waxes morally and intellectually superior about the fiasco surrounding the “sign language” “interpreter” at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service who was spouting repetitive nonsense. Žižek’s point is that sign language interpreters in general serve but one purpose: to make hearing people feel better about themselves by appearing inclusive. And furthermore, what this guy did doesn’t really matter anyway, because the service was just a bunch of bullshit anyway, so having a bullshit interpreter was completely appropriate! In this understanding, the message the event sent was this: We tried to appear inclusive of Deaf people, so you should be thanking us for that, but what was actually said was complete bullshit anyway so you didn’t actually miss anything!

How wrong Žižek is. How incredibly, damagingly wrong he is. He so casually dismisses the whole idea of having sign language interpreters at all, because it’s not like those Deaf and hard of hearing and hearing-impaired and other folks who depend on signing for their communication would actually like to, you know, participate in anything. Interpreters are there simply to make hearing people feel good about themselves. That’s all. What a cynical and terribly damaging way to look at things this is. In my own life, I need an interpreter to be able to understand and participate fully in events where there is a speaker speaking to a group of people. I am okay in one-on-one conversations, and if there’s some people gathered around a table or whatever, I can usually hold my own, but with varying degrees of success. Lipreading in any modality other than straight looking at someone’s face that’s not too far away is an incredible feat. (The movie 2001 makes a plot point out of HAL’s ability to read lips in profile, which—even though it’s science fiction—is nearly impossible.) But if it’s any larger than that—say, a memorial service—I need a sign language interpreter. It’s that simple.

I would bet Žižek didn’t think to check with any Deaf people or anyone who depends on sign language in order to communicate before writing this piece of shit assumption about our lives. Because to do so would have required him to step out of his customary intellectual arrogance and actually take other people’s lived experiences seriously, which is something that Academia™ sees itself as above. Žižek is simply the latest person to do this at the expense of marginalized people he knows nothing about. And the jab at the end (“you didn’t really miss much anyway because this was all just bullshit theatre”) just adds to the insult. Academia doesn’t give two shits about marginalized people except insofar as they can use us to promote their pet theories.

This is a much larger problem than this one article by this one intellectual. This is a problem with the epistemology of marginalization as envisioned in the academy in general. That last sentence is a fancy was of saying that privileged people, by and large cis, white, able-bodied, middle-class men, believe they already know everything about everyone else’s lives, so they can go off and work on their big, grand theories, and us marginalized people should just shut up and be grateful that we’re even being mentioned in the conversation at all. One sees this when we white people talk about race rather than listening to what people of color are telling us. One sees this in “gender studies” departments, where the identities of transgender people are discussed and poked and prodded and sliced apart without the participation or input of a single one of us. This is a problem with how academia looks at the lives and the experiences of marginalized people in general. Žižek’s piece is simply the latest incarnation of this problem.

The whole point of sign language interpreters is to include and enable the participation of more voices (note the audist assumptions behind that last word) than would otherwise be able to be included. I understand that interpreters are expensive and sometimes difficult to procure, but if your event doesn’t have an interpreter, I will not be able to participate as fully as I otherwise might be able to. And I’m pretty lucky: I will probably be able to participate somewhat. There are many of us out there who can’t. That’s what interpreters are there for, Slavoj. They—and we—are not there so that you can make your theoretical points while completely disregarding us and our actual lived experiences. They—and we—are not props for you to make rhetorical arguments out of while simultaneously dismissing the whole institution as the “pretense of meaning”.

Next time, ask some actual, factual Deaf people about our own goddamn lives. Then shut up and let us speak—or sign.

Posted by: Emily | 29 November 2013

Miketz 5774

Emily:

My brother-by-choice Reuven wrote a few notes about tomorrow’s Torah portion, Miketz, on the pain Joseph feels at being forced to hide himself and not disclose his true identity—a pain that many of us trans and queer people know all too well.

