Messy Forgiveness & Jewish Television: Toward a Feminist Theology of Transparent

My grandparents founded a synagogue in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. In the 1960s, the synagogue purchased and installed an organ. Please know that this is odd, because you could never play an organ during Shabbat services, not in any way that celebrates the Sabbath as intended. So, what was the point? Being more like everyone else.

Then, they, and by they I mean the leadership – my grandparents and the grandparents of many of the folks with whom I grew up who referred to the synagogue as St. Urban’s as opposed to Suburban -   suggested to the Rabbi and the board that they change the Shabbat services to Sunday. Why? Because then they could play golf with their buddies on Saturday. This was a bit too far, even for a Reform synagogue, and the Rabbi vetoed it.

The point? Not sticking out. Or being Jewish in a quiet way that does not draw attention to yourself, because to draw attention to yourself is to show the world the broken and jumbled chaos that is at the heart of Judaism, or Jews, or maybe just every person on the planet.

This leads me to the Pffermans. To Transparent. To the theology of radical affirmation that Jill Soloway and their team have created. Soloway quotes Rabbi Mordecai Finley to define the theology of Transparent: “He defines G-d as an energy hovering between love, justice, truth and beauty—somewhere between those four qualities is our search for spirituality.” That exact quote shows up in the show, spoken by one of the characters. They are in search of love and justice, truth and beauty, and that is what makes the show so painful to watch. That, and how deeply, frighteningly out everyone is about being Jewish and broken.

Secretly, most TV families are Jewish. You may not know this, but in the same way that Jesus and the crew were Jewish and Christianity seems to have forgotten about it, most of the shows we watched in the heyday of network TV were about Jewish families, passing as “average,” which translates as white, Christian, cisgendered, and heteronormative .

In one study, 59% of elite TV producers were Jewish and in another over 50% of TV writers were Jewish. What we got on TV in our 1980s childhoods was an amalgam of Jewish feelings and ideas and experiences grafted on to decidedly non-Jewish actors, plots, and lives. Why? Antisemitism. Or the fear thereof. Jewish writers were scared to portray any kind of Jewish life that could be open to interpretation by outsiders. Outside interpretations of Judaism have a 2,000-year history of not working out so well for Jews. This is like reminding people that Jesus and the Apostles were, with some exceptions, Jewish. Somehow it is both true and impossible at the same time.

Enter Maura Pffeferman and her family of Jewish, unlikeable, gender queer, trans, gay, sexual, intransigent, and messy humans who are walking around in the world of Transparent, unabashedly being potential Antisemitism poster children. I hate everyone in the show the way I hate my family for being flawed and publicly unable to act in any other way than the way they are. How can you show that to the neighbors? It violates the agreed-upon need to keep our business to ourselves.

This is where I come out.

I converted to Christianity as an adult. Whatever conversion means, and however it exists. It’s like the question of gender identity at the heart of Transparent: there are just so many questions to which we don’t know the answer, so let’s just live the question.

I can trace my feelings about Jesus back to Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell when I was in elementary school, and so I know it was in there. However, this too is curious, since the fourth season of Transparent centers around Jesus Christ Superstar, the music played by and obsessed over by Jews, who know themselves as Jews. Which just goes to show that no one really knows how any of this happens.

Stepping into Christianity just made me feel more Jewish. It also allowed me to hear and see antisemitism up close and personal.

When someone refers to G-d for the 20th time as Yahweh, and my skin crawls, because it is a basic lack of understanding of the way Jews talk about G-d or use G-d’s names, I think about the way trans activists talk about how no one messes up the gender pronouns of cisgendered folks. No one ever calls me “he” by mistake. And yet, for trans folks this happens even amongst friends who care and are supportive.

My version is hearing the Torah referred to as the Old Testament. Let me tell you what it feels like when supportive friends co-opt Judaism and use it to Christian ends while not seeing it for what it is—a world unto itself filled with beauty, love, truth and justice. It feels like being on the opposite side of a soundproof pane of glass yelling and gesticulating while everyone on the other side is looking at you like a zoo animal. It feels like being knifed in the leg by someone as they pass by on the street and they don’t even look back.

I can’t be anything but Jewish in Christian circles because to walk away from Judaism would mean allowing myself to be sucked into the latent antisemitism of Christianity, and my body won’t let me do that. I cry. I feel heat rising in my chest and arms. My ears ring. I may even secretly think some of the things I hear—but that doesn’t mean I want to hear them from Christians.

