Welcoming Transgendered Jews

By Charlie Anders
Tikkun Magazine - Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Razi was raised as a girl, in a feminist Jewish Revival synagogue. Nobody ever told Razi not to do the things boys did, but still Razi found religious events a source of discomfort. This was because Razi “felt too self-conscious in my own skin to wear the appropriate clothing” for ceremonies. Razi wanted to dress up, but didn’t feel comfortable. It was only when Razi grew up and transformed from a girl into a man that he discovered a new relationship with Judaism. Instead of being the bane of his existence, dressing up for synagogue became a thrill. “When I began identifying as male, I couldn’t wait to put on a tie and yarmulke and enter the community as a young Jewish man,” says Razi, now a college student.

As transgender visibility increases across Western culture as a whole, gender-transforming Jews have started to carve out a space for themselves in Jewish society. They’ve stared down gender preconceptions, paranoia, and misunderstandings. But in many cases, they’ve also found that transitioning has enriched their relationship with Judaism, and vice versa.

Trans Jews also have created their own communities on the Internet and elsewhere. These include a “TransJews” email group on Yahoo, a community on Livejournal.com, and an acclaimed zine called TimTum: A Trans-Jew Zine, written by tranny anti-Occupation activist Micah Bazant, who also wrote the Trans Manifesto, a well-circulated on-line call for the recognition of equal rights for the transgendered.

Inevitably, when a Jewish person changes gender, this changes his or her relationship to the religion. Israeli American Beth Orens completed her transition from male to female in 1997 and finds that her status is “a little different now.” Orens runs the Dina email list for Orthodox Jewish trans people.

“It annoys me when I know more about something than a rabbi does, but I have no authority,” frets Orens, herself an Orthodox Jew. Even before she transitioned, she lacked authority, but she feels this more keenly as a woman. At the same time, she says, “Judaism is all about distinctions,” and “difference does not have to mean inequality.”

On the other hand, transitioning from female to male “made involvement with Judaism possible for me,” says Jerrold, a twenty-four-year-old man. “As a female, I had no connection to the religion at all. My Bat Mitzvah was a farce. I was the first girl to be allowed to read Haftorah at my shul but still wasn’t allowed to read Torah. None of it meant anything to me.” But as soon as Jerrold became a man, he felt as though he had a place in Judaism. His only awkwardness comes because he didn’t receive the upbringing and training that would have come with being raised as a male. He doesn’t know how to put on tefillin, and he only knows Haftorah trope, as opposed to Torah trope. He still feels “awkward about women’s roles,” such as the fact that women must sit on the other side of the mechitzah (the barrier that divides men from women in Orthodox synagogues). But as a man, he doesn’t feel it’s his place to raise these issues on women’s behalf.

Brooklynne Thomas, events coordinator for the Youth Gender Project in San Francisco, converted to Judaism from Catholicism at age nineteen. At the time, Thomas was a man in the process of marrying a Jewish man whose mother wanted Thomas to convert or leave her son. Thomas had already been “harboring secret desires to be Jewish,” so the ultimatum proved liberating. Thomas’ marriage to the Jewish boy ended some time later, and then she transitioned into a woman. She says she feels much safer as a Jewish transwoman than she would have as a Catholic. She feels that Judaism is more accepting and less concerned with creating distance between the priesthood and the laity than Catholicism.

Castration Anxiety, Sterilization Terror

Even if changing your gender makes you more comfortable with Judaism, there’s no guarantee that every Jew will accept your new gender identity. The majority of Orthodox rabbis refuse to recognize the gender identities of people who’ve had genital surgery (regarding it as genital mutilation), much less those of people who’ve merely taken hormones or taken on a genderqueer identity.

