Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011


by Joy Ladin

Muriel Rukeyser wrote that "if one woman told the truth about her life ... the world would split open." That's certainly true for transpeople -- when we tell the complicated, complicating truth about our gender identities, the world splits open. Not the world with a capital "W," but the little worlds, woven of love and work, that define us. According to the Jewish tradition, telling the truth should foster tikkun olam, the healing of creation. For transpeople, this is true: we have been torn, and we are making ourselves whole. But for those whose relationships to us are based, as so many relationships are, on gender, when we tell our truths, the world splits open. Our truth-telling wounds rather than heals the world.

This paradox is not limited to transsexuals. The worlds of those comfortable with traditional sex roles split open when feminists tell the truth about their lives; the worlds of tenured academics like me split open when exploited adjuncts tell the truth about theirs. As more and more people tell the truth about themselves, it can begin to seem that identities, relationships, families, communities -- all efforts to love and build and work together -- are inevitably based on oppression, denial, lies. Fear -- the fear that if everyone's truth is told, every world will split into painful, segregated shards of difference -- fuels both the conservative recoil against "political correctness," and the exhaustion of progressives who watch organizations, coalitions, and movements shattered by the truths of those inadvertently slighted or excluded.

What hell to be human, if to tell the truth is to shatter the world, and to acknowledge others' truths is to be ashamed, condemned, alone.

Jewish tradition rejects this dead-end vision. Our rabbis knew that absolute truth and absolute justice were incompatible with human relationships; if God judged us by those standards, they taught, the world would cease to exist. The worlds we inhabit can survive only when world-shattering truth is fused and suffused with love.

Love -- the drive toward one another that fuels the hard work of compassion, understanding, forgiveness -- reconstitutes the worlds that hard truths shatter. When I began living as a woman, my children's world split open. As the truth of my gender collided with the truth of their pain at losing the man they loved, it seemed there was no world we could inhabit together -- until love taught us that no matter what gender I expressed, I would always be their father.

As my children and I learned, when love rebuilds truth-shattered worlds, possibilities the lost world couldn't conceive -- a woman-father, children mourning a living parent -- can become the basis for relationship. The other day, one of my Orthodox Jewish students came into my office. Her world, I knew, was being shattered by the imminent death of her father. After we discussed her ideas about poetry, she looked me in the eye, and said, "I know you've gone through hard times too. Tell me: how do you survive?" The truth that should have shattered us into separate worlds -- cisgender and transgender, Orthodox Jew and Torah-labeled abomination -- had brought us, in grief, in love, together.

Joy Ladin, David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, is the author of four books of poetry, including the recent Transmigration and Psalms, and numerous essays.

Source Citation: Ladin, Joy. 2011.Truth. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive


tags: Gender & Sexuality, Judaism, Rethinking Religion, Spiritual Politics  
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