Why Is Rachel Dolezal Any Different From Caitlyn Jenner?

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Washington state civil rights advocate Rachel Dolezal is seen in the NBC's 'Today' show studios in Manhattan, New York June 16, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Why is it that a person born with male anatomy can self-identify and live as a woman, but someone born into a Czech-German body can't self-identify as African-American? Is gender identity a construct, while racial identity is inextricably connected to one's biology?

These are questions I have been wrestling with since the Rachel Dolezal story set off a firestorm of negativity and derision, while Caitlyn Jenner’s courageous and beautiful act of honest self-expression was widely – and rightly – celebrated. I am, of course, not the only one who has been considering these questions in recent days (I found Adolph Reed, Jr.’s take especially compelling). A candid examination of the issues imparts important wisdom for the Jewish community specifically, and, I think, all of us. 

Women hold signs during a protest in front of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) headquarters in Spokane, Washington June 15, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Jenner's “coming out” was a victory for what sociologists term the "sovereign self,” that each and every individual has the moral right to identify themselves in whatever way feels most authentic to who they are and to live in accordance with that self-determined identity. Our biology need not dictate our destiny, and who we know ourselves to be on the inside is more important than what we look like on the outside, regardless of what anyone else says, or how anyone else seeks to label us. Does the Dolezal case exemplify the limit to this notion of the "sovereign self?"

It is easily within the realm of possibility that a person of Czech-German ancestry could identify as “black.” Ancestry, is but an element of one’s biology. Race, and even ethnicity, on the other hand, is, much like gender, a social construct. It has no demonstrable or factual standards for verification apart, perhaps, from some external biological features (like skin color, or geographic place of origin) that are usually assumed to apply, except for when they don’t. Rather, race is in the mind, both in that of the individual who might identify as a particular race, and in the mind of the broader society, which, for various reasons, has historically expressed an interest in identifying categories of people and trying to neatly place people into those categories it has created for them.

Caitlyn Jenner in the first official promotional trailer for the new documentary series, "I Am Cait," in Malibu, California.Credit: E! via AP

The problem, however, is that human beings, created in the image of a boundless God, are virtually infinite in their complexity. We thus frequently defy those neat categories in which society longs to place us. What if Dolezal didn't fabricate her racial identity, but rather expressed an understanding of her identity that was more composite, more complicated, and more fluid than the typical social categories allow? In other words, what if she checked off the box saying "black" because she genuinely felt black and/or because there are aspects of her biography that make her feel more black than not?

What if, instead of assuming Dolezal is a fraud, we acknowledged that all of us have, to varying degrees, composite identities, and some of us identify in ways that are at variance with our biology, even if those ways aren’t always publicly recognized or socially acceptable? What if we acknowledged the fact that, at some point or another, each of us ends up checking off boxes because our social systems ask us to, even though those boxes don't fully articulate who we are? And what would it look like if, instead of trying to label people as this or that identity, or worry about who we are placing in the right category, we honored each individual in the fullness of their complexity and in the dignity of their own self-determination?

These are particularly worthy questions for contemporary Jews to consider for several reasons.

Firstly, because Jewishness is, in an important sense, also a social construct similar to race and gender. As Shaye Cohen argued in "The Beginnings of Jewishness," “Jewishness, like most - perhaps all - other identities, is imagined; it has no empirical, objective, verifiable reality to which we can point Jewishness is in the mind it exists because certain persons want it to exist and believe that it exists. It can be willed into and out of existence” (p. 5).

Many with Jewish ancestry do not identify themselves as Jews. Furthermore, as Arnold Eisen and Steven Martin Cohen showed in their seminal work "The Jew Within," even most of those contemporary Jews-by-birth who in adulthood identify as Jews do so as “sovereign selves,” that is to say, with their own construction of Jewishness that may or may not bear resemblance in any externally identifiable way with the construct of Jewishness they inherited. And many with non-Jewish backgrounds claim to feel deeply Jewish, even without having formally converted.

This raises an important question for Jewish institutions. How can they better recognize the reality of this spectrum – in the same way that they ought to embrace the reality of the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation – and in so doing improve how they welcome, embrace, and engage people, wherever they are on the spectrum of Jewish identity, and regardless of their biology? How can we learn to look past the boxes in which we seek to categorize others, guiding everyone into a growing relationship with Jewish wisdom, practice, and community in ways that work for them, and allowing ourselves to benefit from their passion and love?

Secondly, while Judaism, and especially the rabbinic tradition, has an affinity for placing everything in clearly-defined categories (priest/Israelite, pure/impure, Jew/gentile), it also advances the radical notion that all human beings, being God’s children, are fundamentally equal. The prophet Amos echoes, "Are ye not as the children of the Ethiopians unto Me, O children of Israel? saith the LORD."(Amos 9:7)And the rabbis of the Talmud affirm, “Furthermore, [the first human was created alone] for the sake of peace among humanity, that one might not say to another, ‘my parent was greater than yours” (Sanhedrin 37a).

What distinguishes us from one another is not our biology or our ancestry, but rather the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the deeds of our hands. “Look not at the vessel, but at what it contains,” teaches Rabbi Meir (Pirkei Avot 4:20).

Jewish tradition urges us to build a world where all people, regardless of how they appear on the outside, are treated equally. And it further invites us not to feel limited by our biology in our pursuit of that world. More importantly, it demands we not impose limitations on others – like Caitlyn Jenners or Rachel Dolezals – especially when they are striving to build that world-to-come.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is rabbi of Temple Beth-el in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow. Named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis" by The Jewish Daily Forward, he enjoys movies, traveling, and pizza. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiKnopf.

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