Bind These Words

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A159 bindthesewords

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Written by Ari Lev Fornari. Ari Lev Fornari, a first-time Jewrotica writer, currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where he is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. This piece is adapted from a Torah Queerie originally published by NYU Press. Reprinted with permission from the journal Sh’ma as part of a larger conversation on sexuality.

Rated PG-13“Impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.” (Deuteronomy 11:18)

Chest Binder: an undergarment worn to flatten the appearance of the chest

Tallit Katan: An undergarment traditionally worn by men, which has knotted fringes tied to its four corners as a reminder of the 613 mitzvot.

There are four knotted strings that hang from the corners of my chest binder. Standing in front of the full-length mirror in my room, I unfold the tallit katan chest binder and inspect the tzitzit to make sure they are properly knotted.

“B’shem mitzvat tzitzit v’mitzvat hityatzrut. For the sake of the mitzvah of ritual fringes and the mitzvah of self-formation.” (Rabbi Elliot Kukla)

I say this brakhah quietly to myself as I tighten the Velcro fabric that presses my chest flat. The thick and sweaty fabric is uncomfortable, making it difficult to breathe and making my sternum ache. I struggle to find God beneath the layers of dark clothing and the self-conscious slouch of my shoulders. I struggle to find God in choices that cause physical pain to my body. How can I make my gender sacred? How can I make my gender a sign of my covenant with God?

In a Jewish world where tallit and tefillin are still male markers, what does a transfeminist Jew look like? What is the significance of women and gender-variant people wearing a kippah and wrapping tefillin? Does transfeminist Judaism require transformation of the rituals themselves? If it does mean participating in traditionally male rituals, how do we engage with traditional forms without idealizing the Jewish man? As transmen, how can we take on those obligations, rituals, and roles that have been traditionally associated with male privilege in a way that increases gender participation and expression for everyone?

For me, the words in the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta resonate with the practice of wearing a chest binder. My chest binder signifies part of my relationship to my body and my gender, in much the same way as a tallit katan is a daily reminder of my relationship to God. By integrating the two practices, I have created a new ritual object that sanctifies my gender and my Judaism.

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