On Friday evening, June 17, I was one of about 100 people attending the fifth annual LGBTQ Pride Shabbat at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. The service was one of a large number taking place in Reform synagogues throughout the world during the month of June.
Supplementing the traditional liturgy were a number of special readings celebrating our human diversity as expressed through our personal sexual orientation and gender identity.
Before the concluding prayers, Hunter Keith, a transgender teen, spoke movingly about his transformation from woman to man, from daughter to son, from sister to brother. Hunter’s parents, Roz and Richard, also spoke, emphasizing their loving support of their son’s decision, despite their initial shock and confusion.
When I was growing up in New Jersey in the 1940s and 1950s, transgender men and women were invisible. The social world in which I was living could not even imagine that a man would want to be a woman or that a woman would want to be a man, although somewhere in the fringes of my consciousness floated awareness of Christine Jorgensen, a woman who was once a man.
In those days, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender individuals were all locked securely in the closet. Out of sight, out of mind. Given the uncertainty of the Cold War, given the ever-present threat of “the bomb,” at least we could count on the “certainty” of our sexual orientation and our gender identity.
By way of contrast, today transgender issues have become part of our national conversation. Rabbi Mark Sameth has raised this discussion to a theological level in his op-ed piece, “Is God Transgender?,” in the Aug. 13 issue of The New York Times.
In his very first sentences, Sameth tells us that back in the 1970s, his cousin, Paul Monroe Grossman, became his cousin Paula Grossman, “one of the first people in America to undergo sex-reassignment surgery. She was fired [from her position as a music teacher in New Jersey] after her surgery, and she subsequently lost her suit for wrongful termination based on sex discrimination.”
Sameth is hopeful that, in today’s far more liberal social environment, discrimination against transgender people will soon become a thing of the past.
Informed by the experience of his cousin Paula, Sameth tries to demonstrate in his column that “the Hebrew Bible, when read in its original language, offers a highly elastic view of gender.” He points out, for example, that “[i]n Genesis 3:12, Eve is referred to as ‘he.’ ”
In Genesis 9:21, after the flood, Noah repairs to “her” tent. Genesis 24:16 refers to Rebecca as a “young man.”
In each of these instances, Sameth is referring to the k’tiv, the original written form of the texts, as opposed to the subsequent k’ri, the traditional vocalized text, which is to be read out loud and which “corrects” the gender forms.
Sameth insists: “These are not typos. In the ancient world, well-expressed gender fluidity was the mark of a civilized person. ... In ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, the gods were thought of as gender-fluid, and human beings were considered reflections of the gods.”
I do not find Sameth’s arguments convincing. There are a number of ways to interpret the texts he cites without coming to the conclusion that they exemplify the notion of gender-fluidity among the ancient Israelites or in their notion of God. And I am baffled when Sameth affirms, without a shred of evidence, that “[t]he Israelite priests would have read the [four] Hebrew letters [of the name of God: YHVH] in reverse as Hu/Hi – in other words, the hidden name of God was Hebrew for ‘He/She.’ ”
There is a limit to how far one can push the facts to fit a deeply felt, though idiosyncratic, theory.
While I question the evidence that Sameth marshals to argue that the Hebrew Bible “offers a highly elastic view of gender,” I am sympathetic to his questioning the widely held view that the Hebrew Bible reflects a strictly patriarchal view of God.
The Hebrew Bible, our TANAKH, is not a unified book but rather a library composed and assembled over 1,000 years or so. As such, it includes multiple views regarding the gender identity of God; it reveals a God who reflects the views of the Israelites who worshipped him/her/it.
While the patriarchal God dominates the Hebrew Bible, there are also moments of gender fluidity within the biblical expressions of God. It seems to me that Sameth is wildly overstating the case when he proclaims that “the God of Israel – the God of the three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions to which fully half the people on the planet belong – was understood by its earliest worshippers to be a dual-gendered deity.”
To this day, we continue to project our deepest values onto the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. As we have seen, Sameth prizes the notion and the reality of gender fluidity. Not surprisingly, he looks for evidence in the Hebrew Bible that reveals a God who is gender-fluid, both he and she. Similarly, those who insist that God is exclusively “he” will find ample support in the TANAKH for their patriarchal views.
Our differing notions of God, then, reflect our most deeply held values, our most profound sense of personal worth, dignity and integrity. Nevertheless, God is more than the sum of our human values and aspirations. As we learn from the story of Moses at the burning bush (Exodus, Chapter 3), God will be who God will be. My colleague, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, states the essence of the entire TANAKH in these few words: “I’m God; you’re not!”
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.