I suppose I’m overdue for a long discussion on matters religious, especially considering how the Jewish high holy days are upon us. It’s a subject I’ve been avoiding, because oftentimes my own internal dialogue around these matters is far from clear – but, I think that over the past few weeks, I have managed to find some inner consensus. Interestingly enough, the matter of my religion seems to be a point of great interest amongst people with whom I interact. There is always a great deal of curiosity as to the experiences I’ve had, and how I navigate these often tricky waters.
Perhaps that’s a bit of a common thread, in fact – because religion, whichever one it might be, often comes into conflict with queer identity. And the results of this conflict are often painful, confusing, and scary for those who experience it. Although there are moves within some communities towards inclusion and the embracing of diversity, historically many queer folk have found themselves shunned or ostracised by their religious communities. In some of the worst cases, those same communities have sought to “correct” us – a “pray the gay away” kind of mentality that often leaves its victims devastated. We’re used to hearing phrases like “love the sinner, hate the sin” – a loaded indictment of our very identities.
Even in beliefs that aren’t Abrahamic in origin, terms like “sexual misconduct” might be used. Sometimes there’s a perception that being queer or trans is a sort of karmic retribution, and that those folk should be pitied by others.
So by now, you probably know that a term I apply to myself is “AJAB – assigned Jewish at birth”. It’s a phrase that I coined predominantly in response to my own recognition of the damage that I felt had been done to me in my youth under the guise of Judaism – some of the harmful and damaging beliefs that I was conditioned with, and that I never felt empowered enough to question. I’m talking here about concepts like misogyny, slavery, nationalism, bloodshed & brutality – things that I have a problem with today from an ethical point of view, but which I was brought up to think were acceptable or even desirable.
I had to “unlearn” (another of my favourite words) so many things, and it was difficult not to feel resentful that I’d believed those things in the first instance. Not just that, but I felt a lot of guilt and shame for the way I might have thought, spoken, or acted in the past. I felt like my naiveté had been taken advantage of, and that it had been done to me without consent – it was just assigned to me, and I had no say in the matter.
My growing social awareness and consciousness largely coincided with realisations about myself, specifically around my gender identity and sexuality. I’m certain it’s not coincidental, but that really isn’t germane here – the point is that as I grew increasingly uncomfortable with what I had been taught were the tenets of my religion, that religion was growing increasingly uncomfortable with me.
In many ways, coming out was a culmination of sorts – Judaism and I went from “it’s complicated” to “seeing other people”. Interestingly enough, there were a few within the Orthodoxy who were supportive of me – affirming, even. But this too was subject to some strict limitations – they might “not have a problem with me”, or they might support me, or they might even be happy for me that I was finally living my truth… but they wouldn’t want me at their Shabbat table, for example.
As time passed, I became more aware of just how intrinsic my Jewish identity was. As with many other religions, Judaism has a strong cultural component. Judaism doesn’t exist just in the rituals and prayers; it’s present in the way we talk, in the way we joke, in our body language. Certainly, some of it is genetic too – my curly locks are testament to that. Whether I want it to be or not, Judaism is hard-wired into my very DNA. I can’t change that, of course. Instead, I have to figure out how to accept it.
It helped when I stumbled upon a community that was more progressive, more accepting of diversity, more inclusive, more welcoming. And the way it happened was, in fact, rather serendipitous – I’d been reaching out to a whole slew of people and organisations, desperately seeking some sort of Jewish LGBTQIA group in South Africa, and finding no leads, I had all but given up, when an invitation to a Pride Shabbat was passed along to me from a most unlikely source. As I said… serendipitous.
The strife that I’d had over the apparent dissolution of my relationship with Judaism really gave me grounds to examine just what it was that caused me to feel such an acute sense of loss. And for me, it really comes down to identity and community. Because something about being Jewish is a part of my identity. A complicated part, but an important one nonetheless. And then there is the sense of commonality and shared experience that comes from the community. Some of the closest connections I’ve been able to make have been with those who were also assigned Jewish, and who can relate to the gamut of experience that comes along with that. And especially those who are queer and/or trans themselves – there is so much nuance to this intersection of identity, and finding people who can relate to it can make it a much less lonely place to inhabit.
