You may be aware of an Internet dispute that popped up a few weeks ago with the release of the new Wonder Woman film. Some critics were quick to note the unfortunate tendency in the world of comic-book heroes turned into movies to feature only white actors. Wonder Woman is, according to some, yet another example of such an oversight.
Leaping into this fray, with a commentary posted on the website comicbook.com, was a brief piece about this by Matthew Mueller, arguing that Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress and model who plays the lead, is not “white”; rather, she is Ashkenazi Jewish.
I must concede that I have often questioned the idea of Jews being white, and when I have submitted forms that ask for my race, I have occasionally checked off “Other.”
Despite the fact that Jewish students on college campuses are reminded of their “white privilege,” I think it’s a stretch to call us “white.”
But that’s mostly because “race” (I’m using a lot of air-quotes here) is an unfortunately enduring social construct that comes from 19th-century thinking about the palette of human physical traits, reducing them into approximately three major branches. But of course humanity is more of a continuum; the lines are not so clear. That is why scientists today speak of ethnic groups or populations rather than “races.”
But really, the challenge is that the human mind likes categorization. That’s the way we work. Part of the lens through which we understand the information we take in relies on a kind of series of shortcuts: black/white/yellow, male/female, gay/straight, etc. Our minds are not trained to think flexibly about these categories.
And this mode of thinking certainly permeates our tradition as well. The Torah exhibits a need to categorize, to classify, to separate. Consider the laws of kashrut: if a land animal has split hooves and chews its cud (series of stomachs and culture of gut bacteria that break down cellulose) it is fitting to eat; if not, then are not permitted to eat it. There is no grey area. Fish, as you know, must have fins and scales. (And some of you know that there are certain fish, like sturgeon and swordfish, which have scales early on but lose them. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards permit these fish as kosher.)
The sociologist Mary Douglas, in her seminal work Purity and Danger, examined the need of religion to categorize; things that cross boundaries were, to ancient people, dangerous. Our ancestors strived to keep things separate; think about the Torah’s laws about not sowing two kinds of seed together (Deut. 22:9), or not allowing wool and linen to be woven together in clothing (Deut. 22:11).
And that thinking continues into rabbinic literature; hence the continuous need in halakhah to determine where are the boundaries: what time of the day may you recite minhah / the afternoon service? Can you eat a grilled cheese sandwich on a plate used for eating a hamburger within 24 hours? Is electricity a form of fire, and if not, can you turn on a light switch on Shabbat?
One of my favorite examples of the rabbinic need to set boundaries is that of the woman in labor who is in the miqveh, in the process of converting to Judaism, and she is crowning at the same time (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bekhorot 46b). How far out, the rabbis ask, may the baby be before s/he requires a separate conversion? The answer is (drum roll!) that if the baby’s nose has not yet emerged, then s/he is a Jew. Now THAT’S a boundary.
So one of the curious things about living in the 21st century is that we are rapidly expanding the range of identities.
Consider our erstwhile president, Barack Obama, who has described his family as “a mini-United Nations.” He was born to a Kenyan father and a mother descended from English, German, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Swiss, and French ancestors, who was also connected to a black former slave as well. Mr. Obama defies easy categorization, and although he may be referred to by some as the first “black” president, the reality is much more complex.
Have you had genetic testing? Nowadays, among the things that you can learn when you have your genes analyzed is your ethnic composition. I have not had this done, but I’d lay a fair wager that in addition to a hefty chunk of Ashkenazi Jew (itself a construct that dates to no earlier than about 1000 years ago, really only yesterday in terms of Jewish history), that there would be a fair mix of Slavic and Germanic, and who knows, perhaps even some Italian. (I’ve always enjoyed a hearty marinara.)
We are inching toward an age of gradients, in which there will be no black and white, nor gay or straight, but a virtually infinite variety of people that fall somewhere in-between.
While we may have been inclined to categorize people with reductionist brushes in the past, what may soon be the new norm is to acknowledge those gradients, to accept that none of us fits neatly into precise categories. And this transitional time will be challenging to many of us.
In parashat Qorah, which we read from today, there is a tension that comes through based on rabbinic interpretation of a couple of verses, a tension between what is eternally fixed and what is not.
First, there is the Qorah rebellion, which our bat mitzvah spoke about earlier. Pirqei Avot (5:19) cites this as challenge to the authority of Moshe and Aharon as a dispute that is not for the sake of heaven, a mahloqet she-einah leshem shamayim. What is a mahloqet leshem shamayim? A dispute which is holy, and will last forever. Internecine political struggles, which are not holy, do not last; disputes over the various understanding of our tradition are.
Elsewhere in the parashah (Numbers 18:19), we read about the “berit melah,” literally the “covenant of salt” that is between God and humans.
יט כֹּל תְּרוּמֹת הַקֳּדָשִׁים, אֲשֶׁר יָרִימוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לַה’–נָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֹתֶיךָ אִתְּךָ, לְחָק-עוֹלָם: בְּרִית מֶלַח עוֹלָם הִוא לִפְנֵי ה’, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ.
19 All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord, and for your offspring as well.
What is the nature of this covenant? It is something that lasts forever, that is stable and unchangeable, like salt.
The tension that we might perceive here is that nothing is fixed and immutable. The way we relate to God, the way we understand Jewish life, our relationship to Jewish text – these things have all changed over the last twenty years, let alone the last 2,000. And these things are, in fact, in the category of mahloqet leshem shamayim, holy controversies that will continue forever; how we worship, how we observe Jewish law, how we engage with our holy texts – these things are not fixed.
Two weeks ago, in honor of Pride Shabbat, BD Wahlberg spoke to us about BD’s experience in not being confined to one of two binary genders, and how we might understand that in a Jewish context.
I know that for some, BD’s talk was inspiring and affirming. For others among us, it may have been challenging and disorienting.
But facing the challenges of how we understand gender, how we understand “race” and ethnicity, these are holy challenges that we must continue to wrestle with. We cannot pretend that any of these things are like salt, unchangeable. We have to acknowledge that just as Judaism made room for relating to God through words instead of sacrifices, or accepted sturgeon as kosher, or learned that electricity is not fire and therefore may be used on Shabbat, that the way we categorize people also has to change.
And, to refer back to a point that BD made, we have to acknowledge that all of us are created “betzelem Elohim,” in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). And if that means that we do not fit into neat categories, well, then we are in mahloqet leshem shamayim territory once again. It is a holy struggle that will continue.
So is Gal Gadot “white”? Is Barack Obama “black”? Is BD a man or a woman? The answer to any of those questions could be yes, no, or neither. Once our minds have acclimated to this brave new world, we will no longer have to answer such questions. But in the meantime, let’s just live with the postulate that each of us is divine in our own way.
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/24/17.)
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