Last Friday night, I led Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Sherith Israel. I gave my drash (mini sermon) from notes. My theme: There aren’t two kinds of people in this world. There are “three.” Here basically is how it went.
First—appreciating showmanship—I asked three volunteers to choose a card from each of three categories: dessert places, movie stars and verses from the week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetse (Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19). My task: relate Baskin-Robbins, Felicity Huffman (of “Desperate Housewives” fame) and Deut. 22:5, “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing…” What? That’s difficult?
To begin, Torah presents us with two basic sexual identities—straight male and straight female. It forbids sex between men. It doesn’t mention sex between women, possibly because such relations don’t lead to procreation and legal claims concerning inheritance. Now, let’s put it all together.
Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors reveal much about sexual identity. Human beings encompass a broad variance in anatomy (witness the challenges the Olympic Games have confronted defining who can compete as a man or a woman), sexual identity and sexual preference. Thus the existence of the “third” kind of person within the broad category of “not two.”
Felicity Huffman starred in the 2005 movie “Transamerica.” As Bree, a transgender woman—born physically a man but identifying as a woman—she was about to have surgery that would make her as anatomically close to a woman as she could be. Sadly, Bree’s mother couldn’t accept her. But trying to impose one of two flavors in a 31-flavor world accomplishes nothing. The “third kind of person” isn’t making a choice but fulfilling complex physiological and hormonal imperatives. I know.
My son Yosi, fiddler with the band Hurray for the Riff Raff, was born my daughter Rachel. Yosi was bat-mitzvahed and confirmed at Sherith Israel. But she had trouble understanding her sexual identity. So did we. She wanted to be known as a boy and be called “he” or “him.” Beyond that, his sexual identity couldn’t be squeezed into any particular mold. We were confused. Rachel was delicate and feminine in many ways. But we were open. We concluded that Yosi—he later legally changed his name—was simply Yosi. And Yosi is not just a wonderful musician but also a wonderful son and human being.
In this light, I cite another reference to “three kinds of people.” The late Rabbi Michael Signer wrote about people who read the Bible. Pre-critical readers accept everything. Critical readers find flaws and reject everything. The third group, post-critical readers, acknowledges what it finds disagreeable while still holding to the Torah and its wisdom. Post-critical readers live with the biblical cognitive dissonance about which I wrote last week.
So did the Rabbis of the Mishnaic era two thousand years ago. This week’s Torah portion condemns a wayward, defiant son to stoning. Yet the Rabbis made capital punishment virtually impossible. They didn’t turn away from the Torah; they used elements of the text to make their case
A final story, possibly apocryphal but True with a capital T. During the Holocaust, Jews in a camp fiercely debate God’s existence. Finally, someone announces it’s time for Mincha, the afternoon service. All go off to pray.
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