Book Review: Textual Activism by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

[Editor’s Note: Unless you’ve spent time in the Orthodox Jewish world, it would be hard for you to recognize how extraordinarily courageous it has been for Rabbi Mike Moskowitz to remain in that world and simultaneously become an advocate for transgender liberation and a champion for TRANS people including (but not only) his own child. We in Tikkun salute his path and see him as an ally in our job of overcoming every form of “othering’ that so frequently turns people in ultra-religious communities into bigots. His path reminds us to not assume that everyone in those ultra-religious worlds are bigots, haters, or people who can never change their minds about major social, political, cultural or environmental issues.—Rabbi Michael Lerner. rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.org]

When I was young, one of my favorite treats was the Yes & Know books. When my family traveled, my parents would allow me to select one of these small booklets from the airport bookshop with a magic, invisible ink pen. The book contained all kinds of games and puzzles that were only revealed when colored with the invisible ink. Entire images were lying hidden under the seemingly blank page, along with answers to questions and riddles. It never ceased to delight me that a few strokes of the magic pen could reveal what had been beyond my perception. And once seen, these revelations could never become hidden again.

We all have had this experience with the work of groundbreaking thinkers, people whose writing enabled us to encounter what was previously unknowable to us. Once seeing, we never again can un-see. The text, or the world, or our lives, do forever look different through their words. I think of Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai, which enabled many of us for the first time to see the women of Torah who were not named or acknowledged but silently present.

The writing of Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is like this. His book, Textual Activism, a collection of short essays, articles, and divrei Torah, opens up the Jewish textual tradition in startling, original ways. Moskowitz grew up as a secular Jew but identified as ultra-Orthodox for twenty years. In that time he collected three ultra-Orthodox rabbinic ordinations, spent a decade studying in the largest Orthodox yeshivas in the world, and learned the entire Babylonian Talmud.

A member of R. Moskowitz’s family came out as trans several years ago, and since then he has been a leading voice in the Jewish world–in the Orthodox world and beyond–for transgender liberation and acceptance. This commitment and his activist sensibilities on a number of issues, combined with his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish textual tradition, enable him to combine sources in totally radical and unprecedented ways, illuminating truths that have been hidden there all along. His style is concise and rapid-fire, linking as many as six or seven textual sources in a matter of a few paragraphs. Each new text takes us another step in the logical path he has set out from our moment in the calendar or our place in the Torah to the transformational point he would like us to see.

An example. In a short blog post for Rosh Chodesh Elul, the first day of the month in which we now sit, the month that leads us into Rosh Hashanah, R. Moskowitz begins by reminding us that the word Elul (אלול) is spelled out by the first letter of each word from the famous verse in Song of Songs (6:3): “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (אני לדודי ודודי לי). He then teaches that Sefer Yetzirah, the earliest book of Jewish mysticism, says that the month of Elul is ruled by the letter yod (י), corresponding to action. His next step is to teach that according to Midrash, our patriarch Jacob took the letter yod from his brother Esav in the womb. That originally Esav (עשו) was Asui (עשוי) meaning complete, and Jacob (יעקב) was Ekev (עקב) meaning heel, which did not need the yod. When, in Genesis, the verse tells us “And then, his brother emerged, and his hand was grasping onto the heel of Esau” (ואחרי כן יצא אחיו וידו אחזת בעקב עשו), “and his hand” (v’yado) is read by the Midrash as “and his yod” (v’yodo), rendering the verse “And then, his brother emerged grasping his yod.”

Next, R. Moskowitz takes us to the Zohar, the foundational work of Kabbalah, which teaches us that Esav is associated with the destructive period around Tisha b’Av, the day on which both Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed, a day now commemorated in mourning. In contrast, Yaakov is associated with the month of Elul, a month characterized by contemplation, in which we, Yaakov’s children, consider our own needed transformation. In particular in R. Moskowitz’s words, the Shema’s call for our “individualized presence in personal relationship to God” can be read as a religious framework for those struggling with gender identity in this time.

Next, R. Moskowitz brings us to the Slonimer Rebbe, a late 20th century Hasidic rabbi, who taught that the evil of Esav was that very sense of completion, the self-perception that he had no need for growth or further transformation. In contrast, Jacob’s grasping of the yod is part of his constant striving to grow, to transform, to become more self-actualized. R. Moskowitz says of our ancestor, “His life is one of continuous transition and evolution, modeling for us how to embrace many identities.” Returning us to the calendar, R. Moskowitz reminds us that according to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the day when the primordial Adam was created, and on that same day Adam transitioned into a new expression of male and female, as the verse says “God created the Adam in [God’s] image, in God’s image [God] created him, male and female God created them.”

The lesson here is that the only static thing about us is our status as children of God. In all other ways we are meant to continually grow and change in our identities and expressions. R. Moskowitz charges cisgender readers to be as conscious and deliberate with our religious identities as transgender and gender non-conforming people are with theirs, arguing that holiness is only achieved through continuous and unrelenting struggle and change. Implied is that in order to be the beloveds described in the Song of Songs above, we are expected by God to be striving like Yaakov, aware of our incompleteness, grasping for greater wholeness and ever-expanding truth about who we are.

Whether on trans struggle, immigrant rights, racial justice, or women’s liberation, Textual Activism surprises us repeatedly with insights into Judaism in direct relationship to contemporary questions of identity, justice and acceptance. In the same way that R. Moskowitz’s teachings reveal something new hiding within our tradition, trans and non-binary people offer the rest of us the challenge to question our own identities. What an ideal invitation for the month of Elul. If gender identity, something that once seemed so obvious and binary, is now an open question, what else are we taking for granted, are we oblivious to, do we erroneously consider complete? What has become deadened in us, asleep to truth? What is hidden, waiting to be seen? What possibilities have we neglected or shut off into binaries, possibilities we can perceive now with new eyes if only we have the courage to look?

If we were to use the month of Elul in its fullness, perhaps what we’d find beneath the blank page–buried hurts, old shames, spurned longings, neglected silences, shelved doubts –are just what we need to prepare us for our Beloved One. Just as I was entranced by the Yes & Know books as a child, perhaps if we could find the courage to say yes to even one of those hidden shapes asking to be seen, we could know ourselves more wholly, entering our Holy Days in greater truth, ready to be healed. This is what R’ Moskowitz’s book offers us—a fresh way into our tradition, a way to look at ourselves and our world from a totally new perspective of Torah.

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