On the Border of Gentle and Strong

11.24.2014

Wellesley College has a problem. Wellesley is a woman’s college. But, in the past several years, there have been several transgender students at Wellesley. They were women when they were applied and accepted. But, during the course of their college career, they became men.
The trans students want to stay at Wellesley. They love the school. And, no one at the college is suggesting that they be asked to leave. The problem is one of language. Wellesley traditionally has emphasized the value of sisterhood. But, that word doesn’t apply to all of Wellesley’s students. So, the college adopted the word ‘siblinghood’ instead. But, some people don’t like the word ‘siblinghood’ because it’s not as warm or as gender-specific as ‘sisterhood.’

The issue has come to a head in an interesting way at Wellesley’s graduation ceremony. There is a Wellesley tradition at graduations of singing ‘America the Beautiful’. But, when the song gets to the verse ‘and crown thy good with brotherhood’ – all of the students sing out at the top of their lungs ‘and crown they good with sisterhood.’ Until last year. At last year’s graduation, some of the students sang out ‘sisterhood.’ And, some of the students sang out ‘siblinghood.’ And, some of the students sang out ‘brotherhood.’

People who don’t really fit our traditional categories can be annoying. And, we have a choice. We can ignore them. We can get angry with them and try to destroy them. Or, we can re-examine our categories, and ask whether they are really adequate to describe the world.

That’s what’s going on in today’s parasha. In today’s parasha, the Torah challenges the existing understanding of gender, and questions whether it is adequate to describe reality. The classic gender stereotype is that the man is strong, and the woman is gentle. What we have in parashat Toldot is a collaboration between two people who don’t fit the pattern. Jacob is a gentle male. Rebecca is a strong woman. They live in a world which has no place for them. So, they have to resort to subterfuge to get what they want.

Isaac favors Esau. Esau is a man Isaac understands. He is a hunter. He is aggressive. So, in order to win his father’s blessing, Jacob pretends to be Esau. He puts goat skins on his arms to make them hairy. Isaac doesn’t see well. Maybe he will be fooled.

At the climax of the story, Isaac embraces Jacob who is pretending to be Esau, and Isaac is confused. He says: “ha-kol kol Yaakov, v’hayadayim yedei esav. The voice I hear speaking to me is Jacob’s voice. But, the hands are Esau’s hands.”What Isaac is really saying is : “I don’t really know what to make of Jacob. Esau is a man who acts like a man. But, Jacob doesn’t fit any category I know.”

When my kids were little, we used to play with these puzzles where you could mix and match the parts of people. You could put the torso of one character onto another character. You could put the head of a woman onto the body of a man, and vice versa. That’s what was confusing Isaac. Jacob seemed to be some kind off a hybrid. He had the body of a man, but the soul of a woman, just like Rebecca had the body of a woman and the soul of a man.

Now Jacob is not just anybody. Jacob is Yisrael. He is a stand in for the Jewish people. So, what the Torah says about Jacob is often meant to apply to the character of the Jewish people as a whole. And, so what I think the Torah is saying in this story is this: It’s our destiny in history to be the people that doesn’t fit into any pre-existing categories.

Haman said it. That’s why we have Purim today. Antiochus said it. That’s why we’ll be celebrating Chanukah soon. “The Jews are annoying. We don’t know what to make of them. They are not like everyone else. They live like Republicans, but they vote like Democrats. We don’t understand them! They don’t fit into any of our normal categories.”

And, when we are faced with an inconvenient person or an inconvenient fact that doesn’t fit our view of the world, we have two choices. We can change our view of the world. But, that is threatening. Nobody easily abandons beliefs and assumptions that we have cherished for a lifetime or for many lifetimes.

So, the other alternative is to force that other person into our category – to change them. Or, we can get rid of them. That way, we preserve our way of looking at the world, and we don’t have to think too hard.

I think this explains why so much of the world has such an implacable hostility to Israel. It’s not what Israel does. It’s what Israel is. Israel just confuses the heck out of people. It doesn’t fit any of the normal categories of existence. What are the Jews? Are we a nation? Are we a religion? We are both. “What do you mean you’re both? Who else is both?” The truth is, no one else is both. But, we are.

The world wants to know: “Is Israel a democracy or is it a Jewish state?” And, the answer is: Israel is both. The world doesn’t get this. There are no other models quite like this. The world says: “We’ve seen theocracies, where religion is state law. We’ve seen democracies where there is no religion in the public square. We don’t get what you are, Israel.”

And, since, people do not like to be confused, and people resist changing the way they think, many say – “we must force this nation into the mold we understand – by making Israel a carbon copy of America – or by destroying this inconvenient, annoying little nation.”

And, how inconvenient we are! Most nations are either the top dog or the underdog. You can’t be both. But, Israel is both. If you just look at Israelis and Palestinians, Israel is the top dog. But, as Ari Shavit points out, if you look at Israel in the context of the entire Middle East, a tiny Jewish nation amidst a billion Muslims – or if you expand your view further and look at all the nations of the world who regularly condemn Israel – then Israel is clearly the underdog.

Israel doesn’t make sense. How do you explain the fact that one of the most socially progressive countries in the world is hated by the left? How do you explain the fact that one of the most advanced countries when it comes to inclusion of gays and lesbians is adored by the fundamentalist Christian right?

Israel is a country that doesn’t fit any pre-existing category. It lives on the border of gentle and strong. Fighting my enemy I understand. Reaching out to my enemy to make peace I understand. But, how do I do both simultaneously? That’s what Israel has to do all the time. The world is totally confused by this, and cannot accept it.

One of my favorite Israelis is Idan Raichel. In 2008, the Israeli pianist and band leader spotted the Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure in the Berlin airport, and he reached out to him. Now their band the Toure-Raichel Collective has hit the top of the world music charts. The sound that they have created is unprecedented. There is no category to describe it.

But, it’s not only about the music. Alicia Keys says Idan ‘bridges cultures and promotes tolerance.’ Raichel is a Jew and Israeli. Toure is a Muslim. Both have been criticized by pro-Palestinian groups. But, Toure says “We should not say, OK I am a Jew, so I will not play with Muslims. Or, I am a Muslim, so I will not play with Christians.” That’s why we have problems in the world.

When faced with a reality that doesn’t fit our world view, we can force it to fit. Or, we can change the way we think, and create a more compassionate and inclusive world. Rebecca has been criticized for deceiving her husband. But, no one criticized Yentl for dressing as a man when the world was not ready to accept a new kind of woman. Rebecca’s problem was that she was 3000 years ahead of her time. She refused to apologize for that. She had the confidence to say: the world may not be ready for me, but I am ready.

Maybe the world is not ready for country that is both Jewish and democratic. Maybe the world is not ready for a state that defies the categories of left and right, and lives on the border of gentle and strong.

But, we are ready. It takes courage to insist on living in a category that doesn’t exist yet. What baffled Isaac about Jacob continues to baffle the world. But, maybe it’s not we who have to change. It’s the world.