Saturday, October 15, 2011

Another mechitza we don't need / Parshat Bereishit

One day in the Garden of Eden, Eve said to God, “This is a great place. The plants are beautiful, the animals are wonderful, and food is no more than an arm’s length away, but…”

“What’s the problem, Eve?” God asked.

“Well, to tell the truth, I’m lonely. There’s no one like me here.”

“I’ll create a man for you, Eve. Then you won’t be lonesome any longer,” God replied.

“What’s a man?” Eve asked.

“A man is a creature who will grow up but remain forever childish. He’ll be bigger, stronger, and faster than you, and he’ll hunt food and bring it home. When he’s not being deceitful and arrogant, he’ll be clueless and witless. And he will never ask for directions. He will, however, satisfy your physical needs magnificently.”

Eve raised an eyebrow. “What’s the catch?”

“Well, given his vanity and pride, you’ll have to let him believe I made him first. And just remember, it’s our little secret, woman to woman.”
We all fill out a lot of forms: applications, registrations, licensing. In some we are asked our sex, and in others our gender. Sex and gender are not the same. Sex is a matter of biology. Gender is a social construct: the attributes assigned to a particular sex. In the joke, Eve’s sex is female (and apparently God’s, as well) and Adam’s sex is male, but “deceitful, arrogant, witless, clueless,” and so on, are matters of gender. We can easily dismiss this as an old, obnoxious, and bigoted joke because the presumption of gender behind it no longer rings true.

We begin the cycle of Torah reading anew this shabbat with Parshat Bereishit. Here we find not one, but two creation stories. While they differ in many significant details, I want to focus on one aspect in which both concur: sex. Torah presumes two sexes: male and female. In chapter one, multiple people are created on the sixth day -- some males and some females.
And God created humanity in his image, in the image of God he created humanity; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
In chapter two, a single man is created, and only after God realizes he is lonely, a woman is created.
So the Lord God 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. And the Lord God fashioned the rib that he had taken from the man into a women; and he brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:21-22)
I recently found myself in a conference hotel that had two identically equipped single restrooms on the fifth floor. Yet one was marked “women” and one was marked “men.” What’s the point? You won’t be surprised to hear that there was a line outside the first, and no one using the second. The view of the human race as divided among males and females, who even use separate although identical single rest rooms, runs deep in our society. It is accompanied by varying notions of gender: what is expected from, and what is appropriate for, boys and girls, men and women.

Torah is our Master Narrative. It informs all our thinking about, and discussion of, sex, gender, and sexuality. Torah presumes a binary oppositional world: males and females; holy and mundane; shabbat and the other days; Israel and the other nations; obedience and disobedience to the covenant; reward and punishment.

Perhaps we have misread Torah for a long time. Perhaps the point is that there is variety that makes reproduction possible, not that there are only two options. There are people for whom the rest room designations “men” and “women” are not sufficient. People have long recognized hermaphrodites as well as pseudohermaphrodites; Talmud discusses this (Yebamot 81, 83; Shabbat 134b; mishnah Bikkurim, ch. 4). Today there are people who openly identify as transgender, bigender, transsexual, or intersex. They often call themselves “genderqueer.” Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling, professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University, has suggested that there are at least five sexes. While not widely accepted, her ideas are certainly eye opening. Even the most basic “truths” sometimes turn out not be true at all.

Where once we pretended homosexuality did not exist, today we are challenged to fully recognize and accept genderqueer people as children of God, created in the divine image like all other people. After all, God is only male as a matter of semantics, and female as a matter of humor. God is beyond sex and gender, or perhaps better put, God incorporates all.

The Rabbis tell us that the first primordial human was androgynous -- neither male nor female as Torah seems to suggest, and certainly as it has been interpreted for a very long time. Rather, one side of the primordial human was male and the other side was female. Another opinion holds that the primordial human was altogether sexless.
Rabbi Yermia the son of Elazar said: When the Holy One Blessed be God created the first human, He created him androgynous, for it says, Male and female created He them (Genesis 1:27). Rabbi Shmuel b. Nachman said: When the Holy One Blessed be God created the first human, He made it two-faced, then he sawed it and made a back for this one and a back for that one. They objected to him: but it says, He took one of his ribs [tsela’] (Genesis 2:21). He answered: [tsela’ means] "one of his sides," similarly to that which is written, And the side [tsela'] of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:20). Rabbi Tanchuma in the name of Rabbi Banayah and Rabbi Berekiah in the name of Rabbi Elazar: He created him as a golem, and he was stretched from one end of the world to the other, as it says, My golem which Your eyes have seen. (Psalm 139:16) (Bereishit Rabbah 1:54-55)
In the Rabbis’ imagination, the primordial human -- the ideal human -- is unsexed and undifferentiated: beyond gender assignment. The primordial human is neither “male” nor “female,” but rather a person. This person contains everything within or is a golem, without identifiable sex or gender. When one considers this primordial human, all discussion of sex and gender fall away as irrelevant. What one sees -- and all one can see -- is a human being, created by God, in the Divine Image. There’s a lesson here for us about viewing people not from a narrow, limited slant, but rather through God’s broad and loving lens.

Can you do that? What will it take for you to do that? If you already do that, can you help others to do so also?

And for goodness sake, let’s make rest rooms user-friendly.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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