Jewish identities: So many ways to be human

Rabbi Rachel Weiss

By Rabbi Rachel Weiss, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Breisheet (Genesis 1:1−6:8)

This week, we go back to the beginning.  We did our holy rolling to circle the Torah scrolls from end to beginning at Simchat Torah, and we’ve arrived… back where we started.  Each year we tell our story again, and while the words may be familiar, the lenses through which we look at them shift and grow.

Many of us are familiar with the “Let there be light” story, in which G-d creates the world in six days, resting on the seventh.  On the sixth day, G-d creates the human being, but this is not the Adam and Eve story in which people name animals and the human is lonely and needs a partner.  That’s the second creation story, found in Genesis 2:4, the one we more often tell about Adam and G-d’s partnership, and Eve being created from Adam’s rib. 

This first creation story highlights the creation of egalitarian humanity at once, as in Genesis 1:26 G-d declares, “let us create the adam in our image, after our likeness,” as our text describes, “G-d created the adam in the divine image, creating the adam in the image of G-d, male and female G-d created them.”  Creation isn’t simple – and the words, grammar and identities that flow from this story aren’t either.

Our text has two characters – G-d and the human.  Midrash asks why G-d speaks in the plural, and imagines a celestial chorus who support G-d in the heavens.  But the word for G-d, Elokim, is a plural noun.  Godliness has multiple aspects and infinite translations.  When G-d creates the human in the divine image, b’tzelem Elokim, we understand that humanity must look just like G-d. 

Because humanity is as diverse as each one of us, then G-d’s image is big enough to hold us in all of our multitudes.  G-d is too much to be only one way.  If each of us is truly created in G-d’s image, then there are as many names, ideas and relationships for and with the Divine as there are human beings.  When G-d declares “let us create the human in our image,” G-d is speaking about the multiple ways in which G-d exists.  If G-d had pronouns in English, they/them fits well.

Torah text speaks the language of extrapolation; if this is true, then this must also be.  If G-d uses plural pronouns for singular identity, then human beings can too.  The Torah text describes the adam as being created male and female.  While it would be simple to assume that two beings were created, the word adam is singular.  We are created b’tzelem Elokim, and we are created as one being with both male and female potential and identities.  We are created with nuance; free to express ourselves. 

As our communities and societies grow to embrace all humans, so too must our language.  Our congregations and synagogues must grow and evolve so that our language, our Torah, and our pronouns are diverse enough to embrace all people too.  Respecting one another by using correct language is a way we honor G-d and G-d’s identities, and one way we celebrate the humanity in one another.    Language matters, correct language matters, and the people who name their correct language matter even more.

Knowing that nothing is all good or evil, dark or light, male or female, it’s the spectrum in between that matters most.  All of us are created to reflect the image of the creator.  In other words, G-d looks like us, and we look like G-d.  And along the spectrum, there’s no one way to be a human being.

As we begin our Torah reading cycle again, we keep nuance in the forefront.  Even the creation story is filled with different perspectives, multiple narratives, and a reminder that while knowledge and its fruits are potent, it’s never only one way or the other.  I am proud that my Jewish community welcomes and celebrates the breadth and depth of humanity, and the breadth and depth of the Divine. 

Rabbi Rachel Weiss is the rabbi of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation.

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