Let me point out here, that I am a preacher’s wife. A cisgendered femme white lady from the Midwest with an Ivy League education and a graduate degree who passes for straight, white, Christian, and whatever else there is to pass as. This only makes it worse. The feeling that I cannot keep my mouth shut. That the casual antisemitism I come up against needs to be called out. That the breach is huge and needs to be bridged. I thought it would be different than this. I’d read Paul, St. Augustine, you know, the converts, and I thought something was supposed to be different.

Salvation did not make me not Jewish. Of course, it did not make Jesus not Jewish either. Nor the early Christians.

I was baptized during Easter Vigil, in a quiet dark stone chapel which would have been romantic except a fanatical young guy had fasted for reasons that are still not clear to me, and he fainted right before the Holy Baptism part of the service. We had to turn the lights on and wait for an ambulance to come and take him away. It took a while. I had time to contemplate what I was doing, being presented to these people as a candidate for being made new in Christ, inheriting Christ’s kingdom and the Kingdom of G-d.

One of my evangelical friends said to me, in preparation for baptism, “Don’t think this is going to solve everything.” It’s like in AA when they tell you not to pull a geographic, because you will still be you in the new place you go to avoid yourself. I knew I was trying to be something new. A new version of myself, or maybe the old version of myself made live. It is so hard to tell.

Salvation did not make me not Jewish. Of course, it did not make Jesus not Jewish either. Nor the early Christians.

I don’t know what it’s like to watch Transparent, which I love and which makes my skin crawl, if you are not Jewish, from a family full of secrets that pass for boundaries, queer, and messed up. If you are, it is like watching Madonna in the 1980s and saying, “Can you do that in public? You can do that in public? Someone please tell me why we were always embarrassed to do that in public?”

It’s necessary to watch. To have forgiveness, you have to be yourself. Which is hard to sit still with when you see it on the computer, in color, with music and sound, and all the feelings that brings up about being Jewish, female, and alive.

I really wanted to be made new again when I became Christian, and didn’t want to be the messy and broken me that walked around for decades being a pain in the ass to the patriarchy while feeling like a kicked dog. I wanted what they called “regeneration” in the early church. We don’t get to be different people, but we do get forgiveness. An affirmation that who we are is ok with Jesus and maybe it would be ok with us, too.

I floated around on that feeling of forgiveness for the first few years I was Christian, hoping I could just stop there. I couldn’t. I must have known it all along, that I could not just be hanging around on the periphery of Christianity, enjoying the feeling of being in the right place. Crying every time I went to church, and being flooded with relief, self-acceptance, grace, and forgiveness.

Then, slowly I realized—that mess of my Jewish self was my Christian self, and I don’t get to ditch it: I get to be that me in the full light of grace and forgiveness. The celebration of self in Transparent, unrepentant celebration of self is a relief. It is a relief and a call to action and a kick in the butt.

There were no models for me in this transition from Jewish me from Cleveland who thought Jesus was amazeballs and made me misty-eyed to Christian me who thought Jesus was amazeballs and made me misty-eyed. I knew no other converts. I didn’t believe in conversion as a concept because it reeked of before and after pictures.

Was that enough? For a while.

A honeymoon period.

It ended because I kept running up against the antisemitism in Christianity, this self-congratulatory relationship to Judaism where Christianity is the natural and obvious moral evolution from the violence and ugliness of Torah Judaism. Where Jesus saved us from being Jewish, thank G-d, and Christians are the real people of Israel, the real inheritors of the covenant.

I have had so many white Christian men mansplain Judaism to me since I joined the fold. So many. The commonality is that they are self-serving in their wrongness. Self-congratulatory in their smug knowledge of the old, tired, played-out religion that Jesus left to become Christian. I have a line I use when this happens. I say: “That is not what it’s like from the inside.” Honestly, it doesn’t work.

When I am not at my best, when the darker angels of my nature take over, I am speechless, furious, awash in epigenetic trauma, and unable to do anything at all. I know that these folks who love Jesus don’t know they hate Jews and don’t even understand that’s what’s going on. They are still my people. Fellow travelers. Part of the Beloved Community that is the Kingdom of G-d.

