- Transing Back the Texts, Queering Jewish Prayer
Jewish ritual, queer spirituality, transfeminism
I want to take up Max Strassfeld's call for transfeminist religion, to explore multiple avenues of transing religious practice. What happens when we read existing prayer and ritual from a trans perspective? For the purposes of this transing, I want to look beyond the "corrected" versions of certain prayers that are part of my Jewish religious practice to return to the versions that have been deemed politically objectionable (for good reasons!). Transing them, however, they gain new meaning, and tell new stories about the Jewish past and present alike. [End Page 80]
Who Hath Not Made Me a Woman
Growing up in the family of a reform rabbi in Jerusalem (part of a long line of rabbis, first in Poland and then in North America), I was spared the daily benediction "Blessed are you, O Lord—who has not made me a woman." This benediction is traditionally part of the morning prayer, along with a list of blessings for the very corporeal miracles of waking up, having sleep removed from our eyes, strength restored to the weary, as well as blessing for not being made a non-Jew, a slave, or a woman.
Echoing Joy Ladin's call to recognize the divine in each of us, as Strassfeld takes up in his piece, both men and women in our liberal community would say "Blessed are you, O Lord—who created me in God's image." This blessing is recited exactly the same by people of all genders and expresses gratitude for what we are rather than are not. It should be noted that in Hebrew even this version has a gendered aspect, for God is referred to with masculine pronouns. The Hebrew language makes such gendered distinctions sadly inevitable. And yet this masculine divine image is still bestowed upon all.
Even though we recited this different version, I was acutely aware that most people were either being grateful for not being made female or reciting the women's version, which expresses gratitude for being made according to God's will. "Blessed are you, O Lord—who made me as he willed" implies trust in God's choice to deny women the gift of being made men. I remember taking particular offense to the fact that there could not simply be reciprocal gratitude for not being made male, or a rhetorical reversal where everyone was grateful for what they had been made.
How does reading transly change the potential meaning of this blessing? Although this might sound like a uniquely contemporary question, answers can be found in much earlier periods, even medieval times. The website Trans Torah brings forth a beautiful fourteenth-century poem by Qalonymos ben Qalonymos (born in Arles, 1286), wherein a male speaker expresses desire to become female. Resigned to his fate, the speaker says:
And since long ago I learned from traditionthat both good and bad deserve benediction,in the faintest of whispers I'll mutter each morning;Blessed art Thou, O Lord—who has not made me a woman.1
Reading this poem as part of the Trans Torah project, we see the pain that the traditional blessing could hold for someone who expresses a desire precisely [End Page 81] opposite to that gratitude the blessing means to express. This may then be read as a trans reading of the blessing, but it does not yet offer a transfeminist perspective, nor a reparative reading. Or perhaps this is my personal sense as reader based on how the poet constructs his notion of what it would mean to be a woman:
If that alone might be done,how wondrous then would be my fortune!Spared the arduous labor of men,I'd settle down and raise my children.
These earlier lines from the poem expose what the speaker associates with femininity, and to my mind, raise the suspicion that this might be more of a rhetorical exaltation of femininity than a transgressive expression of desire (in the mode of "women have it so much easier! I wish I could just stay home too!"). This is not the place...