Originally posted on eish zarah:

Making Yourself Strange And Making Yourself Know

Joseph has become the vizier of Egypt, commanding of one of the most powerful countries in the ancient world. As the vizier, Pharaoh has put him control of the grain supply during the famine he foretold. Joseph is at the height of his power and the safety of his privilege. … And then his brothers show up.

“And Joseph saw his brothers and he knew them, but he made himself strange to them….And Joseph knew his brothers, but they did not know him.” Genesis 42:7-8

… וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת-אֶחָיו, וַיַּכִּרֵם; וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם

.וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף, אֶת-אֶחָיו; וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ

The verb נָכַר is used four times in these two verses (and behold, I have kindly highlighted them for you)  and is usually translated as ‘know’ or ‘recognize.’ Three of those uses are in the imperfect hiphil. (Don’t worry, you have to know…

View original 1,055 more words

Posted by: Emily | 18 November 2013

Al Heyt for Transgender Day of Remembrance

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a traditional confessional litany called the Al Heyt (“for the sin…”) is recited. It is written in alphabetical order, and it asks forgiveness for our community’s transgressions from God. This year, for Transgender Day of Remembrance, which my Jewish community commemorated last Shabbat, I composed a confessional of injustices that we—and I include myself among this group—commit against the transgender community, especially its most vulnerable members, trans women of color.

We have done injustice to them by ABUSE. 20% of U.S. trans people have suffered domestic violence at the hands of a family member. 50% have been physically harassed at work. 29% of trans people have been harassed or treated disrespectfully by police officers; with much higher rates reported among people of color. 20% were denied equal services, and 6% were physically assaulted by police officers. 55% have been harassed trying to access homeless shelters. Of those who expressed a transgender identity or gender non-conformity while in grades K-12, 78% experienced harassment, 35% experienced physical assault, and 12% experienced sexual violence. And this leads to 65% of all trans people who had experienced this kind of violence attempting suicide, and exceptionally high rates of homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and survival sex work. And we shake our heads and wonder.

We have done injustice to them by BETRAYAL. Trans women of color pretty much started the modern queer rights movement at Stonewall. Yet quickly the movement was taken over by cis white gay men and lesbians, whose attitude was “we’ll come back for you”. Trans people were told to celebrate “equal marriage” in the UK when the law actually allows a spouse to veto their trans partner’s legal recognition. Trans people were told to celebrate the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the US when in fact trans people can still be discharged simply for being trans, just the same as before. We tell them, “We’ll come back for you.” They wonder, “Where are you now?”

We have done injustice to them by CRIMINALIZATION. In many countries, being trans is a crime, punishable by prison or even death. Even in this country, in many places the law does not guarantee a trans person’s right to not be fired from their job simply for being trans. Even now, in California, a “liberal” state, bigots are trying, by means of a state referendum, to make it illegal for trans children to use the bathroom. And from cis allies? Silence.

We have done injustice to them by DENIAL. We deny that “cis” is a category of people because the idea checking our group’s privilege makes us uncomfortable. We pretend that trans liberation is not everyone’s issue. We refuse to accept trans people’s lived experience as true and valid until it has received the stamp of approval of cisnormative society.

We have done injustice to them by ERASURE. Transgender Day of Remembrance events are often billed to be about “LGBT people”. Transgender Day of Remembrance isn’t about “LGBT people”. It’s about predominantly trans women who are predominantly women of color. Transgender Day of Remembrance is not an occasion for a dance party or a drag show, yet that’s what some people who think it’s about “LGBT people” make it into. Each step of removal is another act of erasure, and erasure is a final act of violence against our community’s dead.

We have done injustice to them by FACTIONALISM. We pit groups of marginalized people against one another and make them fight amongst themselves for small amounts of societal approval. We pretend that “umbrella” groups actually represent the people they claim to. Nonprofits trying to do good work all fight over the same small number of grants, and then clamor to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

We have done injustice to them by GROUPTHINK. We produce orthodoxies about how things have to be done, and tell people that they don’t measure up to standards. We tell trans people that they’re doing it wrong, we give unsolicited advice and comments, and dare them to disagree. We use groupthink to reinforce existing prejudices and disenfranchise vulnerable people.

