What the Torah Teaches Us About Gender Fluidity and Transgender Justice

September 20, 2018Rabbi David J. Meyer

This post is adapted from Rabbi Meyer's Rosh HaShanah 5779 morning sermon. 

For our Israelite ancestors, the most important festival of the year was Sukkot, and the most widely practiced ritual was the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud recalls for us the pageantry, the colorful parades, the music and the feasting that lasted for eight straight days and nights.  An entire tractate of Talmud, in fact, is devoted to the laws and rituals of bringing the First Fruits, detailing the ornamentation of the offerings, and how the gifts would be offered by the men and women.

During the course of this discussion, the text poses a question that many today might find quite stunning.  While reviewing the differing obligations of men and women when it comes to offering the first fruits of Shavuot, the rabbis pondered the circumstances for those who fall outside the normative identities of male or female.  Here’s how the discussion begins:

“An androgynous, who presents both male and female physical traits, is in some ways like men and in some ways like women. In some ways, they are like both men and women, and in other ways, like neither men nor women." (Bikkurim 4:1)

This source was originally part of a centuries-long Oral tradition, finally committed to writing in the 3rd century. It is remarkable that a sacred text which is likely more than two thousand years old considers the circumstances of gender identity outside the assumed binary distinctions of male and female.

From the beginning of our Torah’s imaginings of the creation of humankind, gender diversity was part of the Divine plan. We read of the creation of humanity in the very first chapter of Genesis, that when God created the first human being, God said:

Let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness.

Then, we are taught that:

God created Adam in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female God created them (Genesis 1:26-27).

The sages explain the unusual language as meaning that God created the first human being as an androgynous person, containing both male and female characteristics simultaneously.

We understand the verse, “male and female God created them” as a merism, a figure of speech in which a totality is expressed by two contrasting parts. This verse was interpreted as such by Rabbi Margaret Wenig. For example, “old and young”, as the Prophet Joel foresees: “The old shall dream dreams, and the youth shall see visions.”  That is to say: old, young, and everyone in between.  Similarly, “near and far,” as in Isaiah’s call: “Greetings of peace to those near and far.”  And those in between.  So we learn that God created the human being as “male and female” -- and every combination in between.

In fact, and strikingly, our Jewish legal tradition identifies no fewer than six distinct “genders”, certainly assuming as normative the male and female, but including as well designations which we now refer to as “intersex” identities.  To use the Hebrew terms: the androgynos, one who has both male and female characteristics, the tumtum, one whose biology is unclear, the aylonit, who identified as female at birth, but at puberty, develops male characteristics, and the saris, who appears as male at birth, but later takes on more typically female biology.  I would suggest, based on the study of these legal texts that the Jewish understanding of gender is neither binary nor even a grid into which every person must be forced to fit.  Rather, we see gender diversity as a spectrum, truly a rainbow of possibilities for reflecting the Image of God.

And what of the transgender, those people whose gender identity, expression, and behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth? In fact, Jewish traditional wisdom allowed for such possibilities, and especially our mystical texts, the Kabbalah, address the notion of transitioning from one gender to another.  We have opinions that suggest that Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was conceived with the soul of a man, but through Divine intercession, was transitioned into a woman.  Likewise, the kabbalah teaches that Abraham’s son, Isaac, was ensouled as a woman, but born as a man for the purpose of carrying forward the family’s unique covenant with God.  Our mystical traditions speak of gilgul ha-neshamot, the “cycling of souls”, essentially a form of reincarnation, through which it happens that the soul of a male will enter a female body and vice-versa, a circumstance which may be remedied as a transgender.

I recently participated in a documentary film that explored how religious communities of faith have treated gender non-conforming individuals, particularly the intersex, such as the androgynos described in our First Fruits text.  The film’s personal narratives were primarily about Christian churches and communities, but some Jewish experiences are included as well. The testimonies of widespread rejection, dismissal, and even shame are heartbreaking. From my point of view, how tragic it is that anyone would walk into a community which carries God’s name and be made to feel that their humanity, their identity, their inner dignity have to be checked at the door. What we see in so many Jewish texts which recognize gender fluidity as part of the human condition is helping society to assure that no one is left out, left behind, or left over. The fact that these circumstances are addressed in our sacred texts is surprising to many.  And I have to think that by looking into our sources, someone who identifies outside of the male/female categories might declare to those who would disregard, exclude or reject them, “See - I’m in there!  They’re talking about me!”

Last year at this season, I urged my congregation to affirm our long-standing policies of being welcoming and affirming to all who seek to share in our community.  I appreciate the efforts of so many volunteers that enabled us to be honored now as a partner congregation of the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project. Part of that vision has been to make the efforts assuring the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions – a goal we’ve been pursuing for many years. This is not always easy, and in fact, because we are talking about human beings, creating an inclusive congregation and community can be difficult and at times, complex.  But because we’re dealing with human beings, the effort is nothing less than holy work, avodat kodesh.

