Leah came out as transgender long before she thought about converting to Judaism. As a trans woman with a Jewish father, she was befriended by some Orthodox Jews at her college.
“They treated me like one of their own and helped me not feel the all-encompassing isolation that my formative years had graced me with.” Leah said.
Due in part to this, Leah then converted to Judaism, and found a home for herself. “Judaism helped me realize that we all indeed have a place in this world, even someone like me. Everyone has a different journey on the road of self-acceptance but converting to Judaism was certainly crucial in my own.”
Transgender people make up about 0.5% of the population, or 1 in 200.
There are Jewish sources about transgender as far back as you’re willing to look. In the 19th Century the Od Yosef Chai suggested that the biblical character of Tamar was a man in a woman’s body and the Kabbalah also mentions multiple times that your internal gender might not match up with your sex at birth.Clearly, the idea of transgender is not a new one for Judaism. But that doesn’t mean there’s always inclusivity.
How the Denominations Do It
Reform Judaism has probably made the most vocal movement to create a safe space for the trans community as a whole, most memorably with their Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People, which passed more than two years ago – proudly, with zero opposition. It encourages all Reform congregations and affiliates to search for ways to be more inclusive, not just in policy, but also in prayer and language.
With acts like this, Judaism has not just found a way to support people from within, but it has also encouraged people to see the Jewish world as a safe space for those who need it.
But many Jews, especially in the Orthodox world, feel that inclusivity is not such a simple change — not when it conflicts with Jewish law. And despite there being increasingly more options in the Conservative and Reform movements, many trans people don’t feel comfortable leaving Orthodoxy for another denomination.
“I never really understood other movements, and even though I sometimes attend the Reform LGBTQ shul, their liturgy just isn’t familiar to me,” said one Modern Orthodox trans man.
Many trans people are passionate about Judaism and want to stay actively involved in their own communities. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bigotry from individuals across the spectrum of the Jewish world, too. Refusing to recognize the struggle or even the existence of trans people, transphobic jokes, comments, and even threats, are not uncommon. This kind of behavior doesn’t just make trans people feel excluded, it can actively make them feel unsafe.
Does Judaism Welcome Trans People?
Despite what some believe, there is no basis for this exclusionary behavior in Jewish law. Even the strictest followers of the Torah, or of Orthodox practice, do not disdain the existence of trans people, or even discourage them from practising Judaism. Rather they speak openly about bringing them into the fold.
“All human beings are obliged to try as best they can to observe the laws of the Torah. If, however, they fail in one or even several areas, they should not exclude themselves or be excluded by others from the observance of other commandments,” writes Rabbi Chaim Rapoport, a Lubavitch rabbi, in his book, Judaism and Homosexuality: An Alternate View. None of us keep every mitzvah in the Torah, he writes, and failure doesn’t mean exclusion, or there would be few of us left standing.
This is essential to understand in order to create safe spaces for trans people within the Jewish world, wherever they might feel at home, as well as calling out bigotry and hatred for exactly what it is. When it comes to issues like calling people by the pronouns with which they identify, and treating them with respect, there is no halachic problem.
“For many, basic understanding of LGBTQ issues, and simple empathy for LGBTQ people and compassion for their families, is desperately needed to move communities to greater responsibility,” says Rabbi Steven Greenberg, co-director of Eshel, an organization that works to build bridges and find acceptance for LGBTQ people within the Orthodox community. The accessibility of organizations like these have made all the difference in helping transgender men and women, as well as their families feel like they have people to turn to for information and support.
Why Transgender is Different from Homosexuality
The truth is, Jewish law about transgender often gets conflated with Jewish law about homosexuality. The main sources quoted in opposition are the law against cross-dressing, which most scientists would agree is a vastly different phenomenon than transgender, and the danger of surgery as explained by Maimonides in Mishnah Torah.
But the most commonly cited reason to supersede these commandments is pikuach nefesh, (Leviticus, 18:5) — saving a life. If a person is suicidal, and believes that being able to make changes to their appearance and body will make a difference, there are halachic grounds for allowing them to do so. As the suicide attempt rate within the transgender community is around 41%, there is definitely reason to take this seriously.
“If a person is suffering from gender dysphoria, is that person’s life in danger?” the Orthodox Union’s Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb discussed. If the answer is yes, then Rabbi Weinreb as well as others agree, this could well be more important than the issue of cross-dressing or even gender-reassignment surgery.
Most of the halachic issues come to the fore after the fact.
Once a person identifies as the opposite gender, what laws and ritual are required of them? What is their place within the community?