The majority of halachic authorities in Israel take the position that a person’s gender is irrevocably fixed at birth, according to a 1998 article in the Jerusalem Post. Not only that, but the article cites the influential 1977 opinion of Yeshiva University Professor J. David Bleich that genital reassignment surgery violates the prohibition on sterilization for women, or castration for men. The article also cites a “minority” view by Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a judge in the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, that surgery does change someone’s gender. Often cited by Orthodox trans persons such as Beth Orens as an authoritative halachic position, Waldenberg’s opinion is not widely shared by other Orthodox rabbis.

However, even if, like Waldenberg, they accept that someone can change his or her sex, halachic authorities see a host of bewildering questions, according to the Post article, such as whether a female to male transsexual must be circumcized, whether a transgender person must get divorced, and what sexual partners are “appropriate” for transgender people.

Orthodox Jewish transphobia “makes frum homophobia look like nothing,” says Orens. And non-Orthodox Jews can be just as bad, she adds. Orens had one friend, formerly Orthodox but now intermarried, who stopped talking to Orens after she realized Orens was formerly male.

But Reform Judaism has been more accepting. Jonathan Edelstein’s blog HeadHeeb links to a 1990 responsa from the Central College of American Rabbis that says Reform Judaism should “accept the findings of modern science, which holds that external genitalia may not reflect the true identity of the individual.”

Jerrold says that all his relatives reacted positively, although his parents were slow to adjust. His ninety-year-old grandmother was the second person to start calling him by his male name. And even his Orthodox extended family in Europe had no problems.

And then there are some who regard transgenderism as a special benefit. Razi tells of one Orthodox Jew who identified as bisexual but vowed he’d “take a gun to the head” before sleeping with a man. Someone brought up the issue of transmen, and the man became excited, because that would be perfect. “Because to me he’d be a man, but to G-d he’d still be a woman, so it would be allowed!” the man said. His interlocutors were horrified.

Some Orthodox rabbis, at least, would disagree with that reluctant bisexual that a transman is still a woman “to G-d.” Orens says she’s obtained two legitimate halachic opinions that she’s actually female.

Traditions Enrich Transformation

Judaism offers some rituals that help people add meaning to the process of transitioning from one gender to another. Before he had his chest reconstruction, Jerrold went to a Renewal rabbi, who performed a spiritual mikvah in his hot tub. It was “a great experience,” Jerrold says. Jerrold asked another rabbi to perform a hatafat dam brit for him, “but he thought it was unnecessary since I’m already Jewish.”

“Adapting traditional rituals for use in my transition, especially the surgery, helped me to feel safe, grounded, [and] settled about what I was doing,” Jerrold explains. “Because Judaism is so rich in life-cycle events, everything can be very easily adapted to provide a ritual framework for transition and celebrate what are truly joyous, freeing occasions.”

Almost every story in Judaism is about transition, the most important one being from slavery to freedom, Jerrold adds. “It’s a great lens through which to view your own life and a means to draw lessons from your history.”

“My involvement with Judaism and spirituality has given me a chance to take issues of identity seriously, and has given me wise teachers with whom I can discuss the things in life that are important,” says Razi. Conversely, changing his gender has forced him to reconsider many things about his life, including his Judaism.

One online guide to running a progressive seder suggests asking everybody present which pronoun he or she prefers. If there are any transgender people present, this will put them at their ease. If not, it’ll make the participants think for a moment about how they take their own gender identities for granted.

And there are other ways that Judaism can help people seeking alternative ways of viewing their gender identity. “Did you know there are seven genders mentioned in the Talmud?” asks S. Bear Bergman, a writer and performance artist who deals with issues of Judaism and gender, and identifies as a butch rather than as a transsexual. The Talmud includes guidelines on incorporating different genders and sexes into Jewish society. Even if those multi-gendered guidelines aren’t followed today, they set a precedent for accepting non-binary genders in Jewish life, says Razi.

Because Judaism doesn’t have a hell, Jewish people can’t claim that transgenders will go to hell, notes Razi.

