Other No More: Ki Tisa as a Response to Transgender Violence

Great sadness accompanies my study of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, and I turn to the text in memory of Kristina Gomez Reinwald, the seventh confirmed transgender murder victim, as of this writing, in 2015.

In no small part because of the endemic nature of intimate partner violence in our society, I approach intimacy awareness as a necessity, both as a part of a healthy personal life as well as a healthy spiritual life. Sexuality and gender identity can be settings for the expression of intimacy in our interpersonal relationships; our spirituality is a setting for the expression of intimacy in our relationship to the divine. Healthy sexuality and healthy spirituality are not innate states of being, and both require intimacy awareness–the work of dialogue, transparency, vulnerability, and reciprocity.

These are the very tools necessary to open and sustain conversations about sexuality, gender, and identity. Without intimacy awareness, we cannot do the work necessary to address these issues on a societal level. As many activists have noted, one reason for the recent advance of civil rights in this country is the fact that gays and lesbians have come out. Through a process of dialogue, transparency, vulnerability, and reciprocity, we come to realize that we are family, we are friends. We belong to the same faiths, organizations, communities. He is my cousin, she is my rabbi, they are my yoga instructor. The other is other no more.

Ki Tisa confronts us with the infamous story of the Golden Calf, and if pressed to choose two words to describe this narrative, I’d go with Intimacy Fail. According to the first verses of Exodus 32, “When the people saw that Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered against Aaron, and said to him, ‘Rise up and make for us a god who will go before us–because this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what’s become of him.’ He took the gold rings from their hands, and formed them in a casting mold, making them into a molten calf, and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.’” When Moses descends from Sinai, he finds the people in the throes of idol worship, and smashes the tablets of the Ten Commandments.

What I find most compelling here are the relationships–the intimacy, or lack thereof, between the people and Moses, the people and God. Instead of dialogue, transparency, vulnerability, and reciprocity we find silence, obfuscation, insulation, and isolation. The primary relationships of the Exodus lose their immediacy, their intimacy. Moses become other. God becomes other. The result is fear, anger, violence. The story continues in a grisly, less-cited fashion: Arm yourselves with swords and go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp. Kill every man and his brother, every man and his companion, every man and his neighbor. The Levites did this according to the word of Moses, and three thousand men fell that day (Exodus 32:27-28).

What would have happened had one person intervened? Moses will come back! God is still with us! What would have happened had one person come out and said no? This is not who we are, this is not what we want.

In her blog post about the death of Kristina Gomez Reinwald, trans author and activist Mya Adriene Byrne writes, “I call on all non-trans people: queer allies, straight activists, moms, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, bandmates, soulmates, teens and elders, ministers, doctors and teachers–let the world know that you care about trans folk, no matter how they identify, and that you stand with us. That our treatment, the erasure of our affirmed identities, and the violence perpetrated against us, is unacceptable. Tell people our lives matter–that we are people.”

May we read Ki Tisa this year as our call to act with intimacy awareness, personally and spiritually. May we do what the Hebrew “כִּי תִשָּׂא” literally asks us to do: stand up and take account of each other. This is the time for dialogue, transparency, vulnerability, and reciprocity. The other is other no more.

 

Rabbi Jessica Minnen is the founder of Seven Wells, an education initiative that invites participants to consider relationships through a Jewish framework, and the Rabbi in Residence at OneTable, a startup that encourages emerging adults to end their week with intention and explore the role of Shabbat dinner in their lives. Originally from Paducah, Kentucky, she is an alumna of Washington University in St. Louis, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Paideia: The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, Baltimore Hebrew University, and the Jewish Theological Seminary.