When Moses first encounters God at the burning bush, he asks, “What is your name?” God responds, “I will be who I will be.”
The Hebrew — Eh’yeh asher eh’yeh — is tricky but God’s self-revealed name is clearly and unequivocally a verb rather than a noun. The God of the Torah is dynamic, less a Being and more a Becoming.
And if, as Genesis teaches, we humans are all created in the Divine Image, then we, too, are called to be wonderfully mysterious, complex, and ever-growing. Like our Creator, we are works in progress, often defying fixed categorization. This is true of both our souls and our bodies. Thus Jewish tradition recognizes gender categories beyond the binary of male and female. Talmud and later codes of Jewish law have hundreds of references to those who don’t “fit” into conventional binary gender systems. As Rabbis Reuben Zellman and Elliot Kukla note: “People can’t always be easily defined; they can only be seen and respected, and their lives made holy. This approach allows for genders beyond male and female. It protects those who live in the places in between, and it opens up space in society for every body.”
This brings me to North Carolina’s deeply misguided “bathroom law” which eliminates legal protections for LGBT people in the state and mandates that people use the bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate. It’s a classic case of fearing the entirely wrong thing. Bathrooms are, indeed, dangerous places — but this bill makes them even more dangerous, because the real danger is to the same transgendered population that is insidiously presented as the threat rather than the most likely victims. As a local transgender activist and friend described the matter to me:
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“No one is more concerned about privacy in bathrooms than a transgender person. And no one is more concerned with safety in restrooms either. Transgender people are already common victims of violence in and around restrooms and this recent panic makes it worse. Most of us just try to fit in and be unobtrusive. Go in, do our business, wash hands, leave quickly. Many of us are terrified already because we know that the stakes are high. Every time I spoke up in BSU classes about my trans experiences, or got interviewed in the school paper, I worried that I would be confronted. It never happened and I consider that a blessing. Every time I go clothes shopping I worry that some other patron will create a scene. Every time I go to rural Idaho I worry that someone will decide to make an example of me. And these are with me every day. To spare my wife from worry, I keep this very quiet. Of course we are vulnerable enough traveling as two women by ourselves. And really, isn’t this the true crux? Isn’t this really about how vulnerable women are to male violence? But that is a very hard nut to crack, so instead let’s get scared of transgender people and the Trojan horse threat that they might pose.”
Surely we can do better than this. We can recognize that gender is complicated. We can trust people to know best who they are and where they belong — and welcome them accordingly. We can celebrate ourselves as being in the image of the One who is constantly becoming — a marvelous gift to all of us, lesbian and gay and straight and transgender and everything in between.
And for God’s sake, we can let people pee in peace.
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.