Towards this vision and moral value, we have provided a gender-neutral restroom for nearly two decades, and it’s in the prominent location in the main hallway closest to the Sanctuary and offices.  For many years, we have aimed to utilize gender-neutral theological language in our prayers and rituals. 

We encourage members – especially our teens, to feel comfortable in non-conforming gender expressions, and call them by the names they themselves desire.  And towards this goal, we’ve made some simple changes that send a powerful message.  In the little box on the membership form that asks “Gender”, we’ve replaced the check-off boxes “Male and Female”, and now simply leave the space blank, for people to fill in however they choose. And as another example, we no longer assign to our Confirmands blue robes for boys and white robes for girls – the kids choose on their own, based on their own sense of expression.

Admittedly, we are still learning how to be fully welcoming and affirming.  And that’s not always easy, because both the Hebrew language and Jewish culture, as I mentioned, are geared towards a binary – male and female – cultural norm.  So for instance, on Friday nights, when we recite the blessing for our children, we include the traditional formula for boys – “May God make you as Ephraim and Manasseh”, and for girls, “May God make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.”  And then we now add: “And for all of our children” – specifically to include those who identify other than male and female.  To all of our children, we ask God’s blessing:  Y’varech’cha Adonai V’yishm’recha - “May God bless you and protect you.”

We’ve come to recognize that not all our students fit neatly into either of the options “Bar Mitzvah” or “Bat Mitzvah”, so taking a cue from another Jewish rite of passage, we have created for those who wish to use the gender-neutral term “Brit Mitzvah” – to celebrate the covenant of adult responsibility.  And even the name by which one is called to the Torah can be adapted beyond the limited, binary choices of Bat, “daughter of” or Ben, “son of”.  If preferable, we can use the gender inclusive formulation “mi-bet” from the house of, or the family of one’s parents.

My impetus for talking about matters of gender identity during Rosh HaShanah morning services is motivated by a ballot initiative here in Massachusetts this November. Proposition 3 has been introduced which directly affects the freedom and dignity of transgender persons.  The goal of the proposition is to repeal a public accommodation law passed in 2016 that prohibits discrimination on account of gender identity, thus protecting transgender people from discrimination in public spaces such as businesses and hospitals. Voting “No” would say that the law is no longer the will of the people of the Commonwealth. That is why I stand as a supporter of the Freedom for All Massachusetts campaign urging a Yes vote on 3, in order to uphold the law protecting the dignity of everyone.

Opponents of the non-discrimination laws who have promoted this initiative justify their willingness to deny transgendered individuals their rights do so, I believe, on the basis of ignorance, and perhaps even fear.  And it’s a lot of talk about bathrooms.  They claim that sexual predators will take advantage of public accommodations laws in order to assault women and children in bathrooms.  But in fact, anti-discrimination protections covering gender identity have been around for years, and there is no evidence they lead to attacks in public facilities.  In fact, law enforcement agencies see no correlation whatsoever between public accommodation protections and an increase in bathroom assault.  Far more common, civil rights groups say, are reports of transgender people being assaulted in bathrooms that don't match their gender identity.

Our neighbor state of Maine, which has had gender identity protections in its state civil rights law for more than 11 years, has not even a single reported incident. As one official remarked, "I know there is a lot of anxiety associated with this issue, but it seems to be based on fear rather than facts.”

Others may claim that being transgender is not a valid condition; that transgender people are mentally ill and should not be afforded the same legal protections or healthcare guarantees as gay and lesbian Americans.  But in fact, mainstream medical and psychiatric authorities agree that being transgender is not a concocted fantasy or mental illness. It's simply a valid state in which one's gender does not match what was assigned at birth.  For many, simply being transgender does not cause dysfunction -- it's the social stigma and barriers to expressing one's identity that cause problems.

Our Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center is encouraging congregations to raise awareness about this opportunity to defend transgender equality in Massachusetts, so that our friends and families can continue to live without risk or fear in our public spaces.  We are joining with other organizations to spread the word about voting Yes on 3, and to show up to vote come November.  I believe that voting Yes on 3 is a public expression of a core, congregational principle, and fundamental value of the Jewish faith and tradition.  It is part of our avodat kodesh, our holy work.

Thousands of years ago, at this season of the year, our ancestors gathered as one in Jerusalem, to offer their finest gifts, their first fruits as an expression of thanksgiving and joyful celebration.  And they went to great lengths to assure that everyone would be included in their most important holy season.  In our day as well, we recognize that every human being has his, her, and their own unique gifts to bring to the service of God and humanity.  Let us continue to work towards the day when the dignity, safety, and respect for all is a hallmark of our community, Commonwealth and nation.

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