A Film about a Rabbi-Turned-Transgender Theologian Exposes What Happens When Self-Discovery Takes Precedence over Obligations to Others

July 27 2020

Set to premier in the U.S. in January, the Israeli film I Was Not Born a Mistake tells the story of Yiscah (né Jeffrey, formerly Yaakov) Smith, from secular American Jew to Chabad rabbi to secular gay man to a transsexual, religiously observant teacher of Judaism. Smith, drawing on various bits of kabbalah and ḥasidic thought, has even created a Jewish transgender theology, which, Sarah Rindner writes, is “not . . . much different from what many self-styled self-help gurus offer spiritually hungry audiences.” But, to Rindner, the “emptiness” of this theology is not “the most urgent question the film raises.”

What human wreckage is left in the wake of an adult’s quest to discover an elusive self, when that quest overshadows obligations to others? The film implies that while living as a secular gay man and even after adopting the identity of a religious woman, Smith maintained a relationship, however strained, with his children, all of whom remained ḥasidic. But when Smith’s children begged for their father’s memoir not to be published, lest it humiliate them, Smith, after vacillating, ignored their concerns. In Smith’s own rather disturbing words, “I am not going to go out of tune so they can be better.” Only two of the six children remain in contact with Smith.

Despite this, the audience for the screening at the Jerusalem Film Festival gave the film a standing ovation. I would like to believe that I was not alone in wondering about those children and whether viewers might have been better served to hear some of their voices.

Although Smith comes across sympathetically in I Was Not Born a Mistake, the film’s vision of womanhood as defined by lipstick, colorful formfitting clothing, and standing on the women’s side of the m’ḥitsah is shallow and brittle. Orthodox Judaism seems to appeal to Smith in part because it offers a role to play. A secular woman can dress androgynously in a T-shirt and jeans and do most public things that a man does. In contrast, in order to appear as an Orthodox woman, Smith must wear long skirts or dresses, pray in the women’s section of the synagogue, and perform rituals reserved to women (such as lighting Sabbath candles) rather than those reserved to men (such as putting on t’filin). Motherhood, and motherly devotion to children, are absent. For Smith, it seems, Orthodoxy is a bit like the exaggerated femininity of the drag queen. . . .

Smith’s story illustrates the rupture of those relationships that demand that we transcend ourselves, and are therefore the most meaningful—such as that between parents and children. That rupture opens up an endless void, which the new-age spirits of self-discovery will never be able to fill.

Read more at First Things

More about: Film, Judaism, Transsexuals

When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount