What About the T? – Ki Tzetzei and Transgender

It is great to see some more positive conversation regarding including LGBT members of our community. It is curious to me how the “T” sort of slips in there as if it were the same at the LGB, but at the same time ignored. Who we are attracted to is very different then how we want to present ourselves. Transgender people experience a mismatch between their gender identity or gender expression and their assigned sex. So, what about the T? How does our community deal with transgender members?

In Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the prohibition of transgender dressing. There we read:

A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment, because whoever does these is an abomination to God, your God. ( Deuteronomy 22:5)

Between the use of the word “abomination” and testing the limits of heteronormative lifestyle I understand why so many people for or against transgender people lump them all together. But still the Torah it seems like a different issue.

According to Rashi on the verse, cross-dressing can lead to promiscuous behavior. Wearing the clothes of a woman would enable a man to mingle inappropriately among women, and vice versa. Alternatively Maimonides argued that some of the ancient pagan rituals involved cross-dressing and that we must therefore distance ourselves from this type of behavior. ( Guide III :37). Beyond the presumptions of the person having lascivious or idolatrous motivations, I wanted to suggest another from the start of this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands, and you carry away captives, and you see among the captives a woman of goodly form, and you have a desire for her, and would take her as a wife; then you shall bring her home to your house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails.( Deuteronomy 21:10-12)

We see here that the practice would be to strip the captive women of the outward appearances of gender to determine his attraction to her. Is it possible that the prohibition for cross-dressing was limited to dealing with the military strategy?

Gender is such a fundamental aspect of what makes us who we are. In my experience of transgender members of our communities their motivation is neither lascivious, idolatrous, and certainly not a military strategu. Their need comes from a profound drive for self-expression. Given the profound amount of violence perpetrated against transgender people I think we need to reconsider how we talk about gender roles in our community and not just sexual orientation.  While we maintain our commitment to tzinuit, modesty, devotion to God, and of course maintaining the peace, how might we make more room for the “T”?

More Haipu: Poetry on Poop

Adina sent me some of her haipu poetry to share:

All day long I wait
Only to surprise my mom
When least expected

With trumpets blasting
I arrive with a warning
Much to everyone’s relief

I sleep, eat, and poop
My life is simple and clear
Boy, am I tired

Love to get other submissions – please send me your Haipu Poetry – hiorlow@gmail.com 

-original Haipu

Revisiting Stammering Justice

As I have explored in the paststuttering, also known as stammering, is most commonly associated with involuntary sound repetition, but it also encompasses the abnormal hesitation, blocks,  or pausing before speech. Stuttering is generally not a problem with the physical production of speech sounds or putting thoughts into words. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, stuttering does not affect and has no bearing on intelligence. Apart from their speech impairment, people who stutter are normal. Anxiety, low confidence, nervousness, and stress therefore do not cause stuttering, although they are very often the result of living with a highly stigmatized disability.

Although the exact etiology of stuttering is unknown, both genetics and neurophysiology are thought to contribute. A variety of hypotheses and theories suggests multiple factors contributing to stuttering. Here I want to forward two theories as to the cause of stuttering. There is evidence that stuttering is more common in children who also have concomitant speech, language, learning or motor difficulties. Auditory processing deficits have also been proposed as a cause of stuttering. The evidence for this is that stuttering is less prevalent in deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and stuttering may be improved when auditory feedback is altered. Although there are many treatments and speech therapy techniques available that may help increase fluency in some stutterers, there is essentially no “cure” for the disorder at present.

So, what is my sudden interest in stuttering? In Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the establishment of the court system. There we read:

Tzedek Tzedek-Justice, justice shalt you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why the repeating word, “Justice”? Most commonly it translated to assume that it is emphatic. As to say, “Justice you will surely pursue”. But, maybe this reading overlooks the speaker.

When Moshe is called to be God’s messenger, he resists saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). From this the Rabbis concluded that Moshe had a stutter.  Rashi  explains k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue,” by which Moshe describes himself, as stuttering. Rashi translated it into medieval French word balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter).