Then, slowly I realized—that mess of my Jewish self was my Christian self, and I don’t get to ditch it: I get to be that me in the full light of grace and forgiveness.

In Christianity, I found a language for what I felt when I listened to Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, I found words to set to the lyric poetry theology operas that defined my inchoate feelings about the intensity of loving G-d. I still love the energy hovering between love, justice, truth and beauty – that G-d of the Jews, and don’t believe in them any less than I ever did.

In fact, I believe that Jesus was the best representative of that G-d that we can culturally imagine. I also found a trajectory -- the idea that it was possible to love G-d and create a world filled with that love. It’s possible in the here and now full-on disaster that is being human.

I also found a surprising part in a very hegemonic tradition. I had moments of feeling like I could be ”normal” and not Jewish. Which I guess I could have if I had turned my back on my people. If I had a slightly higher capacity for compartmentalization. But I don’t.

Following the Pffeferman’s through Israel and through life, bold and bawdy and filled with sex and complexity and angst and pain and redemption, is like reading an old diary. Or seeing a friend from high school who says, “You were such a slut back in the 80s.”

The urge is to turn away, but turning away is not grace. Turning away does not welcome G-d. As an adolescent, I learned to fake an exterior that would be acceptable to the most average person I could ever meet in Cleveland, Ohio. One in which it was necessary to be female without being sexual. Jewish without being different.

Human without a dark pull towards G-d. Smart without being threatening. Pretty without any hormones. Well dressed without drawing any attention to myself.

None of that is possible on Transparent. An impossibility that is grace. That is being regenerated into the death and resurrection of Jesus where the moneylenders and the single women with money and the folks who cast nets in the sea, and the Roman soldiers were all welcome.

That is the Christianity I found and love. That mess. It is not an up and out strategy where I will escape anything. It is a down and in strategy where I will need to face the antisemitism in my face all the time, and the sexism and fear of women’s sexuality that religion seems to draw strength from.

Maura Pffeferman sitting with Shelley at the table in the back yard where they raised their kids singing, “everything’s alright, now, everything’s fine” from Jesus Christ Superstar after four seasons of family misery, upheaval, craziness, and tsuris (pain, difficulty).

That is a blessing.

When we think of what the Beloved Community looks like, I’m afraid we think it will be a lot of well-behaved and thin exemplars of a variety of ways humans show up, all of whom have beauty privilege, confidence, humility, and glowing health while looking like the United Nations of some Benetton ad consumerism.

I’m afraid that the prophetic theology of Transparent tells us something different. The theology of Transparent tells us that the Beloved Community will be a mess with bad haircuts, different bodies, a lot of eye shadow, sweatpants, beards, bad taste in partners, annoying habits, sticky situations, and will make poor choices and generally not represent well, and basically piss us off and make us uncomfortable with ourselves and the way we live our lives. There will be Jews being embarrassingly Jewish and Queers being embarrassingly Queer and people doing gender in ways that are all over the spectrum.

That is a blessing.

And a call to action.

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, a very unlikely trans and queer activist Ultra Orthodox rabbi described faith that way, as a call to action. The writing, acting, producing on—and watching of—Transparent,  are all acts of faith. Faith that it is okay to be Jewish, to be female, to be queer, to be flawed, to live in a non-normative body, to be a person of color, to be horrifically and beautifully human.

The call to action is to re-imagine the Beloved Community with real humans in it. To accept that we are those real humans, and to know that it is not going to mean that I get to be a better version of myself. I just get to be the nice Jewish girl from the Midwest who found Jesus and tries to live the call of both the G-d of love, justice, truth, and beauty and the G-d of grace and forgiveness.

The theology of Transparent is the call to be more myself, out loud, and in person, all the time. Maura, in the end, is a conglomeration of everything she has ever been, including all the privilege and asshole-ness of her white-academic-man-self and her Maura who-now-writes-about-oppression-self. We get to be all of ourselves.

I can be Jewy and messy, Christian and female, new and old, loud about what worries me and quiet in my awe at where I am. Transparent is a call to have faith and a refusal to make those less comfortable selves disappear.
                                                                           Michelle Auerbach

note: After some consideration and discussion, the editors and writer of this piece decided to opt for the spelling antisemitism, while acknowledging that there is a lack of general consensus about this word, both stylistically and politically.