We have done injustice to them by HARASSMENT. We stare, we point, we touch without asking. We ask questions about things that are none of our business. We get offended when trans people push back about these things. We treat trans bodies as public property and expect that there will be no consequences for our actions.

We have done injustice to them by IMPERIALISM. We have obliterated indigenous modes and expressions of gender, while appropriating concepts such as “two-spirit”. We condone, tacitly or otherwise, the continuing colonization of a world we think belongs to us, believing that white people have the answers to the world’s problems. We find quaint “primitive” people’s conceptions of gender and sexuality and erase them by insisting that they fit into boxes that we create.

We have done injustice to them by JAILING. Trans people are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, in many cases simply for being trans. CeCe McDonald is currently serving a 41-month sentence for defending herself against a racist, transphobic attack. And, in a horrible perversion of justice, trans people who are incarcerated are almost never placed in gender-congruent prisons or allowed access to transition-related medical care. Then once they get out there is often nowhere for them to go.

We have done injustice to them by KILLING. Transgender Day of Remembrance is supposed to be about commemorating the trans people who have been killed this year. This year, we remember the names of 63 individuals. And these are just the ones we know of, the ones in the “official list”. And for some of these, we aren’t sure of their names. We do injustice by allowing trans people to live on the margins, but we do violence to their memories by allowing them to die on the margins.

We have done injustice to them by LAUGHTER. Trans women are a punchline. Tune into any mainstream comedian—even “liberal” heroes like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert—and you’ll find jokes about us. You’ll hear glib references to people getting “sex changes” and disgusted reactions to trans bodies being played for laughs. When we laugh, we contribute to an atmosphere that tells trans people that their bodies are jokes and their lives are only valuable as humor.

We have done injustice to them by MEDICALIZATION. Accessing transition-related medical care is difficult and expensive, and can be tricky and discouraging to navigate. It’s rare to find insurance paying for any part of transition-related care: hormones, surgery, psychotherapy, medications. Cis people put so much store by how “far along” a trans person is presumed to be in their medical transition to the exclusion of asking the person in question about how they might like to conceive of their own life and their own medical history and future.

We have done injustice to them by NEGLECT. Trans people are at high risk for being thrown out of their families, for being fired by their employers, for being rejected from shelters or treatment programs, and for self-harm and suicide. And when we shake our heads and say “It’s such a shame”, and don’t work to pick up the fight so it doesn’t happen again, we treat those lives as cheap.

We have done injustice to them by OBJECTIFICATION. We point and stare. We call trans people “that” and “it”, and treat them like they’re not in the room. We reduce trans people to their presumed genitalia, or a letter on their birth certificate. And we tell them to be grateful, because at least it means they’re getting noticed.

We have done injustice to them by POLITICS. Those who are the most vulnerable get pushed the furthest out of sight. We drop protection for trans people from laws or policies in the hope of making things as palatable as possible to a society that doesn’t want to have to deal with us. We play respectability politics with vulnerable people’s lives, and we congratulate ourselves on it. We satisfy ourselves with making small steps at a political level, while ordinary people are still struggling and still dying.

We have done injustice to them by QUESTIONING. We refuse to believe other people’s lived experience or to treat it as real until it has been validated by other people we’re more likely to believe. We still require trans people to get letters of approval from psychologists before we allow them access to medical care, and we require trans women to get two letters. We insulate ourselves from other people’s lived experiences by questioning the reality of those very experiences.

We have done injustice to them by RACISM. As much as we don’t want to admit it, we are complicit in institutional racism. We don’t like to think about the ways in which what we do furthers oppression based on race, and the ways it affects trans people of color, who find themselves living—and dying—at this intersection. It’s not a coincidence that year after year, the names of the trans people we remember are, by and large, the names of trans women of color. And this will continue as long as we don’t take a long hard look at why that is.

