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Male and Female God Created Them

09/30/2021 04:04:46 PM


When I work with conversion students, we often spend an entire hour studying just one verse, Genesis 1:27: “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” Even translating properly it is a challenge. Was the first human single or dual, male or female? What pronouns to use for God is a whole other story. This passage is particularly illuminating as we wrestle with questions of gender, its definition and its fluidity, in our modern experience.

The sages actually provide several different explications of this verse, and its parallel in chapter 2, about Adam’s rib, to explain the origin of human gender. Were men and women created independently? Was Eve taken from Adam’s rib? In Bereshit Rabbah 8:1, Rav Yirmiah Ben Elazar suggest that the first human was created with masculine and feminine aspects, and then God divided them into two independent beings. While this explanation does not reflect biological reality, it transmits a spiritual truth, that traditional conceptions of masculine and feminine, their attributes and roles, are both reflections of the divine image, each capturing one facet of a God who is neither but incorporates both.

The Kabbalists explore this concept more deeply. They teach us that God contains and transcends every conceivable duality: the sefirot of kabbala represent mercy and justice, giving and withholding, surrender and victory, feminine and masculine. All are just lenses with which to view one aspect of a unified, perfect God. As human beings, we emulate God’s attributes, but imperfectly. Just as justice and mercy, peace and beauty are ideals for which we can only strive, masculinity and femininity are aspects of God’s nature, and they are traits to which people can aspire, but in our human experience they can never be found in their purest form.

The system of Jewish law, halacha, which is intent on categorization and practicality, wrestles with this reality. The Torah includes any number of commandments intended to cement gender roles, perhaps in part due to ways in which pagan ritual incorprorated so many different expressions of sexuality. And yet, even by the days of the Talmud the sages recognized that things are not so simple, even on a purely biological level. They end up categorizing six (!) different gender typologies- reflecting the physiology of individuals who are born with dual or indeterminate gender and those who appear to be born with one gender but take on different characteristics over the course of life (See Mishnah Bikkurim 4, Talmud Ketubot 100b). 

Are these expressions a violation of God’s plan for the natural order? My colleague and friend, Rabbi Sue Fendrick, pointed out to me a series of notes by a non-Jewish  commentator that rings just as true within our own theology, that thinking beyond the binary is “baked into” creation itself. Even though the process of creation is about establishing separation and dualities, day and night, land and ocean, birds and fish, God also held space for creations which cross those boundaries. The time of twilight, which is day and night, neither and both, occupies a special place in our transition in and out of shabbat and festive times. Land and sea meet at the shore. God set in motion the process that brough us penguins and flying fish, which cross the boundaries of sea and sky.

In some circles in which I travel, the ideas of gender fluidity and non-conformity is taken for granted, so that the first part of any interaction is an exchange of preferred pronouns. In others there is a still a deep-seated discomfort with the breaking down of structures and definitions that simplify a complex world.  I’ll be the first to admit that my own understanding has evolved, both by learning from scholars, and from encounters with the lived experiences of individuals in our own B’nai Torah community. 

This year, as I read the verse that speaks of God’s image, and says that “male and female God created them,” I understand it to mean that God transmitted different aspects of the Divine essence, gender, personality and more, into each human being. It the work of a lifetime for me to understand  the purpose for which God created me, and the reasons why I have been gifted with various attributes in those particular proportions. I can see the image of God in others all the more as I appreciate that they carry those attributes in combinations that are different from my own, and that sometimes defy simple categorization. Their self-conception does not delegitimize my own, or vice versa. To the contrary, in seeing the myriad ways that God's attributes can be brought together, I gain a deeper appreciation of the complexity of creation, and the deeper order that our mystics and sages already glimpsed, even if they could not appreciate its full majesty.

Sun, March 3 2024 23 Adar I 5784