Transgender Jews Seek Place at Table

Conference Aims To Break Communal Silence on Issue

Speaking Up: Transgender Jews celebrate shabbat at a California synagogue.
Speaking Up: Transgender Jews celebrate shabbat at a California synagogue.

By Chanan Tigay

Published November 14, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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Tanner, a spoken-word artist, saw other links between his conversion to Judaism and his gender transition. Before sex reassignment surgery, transgender people must live in the gender to which they are transitioning. Similarly, Tanner, though still studying to become a Jew, is already living as a Jew.

Retreat participants took part in Sabbath services, as well as in seminars with names like “Being a Jewish Gender Outlaw,” “Being Transgender Is Kosher: Beyond the Binary in Ancient Jewish Texts” and “Does Judaism Love Your Body?” They also joined “heart circles” in which they spoke in highly personal terms about their own experiences. That such a gathering was taking place — and in public no less — was seen as a mark of progress, however sluggish. “It’s slowly changing from the perspective of many trans Jews,” said Joy Ladin, an English professor at Yeshiva University who was picked for this year’s Forward 50. She is the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. “But if you think about Jewish history being about 3,000 years long, there’s been rapid change.”

The changes have gathered pace over the past 10 to 15 years. Both Orthodox and Conservative rabbis, for example, have issued teshuvas, or religious opinions, on sex reassignment surgery. The Reform movement has ordained transgender rabbis, and the Reconstructionists are currently doing so — and both movements have made efforts to integrate issues of transgender into their curricula. In 2000, the Reform movement launched the Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity.

Moreover, a network of organizations has emerged to work on behalf of transgender Jews. Jewish Transitions, a consultancy, provides guidance to transgender people on conversion and burial; Keshet, a co-sponsor of the shabbaton, works for the inclusion of the LGBT community in Jewish life; TransTorah.org makes trans and gender-queer Jewish resources available online, and Eshel supports LGBT people in traditional Jewish communities. A growing number of Jews and Jewish institutions are now asking questions that would have been unimaginable a short time ago about how Judaism does, and should, approach gender-nonconforming Jews.

Questions like: On which side of the mechitza, the partition dividing men and women, should a transgender person sit? Does a person who has transitioned from female to male need to undergo some kind of circumcision? If a male transitions to female, is a get, a Jewish divorce, required for that person to obtain a divorce? And when a trans-woman’s daughter is called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah and identified as “daughter of” Parent A and Parent B, should the trans-parent’s former — male — name be used or her new name?


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