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The Binding of Isaac

09/18/2020 11:21:03 AM


          Shana Tova! A couple of years ago I came across a Spotify playlist called, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared,” named after a book by the same name which walks the reader through the whole High Holy Day season. The playlist, I believe curated by a rabbinical student, is full of songs on the themes of apologies, forgiveness, faith, and so on. It includes Barbra Streisand’s recording of Avinu Malkeinu and several Leonard Cohen songs. The playlist is 43 songs, nearly 3 hours, and I play it in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days to get me in the zone as I work on various service preparations. But I find it difficult to read or write while also listening to anything with words, so I don’t always get very far into the playlist before I end up turning it off to actually focus. In one such spurt of listening to this playlist on shuffle this year, I took note of a song I’m not sure I’ve really heard before, by a band I knew otherwise nothing about. The band is named Schmekel and the song is called “The Binding of Isaac”. 

As you are likely aware, our Torah portion for Rosh HaShana is the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. In some more traditional synagogues, it is read on the second day, and the preceding verses about Hagar and Ishmael are read on the first day. In the Reform Movement, where many of us don’t observe a second day or some synagogues that do observe a second day but read Bereshit/Genesis as their second Torah reading, the Akedah is the main act of our Rosh HaShana scriptural readings. We struggle year after year with the terrible decision Abraham makes to offer up his son in sacrifice. We remember the ram that was sacrificed instead at the last moment, giving us the Shofar to awaken ourselves and remember the value that our God puts on human life. We look for the lessons of teshuvah and forgiveness from these verses assigned to this day of worship.

None of this is really what the song “The Binding of Isaac” is about. Schmekel was a klezmer-core punk band comprised entirely of transmasculine musicians (it appears they no longer play together). In a New York Times article from 2011, the music is described as such: “If the musical satirist Tom Lehrer were to write a hard-core anthem about [gender affirmation] surgery, with a driving guitar lick, a “Hava Nagila” breakdown and a keyboard line lifted from Super Mario Brothers, it might approximate the Schmekel sound.” I eventually listened to the rest of the album, “The Whale that Ate Jonah,” and I can confirm that their music bops and their lyrics speak to a pretty particular experience, most of which are not family friendly. “The Binding of Isaac” is one of the few songs on the album not marked “Explicit,” and it plays on the term “binding.”

Binding is a common practice by which transmasculine people try to limit the visibility of their chests. The song tells the story of a transgender man’s first Rosh HaShana service at his childhood synagogue passing as a man. There are jokes about no one on “this side of the mechitzah” recognizing him, and tongue in cheek lyrics about his chest binding, about the Torah story of the binding of Isaac, and how uncomfortable he is, both with the parasha and with his chest. As with any joke or piece of satire, as I explain it to you it feels less entertaining, but I assure you that the song made me laugh upon hearing it, and the tune was stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

There are differing opinions about the physical safety of binding. Some more DIY methods, such as tape or ace bandages, can cause severe damage to the chest tissue, to the lungs, and to the ribs. Even with professionally-made binders specifically for this purpose, wearers are warned not to wear the to bed, not to wear them for more than 10 hours at a time, not to wear them every single day. The medical community is not fully behind this practice.

And yet, for many people living with gender dysphoria, binders are healthcare. A study done in 2016 showed that transmasculine teenagers who bound their chests showed a significant decrease in their depression and anxiety, and were able to transition more smoothly. Aside from youth, there may be many reasons more accepted medical procedures are not available to transgender individuals. While more approved of by doctors now than binders, there are still a lot of medical and insurance related barriers to hormone replacement therapy and gender affirmation surgery, not to mention the costs of any medical procedure even with insurance. Additionally, some people may not want surgery and would rather have a more fluid gender presentation. Binders help people in various stages of transition and with various relationships to their gender live their lives true to themselves. For this reason, I believe doctors, therapists, queer innovators, and fashion designers would help free a lot of people from social and mental bondage by creating safer binders or other aids to help people begin their transitions in healthy ways.

As with the 2016 study, a lot of the conversation I’ve seen in media or on social media about binding and barriers to transition has been about young people still living under the rule of their parents. I’m sure most parents who prohibit their children from trying to transition, and especially from binding, genuinely believe they are acting in their child’s best interest. They may be worried about the mental health of a “confused” child, they are likely worried about bullying and the child making choices they may quickly regret, and in the case of binding, they may also be worried about their child’s physical health and their growing bodies. However, like with any difficulty facing an angsty, hormonal, confused, self-conscious teen (as the majority are some combination of all of these), a gender presentation and transition must be responded to with care, compassion, and nuance, protecting the child from outer forces as well as from their own dysphoria as much as possible. While it was binders and the play on the Binding of Isaac that led me down this thought path, the truth is this applies to a wide range of teens, not just transmasculine folks. Dysphoria can lead to depression and anxiety, and trans teens, as well as others under the LGBTQ umbrella, are nearly five times more likely to self-harm or attempt suicide compared to heterosexual and cisgender teens. In our Partners in Peace fundraiser for ACTS, one of the supporters wrote in the comment section that their trans child had committed suicide and this parent would devote their life to pursuing a more peaceful, loving world. It is imperative that we keeping seeking more safe, potentially reversible choices available to young people seeking to find a gender presentation that diminishes their dysphoria.

I mentioned earlier that one of the possible lessons of the Akedah is God’s value for human lives. You might have wondered how that could be, as God asks Abraham to sacrifice his child! There are some scholars who point to the verses in the TaNaKh, as well as from other ancient Near Eastern sources that speak of child sacrifices to Moloch, and point out how the swapping of the ram for Isaac was a statement to the peoples around Abraham, how the sacrifices of animals, which now seem barbaric to our modern sensibilities, was a progressive move for the time and place in which Judaism began.

Rabbi Samuel David Luzzato, a 19th century rabbi and early critical reader of the Bible (and who also, oddly enough was born on Rosh HaShana and died on Yom Kippur, 85 years apart) taught: “Since God chose Avraham so that he will be the father of the Chosen People, the believers of One. Whereas, the other nations worship idols and burn their children as sacrifice to their gods. These actions are an abomination to God, He never intended Avraham to do this. Just the opposite, it was that the pagan nations would think that the children of Avraham were lacking in their religious service if they were not willing to sacrifice as much as the pagans did. Therefore, Avraham was challenged (even though God already knew Avraham would pass the test) in order that all of mankind will learn that those who worship God do not sacrifice their children! This is an abomination to God.”

Of course, trying to protect a child from the unknowns of gender transition or binding is not akin to sacrificing a child. The scales by which these acts would be measured are radically different. But, just as we shake our head at Abraham’s misguided decision to follow what he believed to be God’s will, we must be willing to acknowledge the potential harm done by forcing someone to live with the wrong gender presentation. The toll on the mental health of trans people and others in the LGBTQ community when denied their ability to live their authentic selves can and often does still lead to the loss of the child, whether through angry estrangement from their families or – God-forbid – through the loss of their lives. Isaac was saved at the last minute by an angel and a ram. What will you do in the coming year to save the lives of LGBTQ youth? May we show God that we understand the value of human life and may we not be misled by those who claim to speak in God’s name against the lives of some. May the Shofar awaken us to harms we have previously ignored, and may we protect all members of our community. Amen and Shana Tov.


Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781