Both Wilderness and Promised Land: How Torah Grows When Read Through LGBTQ Eyes

B’reishit—in the beginning of the Torah, and the beginning of the world—there was God, a very queer God. Unlike other deities described in Iron Age texts, this God didn’t have a form or face or identifiable role in the natural world. In other Iron Age creation stories, deities are action heroes, creating order out of chaos by slaying monsters, other deities, and occasionally their parents. In Genesis, God brings order out of chaos simply by speaking. No blood, no pantheon, no rivals, no triumphs to portray on temple walls, nothing to visualize or imagine. God says, “Be, light.” And light is.

It may seem anachronistic or heretical to call the God we encounter in the Torah “queer.” But when I call God queer, I’m in part drawing on an older understanding of the word, which has been used for centuries to refer to identities that don’t fit established norms and categories. The Torah’s God is disembodied, incomparable, and incomprehensible in human terms. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed theologies based on the God we encounter in the Torah, but by Iron Age standards, this God is utterly queer. Later Jewish traditions and texts normalize this queer God, imagining God as a king or emperor surrounded by an angelic court. But the God we encounter in the five books of Moses has no normalizing context, no divine hierarchy to define God’s kingship, no divine family for God to patriarchically dominate, no consort, and no body. As a result, despite the masculine pronouns and verb forms assigned by the text, God has no gender, masculine or otherwise, because God has no way to demonstrate or perform a gender. Gender is a system; even the simplest form of that system, the gender binary, requires at least two of a kind, and God, as Jews affirm in the Shema prayer, is One.

“God has no way to demonstrate or perform a gender,” Ladin writes. “The gender binary requires at least two of a kind, and God, as Jews affirm in the Shema prayer, is One.” Union of Opposites by YoHana Bat Adam. Credit: YoHana Bat Adam—Heartist (thespiritualheartist.com)

And, as many of us know, being singular, living outside recognized human categories and relationships, makes one very queer indeed.

Recognizing God’s Queerness

People often ask me how I reconcile being trans with being a religious (though non-Orthodox) Jew. Clearly, when Moses proclaims at the end of Deuteronomy that “God is our life and the length of our days,” he doesn’t have lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) lives in mind. But when I read Genesis as a child, I felt akin to the God it presents. Both of us were struggling to find a place in a human world without bodies, genders, or categories that would make us visible to others. We were both voices emanating from selves that couldn’t be known or understood.

Like me, struggling with the inexplicable desires and sufferings created by the conflict between my male body and female gender identity, God has emotional responses that don’t make sense in normative terms. Why does God prefer Abel’s sacrifice over Cain’s? Why does God decide simultaneously (so it seems) to “blot out” all life on earth and to spare Noah’s family and pairs of each animal? Midrashic stories fill in missing motivations and backstories, generations of commentators offer moralizing glosses, but the Torah gives us no way of answering these questions, confronting us instead with a God whose responses and actions make little sense in human terms.

As God tells Moses at the burning bush, God ehyeh asher ehyeh: God is whatever God is. Again and again, the Torah summons us to seek God, to follow God beyond human categories and explanations, queering ourselves in pursuit of the absolute queerness that is God.

The queering effects of a relationship with God are evident from the moment God first speaks to Abraham (then named “Abram”). Without introduction or explanation, God orders the seventy-five-year-old to “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” In Hebrew, God’s first words to Abraham—the words from which the Jewish people will grow—are lech l’cha, which can be understood as, “Go to yourself,” or, according to Hasidic tradition, “Go to the root of your being.” Abraham has spent seventy-five years living “in his father’s house,” being his father’s son.
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Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University, is the author of a memoir, Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, and seven books of poetry, including Coming to Life, Psalms, and the forthcoming Impersonation.
 

Source Citation

Ladin, Joy. 2014. Both Wilderness and Promised Land: How Torah Grows When Read Through LGBTQ Eyes. Tikkun 29(4): 17.

tags: Judaism, LGBT, Torah Commentary   
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