Velcro, Leather, & String: Towards A New Understanding of Gender and Embodied Mitzvot

“And if you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, YHVH your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant…” (Deuteronomy 7:12)

“Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead…” (Deuteronomy 11:18)

“That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of YHVH and observe them…” (Numbers 15:39)1

The book of Deuteronomy is about covenant, and our parshah, Ekev, is no excpetion.  Over and over again we hear about two physical signs of the mitzvot.  We are to bind them on our arm and head.  We are to look at the fringes on our garment.  By regularly observing these forms, traditionally called tefillin and tzitzit, we remember the covenant and in return God will remember us.

Both of these key mitzvot have traditionally only been observed by men.  For decades, Jewish women have struggled with these covenantal symbols – creating everything from pink prayer shawls to a Barbie type doll that wears tefillin.  In college, I experimented with wearing a tallit katan2 for a few weeks, but it didn’t work very well.  It wasn’t designed for my body or for my clothing.  So I gave up.3

“Bind them as a sign” we read this week.  While most Jews associate these words with tefillin, Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari has come to associate these words with tzitzit.  Each morning he would bind his breasts with a tallit katan that also functioned as a chest binder.

Yes, you read that correctly, and no it wasn’t a typo.

A chest binder is “an undergarment worn by female-to-male (FTM), transgender, genderqueer, and gender-variant people, and by anyone else who chooses to flatten the appearance of their chest.”4,5 Wearing a chest binder is usually a painful experience.

Now the Jewish world has a new covenantal garment, and Rabbi Fornari has been generous enough to share his practice with us.  Each morning before he would put on his chest binder/tallit katan, he would inspect the tzitzit and recite the following bracha written by our colleague, Rabbi Eliot Rose Kukla6:

B’shem mitzvat tzitzit u’mitzvat hityatzrut.  For the sake of the mitzvah of ritual fringes and the mitzvah of self-formation.7

Then he pulled the Velcro fabric so tight it left visible marks on his skin, just like tefillin often do.

Why would anyone do such a thing?

Rabbi Fornari writes:

Although the words of the Shema and the V’ahavta, which we receive in this Torah portion, are commonly used to describe the practice of laying tefillin, for me they resonate with the practice of wearing a chest binder.  For me a chest binder signifies part of my relationship to my body and my gender, in much the same way as a tallit katan is a daily reminder of my relationship to God.  By integrating these two practices, I have created a new ritual object that deepens my understanding of my gender, my Judaism, myself, and my relationship to the divine.  The tallit katan chest binder is a way for me to mark my body and sanctify my gender….Wearing a tallit katan chest binder is simultaneously observing and reclaiming Jewish tradition.  It is reclaiming what observance looks like on the heels of feminist Jewish thinkers who have challenged me to do it differently and inspired me to accessorize along the way.8

Our parshah is named for the word ‘ekev.’ Ekev has many meanings, including ‘to follow,’ ’to do,’ ‘heel,’ and ‘footprint.’  The Torah could have used many different words to convey the message of our opening verse, but it chooses a word that is a part of the body (heel) and a metaphor for what our physical body creates (footprint).  This parshah is about embodying Torah.  Tzitzit, tefillin, mikvah, and circumcision are just some of the ways that we embody the covenant.9

For those of us whom, for whatever reason, don’t feel at home in our bodies, these mitzvot can be painful.  But if feminism teaches us anything it’s that we can transform the mitzvot.  And transfeminism, exemplified by Rabbi Fornari and others, calls upon us to reevaluate feminism and Judaism in light of a rejection of binaries or privileges of any kind.10

What is the footprint that we leave by guarding the covenant and by keeping the mitzvot?   What is the footprint we leave on Judaism?  What is the footprint we leave on ourselves?

Whatever our religious practice, whatever our gender, whomever we are, this parshah challenges us to take mitzvot seriously.  To mark our bodies, and to constantly remind ourselves of our covenant.  To always struggle to make our lives fit the mitzvot, to embody the unique covenant we have been given, through our bodies and through our own true selves.

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1All verses translations are © 2000 by The Jewish Publication Society, with the one alteration at the tetragramaton is spelled out as YHVH instead of translated as the Lord.

2Tallit Katan: An undergarment with knotted fringes, called tzitzit, traditionally worn every day by Jewish men.

3Haviva Ner David, a noted Orthodox feminist, was far more dedicated than I.  She hired a seamstress to sew a specially designed tallit katan for her and her daughter.  (She was privately ordained by an Orthodox rabbi, but does not publicly identify as a rabbi.) (Haviva Ner-David, Life on the Fringes: A Feminist Journey towards Traditional Rabbinic Ordination (Needham, MA: JFL Books, 2000),48-49.)

4Ari Lev Fornari, “Bind These Words,” Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, ed. by Greg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer, NY: NYU Press, 2009, 240-245.

5The trans* community utilizes a variety of terms to express a variety of understandings of gender.  Transgender and the newer term trans* are umbrella terms used to describe individuals whose gender identity and/or gender expression varies from the expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth.  FTM (female-to-male) describes a person who is assigned female early in life, and who later comes to understand/express themselves as male and/or transgender.  MTF  (male-to-female) is the similar term to express the opposite transition.  Some FTM and MTF individuals utilize hormone therapy and/or surgery to change their bodies, though not everyone desires these interventions or has access to them.

6Rabbi Kukla was the first openly trans student to be ordained by a major American institution, the Hebrew Union College.  However, it should be noted that Rabbi Kukla is not the first rabbi to be out as trans.  Rabbi Kukla is a co-founder of TransTorah, which is an excellent online resource.

7This bracha utilizes a play on the Hebrew word yatzar.

8Ari Lev Fornari, “Bind These Words,” Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, ed. by Greg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer, NY: NYU Press, 2009, 242-243.

9A mikvah is a ritual bath filled with natural water in which Jews immerse for many purposes, usually while completely naked.  Some of these purposes are inherently gendered/sexualized (such as menstruation) and others are not (such as conversion).

10Transfeminism asserts that a gender binary continues to oppress women, as well as gender-variant individuals of all kinds, and to privilege the few who fit a rigid view of masculinity.  Transfeminism (re)understands feminism to be aligned with the goal of transgender liberation.

 

Laurie Green is a rabbi, educator, pastor and organizer.  Her academic interests include classical and feminist midrash, the pedagogy of spiritual practice, and the new halakhic frontier of the trans* and genderqueer community, especially as it relates to conversion.  She is honored to be the Rabbi of Congregation Bet Mishpachah in Washington, D.C.  Rabbi Green lives with her wife, Mira, their son, Gus, and their dog, Fishke.