After dating awhile, Martha announces to Fred one evening, "Do you realize we've been seeing each other six months!?"
She thinks: Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe he thinks I'm rushing toward a commitment…
And Fred thinks: Gosh. Six months.
And Martha: Where are we going? Towards marriage and children?
And Fred: ...hmmm...February we started dating, right after I took the car in….Whoa! I need an oil change!
And Martha: He's upset. Maybe he wants more…intimacy?
And Fred: I'm gonna check the transmission again.
And Martha: Maybe I'm too idealistic, waiting for a knight on his white horse, when I'm sitting next to a guy who truly cares about me.
"Fred," Martha finally says.
"What?" says Fred, startled.
Martha is now sobbing. "Maybe I should never have..."
"What?" says Fred.
"I'm a fool…I mean, I know there's no white horse. It's just...I need some time." (There’s a long pause while Fred searches for a safe response.) He’s confused by the horses. Finally he says: “Yes.”
Martha, deeply moved, touches his hand, saying: "Do you really feel that way?"
"About time," says Martha.
"Oh," says Fred, still clueless. "Sure." (Martha turns and and gazes into his eyes…)
"Thank you, Fred."
"Okay," mumbles Fred.
Then he takes Martha home, and she weeps until dawn, whereas Fred arrives home, opens a bag of Doritos, and watches a basketball game between two colleges he’s never heard of.
A voice inside tells him something major happened in the car, but he’s certain he’ll never understand what, so he figures it's better to ignore the whole thing.
The next day Martha calls her closest friend, and they talk for six hours.
Meanwhile, Fred, while playing racquetball with a friend of Martha's, pauses just before serving, and says: "Norm, did Martha ever own a horse?"
And that's the difference, says Dave Barry, between men and women.
For thousands of years, Rosh HaShanah has celebrated Creation. And at the very center of God’s creation is us….humanity. Our Torah reading this morning re-visits the beginning of man and woman. What you may not know is that the Torah actually has two different accounts of our creation. And I want to suggest that the intentional inclusion of both accounts invites us to consider a multitude of approaches to the question of gender, an issue at the heart of this story. The Torah dares us to ask: might we be open in this New Year to thinking about gender and gender roles differently? Will this be the year we move beyond the presumption that a person is “just masculine” (Fred) or “just feminine,” (Martha) and move instead toward a place where we embrace elements of both.
This journey will take us into unfamiliar territory. Nonetheless, with help from our secular culture and our Jewish past, we’ll discover a roadmap towards a more inclusive future.
Let’s begin with our own American culture, and the wide world of sports.
According to the Women’s Sports Foundation: Prior to [1972’s] Title IX, […] prevailing assumptions included a belief that boys were “innately” physical and interested in sport, and girls were not emotionally or physiologically equipped for […] competition and aggressive play.’
Forty years later, we know that those presumptions no longer hold. Women participate on sports teams just like their male counterparts. It’s no longer considered “un-lady-like” for women to be athletic.
We see this role shift in romantic behavioral patterns as well. For example, it’s been ages since it was provocative for a woman to pick up the tab for dinner.
And we see the shift at home, where in more than 20% of all households, men are 100% responsible for all of the grocery shopping and cooking. Marketers are describing this group as “manfluencers” with the tag line: “he does it all!”.
Even as so much is changing, key gender role questions remain…like:
· Should women have access to the same job opportunities as men? And should we pay them the same amount?
· What constitutes a “fair” distribution of labor inside the home?
· How should our gender identity inform the choices we make about our clothing, and the other ways we present ourselves to the world?
At a time when we might agree that women can play sports, and that men can cook, there are new gender conversations that are playing out today. One comes to us from high school and college campuses nationwide – where students are increasingly invited to introduce themselves on the first day of class…not just by name, but also by PGP – Preferred Gender Pronoun (for example: I prefer he/his/him, whereas Cantor Becker prefers she/her’s/her). To be PGP-conscious is to assert that gender identity is not necessarily linked to the body parts we’re born with.
We are witnessing a new freedom in our culture for people to identify as “gender non-conforming.” We no longer live in a world where male or female are the only choices to check off under the gender section of a survey.
For proof, look no further than Facebook.
Since February, Facebook users have had an enhanced set of choices as they edit the section of their page containing personal information. Under the gender drop down menu, you’ll find male, female, and “custom.” And under Custom, there’s a sub menu of 56 gender descriptors that range from “Neither” to “Two Spirit” and everything in between.
If you’re not on Facebook, perhaps this is insignificant. But for one of every six people on the planet, Facebook has become our central gathering place. Thanks in part to Facebook, a gender role revolution is changing our world and raising new questions.
Consider the Jewish federation that hosted a women’s retreat recently. Anyone who identified as female was invited. Transgendered women praised the inclusive welcome they received.
But there were protests! Some in the community objected that a “women’s” retreat was occurring at all! In this post-gender age, they argued, any gendered program is alienating to those who are other-gendered or non-gendered.
That seems a step too far for me.
Like it or not, gender has been at the core of our humanity from the beginning. To assert that we live in a post-gender age is to ignore how masculinity and femininity have affected the human experience. Are we ready to end gender-specific bathrooms, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and temple brotherhoods and sisterhoods? From my vantage point, that’s not where we’re at.
And yet….we’re living in an age of transition, even in our own Jewish communities. Feminism, on some level, is old news: the first generation of female rabbis are already retiring! Today, Jewish communities are seeking to create an inclusive space for those who are gender non-conforming. We already have several transgender rabbis in the field, with more on the way. And our URJ camp system has been at the forefront of a movement to insure that those who are gender non conforming are welcome there.