Moshe had a unique relationship with God and surely the voice of God. In this you can also say that he had an auditory processing issue.  It does not seem the Moshe has a problem communicating with people when God is not around. Maybe it the presence of God that causes Moshe to have this auditory processing problem and this stutter.

Last year when dealing with this idea I left this line of  questioning with asking why is this the one time the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. Beholding true justice would mean seeing the world from God’s perspective. If you truly pursue justice you will achieve being in the presence of God. This would cause anyone to stammer.  Surely there is no shame of pursuing justice.

Perhaps there is another reason that Moshe had difficulty with his speech. In a well-known Midrash Moshe is depicted as a toddler growing up in Pharaoh’s house ( Shmot Rabbah 1:31). Playing on King Pharaoh’s lap little Moshe saw the shining crown, studded with jewels, and reached for it and took it off. Being superstitious Pharaoh asked his advisers the meaning of this action of the infant. They said Moshe was a threat and he should be put to death. One of the king’s counselors, however, suggested that they should first test the boy and see whether his action was prompted by intelligence, or he was merely grasping for sparkling things as any other child would.  Pharaoh agreed to this, and two bowls were set before young Moshe, one contained gold and jewels and the other held glowing fire coals. Moshe reached out for the gold, but an angel redirected his hand to the coals. Moshe snatched a glowing coal and put it to his lips. Moshe burned his tongue, but his life was saved.


If you made it this far in my argument maybe you will go to the last question. If all this is true, why is the one time in the Torah represents Moshe’s stuttering in print? Maybe it is something about the pursuit of justice itself.  We can pretend that wanting justice in this world is about children being attracted to shiny things because it allows us to keep the status quo. Alternately we can recognize that justice is always about power. The pursuit of justice is actually Moshe reaching for the crown of power. The pursuit of justice is inherently revolutionary and means that people in power need to share it. We can either ask the next generation to burn their mouths or actually share power in bring about a more just society.


-Last year’s piece on Stammering Justice


Haipu Poetry: Having Fun with Libi’s Poop

The other day I was walking with Yishama and we got to talking about Haiku poetry and his sister’s bowel movements. And just like that we came up with  Haipu poetry. It seemed only fitting to share some of what we came up with here. I am confident that years from now Libi will enjoy our artistic representations of her poop. Please feel free to send in your own Haipu.

Slow to get started
rumbles toward the take off
launch right up the back

Curved to straighten
arching aqueducts of Rome
gushing out something

Not old and faithful
predictable attraction
sprays all visitors

Simmering all night
not a bouillon broth or bisque
split pee soup for all

For more on poop, please check out Shawn Shafner’s People’s Own Organic Power (POOP) Project which uses art, education, and humor to promote critical conversations about sustainable sanitation for the person, planet, and world community. The POOP Project is dedicated to creating work that heals the cultural shame making “potty talk” taboo, transforms waste-making consumers into resource-conscious creators, and reconnects audiences to their bodies, communities, and the environment that we all share. Pretty cool shit.


Enduring Commitment: Tattoos and Jews

Years ago when I was a Hillel Rabbi I had students come to me on different occasions asking for help creating Jewish content for their tattoos. They either wanted to know the spelling of a word in Hebrew,a Hebrew word for a central value of their lives, or even the meaning of Jewish symbolism of a tattoo they wanted emblazoned on their bodies.

A tattooed Jew.

As we learn in Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion, it is prohibited to get a tattoo. There we read:

You are the children of the Lord your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead. For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord have chosen you to be God’s own treasure out of all peoples that are upon the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 14:1-2)

Rashi explains Lo Titgodedu– you shall neither cut yourselves” to mean:

Do not make cuts and incisions in your flesh [to mourn] for the dead, in the manner that the Amorites do, because you are the children of the Omnipresent and it is appropriate for you to be handsome and not to be cut or have your hair torn out.

