Transgender Jews Now Out of Closet, Seeking Communal Recognition

By Rebecca Spence

Published December 31, 2008, issue of January 09, 2009.
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Los Angeles — When Elliot Kukla, a Reform rabbi, came out as transgender six months before his ordination in 2006, he never imagined how openly the Jewish community would be addressing transgender issues just three years later. This month, he is poised to address a West Coast regional conference of Reform rabbis on the subject, and even the elderly Jews that he works with in the Bay Area are largely accepting of his identity.

AGAINST ‘BINARY’ GENDER: Reuben Zellman was the first openly transgender applicant to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College rabbinic school.
AGAINST ‘BINARY’ GENDER: Reuben Zellman was the first openly transgender applicant to the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College rabbinic school.

“I’m so amazed at the old ladies who will turn to their friends and say, ‘Did you meet the nice, young transgender rabbi?’” Kukla said. “Some of that is San Francisco, but that conversation would never have happened a few years ago.”

For nearly a decade, Kukla, 34, has been publishing articles and giving talks in the Jewish community on the topic of transgender people. But over the past year, education and advocacy initiatives dealing with transgender rights in the Jewish community have increased to a level never before seen. The conversation in liberal Jewish circles surrounding gay and lesbian rights is shifting, with the spotlight now being trained on the often overlooked — and, activists say, far more stigmatized — matter of transgender rights.

“Transgender issues are really the next set of issues that the Jewish community feels it needs to address,” said Gregg Drinkwater, executive director of the Denver-based group Jewish Mosaic, which promotes the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in the Jewish community. “It’s the next wave within the liberal Jewish community, certainly within the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, and in parts of the Conservative world.”

The term “transgender” refers to a wide spectrum of people who fall outside society’s gender norms. It includes those often labeled as transsexuals, cross-dressers or drag queens. There are no hard data on the number of transgender people in America.

A common misconception, transgender activists say, is that all transgender people either want or have had sexual reassignment surgery, or take hormones. In fact, activists say, many transgender people — especially those who transition from female to male — do not opt for the medical route, and may choose other ways of altering their gender identity, like changing their name and appearance.

In the Conservative movement, plastic surgeon-turned-rabbi Leonard Sharzer, who once performed sexual reassignment surgeries, has taken a similar view. Sharzer, senior fellow in bioethics at the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, has written a rabbinic opinion, or teshuvah, expanding on an earlier teshuvah on transsexuals that in 2003 was passed by the movement’s top lawmaking body. Authored by Mayer Rabinowitz, an associate professor of Talmud at JTS, the opinion argued that Jewish law, or Halacha, should consider people who undergo sexual reassignment surgery in terms of their new gender.

“Those who claim that we can not change God’s creation are closing their eyes to conversion, and to transplants as well as many other medical procedures which in fact do change God’s creation,” Rabinowitz’s teshuvah states. “Halakhah has always been macroscopic and not microscopic. Therefore, external organs determine the sexual status of a person.”

Sharzer’s opinion, which has yet to be submitted to the law committee, proposes that an individual claiming a transgender identity be considered the gender that person claims for himself or herself, regardless of whether or not he or she has undergone surgery.

Sharzer said that his teshuvah relied on Rabinowitz’s reasoning. But Rabinowitz’s teshuvah addresses only those who have undergone full sexual reassignment surgery. Asked how his interpretation of Jewish law justifies the inclusion of those who have not surgically altered their bodies, Sharzer framed his argument in medical and psychological terms. He pointed to a scholarly text by sexologist Leah Cahan Schaefer that, Sharzer said, found that those transgender individuals who do not have surgery feel as strongly about their gender identity as those who do.

According to Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at ultra-traditionalist Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel of America, Orthodox Judaism does not recognize the concept of transgender Jews.“Halachically, and that’s all that should matter to an Orthodox Jew, if the physiology is clearly male or female, then they are considered that,” Shafran said. As for those who have had surgery: “Certainly the surgery is not permitted. If post facto there was a change, to the best of my knowledge it doesn’t make a difference either.”

Jewish transgender activists, however, point to the fact that Jewish texts themselves recognize a multiplicity of genders. “Today in the Western world, we are very insistent about our binary gender system,” said Reuben Zellman, a rabbinic intern at the San Francisco Reform synagogue Congregation Sha’ar Zahav. “Our sages talked about gender diversity in a much different way than we talk about it in contemporary America. They were, in some senses, much more open about what the range of human experience could really be.”

Zellman, 30, said that rabbinic literature — including the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud — considers many different possible sexual categories for people. Those categories, he said, include the androgynos and the tumtum, two distinct and accepted categories of people who are not decidedly male or female. As an example, Zellman pointed to a passage from the Babylonian Talmud in which the rabbis are discussing Sarah’s infertility. One of the possible reasons that the rabbis consider for Sarah’s infertility, Zellman said, is that Abraham and Sarah were tumtumim, or people of indeterminate sexual identity. “What they say is that maybe she didn’t have a uterus,” Zellman said. “In essence, maybe Sarah is not a woman in the way that we understand it.”

Zellman was the first openly transgender person to apply to the Reform movement’s rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He began HUC in 2003, and is on track to be ordained in 2010.

Under the auspices of Jewish Mosaic, Zellman and Kukla, who serves as a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, designed a guide for exploring gender issues, and specifically transgender and intersex issues, in the context of Jewish sacred texts. Known as TransTexts, the guide takes passages from Jewish texts that in some way address gender. It includes rabbinic commentary to show the myriad ways that the text can be interpreted.

Kukla is also one of a collective of activists who a month ago launched Transtorah.org, a Web site designed to serve as a resource for the Jewish community on transgender issues. And in another example of Jewish transgender activism, Keshet, a Boston-based Jewish group that advocates for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, is in the midst of organizing an interfaith coalition to support a transgender rights bill up for consideration by the Massachusetts state legislature.

It may be that transgender issues are now hitting the Jewish community in a pronounced way because they are rising to the fore in broader American society, said Denise Eger, rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood’s gay and lesbian Reform synagogue.

Indeed, both inside and outside the Jewish community, media attention in recent months has been focused on transgender people. Within the Jewish community, Joy Ladin, a transgender male-to-female literature professor at Yeshiva University, caused a stir last fall. Formerly a man known as Jay Ladin, she returned to work as a woman. Elsewhere, Thomas Beatie — known as the “pregnant man” — made headlines when he became the first known transgender man to give birth.

Eger, who is also chair of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis, invited Kukla to address the upcoming PARR conference, which begins on January 4 in Palm Springs, Calif. Eger said that while the Jewish community is just now beginning to address transgender people, “It’s something that’s always been there, but now perhaps we’re able to shed a light on the journey and the spirituality of it.”






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