Exceptional Cases Illuminate the Rule

It’s often through the outliers that you see the true nature of the center. In the case of Judaism, transgender people often raise unusual questions that past generations of Jews might never have considered. And yet the answers to those questions reveal much about the heart of the Jewish faith.

Now that Thomas has converted from Catholicism to Judaism and from male to female, she mostly dates female-to-male transsexuals. If she chooses to have a baby with one of these transmen, most likely her partner will carry the baby in his womb. But Thomas will be the baby’s mother in every other sense. Such reverse-gender parenting situations are rare, but becoming more common in San Francisco, where transmen and transwomen sometimes date.

If the baby’s father is a gentile, will the baby be Jewish? It depends on whether you believe the mother is the person who gives birth to a child, or the child’s female parent. Or looked at another way, it depends whether you believe someone’s gender is their physical self, or their inner essence. “I’ve talked to several Jews and rabbis about this, because this is an important issue with me,” says Thomas. She says it boils down to the clash between biological sex and spiritual and mental gender. The consensus among the people she’s consulted is that the latter is more important than the former, especially for transgender people. So Thomas would be her baby’s mother even if she didn’t give birth. “It’s the spiritual gender that you would follow to determine the Jewish status of the child,” Thomas concludes.

Jerrold identifies as a gay man, and isn’t sure how he stands with regard to Judaism’s marriage and purity laws. “I struggle with what kind of marriage can be sanctified as kiddushin.” Like Thomas, he wants to become a parent and isn’t sure “what kinds of challenges there will be halachically.”

For Bear, who has become progressively more masculine and ended up with a self-described “Rorschach” gender, Jewish ritual has become a minefield. Often, Chabad people have made assumptions about Bear’s gender identity based on appearances and have “been quite insistent on showing me how to lay tefillin or daven,” or have tried to put gender-specific ritual objects into Bear’s hands.

When this happens, Bear’s identities “feel at war. Whose interpretation of my gender, my sex, do I honor?” Bear always resists the temptation to take on the male role and “defile” the ritual objects for anyone who thinks about sex and gender more conservatively. Bear would rather educate people about gender than show disrespect for someone else’s religious beliefs “in such a direct and dishonorable way.”

People whose gender either contradicts or reinterprets their birth assignment are working hard to create a space for themselves within Judaism. They’re finding that the variety and depth of Jewish traditions offer them opportunities as well as constraints.

“I love that Judaism contains a function for responding to current issues in responsa,” says Bergman. “I think of Judaism, especially Reform Judaism, as practical and compassionate, and I expect that the responsa surrounding trans issues will emerge in a similar spirit.”

But even Orthodox Jews whose rabbis have thrown roadblocks in their way have found ways to integrate their new gender identities into their faith. And in the process, they’re finding that religious faith, like gender, is greater than its component parts.

This Just In...

The Conservative movement has recently issued a policy statement on transgender Jews, which suggests that a wholesale change in Rabbinical recognition of the transgendered is afoot. According to a United Synagogue Review summary of recent decisions of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards circulated on the TransJews listserv, Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz issued a responsum entitled “The Status of Transsexuals,” which took the following revolutionary positions:

  1. Only those who have undergone full Sex Reassignment Surgery (SRS), including phalloplasty/vaginoplasty, are to be considered as having changed their sex status and should be recognized as their new sex by Jewish law.
  2. A person who has undergone partial SRS is not deemed to have changed their sex status.
  3. A brit or hatafat dam brit is not required for one who has had a phalloplasty.
  4. A get (Jewish divorce) is not necessary if one spouse undergoes SRS since the kiddushin are automatically annulled. However, in the case of a Male to Female (MTF) person, a get should be given before the SRS is completed.
  5. Recognition by the civil authorities of the new sex status is required in order to marry a person who has undergone SRS. This will prevent us from performing same sex marriages according to civil law.
  6. A new name should be given to the person with a new sexual status by means of a misheberach.

The teshuvah was approved.

Copyright © Tikkun Magazine, 2005
Reprinted without permission