a queer & trans Jewish perspective on names (notes for a zine)
hello friends! i’m starting to put together sources & thoughts for an upcoming comic zine i’m doing called “True Names” that brings together my perspectives on (self-)naming as a queer, trans, witchy Jew - i just finished the excellent Magic of the Ordinary by Gershon Winkler & thought i’d share some relevant quotes & thoughts with you all:
“…no name can hold within it that which is infinite. God, Judaism teaches, is un-name-able, un-peg-able, un-define-able, because not only is God infinite but also dynamic, eluding all attempts to attain a snapshot of a moment or essence of what is God. Therefore, when Moses asked the Creator to divulge the God Name, the Creator’s response was אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה (ehyeh asher ehyeh), which translates simultaneously: ‘I was what I was, I am what I am, and I will be what I will be’:
You wish to know my name? According to my actions I am called. At times I am called el shadai, or tz'vaot, or elo-heem. When I judge the creations, I am called elo-heem; when I battle wrongness, I am called tz'vaot; when I suspend the sins of humanity, I am called el shadai; and when I exercise compassion upon my worlds, I am called yhvh. In other words, I was what I was, I am what I am, and I will be what I will be—according to the nature of my actions I am called. (p.35)
this strikes some major chords with me re: labeling and queerness - existing in flux or outside of conventional definitions/structures, struggling to find words for that or to make existing words fit - and also the idea of a name as describing an action really resonates with me. Winkler expands on that idea when paraphrasing Rabbi Chayyim of Volozhin:
…that which is comprehended somewhat by us, and we decorate this grasping with various God-Names and Divine Attributes and the like—as we find in our Scriptures and in the various forms of our prayers—reflect only God’s relationship with the universes…even [in invoking] the essential, singular Name itself we are not connecting with the Selfhood-Essence of God but with that aspect of the Blessing Source that is in relationship with the universes… (p. 36)
in this view, a name describes not who you are essentially (what could possibly describe that?) but rather who you are to the world, especially who you are to the world in this moment:
This explains the baffling response which the Hebrew ancestor Ya’akov receives from the spirit being with whom he wrestles, after asking it to divulge its name to him: “Why do you ask me for my name?”—about which the second-century Rabbi Abba Arecha comments in the name of Rabbi Yosei bar Dowstai: “The angels have many names, according to their calling [in the moment]…[Said the angel to Ya’akov] ‘I am puzzled [that you ask me my name] for I do not know what my name is changing into in this very moment!” (p. 36, emphasis mine)
i imagine you can see where i’m going with this in relationship to changing names as a trans person - if a name is connected to an action or calling, choosing a new name for yourself is the process of describing what (& how) you do in the world right now, which may be different from what you did in the past or what others expected you to do. there are of course trans folks who don’t change their names (for many reasons), but for those of us who do, we’re responding to the sense that our birth names don’t (or never did) describe us accurately. the concept of a “deadname” becomes that which is no longer active - a thing we just aren’t doing anymore, and for a lot of people, being addressed by that name sounds like a request to perform that action again when at best we’ve moved on, and at worst, that action hurt us! we’re doing something else now, something more true to our present understanding of ourselves. we’re in a new relationship with the world and our birth names are an old relationship that has ended.
the essential me, including my gender, can’t be contained in any of my names, and none of those names (in my opinion) are more cosmically real or necessarily permanent than any other - the idea of a magical “true name” is something i want to push back against, and historical Jewish magic backs me up on that with the incantation bowl phrase “and every name [a person] has”
but my chosen name is powerful because i’m describing me right now, which is really the most important thing since we exist in the present! for me it’s not even a new name - in my case, i’ve been holding onto my chosen name in the back of my mind since i was a child, but have only been able to claim it openly as an adult in the past few years. something about it has clicked with me for that long & it’s a relief to finally be able to use it. other folks are still looking for names that fit, some folks feel good about their birth names! only you get to define the relationship/calling of your name, given or chosen.
if multiple names/labels and an outright refusal to be defined by others is good enough for the divine, it’s good enough for us - b’tzelem elohim!