We have done injustice to them by SLUT-SHAMING. Women’s sexuality is punished by shame, how much the more so with trans women. We blame victims of rape for their own victimhood, and we blame trans women for not “passing” or for “passing” “too well”. We reinforce negative attitudes towards sex work and blame trans women who have to engage in it for survival purposes.

We have done injustice to them by TRANSACTIONALISM. Monika Maldonado, a trans Latina activist and author, wrote that Transgender Day of Remembrance is a day when trans women of color have more value dead than they do alive. We cheapen their lives by only caring about their lives when they are dead. We see the value in their lives as a transaction: to be passed around in privileged communities for a day or two, and then forgotten about for another year.

We have done injustice to them by UNFAIRNESS. We apply double standards to cis people and to trans people in terms of how they present their gender. We apply double standards to trans men and to trans women. We apply double standards to white people and to black people. And we usually don’t even realize we’re doing it—and when we do realize, we rationalize and justify it.

We have done injustice to them by VIOLENCE. 8% of trans people have been physically attacked or assaulted in doctor’s offices, buses, government agencies, retail stores, and other public venues. People wonder why trans people, especially people of color, don’t report things to the police: it’s because they often are not believed and sometimes get harassed or even assaulted for their trouble. Domestic abuse, rape, assault, and murder—these are plagues that afflict the trans community.

We have done injustice to them by WITHHOLDING. The National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force released the largest ever survey of transgender and gender-non-conforming people in February 2011, and summed up the results as follows. “Trans people face injustice at every turn: in childhood homes, in school systems that promise to shelter and educate, in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords, police officers, health care workers, and other service providers.”

We have done injustice to them by XENOPHOBIA. 7% of trans people have been physically assaulted on the job, and 6% have been sexually assaulted at work. But the rate triples for undocumented noncitizen trans people, who are at more three times the risk. And they have no recourse: they can’t go to the police or bring lawsuits except at grave, unacceptable personal risk to themselves.

We have done injustice to them by YIELDING TO DESPAIR. We get locked up with inaction. We wring our hands and wonder what we can do, and wait for other people to make things better.

We have done injustice to them by treating liberation as a ZERO-SUM GAME. Only when we realize that no one is truly liberated until all people are liberated will real change start to happen and there will be cause for hope.


Some resources

Blurred Lines in Parashat Vayera | Queer Interfaith Community

I didn’t write anything for last week’s Torah portion, Vayera, but my friend and colleague Becky Silverstein shared some words of Torah with a community of his at Kehillath Israel in Brookline last weekend. Read and enjoy.

Posted by: Emily | 11 October 2013

Lech L’cha: Names and Covenant

Like so much material in Genesis, the covenant God makes with Abraham is recounted twice in this parashah. The second telling of the story is by the source designated P, and repeats two themes from the two previous parshiyot, joining them in the person of Abraham.

God introduces the covenant this way (Gen. 17:1–2):

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHWH appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Go before Me and be perfect, and I will set my covenant between Me and you, and I will increase your offspring trememdously.”

God then subsequently changes Abram’s name to Abraham, and Sarai’s to Sarah, and institutes circumcision as the physical sign of the covenant.

What strikes me here is that the word used here when God tells Abram to “go”, hit’halech, is the same word we saw last week that the Torah uses to describe Noach (6:9) and Enoch (5:24). Furthermore, the Torah also describes Noach as tamim, “perfect”, which is exactly what God tells Abram to be. Remember that grammatically this verb is reflexive, meaning something like “go yourself”, and last week we saw that this denotes a special kind of behavior in one’s life, living in ways that are honoring of the earth and the people within it and of the sacred relationship between humanity and the divine. Even the name of this week’s parashah, Lech l’cha, reflects this: it is taken from the injunction God gives Abram: “Go [lech] for yourself [l'cha] from your land…” (12:1).

God then blesses Abram by changing his name to Abraham, inserting the letter heh—part of the four-letter Divine Name yud-heh-vav-heh—into his name, and He does the same with Sarai, changing her name to Sarah. This is an external sign of an internal change: Abraham and Sarah are now different people, marked not just internally by the covenant but externally by their names, as symbols of walking with God.

Much is made about how God changes Abram’s and Sarai’s names and then later will change Jacob’s name to Israel (32:29), but it’s interesting to note that here, God’s name also changes. Here, He identifies Himself as El Shaddai, midrashically understood to mean something like “God who is sufficient” (she- is understood to be short for asher, “who” or “that”, plus dai, “enough” or “sufficient”), but its actual meaning and origin have been obscured through history. It is a conceit of the P Genesis story that God does not identity Himself as “Yahweh” to anyone before Moses; here another name is used. As the covenant is spelled out and continues to evolve, God is undergoing a transformation of His own; this is reflected through the different names the character of Yahweh uses throughout the Torah, just as with the different names that the human characters bear.

And this goes back to what I said when discussing B’reishit: names are power, and creation of names is a powerful act. In Genesis 2, Adam gives names to the animals and names his wife, as the first act of power that he exerts over the other things in his world. God names things into existence in Genesis 1. The act of creation is divine, but when it is emulated by humanity through our speech acts, our acts of naming, we are “walking ourselves” with God.

Posted by: Emily | 7 October 2013

Noach: Seeking survival amidst destruction

I gave this d’var Torah at Havurat Shalom on Shabbat Parashat Noach last weekend, 5 October 2013. Please note that since this is a textual-level study of the words of the Torah, I refer to both God and mankind in the masculine, since that’s how the Hebrew text does.


At the end of the Noach story, God gives the sign of the rainbow to signify that never again will He destroy the entire world because of humanity.

I have always thought this odd, because it’s obvious that God isn’t telling the whole truth here. Sure, He won’t destroy the entire world. And He hasn’t. But He seems to have no problem destroying large sections of it. Storms, hurricanes. Go to the Gulf Coast and you can still see land destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Torrents of rain. Windstorms. Floods. Look at Colorado right now. Wildfires caused by lightning strikes in southwestern Oregon. And I haven’t even left the United States. Last month tropical storms lashed both coasts of Mexico at once. Pretty much the entire city of Calgary was underwater this summer.

The media calls large, destructive flooding “biblical”. People in the insurance business call these things “acts of God”, as if God Himself, sitting on His heavenly throne, is solely responsible for the necessary rebuilding and, it goes without saying, for coughing up any insurance payouts or settlements.

We call these floods “biblical” because in Genesis, of course, God destroys what He has created, saving one man and his family. What motivates Him? The answer is actually to be found in the last few verses of the previous week’s Torah portion (Gen. 6:5–7):

Yahweh beheld that the wickedness of mankind was great upon the earth, and every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was continuously evil. Yahweh regretted that He had made mankind on earth, and it grieved Him to His heart. Yahweh said, “I will erase mankind, which I have created, from upon the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping things, and even the birds of the sky, for I regret that I have made them.”

The wickedness of humanity is God’s motivation. And even after the flood, as God is giving Noach the rainbow sign of His new covenant and promising not to destroy like this again, He gives one parting shot at humanity, reminding us that we brought the flood on ourselves (Gen. 8:21):

And Yahweh said in His heart, “I will not again curse the earth because of mankind, for the intention of man is evil from his youth.”

It is well-known that there are two flood stories in Genesis, of course, and this is not the place to go through the minute differences. Suffice to say that in the E/P flood story, God espouses a hands-off kind of micromanagement, telling Noach all about the precise dimensions of the ark, what kinds of animals to bring on board, and all these details, but He doesn’t actually do any of the work Himself. In the J flood story, God’s concern for Noach is much more personal: He regrets the destruction He has caused, He gives Noach a personal sign in the rainbow to establish a covenant with him, He even personally shuts the door of the ark after Noach. The God of the J flood story is immanent; the God of the E/P flood story is transcendent.

But in both the J and E/P stories, God’s motivation is the same: He is angry at humanity because of their evilness. In J, that anger exists within a personal, anthropomorphic frame, and in E/P, it exists in a frame that is much more cosmic in scope. When God relents, in J He regrets His actions, and makes a covenant with humanity with the rainbow as a sign that destruction like this will not happen again, and in E/P He gives humanity a set of laws to live by for the same purpose.

Now that we’ve reviewed some of the themes behind the Noach story, let’s leave Noach aside for the moment and look at the most famous parallel story from the ancient Middle East. In the epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim, the character parallel to Noach, is saved from the flood, and narrates his own story in the first person. The story is found in Tablet XI of Gilgamesh. Briefly, the gods in council decide to send a flood upon the earth, and the god Ea saves his favorite man, Utnapishtim, telling him to build a boat. He exhorts him thus:

O man of Shuruppak, son of Ubartutu,
Demolish your house and build an ark!
Abandon wealth to seek survival;
Spurn property to save life!

Utnapishtim asks Ea how he should respond to other human who ask him what he’s building the ark for, and Ea tells him to lie to them about his motivations, presumably so that they too will not try to survive the deluge. Utnapishtim loads aboard all his possessions, including silver and gold, onto the ark, and waits out the frightfully destructive storm for seven days. When the ark comes to rest, he makes a burnt-offering, and “the gods swarmed like flies around the man making sacrifice” (11.163). One of the chief gods, Enlil, gets upset because he realizes that someone survived the destruction, and Ea tells him off for trying to destroy all of humanity, and places the fate of Utnapishtim in Enlil’s hands. Enlil blesses Utnapishtim and his wife thus:

In the past, Utnapishtim was a mortal man,
But now he and his wife shall become like us gods!
Utnapishtim shall dwell far away, where the rivers flow forth!

It’s interesting to compare the Genesis flood story with the Gilgamesh flood story; this is not the place for a detailed comparison, but I want to note some interesting points of convergence and divergence. The stories’ motivations for flooding the earth and the destruction is completely different, of course: in Gilgamesh, it’s caused by squabbling amongst the pantheon of gods. In fact, the entire characterization of the gods is strikingly odd: where the God of J “smelled the sweet odor” of the sacrifice and has a change of heart (8;21), the gods of Gilgamesh “swarmed like flies around the man making sacrifice”.

The most telling thing to me, though, is each story’s explanation for why the hero was saved. In Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim is saved because he is Ea’s favorite. Ea goes against the decree of the council of gods—obviously a very painful decree for some of those gods—to save one man. Ea even tells Utnapishtim to flat-out lie to everyone else about why he’s building his boat and what’s going to happen to them. Ea does tell Utnapishtim to be noble and spurn wealth and property so that he can seek survival, but what does Utnapishtim do? He takes all his silver and gold with him into his boat. He even gives his condemned palace and all that remains to some guy who helped build his boat. “Here’s your reward, sucker! You’ve got about ten minutes to enjoy it.”

Utnapishtim alone gets saved because Ea likes him. Why was Noach alone worthy of being saved? Not because he was Yahweh’s favorite. Members of pantheons play favorites: Athena and Odysseus, Ea and Utnapishtim. Yahweh doesn’t really play favorites in this way, certainly not on an individual level. The reason the Torah gives that Noach was saved is that he “found favor in the eyes of Yahweh” (Gen: 6:8). How did he find favor? He is described as tamim be-dorotav, “perfect in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). He is described as an ish tzadik, “a righteous man” (ibid.). The classical Jewish commentators disagree as to whether this means that Noach just appeared righteous compared to all the other people of his generation, or whether he was actually righteous in that if you put him in a generation of people where the average level of righteousness was higher he wouldn’t stand out. But the point is he was doing something right to merit God’s favor.

