Poet and scholar Ladin mines Jewish tradition for deeper understanding in The Soul of the Stranger: Reading God and Torah from a Transgender Perspective (Brandeis Univ., Nov.).
What led you to write this book now?
This book grew out of things I had been writing and talking about for years since my transition. There’s an understandable assumption in both the LGBTQ world and in the wider world that LGBTQ identities are inherently secular. I kept finding that people were interested in understanding the different way that my trans identity could relate to religious engagement. My relationship with God and Torah kept me going through some hard times and I wanted to talk about that out of gratitude. I hoped to promote the kind of conversations that were being skipped over in the legal and political promotion of trans identity.
Has your relationship with the Torah changed since your gender transition?
Absolutely. When I was living as a male but I knew I wasn’t, God was really the character I identified with. There was a real lack of sympathy for the flawed characters who were all men and women and I wasn’t either. I was forced to confront the fact that my readings were based on a very childlike anthropomorphization of God. I started to realize other human beings project their own experience of gender onto God. My gender transition helped me see the ways my unusual readings of the Torah made me like other people rather than setting me apart.
What would you say to those who claim the Torah cannot be used to support the lives of queer people?
In one way, I completely understand that. The Torah, however, is only interested in people when they are leaving their accustomed roles and their relationship with God is requiring them to become something the people around them do not understand. If you don’t value that human beings are always more than our assigned roles, you can’t recognize that we are created in the image of God or make room for God who is never going to conform to human habits.
How does your work as a poet influence your theological work?
When writing, I did not realize I did not know who I was writing to because I was quite pleased with the ideas. It was this messy hybrid of nervous academic twitches and creative flights of fancy and needed to be completely rewritten. Writing poetry has given me a lot of practice in shaping my language in response to the readers I imagine. I realized the academic stuff didn’t matter to me. I was talking about the most intimate truths I knew in terms of my religious life and my life as a trans person and I wanted to talk intimately and honestly to as many people as possible. I stripped the language down and kept trying to imagine leaning over urgently, as if your body is trying to move your words into your friend’s body.