With my re-entry into Jewish community, however, there were still some incongruities that demanded resolution. And it’s a process that I have been working through now for more than a year. You see, I’ve had to examine and interrogate not just my Jewish identity, but also my beliefs, my principles, my ethics. Judaism, at least in the guise I’d always known it, is about service to a deity… a deity that is somehow simultaneously merciful and vengeful. Or, more tellingly, simultaneously all-powerful and insecure.
And that’s where I start to have problems. Of course, as someone who considers herself a woman of science, there are some discussions on whether belief in any sort of deity can be rational or logical in the first instance. But let’s put that aside – it’s not a discussion that I’m prepared to have right now, in any case. For the sake of this conversation, let’s assume that I do believe in some all-powerful presence. An all-powerful presence that created the earth, and populated it with plants, and animals and humans. And that those humans were created to worship that deity, and follow its instructions, lest it become dissatisfied and smite them?
Why does an all-powerful deity need us for validation? And, if indeed it does not need us, why does it demand that validation in any case?
I’m not a parent; perhaps, one day, if I am very lucky, I will be. Should that day ever come, there are two things I am certain of: I’ll never represent myself to my child(ren) as all-knowing, and I’ll never make requests or demands on the grounds of “because I said so”.
It’s an imperfect analogy, I’ll grant you that – but still, it illustrates a point.
Let me perhaps try to phrase that point differently – if there is a god in whom I believe, then she is a feminist. Justice, agency, awareness, empathy, understanding, kindness – these are the sort of qualities that define any god of mine.
Not fear, not manipulation, not threats of spiritual or bodily harm, not condescension. Not guilt or shame.
I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to pin down exactly what it is that I believe in. Because a divine entity that rules over us all, and that “works in mysterious ways”, and that sees me as an abomination because I am trans and queer and lesbian and all sorts of wonderful things… that doesn’t work for me.
Right now, I think the best understanding that I have of divinity is that it is something within us all. The human spark or spirit that lies inside us, and that we can choose to use either for the betterment or to the detriment of ourselves and those around us. The saying is that humans are created in god’s image, but I suppose that I see it the other way around – that the concept of god is created in our image.
There are things that I do believe in, and that I have certainty around. At least at this moment, even if my perspectives might again change as I grow further. Language has its limitations, but you might call it karma, or kismet. Interconnectedness and justice and ethics. I believe that we are responsible for our actions and our decisions. I believe that we have the capacity to grow, and to learn, and to become better, if we wish to. I believe in autonomy and I believe in free will. I believe that we are uplifted through kindness and generosity and compassion.
So now, Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Where we confess the guilt of our sins, repent, and ask forgiveness from god. Where we fast, and try to separate ourselves from the human condition. When I was at school, I was taught that this day is the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar. I was taught that to break the laws would result in the Jewish equivalent of excommunication – complete spiritual cut-off, as it were.
Now, as you’ve undoubtedly gathered, I am all for reflection, and introspection. I’m all for finding and identifying my shortcomings, admitting to them, and working to become better. But it’s a process that needs to be engaged in with agency, and not under duress. The search for meaning is different for all of us, and there are different ways through which we attain such.
One of the problems that I’ve been grappling with is the idea that the body is somehow “profane”. Perhaps this is a little more loaded for me than for others, because of my being trans. My relationship with my body is, at the best of times, a complicated one. But the overarching theme of that complex and dynamic equilibrium is a desire to move away from distress and self-loathing, and to move towards love and acceptance instead. There are already enough sources that tell us – either directly or indirectly – that our bodies should be a source of shame, and much of my energy is spent on overcoming that personally, and of trying to find ways to dismantle the systems that promote those ideas.
Let me put this on the table, in terms that I hope are very clear: I’m
pretty sure utterly certain that I am trans for a reason. That it’s deliberate, and not accidental. That this is the way I am meant to be. This is something in which I do have faith.
I could never reach spirituality through detachment from my body. I tried that for long enough, and it’s quite clear that those efforts failed. For me, the process (and indeed, the challenge) of getting in touch with my body, learning how to respect her, how to listen to her, how to love and take care of her, is what uplifts me. It is when I am attuned to my body that I am most centered, and most meditative. When I become cognisant of her limitations, and receive them with kindness and understanding. When I am aware of her capabilities, and I rejoice in them, and celebrate them. When I refuse to feel guilty over her, and when I strive to look after her – that is when I am at my fullest, and my best.
Make no mistake, it takes constant effort to maintain. And it can all come crumbling down very quickly; I spoke earlier this year of how difficult it can be to keep it all “on track”. I’ve done a lot of coming out, and a lot of owning up to things, especially in the past two years or so – it comes with the territory, I suppose. But it was difficult for me to admit to self-harm, and it was difficult for me to admit to disordered eating. But these are truths of my life, they are experiences that I have had. They are things I will continue to wrestle with, and I cannot pretend otherwise.
There have been times in my life, some of them quite recent, when I have not been able to eat. For days on end. The worst bout lasted a week or more. Purging – either through exercise or restriction or both – is one of the maladaptive responses that I’m actually really good at. There’s a unique kind of twisted irony in “being good at” a maladaptive response, isn’t there? But the fact of the matter is that it takes a great deal of effort for me to maintain a healthy relationship with food. Finding that middle ground where I am eating neither too much nor too little, and doing so with regularity, and consuming the right kinds of foods… it’s a persistent challenge.
Part of that is why exercise plays such a prominent role in my life. If you follow me at all on social media, you’ll know that since I first landed in the US, I went from being someone who doesn’t run (though, to be fair, I wasn’t in bad shape – by then, I had already been exercising regularly for a while, it just looked a little different), to someone who can, if she wills it, run 21.1km in a respectable time. It’s not an exercise in narcissism; far from it, in fact. Each milestone, each benchmark, each footstep even is a reminder to me that my body – my trans body – is capable of wonderful and amazing things. That it isn’t abhorrent. That it isn’t a sort of mistake or failure. Each step is a step closer to wholeness of mind, spirit and body. And it is that wholeness that enables me to give my best to the world around me.
For me, my connection to my own spirituality is strongest when I apply myself to looking after my body correctly. To acknowledging it in its entirety, to understanding the ways in which it brings me joy, and to recognising the ways in which it still serves as a source of distress. This skin is not a barrier to my upliftment; in fact, it’s the vehicle to it. Though learning how to work together with it is not always easy.
The rhetoric of confessing our guilt is a tricky one for me. I’m the first to admit that I’m imperfect. I make mistakes – wholesale, in fact. Sometimes, I’m not even aware of it. But I try to work towards that – to know when I’ve messed up, to recognise why I did it, and what came of it, to make restitution if I can, and to concertedly try to be better in the future. It’s not just an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. That’s the easy part. It’s the hard work that comes afterwards, the desire to grow and to become better – that’s what I feel to be truly important. And languishing in the guilt, or getting caught up in blame is not conducive to that. Because the guilt and blame are self-indulgent, and they hold us back from that important work of actually getting better.
So much of queer life is already characterised by shame. It’s drilled into us, before we even know what we are. We’re conditioned towards it, from so many angles. And it builds up inside us, ready to strike at our weakest moments. That self-loathing, the internalised misogyny and homophobia and transphobia. I wish it weren’t so, but I think that every one of us has it within ourselves. Perhaps our children, or their children, or even their grandchildren will be free of it, but certainly this generation is not. And it doesn’t help us to become better people; if anything, it holds us back. It stifles us.
And it stops us from recognising those things that we have done well. Those times where we shine. Like glorious magnificent stars. Where we bring light and joy into the lives of others, where we uplift and empower, where we quell someone’s doubts and insecurities and manage to replace them with hope and joy.
I can speak only for myself, of course – but on this Yom Kippur, this time of reflection and spirituality, the emphasis for me is not going to be on guilt or shame. Instead, it’s going to be on growth and betterment.
The emphasis is not going to be on trying to separate the physical from the spiritual, but rather on accepting that duality, and nourishing it holistically.
The emphasis is not going to be on punishment and consequence, but rather on forgiveness and empathy.
The emphasis is not going to be on the divide between the human and the divine, but rather on trying to understand that the two lie each within the other.
The emphasis is not going to be on fear or duress or coercion, but rather on choice and agency and responsibility.
The emphasis is not going to be on castigation or rebuke, but on care and compassion.
And for those of you who assign some special significance to this time of year, my hope for you is that you should find meaning, fulfilment and peace. Whatever that might look like – you
do Jew you.
G’mar tov to you all.