However, the most interesting thing that the Torah has to say about Noach, to me, is that he “walked with God” (ibid.). In Hebrew, this is a quite enigmatic phrase: et ha-elohim hit’halech Noach. Let’s unpack that. Hit’halech is a reflexive verb, literally meaning something like “he walked himself”. Interestingly, there has already been one person who has been described the with this word by the Torah. That person is Noach’s great-grandfather Enoch, whom gets the following super-enigmatic verse (Gen. 5:24):

And Enoch walked with God [va-yit'halech ḥanoch et ha-elohim] and was not [ve-einenu], for God took him.

Later mystical tradition would make much out of Enoch because of these five words. The secrets of creation are revealed to him. He becomes an gigantic angel named Metatron with a heart of fire and dozens of wings and a body covered in eyes (really). The point I want to make with Enoch is that this action—walking with God—is clearly an exceptionally meritorious thing to do. I would also point out that it is odd that “with God”, which would normally be expressed by a prepositional phrase (im ha-elohim) is expressed both with Enoch and with Noach as a direct object of an intransitive verb (et ha-elohim), which technically is ungrammatical, thus drawing even further attention to the uniqueness and strangeness of this phrase.

So just what is this action, and why is it so important to God? Why is it enough to justify saving one person and his family from among all living things?

Walking with God is to emulate God. Utnapishtim and his wife become immortal at the end of the Gilgamesh flood story, and thus become “like us gods”. This is exactly what Yahweh was afraid of after Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: that they would subsequently eat from the Tree of Life and become immortal (Gen. 3:22). But the way that Adam and Eve become “like the gods” (ke-elohim), in contrast to Utnapishtim, is by eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. What sets humanity apart from divinity, initially, is that sense of morality. Once humanity gains that, the only thing that sets them apart is mortality.

We are mortal beings; we are only tenants on this earth. We will all eventually pass away from the face of this planet. But we are moral beings in addition to being mortal, and we will be judged by our descendants and their descendants. I started off by saying that God still destroys, despite the promise and the covenant. But God isn’t the only one who destroys creation. Last week, I talked about how to be human is to create, and that creation is a noble, Godly activity. This week, remember that humanity also bears some responsibility for destruction. God reminded us of it: “I will not again curse the earth because of mankind, for the intention of man is evil from his youth.” Can we rise above that, even if only a little bit? Can we spurn wealth and property to seek survival? Can we save? Can we love each other and love our world? That’s the message of Noach.

Posted by: Emily | 30 September 2013

B’reishit: The Divine Act of Self-Creation

This will be the first in a series of posts about the weekly parashah (Torah portion). This week’s parashah is B’reishit (Genesis 1:1–6:8). This is also an entry in my friend Fr. Shay’s 2013 Queer Theology Synchroblog!


After creating the first two human beings, God puts them in the Garden of Eden, and immediately threatens humanity with death if they eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But the reason why isn’t explained until the serpent shows up and explains it: “for God knows that on the day you eat thereof, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowers of good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). The Hebrew word for “like God”, ke-elohim, could also mean “like [generic] gods”, or “godly”, or perhaps better, “Godly”. Knowledge makes one become Godly; it makes one Divine.

What does it mean to become Divine? Divinity is the power to discern right from wrong, and truth from falsehood. Divinity is the power to create. God speaks the world into creation; humanity gains this power when they become Godly. This is exactly what happens when the man and woman eat from the tree. They self-create, they come into their own as living, fully autonomous beings, capable of making choices, capable of declaring and directing their own creation.

And this makes God afraid: “See, humankind is now like one of us, knowing good and evil; now, lest they put forth their hand and take from the Tree of Life and eat and live forever.” (3:22). Who are these “us” that God is so afraid of humans emulating? It is the creators, those who engage in the holy, Godly act of making things as they will. The creation is now creating itself.

God addresses this fear by banishing humanity from the Garden, but God can’t reverse the self-knowledge that humans gave themselves. God, the creator, can’t undo his creations’ self-creation. The best God can do is banish, wipe out, start over. God destroys, but God does not un-create.