As an Orthodox Jew I know that it is prohibited to get a tattoo. Since the Holocaust, the tattooing of numbers on the arms of Jews at the hands of the Nazis has taken the taboo of tattooing to new levels in the larger Jewish community.  But it is interesting to weigh this value against my role as a community Rabbi helping people make enduring commitments that are personally meaningful, universally relevant, and distinctively Jewish. I would argue that a tattoo in its nature is distinctively not Jewish, but I see how someone getting a Hebrew word permanent printed on their flesh might disagree. Regardless one cannot argue that it surely an enduring commitment.

In the Gemara Reish Lakish said to Rabbi Yochanan: Read the verse Lo Titgodedu– not as “you shall neither cut yourselves”, but rather you should not form separate groups (Yebamot 13b). In the years since that time I have seen a spike in tattooing in the larger society. What are the implications for Jewish life? Is it possible that in terms of how we are making enduring commitments to Jewish life we are forming separate groups?

– Link to article about Jews and Tattoos

Idolatrous Context: Eikev and Confederate Flag

In Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, we revisit the Golden Calf incident.  Moshe is up on the Mountain getting the Ten Commandments  from God and when he comes down with the two Tablets he sees that the Israelites had created an idolatrous Golden Calf to worship. First he breaks the Tablets and then he grinds up the Golden Calf. What was so bad about creating this idol? No one got hurt. Also it is noteworthy that Moshe destroys both the Tablets a gift from God and the Golden Calf, but why?

I was thinking about this since Palestinian infant Ali Dawabshe was burned alive when his West Bank home was set on fire by Jewish Israelis, and  since 16-year old Israeli Shira Banki — who was stabbed at the Jerusalem Pride Parade — died of her wounds. Both serve as a painful awakening to two forces of idolatry in our community: one of brazen commitment to the West Bank and the other of homophobia. While people want to explain away both killings as crazy acts of deranged  people, we as a community need to recognize our role. Rav Benny Lau said it well in his speech at the rally in Kikar Zion, on the Motzei Shabbat following the stabbings at the Jerusalem Pride Parade:

A Jew does not stab another person! Period. All those who prayed today in synagogues across the country.All those who prayed, just today heard with their own ears the Ten Commandments. They stood and heard the commandment “Thou shall not kill”

We create a context in which these destructive and insane acts make sense. We need to take responsibility for our role as accomplices.

Earlier this summer on the evening of June 17, 2015, a mass shooting took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. During a prayer service, nine people were killed by a gunman. The morning after the attack, police arrested Dylann Roof who later confessed to committing the shooting in hopes of igniting a race war. Like the killers of Ali Dawabshe and Shira Banki, Roof was deranged. History was made later in the summer when South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its post on the state Capitol grounds in Columbia.

PHOTO: The confederate flag is removed in Charleston, South Carolina, July 10, 2015. The larger group needed to take responsibility for the racist context of hate they had created with that symbol. They too felt like accomplices.

In creating the Golden Calf the Israelites proved that they might do anything as a group. Their group-think created a context where many bad things could happen. It would just take one bad egg to act on the spirit of the group and anything was possible. Moshe broke the God-given Tablets to awaken the people of the logical ends of their idolatry. They could soon be accomplices in breaking “Thou shall not kill”. What will awaken us to the idolatry in our community? What flags do we need to be taking down?

Libi Frydman Orlow

Adina and I had been discussing and deliberating having a fourth for a few years. The events in Israel this past summer shifted the conversation and nine months later, Adina and I are humbled by and in awe of the birth of our fourth child, Libi Frydman Orlow. She is a miracle just like the rest of the fOuRLOWs and we are confident that our Libi is every bit as amazing as her sister and two brothers. Seeing that she was born out of our concern for Israel and the future of the Jewish people we found it fitting to name her Libi ( pronounced Lee Bee) after the first line of  Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi‘s Songs for Zion, he wrote, “My heart in the East and I at the farthest West.” Later on in the poem he writes:

Zion, do you ask if the captives are at peace— the few that are left?

I cry out like the jackals when I think of their grief;

but, dreaming of the end of their captivity,

I am like a harp for your songs.

Displaying IMG_1412.JPG

Adina and I dream of the end of our captivity and the sustained safety of the Jewish people. We sincerely hope that our Libi will be an instrument of our national song. We are excited to see the impact she makes on the world.

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