Is it Bar Mitzvah, Bat Mitzvah or…
If you visit Congregation Micah on Shabbat morning, you may experience a rather new ritual, except it’s not new at all. It just has a new name. It’s called the brit mitzvah. “You mean bar mitzvah? Or bat mitzvah?” No. We don’t. We mean brit mitzvah. It’s the same ritual that celebrates the coming of age of a Jewish teen into a young Jewish adult who accepts upon themselves the responsibilities and commandments of the Jewish tradition. The name no longer connotes gender specificity. This is why:
Our daughter came home from school last year and announced that her friend, “Sarah,” was now a “they.” Feeling hip and with the times, I knew exactly what she meant. What she meant was that Sarah no longer identified herself as a singular female, but rather as non-binary, non-gender conforming, as everything and all things, as male and female and everything in between as well as nothing in between, as all gender and no gender.
If you don’t know what gender-neutral pronouns are, or if you don’t know anyone who goes by such pronouns, you are not alone. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, only 22% of U.S. adults have heard a lot about the use of gender-neutral pronouns, while 38% have heard a little, and 39% have heard nothing at all. Only one-in-five Americans say they personally know someone who goes by a pronoun other than “he” or “she.” Unsurprisingly, younger adults are more likely to know someone who goes by a pronoun such as “they” instead of “he” or “she.”
In 2017, Time did a cover story titled “Beyond He or She: How a new generation is redefining the meaning of gender.” In a summary of the story, Time writer Katy Steinmetz says that a growing number of millennials don’t see gender as either this or that, and instead see gender identity as a spectrum. “This variety of identities is something that people are seeing reflected in the culture at large. With its 1 billion users, Facebook has about 60 options for users’ gender,” writes Steinmetz.
Confused? That is understandable. However, learning a few terms will help you navigate this discussion. First, gender identity is different than sexual orientation. According to the Human Rights Campaign, gender identity is “the innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither.” Sexual orientation is to whom you are romantically attracted and can’t be predicted by gender identity. Some common terms you might hear or read to describe people who don’t identify with being put in traditional male or female categories are gender neutral, non-binary, gender-nonconforming, agender and gender fluid. Transgender refers to someone whose identity does not correspond to their assigned sex at birth and cisgender refers to someone who does identify with their birth sex.
Consider this fact about the English language. First person pronouns (I/me for singular or we/us for plural) and second person pronouns (you for both singular and plural) are already gender neutral. It’s only the third person pronoun, in the singular use, that is gender-specific (she/her or he/him), as third person plural pronouns are also neutral (they/them). If you want to be respectful toward someone who does not identify with traditional gender categories, you can either ask them how they want to be referred to (a third person reference), or instead just use their name without pronouns. As mentioned previously, there are numerous options for gender terms, but the most common are he/him, she/her, and they/them (used as singular pronouns).
Hebrew is not as malleable. Consider our Torah which includes phrases such as, “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem…you (masculine plural) stand here today, all of you (again, masculine plural)...lifnei Adonai Eloheichem… before Adonai your (masculine plural again) God (Deut. 29:9).” Our Torah is replete with gender pronouns as a way to summon and identify who, exactly, constitutes the community. Often, the community is male. Sometimes it’s male with females also included, but even then, because of how the Hebrew language functions, the plural pronouns are always masculine. And God, as we well know, in our Torah and our traditional prayers, is almost exclusively referred to in the masculine. Judaism, like the other western monotheistic faith traditions of Christianity and Islam, is patriarchal in its theology and in its language.
But there are organizations and modern scholars at work in the field today who are providing us with new insights (and some, not so new) into the Hebrew language and revealing previously unknown nuances with regard to gender. Take an obvious or well-known text as that from Genesis 5:1-2: “When God created the adam, God made him in the likeness of God; male and female [God] created them.” Susan Weidman Schneider, Editor-in-Chief of Lilith Magazine, interprets this verse as a merism, like “thick and think” or “young and old.” As such, “male and female [God] created them” can be read as “God created male and female and every combination in between.” The Talmud backs Schneider’s interpretation when Rabbi Jeremiah ben Elear writes, “When the Holy One, blessed be the One, created the first adam, [God] created him [as] “androgynous.” As there it is written: ‘When God created the adam, He made him in the likeness of God, male and female [God] created them.’
Avram and Sarah, our first Jews in the Torah, are described by our sages as tumtumim, one of the categories in the Talmud for those of indistinguishable gender or genetalia; Sarah is also described in the Talmud as an aylonit, or one who appears as a woman but cannot give birth. Our fore-father, Jacob is described as a mild man of the camp, displaying an alternate masculinity to Esau’s hairiness, smell and hunting. And Joseph, a central figure in the transition of the Jewish people from Canaan to Exodus, is an ancestor whose clothing is remarked upon repeatedly, whose appearance is described using adjectives for a princess, and who must come out to a family that does not recognize them. Rebecca is referred to multiple times as na’ar, meaning “young man” instead of na’arah, young woman. And Rabbi Yochanan of the Talmud has a beauty that is described at length.
Back to the subject of brit mitzvah. Those who educate others on gender identity issues remind us that one’s gender is very important to a person’s self-esteem and affects how one operates in society. When our faith and our Jewish story is important to us, being able to see ourselves in those who came before us and connected to the Jewish chain of tradition matters. And because you cannot always visually tell if someone is cisgender, transgender or non-binary, advocates insist that asking for a person’s pronouns is respectful and helps alleviate stress for that person in social situations.
Moreover, Joy Ladin, Gottesman Professor of English at Yeshiva University writes, “When we insist that God is male, we define women as a lesser form of humanity, in which the image of God is blurrier, less perfectly realized, than it is in men. When we recognize that God, who existed before humanity was a glimmer in God’s eye, who will still be there after the universe itself has vanished, cannot possibly be just male or female, we recognize that everyone created in God’s image is also vaster, more complicated and more mysterious than any gender can encompass. And when we realize that neither God nor humanity fits within the terms of gender, we recognize that being male or female is not essential to being human, an insight that helps us see that transgender people too are created in the image of God.”
For those of us who write and edit, the thought of using they to refer to just one person makes our red pencils twitch a bit. We’ve been trained that they is a plural pronoun. For example, the sentence “Ask each student what they want for lunch” is grammatically incorrect, and instead should read, “Ask each student what he or she wants for lunch.”
However, the Merriam-Webster dictionary now includes the following as one definition of they: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is non-binary.” An article on the Merriam-Webster website explains that the use of they as singular dates back to the 1300s. The article states, “People have used singular 'they' to describe someone whose gender is unknown for a long time, but the non-binary use of 'they' is relatively new.”
Merriam-Webster reminds readers that you has been used as a singular pronoun for years, although it was originally a plural pronoun. I was in high school before I knew that you could be plural. That’s why we often say “we welcome y’all” instead “we welcome you” because to our ears it sounds strange to use “you” to refer to more than one person! Language changes as culture changes and the more we hear or read a different use of a word, the easier it is to adapt to the change.
When the Torah reads, “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem…You all stand here today [at Sinai to receive the gift of Torah],” we are reminded to reflect on the ways in which we have not fully opened our tent or our hearts to those around us, to those we love, to those who need us to see them as fully human and whole. When we honor the ritual of brit mitzvah on Shabbat morning, we celebrate that Torah belongs to all of us. “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem…you, male and female and everyone in between, stand here today, all of you, the full spectrum of
humanity...lifnei Adonai Eloheichem… before Adonai your collective God, the reflective image of each one of you together.”