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Conservative rabbis approve a new way to call nonbinary people up to Torah

A Rabbinical Assembly committee voted 24-0 to endorse language that does not invoke gender

Being called up to the Torah is an honor. But for nonbinary Jews — those who identify as neither male nor female — it can be fraught. The Hebrew words “please stand” — “va’amod” for a male and “ta’amod” — are gendered. They are followed by the person’s name and more gendering: “son of” or “daughter of,” followed by the parents’ names. 

To address the issue, the Conservative movement recently approved a different way for Jews to be summoned that doesn’t refer to the person’s gender.

Now the gender neutral “na la’amod” can be used to call a person to the Torah, and instead of being named aloud as ben (son of ) or bat (daughter of),  nonbinary Jews can use mibeit, “from the house of” followed by their parents’ names.  

The rabbinic “teshuva,” or a ruling on a question of Jewish law, passed the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards 24-0, with one abstention, on May 25.

The three Conservative rabbis who wrote the teshuva called it “long overdue,” and said it ideally would have been written by a nonbinary rabbi. But in the meantime, nonbinary individuals “attend our services and are part of our communities. As an initial step, it is time to ensure they are appropriately honored when called to the Torah.”  

As with other guidelines written by the committee, which is part of the Rabbinical Assembly — the movement’s association of rabbis — it is nonbinding on individual rabbis and synagogues.

But the teshuva signals that the Conservative movement, one of the four major streams of Judaism, is trying to do a better job of including nonbinary people, who often report feeling excluded in congregations in which so much social life and ritual — from men’s and women’s clubs to bar and bat mitzvahs — categorizes people as either male or female. 

The new teshuva, however, is hardly the first time that Jews have introduced gender-neutral language into services.

Keshet, a group which advocates for LGBTQ  Jewish issues, in 2019 published a guide to a gender-neutral b’nai mitzvah. 

And the Reform movement put the same language into the most recent edition of its High Holy Day prayer book, said Rabbi Hara Person, CEO of the movement’s rabbinical group, the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The CCAR Press sells certificates for life cycle events, from baby namings to name changes to weddings, with one certificate specifically designed for name changes for gender affirmation ceremonies. Each type of certificate now comes in a gender-neutral version, as well as male and female.

“Eventually this language will find its way into the next generation of our prayer book,” and will be used on a daily and weekly basis, said Person.

One of the three rabbis who authored the Conservative movement’s teshuva, Guy Austrian of the Fort Tryon Jewish Center in the Manhattan neighborhood Washington Heights, said the matter first formally came up at his synagogue five years ago. 

“We had increasing numbers of nonbinary members, and gabbais (those who summon people to the bimah) were trying various forms for calling them up, and it had become awkward and inefficient,” he said in an interview. These members and synagogue staff asked him and the gabbais asked him and Fort Tryon’s ritual committee how to handle these honors “in a more consistent and dignified way.”

Added Austrian, “Over the last five years, I’ve fielded many calls from rabbis and ritual committee chairs in other communities, who wanted to adopt this liturgy as well, so it seems to be spreading.”

The teshuva, which he co-authored with Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, and Rabbi Deborah Silver of Shir Hadash in New Orleans, states that “to be called to the Torah by one’s name is a sacred encounter — not only with the flow of our history but with each other.”

“Our names are announced in public for the room to hear and for the community as a whole to witness our answering the call,” it continues. “We bring all of ourselves, all of the facets of our identity, past and present, to that moment.” 

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