Citing both changing social practice and Jewish values, the international association of Conservative rabbis last week passed a resolution calling on Jewish institutions and government agencies to embrace the full equality of transgender people. Some see this as a departure from tradition. But, as the resolution claims, a stronger case can be made that full equality has much deeper within the Jewish ethical tradition.
Contrary to the widespread view that the Hebrew Bible forbids major types of non-heteronormative behaviours (specifically homosexuality and cross-dressing), recent Jewish scholarship into Middle Eastern law and the Torah has in fact raised compelling objections to those interpretations. In their book “The Bible Now,” Shawna Dolansky of Carleton University along with renowned biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman make the case that the laws against anal sex between men in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were not rooted in a condemnation of homosexual love (a concept which did not then exist) but rather in the view that penetrating another man degraded the passive partner. The view that the proscription is against degradation, not against gay love is confirmed by Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian and Greek texts from the time. Anal penetration was in fact a form of violence perpetrated on lower classes of men, and a technique of battlefield terrorism (for a more detailed discussion of this and other aspects of Friedman and Dolansky’s argument see here and my own blog post here).
The forbidding of cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5 is another law that has been subject to many 21st century interpretations, yet Rabbinical tradition views this as a law against cross-dressing for the purposes of fraud or espionage. The Talmud says what is prohibited is cross-dressing to spy on the other sex; Rashi says the prohibition is against cross-dressing for the purpose of adultery; the Shulchan Aruch says that cross-dressing is permitted on Purim because its purpose is simcha (joy) but that it is forbidden if it is for the purpose of fraud. So, again, a prohibition against a specific kind of fraud has been used as a way of policing cross-dressing.
The Talmud itself famously contains many references to other gender categories aside from the hetero binary. These include the androgynos (a hermaphrodite), the tumtum (someone with hidden or underdeveloped genitalia), the eylonit (a masculine woman) and the saris (a feminine man). Clearly these were categories that the Talmud — including those who wrote and compiled it over centuries — took seriously and respectfully.
The Torah’s fundamental values have to do with the pursuit of justice for all (Deuteronomy 16:20) and the ways of peace (Psalm 34:14), the call to love your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18 and many other places) and the stranger (most famously at Deuteronomy 10:19). Yet the Torah’s laws are clothed in the culture of the period in which it developed. As Maimonides said, the Torah “speaks in human words,” containing principles mediated through the particular context in which they were expressed.
As Friedman and Dolansky point out, the laws in the Torah are not always as morally evolved as we would like at a literal level — and everyone has their own favorite example — but their general thrust is towards justice and mercy. Furthermore, they were not only progressive in their own context but sometimes continue to sound progressive in ours — for example the regular forgiving of debts, making sure to give a Shabbat for the earth, the mandatory redistribution of wealth, prescribed nondiscrimination against immigrants and so on.
The correct way to understand Torah law is surely not to elaborate as many restrictions as possible out of its commandments or to take its words with a naive literalness, both of which can result in missing the original context and intent of its precepts. The way truly responsible to the Torah itself is to listen for the melody behind the text, a melody calling for social justice and the pursuit of peace for all. The Conservative movement’s resolution, and others like it throughout the Jewish world, hear the music.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer in Vancouver. He has been published in the Forward and Tikkun, and writes regularly for the Jewish Independent. He blogs on religion and social justice at www.hashkata.com
Matthew Gindin is a journalist, educator and freelance writer located in Vancouver, BC. He is the Pacific Correspondent for the Canadian Jewish News, writes regularly for the Forward and the Jewish Independent and has been published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Religion Dispatches, Kveller, Situate Magazine, and elsewhere. He also writes on Medium from time to time.