Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 28, 2017 / 2 Iyyar 5777
Summary: Rabbi Kosak discusses how our tendency to think of people in simple binary categories (good/bad, male/female, us/them) can blind us and prevent us from seeing other people’s equally deserving humanity.
A couple of days ago I encountered a marvelous commentary on this week’s Torah parshah (reading) of Tazria-Metzora. It was composed by Joy Ladin, who occupies the Gottesman Chair in English at Yeshiva University, America’s flagship Orthodox institute. She is also the only openly out trans professor at YU of whom I am aware.
Her meditations on the weekly sidra (parshah) captured my attention. First, you have to remember that Tazria-Metzora presents us with difficult and uncomfortable material about bodily eruptions, leakages and skin disruptions. These are not the sort of topics that we tend to discuss in our society. If anything, many of these bodily functions verge on the taboo. Second, people who are so afflicted must temporarily leave the camp and are only readmitted after the priest has examined their body for signs of improvement.
Now we believe that the Torah is timeless, and yet when we read of these purity regulations it is hard for us to connect. Indeed, it is often more convenient, as Professor Ladin intimates, to imagine that these are archaic remnants from the distant Iron Age. What possible significance could these rules of purity offer us today?
With her keen trans eye, she reminds us that for transpeople, gender surveillance is a normal occurrence in which they are regularly subjected to equally intrusive observation. Is that a man or a woman? A boy or a girl? To those of us who live out binary lives of gender identity, those seem the only–or certainly the most obvious alternatives.
It’s not just those of us who fit into the either/or classification who surveil others, such as occurred in North Carolina. Professor Ladin admits that she herself also engages in that same monitoring of gender, a sort of violent gaze which demands that the person we view be either male or female. What an important, if difficult insight!
Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the blindness, failings and limitations of our thinking. Indeed, such penetrating vision almost demands that we stand outside of the dominant culture. My minority status as a Jew is something I long embraced, as it gave me a certain perch from which to critique the larger host culture of America.
My gratitude to Professor Ladin is most centered on her notion of how individuals engage in gender surveillance of others. Surveillance. That’s a word use–and an action–that we normally reserve for police stake-outs. And yet we all have been subject to the surveillance of our peers.
When I was the associate rabbi at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, my mother would regularly attend services, even though that was not her home congregation. Still, a mother is permitted to kvell at her son. On days when she’d wear a singularly nice piece of jewelry, a particular woman would surveil her and comment to a mutual friend about how it had to be fake, because my father was only a professor. How many of us have not committed a similar act of wealth surveillance, when we endeavor to ascertain how much someone or something is worth? It’s a tawdry part of our natures.
In a similar vein, someone at Neveh Shalom confessed that when I first arrived, she constantly endeavored to determine if I was a Democrat or a Republican. In America, it’s not only gender that we view in binary categories of either/or. Our political affiliations are also assumed to fall into the same rubric and we make similar moral judgments about people based on their outlook. Yet when it comes to politics, I am a trans man. More accurately, just as a gender fluid person has attributes that are male, female, both and neither, I am a politically fluid person. This woman wanted to nail me down into an easy to understand category.
Political fluidity, just like gender fluidity, often places us outside of the camp. Our very non-conformity is threatening to others. That’s why we often think of those who don’t fit as morally repugnant or carriers of contagion. Still, standing on the outside can also give us greater insight that is harder to achieve from within the host or majority culture.
The truth is that there is no easy way to avoid thinking in categories. Indeed, it might be argued that thinking IS the discovery and use of categories. Our capacity to organize raw data into useful patterns we call information is critical. When it comes to our opinions of others, the speed and utility of this inherent design of the human brain can be useful. In places like the battle field or firefighting, rapid response is essential.
This quick reliance on patterns also poses risks. Will we make blanket judgments about entire groups of people? Will we forgo the effort to see all the wondrous and challenging complexity of another person? Will our categories prevent us from seeing reality as it is? Will we turn people into the dangerous other, the despicable alien in front of whom we lock the doors?
Categories are a necessary part of the human mind. They can’t be bypassed. What Tazria Metzora demands of us is to create better, non-binary categories–ones that at the end of the day will let us all find our way back into the camp. Let’s all think a bit more deeply.