The creation stories in Genesis use two verbs for creation: bara and yatzar. The latter is a standard verb that means “create” or “fashion”, but the former is special: it is only ever used with God as the subject. The verb bara denotes a special type of creation, where creation described by the verb yatzar uses materials that already exist: contrast “YHWH God formed [va-yitzar] humankind of the dust of the earth” (2:7) with “God created [va-yiv'ra] humankind in God’s image, in the Divine image God created [bara] him, masculine and feminine God created [bara] them” (1:27).

The Torah presents yatzar-creation (yetzirah) as an act of doing, of making, of building. The act of bara-creation (b’riyah) is a linguistic act; true creativity and creation born out of a holy emulation of God. Traditionally, Kabbalistic mysticism sees b’riyah as reserved for God whereas humans are limited to creation by yetzirah. But this is a power that humankind acquires and starts to exercise, and even God cannot stop it. Creation is speech, both for God and for us.

I, a trans woman, certainly existed before I chose to transition. When I chose to transition, it certainly involved physical and medical changes to my body. This is yetzirah creation: formation out of existing material, changing its shape, changing its essence. But that kind of creation was incomplete, and the person that I am now—the “I” that I really mean when I say “I”—was brought into existence because I declared her to exist. I created my name by declaring it; I created my gender through speech and sign. In order to exist, I had to create myself.

And that creation is an ongoing act. It is a holy act, a Godly act. It is the act of b’riyah, creation by a Divine force, requiring nothing more than the act of declaring it so. Both of these creations are what it takes to make a self. Both kinds of creation are necessary in the world.

God speaks the world into creation; I speak myself into creation. Every day I wake up and ask myself: what kind of woman, what kind of Jew, what kind of self do I want to be today? Who will Emily be today? How will I continue to create myself? How will I continue to create my Self?

And there was evening, and there was morning: another day of creation.

Posted by: Emily | 22 September 2013

A blessing for the autumn equinox

Today is the northern hemisphere autumnal equinox, the day from which daylight grows shorter until the deepest dark of winter. As the days grow shorter, darkness seems to overpower light, and it is easy to turn to despair and hopelessness. But all things are cyclical; soon light will overpower darkness, continuing a pattern that has endured for countless millennia.

But until that day comes, what can we do? We can let the light of our own lives, our neshamot—our essences, or souls if you will—shine forth even more radiantly than we usually let it. We can love each other and live in peace with our neighbors. We can treat this planet that we live on with intimate respect.

When we do these things, the sacredness of our fellow people and the holiness of the world we inhabit will become evident. And despite the earth’s axial tilt, the light will overpower the darkness.

בְּרוּכָה אָתְּ שְׁכִינָה, יוֹצֶרֶת אוֹרוֹת עוֹלָם, וּמְחַיָּה מַעֲשֶׂה בְרֵאשִׁית.

B’ruchah at shekhinah, yotzeret orot olam, u-meḥayah ma’aseh vereishit.

Blessed are You, Presence of the Divine, which creates the world’s lights and endows the works of creation with life.

Posted by: Emily | 19 July 2013

Welcome new readers!

Hello folks who’ve come here via Keshet and the Forward! It’s good to virtually meet you!

I haven’t written and posted much new here because I’ve been dealing with a lot of stuff in my personal and professional life that have left me with very little time and energy for stuff here. But! I have a vacation coming up and several new essays lined up for posting, so we’ll be posting more stuff here soon!

In the meantime, my professional website is finally up at emilyaviva.com! And it only took me slightly less a year to get that done! You can find some of the classes I teach there, plus information about my upcoming book and how to support my surgery fundraiser, if you’ve got a few spare bucks you would be willing to send my way. I promise it’s for a good cause.

In the meantime, have a look around! Drop me a comment or an email or a tweet! Introduce yourselves! What’s your favorite game? What’s your favorite episode of Star Trek? What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? What’s your favorite tractate of Talmud?

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