When I ask people why – as a Reform movement – we are so deeply committed to this inclusion, the answer I hear over and over again is: this is the civil rights issue of our time. In years past, we stood up against racism, fought for feminism, and we continue to seek an end to homophobia. But the next battle will be fought over gender identity issues.
So: how do we find a middle ground between embracing this civil rights movement on the one hand, without obliterating masculinity and femininity on the other?
One answer might be found within the Yiddish term menschlikheit, those qualities that make someone a mensch, or good person. The word is the closest we have to manliness in Judaism.
Brute strength, the size of a person’s salary, or the kind of car they drive is irrelevant to menschlikheit. To be a mensch is to be an upstanding human being, measured in ethical scrupulousness, and sensitivity to the needs of others.
Menschlikheit grew out of two thousand years of anti-Semitism. Fighting back was rarely an option for Jews in the ghetto. The only permitted activity was yeshiva study. Thus for 2000 years: to be a Jewish “manly man” was to be a scholar and an impeccably good person.
Those definitions are changing today. Many Jewish men in Israel, for example, are the opposite of the yeshiva buchers of old. Rather than passively heading to yeshiva, today’s Israeli Jews have power. Today we stand up for ourselves. Today Israel has an incredible army.
Paradoxically, Jews have never had this sort of manly power before. We’ve just had menschlikheit. Which raises the question: how does Israel’s military use that power in a menschy (kind and sensitive) way?
The answer is Tohar haNeshek - Purity of Arms, or Morality in Warfare. One IDF document on the subject reads: The soldier shall make use of his weaponry […] for the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat […]”
Tohar HaNeshek is a compelling approach to genderedness because it speaks of explicit strength and sensitive restraint.
This approach, which embraces the best of masculinity and femininity, comes to life in this morning’s Torah reading, where we return again to the Creation story.
Genesis 1:27 teaches us that God ‘created humanity in God’s image […] male and female together: God created them.’
We can’t help but notice the contrast that exists between this rendition of Creation and Genesis 2, where Adam is clearly created first, as male, and Eve is created later, as female.
In Genesis 1, the text presumes that men and women were created simultaneously… that there was a unified sense of gender embedded in that first person, reflecting the way in which God incorporates masculine and feminine attributes.
1500 years ago (eons before Preferred Gender Pronouns), the rabbis wove rich readings of Genesis 1 into midrash.
One reading suggests that the person of Gen 1 had masculine and feminine body parts….a hermaphrodite in today’s parlance.
The rabbis were absolutely aware of hermaphrodites, and of others who were gender non-conforming. Thus, their interpretation of the biblical text argues for inclusion over marginalization, for the rabbis courageously describe the centerpiece of creation as a person whose physical gendered identity is complicated.
Another midrash suggests that the first human of Gen 1 is actually two separate people, with two separate sets of body parts – one male and one female…facing away from one another, but whose backs are fused together….akin to conjoined twins.
Both readings affirm that the first human had masculine and feminine essences. A millennium and a half ago, our rabbis asserted that gender was not an either/or matter. They taught us that to be human – to be menschy if you will, we ought to move beyond a binary approach to gender…..A boy shouldn’t just be ‘masculine’ and a girl shouldn’t just be ‘feminine’. The community we are seeking to build nationally in our Reform movement; here in our synagogue….and the one I invite us to build in our homes…is one in which we understand that we are enriched by the complexity of gender identity.
There is a moral imperative to this work. In a day and age when LGBTQ and gender non-conforming individuals are the victims of physical and verbal abuse, we must stand up and do something. We must speak out. We must be inclusive and welcoming. We must be more thoughtful about how we construct gender identity, so that we might literally fulfill the obligation of pikuach nefesh – saving a life.
It is time for us to move beyond the stereotyping of Fred and Martha. We owe it to ourselves to be more thoughtful and sensitive to the miraculous complexity of the human experience.
Our rabbis tell the story of the Eastern European village that was once visited by the tsar’s emissary the day after Rosh HaShanah. “The tsar mocks the Jews!” the man said. “All you do is pray to an invisible God! The tsar asks: “If you really believe in such a God, have that God appear this coming week! Make God appear, or we shall close your synagogues beginning on Yom Kippur.”
The people were bereft: how could they make God appear on demand?
The rabbi struggled day and night seeking to unlock the theological conundrum: if God is invisible, how can God appear in the world?
He thought and thought and thought.
With only one day before the tsar’s emissary would return, the rabbi bumped into a child from the kindergarten in the center of the village.
“Rabbi, why do you look so sad?”
The rabbi explained that he’d been trying hard to answer a question, and he was still stumped.
“What’s the question?” the child asked.
The rabbi told him, and the child answered: “Rabbi! I know the answer to that! You taught it to us in school.”
The rabbi was astonished. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Don’t you remember? You taught us that each person is created in God’s image. So when we want to see God, all we have to do is look at one another. We are God’s mirror.”
The rabbi shared the answer with the town and they affirmed it. And so it was conveyed to the tsar’s emissary, who realized the answer’s truth.
And we realize it too: that although the way we think about gender is changing….what has not changed is our faithful commitment to honor every single person as holy – because every single one of us….no matter our name, our body parts, our style of dress, who we are destined to love, how we divide up domestic chores, and whether we dissect conversations with our significant others to the nth degree or plop on the sofa to watch a ball game….all of us are created in the image of God. May we, in the year ahead, come to see the blessing that dwells within all of those around us. And in doing so, may we be blessed as well.
Keyn Yhi Ratzon – may this be God’s will.
 See “Ki Tetzei: (Young) Men of War” by Rabbi Daniel Landes in The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary (ed. J. Salkin, 1989), pp. 280-287.
 For more on God’s personality attributes, see for example: God: A Biography by Jack Miles.
 See, for example, Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s Wrestling With God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition, pp. 188-191.