In an effort to expand my podcast library, I scrolled past the Religion category and out of curiosity tapped on the Weekly Parsha Podcast by Rabbi Ari Goldwag. I listened to a description of the Original Man as a spiritual being, possessing both male and female aspects. I came across this podcast literally one day after finishing Middlesex, a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides about a hermaphrodite.
Coincidence? Probably. But it got me thinking about how interesting it could be to find coincidences in each week’s Torah portion, and use them as a way to attain a deeper level of understanding about the world. I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I’m a big fan of close reading, literary analysis and contemplation – so am going to give this a shot as a weekly exercise and see where it takes me.
G-d Created Us Both “Before and After”
It seems like Jews were meant to be literary majors. At the core of the Jewish religion lies an appreciation for thoughtful analysis and discussion. Nothing is taken at face-value; it is dissected and explored, and those dissections and explorations are then dissected and explored. Rabbis from hundreds of years ago are referenced, their particular interpretations are analyzed and discussed. The result is a line of dialogue that has survived the centuries, due to its persistent relevance and immunity to the passage of time. The methods used by people used to cope with the world then, can be applied to how we cope with our modern world. Deep, right?
This week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“she will conceive”), discusses conception, birth and the period of impurity following a birth. A particularly intriguing phrase is offered in the the Midrash (writings that explain the teachings of the Torah) “G-d fashioned us both later and earlier.” In the most literal sense, the “later” and “earlier” here refer to two chronological points in time: conception and birth. Yet another interpretation discusses the concept of the original state of man as he was created by G-d in a spiritual sense. According to religious interpretation, the original human being possessed both male and female aspects. Originally, we were all unified and connected; later we split off into different sexes and distinct entities.
In this model, the “conception of humanity” occurred as follows:
EARLY : united, all-encompassing, transcendent, original, spiritual; male and female as aspects
LATER : divided, separated, physical, reality; male and female as distinct entities
Hermaphroditism: The Original State of Man?
Hermaphrodites, you could say, represent that original type of human being, which is not divided but is instead a composite of the two sexes. Modern Western society regards it as a fascinating and difficult condition, because it is so entirely foreign to the way most of us view the world and rely on our gender as one of the most powerful if not the most powerful aspect of our identity. I’m a woman, I’m an American, I’m a creative, I’m an employee, I’m white, I’m Jewish, etc. etc. Being female is the only one of these traits that stares at me in the mirror and impacts my relationships with others daily.
Middlesex offers a stunning lens into what life is like for someone of this nature, who doesn’t even know the name of her condition until toward the end of the book. The protagonist (and the reader) views the world through both a sort of gender-free lens, experiencing feelings as they come and not imposing a gendered identity upon everything.
As it is wont to do, the Torah offers much existential food-for-thought. It could be teaching us to remember that we humans were originally united as one transcendent being. In the physical world of reality, we’re all separate and distinct from one another. Yet in the spiritual world, we’re all parts of a greater, all-encompassing whole. This concept is pretty popular in modern culture; Lauren Hill’s Everything is Everything comes to mind, as does Aaron Hurst’s new book, The Purpose Economy, and the expression “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
This model of humanity as both “Later” (divided, different, unique) and “Earlier” (united, unified, coherent), proffered by the Torah, is an extremely compelling and sustaining way to view the world.
Also, I kinda like this. 🙂