Letting Boys Live (Parashat Shemot)
Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu laasok b’divrei Torah.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to engage with words of Torah.
I’ve been looking forward to this week’s Torah portion for a few months now, because there’s something that’s clicked with me about it. There’s a lightbulb that keeps going off inside whenever I read a new article about exposure to phthalates, PFAS, BPA, or other modern chemicals and their impact on the reproductive system. It’s the same lightbulb that goes off when I notice trends in the VAERS database regarding mandatory vaccines.
And it’s the same lightbulb that flickers over dramatic declines in male fertility, questions over exponential increases in neurological and chronic conditions since the 1990s, skyrocketing rates of single parent households and trouble in younger generations when it comes to developing relationships, as well as new ideas about gender that put very young children on the path of chemical and surgical alteration.
The light that I’m describing illuminates a society which devalues, and really mocks life as it was created to be. And when its political slogans so plainly spell out messages like “men are trash,” or “kill all men,” it’s starkly apparent how broken, nihilistic, and self-destructive this society has become.
I realized when I was reviewing some of the VAERS data in particular that this society is one whose story I’ve heard before. In this week’s Torah portion, we read that a new Pharaoh in Egypt decides it’s time to kill all Hebrew boys, and we see how he sets out trying to do it.
Kill the Boys, But Let the Girls Live (Exodus 1:22)
There’s this great analysis of new leftist ideology around criminal justice that I’ve heard lately. It sums up things like this: beneath slogans like “believe women,” and “Black lives matter,” is not an overdue reversal of the status quo but a reiteration of hierarchical meaning in social dynamics. The new system of meaning is built not on civil equality but on institutional or intrinsic innocence and guilt. As a great example, we can look at the recent Kyle Rittenhouse case. In this new leftist ideology, Rittenhouse is of course guilty (without regard to a fair trial or even accuracy in the details of his case). His whiteness and maleness are the only facts necessary to determine his guilt.
In the same way, this ideology insulates women from being expected to provide more evidence than her own testimony when accusing a man, such as Brett Kavanaugh, of rape. It distorts the reality in other cases of rape, including the rape of children, so that the rapist becomes the victim of society and of his victims. And it warps our perspective of national unrest such that one day of rioting in Washington D.C. (or more than 100 days of rioting, looting, and violence across the country) can be reframed as either a coup, in the case of January 6th, or righteous outrage, in the case of the Kavanaugh hearing disruptions and George Floyd riots, depending on partisan affiliation.
At the start of the Book of Exodus, we find an Egypt in the throes of a similar ideology. The Pharaoh resents the visible presence of the Hebrews in his country, as well as their vigor and loyalty to one another. First, the Bible tells us that the Pharaoh puts slave masters over the Hebrews and forces them into building new cities for the country. When this doesn’t slow their population growth, the Bible tells us that the Egyptians began to fear them.
“But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Hebrews and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.”
(Exodus 1:12-14 NIV)
The Pharaoh then arrives at his final solution. He orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all male Hebrew babies. And when they refuse, he finally calls on the whole of Egypt to participate in killing them. Reading this, we can clearly see how it’s the race and sex of the babies that matters, that renders them guilty and worthy of death in the eyes of the Egyptians. Hopefully, we even look at that example disapprovingly. Babies don’t deserve to be killed. Especially not because of their race or sex.
Yet turn the focus back to the contemporary, and look at the praxis of new leftist politics. Look at what we are doing to ourselves through industrial chemicals and waste. Look at the impact of modern medical feats on the sovereignty and wholeness of our bodies. Bring up the existential threat of declining male fertility to your leftist friends, and watch how the issue is twisted into an anxiety belonging solely to racists and other artifacts of a bygone era where families and having children mattered.
These seemingly disparate facets of modern civilization work in tandem as part of an overarching, life-denying mindset. One piece on its own would be absurd, yet together they make up a way of life. I imagine that the Pharaoh’s Egypt was caught in a similar web.
We live in the Pharaoh’s death cult. We live in a society where race and sex (if not gender, or ideological compliance as well) determine civil rank, where self-destruction is embraced, and where we practically bathe in the embalming fluids of toxic “everywhere chemicals.”
This parsha could just as easily be science fiction of the near future.
A Question of Fruitfulness
So, how do we break out of that kind of mindset? How do we pull back from the brink of cultural civil war, reverse course on the annihilation of our species, and get back safely to some sanctuary of stability beneath our feet?
The answers there are myriad because so too are the varying problems that have arisen from the initial, destructive mindset. And at the start of this week’s Torah portion, we don’t really get any of those answers, because things are going to be worse and more trying before they improve for our Hebrew ancestors.