“Most [Orthodox] rabbis believe birth gender is the halachic gender for life,” Rabbi Weinreb continued, in his talk to the Modern Orthodox congregation of Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills. He clarified: “Thus a person born male who becomes a trans-female is still a male halachically, and for example, is obligated to wear tefillin. A person born female who becomes trans-male is exempt from tefillin.”
The Orthodox world does not change its rulings with time or social pressure. While this might be hard for many allies and trans people to understand, the Torah is full of delineation, boundaries and discipline which, from an Orthodox point of view, human beings cannot change or alter. For many, that’s both its beauty and its purpose. Just as a Cohen cannot marry a divorcee, or a boy under 13 cannot count in a minyan, a person cannot change their gender when it comes to Jewish law.
Changes Within Orthodoxy
That’s not to say that there isn’t change happening even within the Orthodox world, especially in communities who describe themselves as Modern Orthodox, or in the Open Orthodox movement. They make use of a few respected sources, which can be used to help with transgender inclusivity in Orthodox spaces, after surgery.
One is a minority ruling by the Tzitz Eliezer, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg, an important Orthodox rabbi who died in 2006. He believes that a persons’ gender is according to their anatomy: For example, once a man or a woman has had gender reassignment surgery, they can be treated in matters of halacha, as their anatomy presents.
Yeshivah University’s Rabbi Efrem Goldberg comments that the Tzitz Eliezer is backed up by another big name in Orthodoxy, Rav Nebenzahl of the old city of Jerusalem. Rav Nebenzahl says that it’s only more recently that we are able to see chromosomally the gender of a person, so the externals are all we were once able to rule on.
Rabbi Goldberg also brings a source from the well-known Rabbi Chaim Pelagi, who discusses a new prayer which a woman who becomes a man would say in his morning blessings, which he describes as thanking God, “who has changed me into a man.” This is a clear way to help transgender men feel included in prayer.
The book Dor Tahapuchot – “The Upside-Down Generation,” by Rabbi Idan ben Ephraim, a well-respected source, was published in 2003 to help transgender members of his community feel welcome, and it is widely known to be one of the most extensive explorations of transgender issues in Orthodox Judaism. It says in no uncertain terms that there are eight reasons why transgender surgery is not permitted according to Jewish Law. He also confirms what the majority of Orthodoxy agrees, that your birth gender does not change with any external surgery.
However, he also says that when it comes to anything to do with modesty, the person should act according to the gender they present as: This means that a trans man should sit on the men’s side of the mechitzah, and a trans women should sit with the women. This ruling also means that for issues of being alone with the opposite gender, or touching them, you can treat a trans man or woman as any other man or woman.
There are hundreds of Orthodox communities around America which defer to this opinion, helping trans men and women feel included and accepted.
Rabbi Nissan Antine from Beth Shalom Congregation in Maryland used the book to create spaces for trans people to be part of the service, for example, allowing a trans man to perform hagba and glila — the lifting and dressing of the Torah during the service.
“I don’t see why we should put up extra boundaries. I would never want someone to feel like they can’t be part of our shul because they are transgender.”
The Future for Our Communities
This doesn’t answer all the challenges, and it can’t.
When it comes to transgender people keeping Jewish law, there are always going to be more questions that can be asked, more areas which require complex study and thought.
But the dialogue within the Jewish world is more open than it has ever been. Despite what Leah calls “bad apples” who appear in every corner of the world, people she has met from Reform to Orthodoxy, and outside of our religion too who have treated her badly, we are seeing many organizations and rabbinic authorities call out for both respect and conversation.
The technological age has definitely helped to make a real difference. Leah and many other Jewish women and men I’ve spoken to who grew up before the age of social media and the internet have similar stories of growing up in isolation and without acceptance.
In contrast, the teenagers who I’ve spoken to are growing up with something quite different, thanks to organizations like Eshel, which help them find their paths.
Keshet, for example, is another national organization that works across schools, synagogues and communities to help create better inclusion for LGBTQ families and individuals in Jewish life.
“The more the trans experience is destigmatized, the more communities are ready to get on board to support their members no matter what their experience,” said Dubbs Weinblatt, Education and Training Manager at Keshet. “Inclusion and acceptance are a journey and of course different institutions are at different places on that journey, but my general feeling is that most are moving in a positive direction.”
For all of the trans Jews I’ve spoken with, this dialogue is their main concern. “We are not a halachic oddity, we are not a curiosity,” one trans man said.
I believe that we have a collective responsibility to hear him above the noise of our privilege. It’s not enough for rabbis to accept people: if a community and the individuals within it are not open to this dialogue, trans people cannot stay, and will never feel safe.
Elisheva Sokolic is a writer, living and working in London, UK. She gets passionate and wordy about anything from Judaism and Feminism, to parenting, coffee and cake. More of her writing can be found at www.elishevasokolic.com.