The genderqueerness of our sacred forebears.
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim—
This week’s Torah portion includes the Akeida, the “Binding” of Isaac. Here’s the basic set up:
Abraham and Sarah have been on a spiritual quest with their family and posse. They’ve had a bunch of madcap adventures, dangerous scrapes, magical moments and near misses along the way. Sarah, after believing she was infertile, has a miracle baby, Isaac, at age 90. When Isaac is a young man, his dad Abraham, tells him that they are going on a father/son roadtrip. Things are going OK, when Abraham gets a Divine directive to take his son, Isaac, into the wilderness to sacrifice him. Inexplicably, Abraham follows orders, takes the guy to a mountain top, ties him up and is about to plunge a knife into his chest when, spoiler alert, he is stopped by an angel.
Much has been said about this scene. The classic interpretation says God is testing Abraham. Will he sacrifice his own child to prove his allegiance to HaShem? Some sages say he passed the test, others say he failed, that he should have read God the riot act at the mere suggestion of child sacrifice. Some say Isaac was a willing participant, others say he fought. I’ve read countless brilliant, troubling, provocative, beautiful riffs on this text. I thought I’d seen it all and then, this week while pondering the ramifications of the White House memo to legally define gender strictly and according to genitalia at birth (which they will quickly discover is more tricky than they think), I found this piece of 18th Century Chassidic teaching*:
“It is known that when Isaac was born, he was born with the soul of a female, as it is written in Or Hachaim, and through the akeidah/binding of Isaac he got a male soul that can impregnate…, But this is known according to mystical secrets regarding the cycling of souls—that at times, a female would be in a male body, because in the reasons of gilgal/transmigration of souls the soul of a female would come to be in a male body…that is why it says “Isaac prayed to God, in front of his wife, because she was barren.” (Genesis 25:21) And so the Eternal One responded to Isaac’s plea and not Rebecca’s, because it was he who needed divine help to be able to have children.”
Amazing!! So, the binding of Isaac wasn’t about testing Abraham, or even making any kind of sacrifice? No, the binding of Isaac was a Divine infertility treatment!! Isaac’s female soul made room for his male body to facilitate conception. What?!? It is clear is that traditional Judaism is familiar with gender fluidity, in spirit and body. Our master teachers perceived the Male/Female binary as both a reality and a paradox. For millennia Jewish tradition has recognized and incorporated queer people of every description, even while maintaining surface level binary gender norms. It’s amazing that the tradition can swing two bats at the same time—dictating distinct roles for men and women with one; while proclaiming the genderqueerness of our sacred forebears with the other. The tradition’s ability to see both the pixels and the patterns they make, astounds me.
Our culture is suffering from a lack of integration, a retreat into tribes; it is driven to simplify the complex; to reduce beautiful, muliti-faceted beings to one flap or crevice of their flesh. Our society is losing its creativity, imagination, and courage to embrace the array God has given us. And that is called blasphemy.
Let us be brave, friends, instead of cursing Divine Diversity, let us praise. This Shabbat let us delight in the obscure, let us embrace the riddles and puzzles of our souls, let us see each and every strange and confusing creature through the generous lens of the Divine. This Shabbat, let us bring on the Unicorns!!