Nevertheless, we do get two clues in the first chapter of Exodus, and I want to be sure and highlight them because I’ve talked around them a few times already in past weeks. First, the Hebrews are being fruitful and multiplying (per G-d’s commandment of us), which is what causes the Egyptians’ anxiety (Ex. 1:7, 1:9, 1:12). Then, second, Joseph means nothing to the new Pharaoh (Ex. 1:8).
It’s quite easy to view both of these facts as independent of one another. However, I think there’s layered meaning in their presentation together. As you might recall, in the past I’ve written about one of the more contemporary re-evaluations of Joseph as a potentially transgender figure. There’s a reasonable argument being made especially by contemporary queer theologians that Joseph’s famed “coat of many colors” is more likely a sort of dress usually worn by women.
Beyond the narrative differences I discussed in my commentary on Parashat Vayeshev, the other key difference though between Joseph as a transgender figure and contemporary gender activism is that there is no mention of Joseph undergoing any sort of surgical alteration. We may mistakenly believe that transsexualism is a uniquely modern medical phenomenon, but we would be incorrect. The ancient world was full of self-castrated men, such as the galli priestesses of the Anatolian goddess Cybele. This sort of crude transition could have hypothetically been available to Joseph (if he were a transgender figure), yet its absence from his story teaches us two important things about Judaism.
First, even the proto-Hebraic identity was different than the polytheistic cultures around it, perhaps including their approach to questions of gender. Second, if we believe that Joseph was transgender for at least part of his life, the Bible provides an account of struggle and reconciliation around that fact without defying G-d’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply. Even if we push through what today’s gender activists in Progressive Judaism are saying, this remains a Jewish concern about transsexualism.
In place of these approaches, we get that first clue I mentioned above about fruitfulness. Later in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah will clarify this for us, but for its relevance now, G-d tells us “Let no eunuch complain, ‘I am but a dry tree,'” (Isaiah 56:3). We know from the final portion in the Book of Genesis that Joseph married and had children, fulfilling the commandment given from his Creator, and, implying near explicitly that in spite of what we may speculate regarding his gender, there was likely no destructive act against himself.
When it is said that Joseph meant nothing to the Pharaoh, the meaning there is two-fold. Joseph is neither a noble figure whose name is recognized in Egypt any longer. Nor is the example of Joseph’s story–of a gender non-conforming child loved by his father and community without being castrated–relevant to the Pharaoh’s mindset. The Pharaoh’s mindset is to kill all Hebrew boys, a more extreme expression of the same sins that castrate certain boys (whether prisoners of war or those selected for transsexualism).
We Must Preserve What is Good, Creative, and Blessed
The reactive impulse against this is to take the opposite stance on everything. For instance, some traditionalists and conservatives want to roll back the culture war on civil equality for homosexuals owing to the excesses of the gender movement, as if same-sex civil unions between consenting adults aren’t a reasonable measure in a functional society where a certain segment of the population is going to be gay regardless of its cause.
This approach misses the point. And that’s in part why I think it’s critical that opposition to the chemical and surgical castration of children be understood within a broader analysis of the excesses of mainstream medicine and industrialization, highly divisive political rhetoric, and with them, the protected liberty to think and live apart from these things. The fight against the ideological framework that castrates children, sterilizes adult men, and pits population segments against one another is not a matter of the latter, a matter of identifying the correct “enemy” population and uprooting it from society. This is actually the mistake the Pharaoh makes.
No, the fight against the whole of what I’ve covered here is an ideological battle, one in which the mindset connects the interpretation of the individual components. The Hebrews, despite the anxiety of the Egyptians, were not out there trying to take over Egypt or to displace the Egyptian way of life. They were choosing to live in accordance with their G-d’s commandments, i.e. from a mindset that defined their community.
After the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, a local imam and I were talking about the shooter’s alleged views on race replacement and the like. He made an interesting comment that’s stuck with me and applies just as easily to the Pharaoh’s perspective here.
“If white people aren’t having enough babies, the answer isn’t to shoot Muslims who are just out there being Muslims,” he said. “The answer is for more white people to have babies.”
Our answer too is similar. We don’t solve the crisis by adding more destruction, locking up our political enemies, or making life difficult for transitioned kids or going after their Munchausen’s mothers. The answer is that we create and defend a parallel way of living that values life, that values and enjoys healthy sex, that loves men and women, which wisely loves even its incorrigible and non-conforming children, which values reconciliation and family, and which doesn’t let pharmacology or the technological achievements of man eclipse our most sacred obligations to our Creator.
Such a way of living is challenging. Torah shows us that struggle. But such a way of living is also possible. And Torah shows us how to do it.
The Scripture quoted in this passage is taken from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.