*This Torah has been shaped & uncovered in chevruta with R’ Mónica, and grows out of a piece we wrote about this text a few years back.
Earlier this week the Trans Halakha Project Steering Committee met for the first time. I was truly giddy, and for the weeks leading up to the meeting I kept thinking about one piece of Torah that I’ve turned over and over again* about our power to reveal that which doesn’t yet exist, but is in the Torah, waiting for each of us uniquely to find it. The Rabbis in Bamidbar Rabbah (19:7), a midrashic work on the book of Numbers, explore the moment of Moshe going up to Mount Sinai, attempting to imagine and picture what may have happened when we got there. Rabbi Hanina, tells one version of the story:
ר’ אחא בשם ר’ חנינא אמר בשעה שעלה משה למרום שמע קולו של הקדוש ברוך הוא שיושב ועוסק בפרשת פרה אדומה ואומר הלכה בשם אומרה -(משנה פרה א:א) רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר, עֶגְלָה, בַּת שְׁנָתָהּ. וּפָרָה, בַּת שְׁתַּיִם.
R’ Aha said in the name of R’ Hanina: When Moshe ascended to heaven he heard the voice of the Holy One, blessed be G!d, as G!d sits immersed studying the section of the Torah dealing with the “red heifer,” and quoting the law in the name of its author—thus R. Eliezer says [in Mishnah Para 1:1]: the broken necked calf must be a year old and the red heifer must be two years old. (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:7)
As Moshe gets to the top of the mountain, he hears G!d, who seems to be learning. And as he gets closer, it becomes clear what it is that G!d is studying: G!d is yoshev v’osek, sitting and immersing—both present-tense verbs—studying and quoting a mishnah authored by Rabbi Eliezer. As G!d learns, G!d credits Rabbi Eliezer with this teaching: “R. Eliezer says: the broken necked calf must be a year old and the red heifer must be two years old” (Mishnah Parah 1:1).
Why is God learning mishnah on Mount Sinai? Why would G!d—often presumed to be the author of the Torah—need to learn the teachings of Rabbi Eliezer in order to more accurately understand the Torah? This is a particularly outrageous moment in the rabbinic imagination, in which our sages dream up their own ability to teach G!d their Torah. Those familiar with the genre of midrash in which texts exist in timeless constellations of meaning-making that move backwards and forwards know that this is actually a typical rabbinic khop; our sages do this all the time as they read themselves and their realities into the stories they’ve inherited. Here, Rabbi Hanina models for me—and I hope for many of us—what it looks like and feels like to be a bold, courageous, and queer reader of Torah, who reads his own story into the narrative where it had previously not existed. But this is not the end, and it is not enough to read our stories into the past and find where we may have existed all along.
The Mahara”l (16th century commentator in modern-day Poland) comments on this strange subversion of time and authority:
And there is what to ask about this idea that G!d would be quoting halakha in the name of a person. But this perush, this reading, is taught in the name of Rabbi Eliezer because the idea of para adumah (the red heifer) is so complex that it could only be understood by someone with such ability to learn and understand complex Torah like Rabbi Eliezer, who is notoriously brilliant among the sages.
And G!d affixed the Torah such that there would be within it teachings to be discovered, and gave to each person a unique sechel to understand and bring out these teachings according to what would be fit for them, and this is, in fact, the origin of the injunction to teach Torah in the name of the one who taught it. (Paraphrasing of the Mahara’’l in Derekh Chayim 6:6, commenting on this midrash)
In other words, Rabbi Eliezer was able to uncover this essential piece of Torah, and teach it then to G!d, because of his own unique perspective, experience, and sechel—which is only his. The Maharal says that the reason G!d is quoting mishnah in the name of Rabbi Eliezer is because it is Rabbi Eliezer only who could have revealed this Torah; G!d naming this as Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching, saying his name, is part of visibilizing and honoring the way in which only he could have brought this Torah into the world.
I feel this so deeply as the work of the Trans Halakha Project begins unfolding. At its core, this project is about spending time yoshev ve’osek batorah, sitting and immersing in the Torah that only we—as trans folks—can bring into the world, and to name it the way G!d names it, in our names through our experiences, as we G!d-willing teach each other and reveal the Torah that our people have to offer.
As we shared gratitude and highlights in the chat to close our meeting, I was moved by Becky’s closing comment, noting that halakha is *already* different because of who is in this (Zoom) room. I felt how true that statement was. Together we unpacked the three pathways for work of the Trans Halakha Project (curating existing resources, developing new halakhic literature, and creating opportunities for trans Jews to learn and explore halakha), but even more importantly, we spoke about the ways in which all of these three areas are pathways that point to one ultimate goal: a transformation of halakha.
If we’ve done this work right, halakha will be transformed by the fact that we’ve come together, yoshev v’osek, dwelling and immersing in this Torah. Halakha will inevitably be changed as we, like Rabbi Eliezer, begin teaching the world new Torah that has always existed, but hasn’t yet been revealed in the right forms, because we—through our sechel, our unique wisdom—haven’t been here to reveal it. In this way, the areas of halakha that will be, G!d-willing, transformed by this work are not only the practices that have to do with our bodies, with the arenas of halakha that have been narrowly relegated to “trans issues” or “contemporary halakhic problems.” It is the fullness of the halakhic system—the areas of halakha that speak to our souls, our ways of being, and therefore everyone’s souls and ways of being. As we shape halakha in the image of trans people, we will undoubtedly create and uncover new halakhic realities. And these new ways of thinking and being and speaking in and through halakha, that are informed by trans people, will open up halakha to be better for all of us.