Every so often, it becomes valuable, or perhaps necessary, to check in with the current moment in American politics and culture and see where we are. I like learning hassidut and bringing it’s insights from the weekly parsha to you all, but some days a rabbi must look up from a 200 year old book and see what is going on around him. There are lots of things going on right now in America - some good, some bad. There is one thing that is specifically bad - and that is the scapegoating in America of one particular super-minority, and that is transgender individuals.
The trans and non-binary population in the US is approximately 0.5 percent, which is exceedingly small, until you remember that the Jewish population of the US is about 2 percent, and the Conservative Jewish population is 17 percent of all American Jews - meaning as a total population, Conservative Jews make up maybe 0.3 percent of the US population.
For individuals born with male genitalia who identify as female, and individuals born with female genitalia with a total sense that they are truly a man, and additionally for those who just don’t identify their gender as a simple binary category of either this or that, life starts off very difficult. They are dressed and identified by their parents according to their outward physical characteristics, and go through childhood, adolescence, and sometimes well into adulthood feeling like something is wrong. The process of both understanding that and then deciding to go public with it and act on it is very psychologically difficult. It comes with stigma, and shame and a lack of acceptance to an extreme degree. In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics revealed a study that demonstrated that more than half of transgender male teens had attempted suicide, and 29 percent of transgender female teens had attempted suicide.
If you’ve been watching the news lately, you know that state legislatures in Florida, Missouri, Kansas, Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, and Utah have all taken steps to ban or restrict medical care for transgender adolescents or restrict drag shows. While Americans are looking for common sense things like gun control, better access to quality health care, a promise that social security will be there when we need it, we’ve got politicians trying to tell us who can or cannot wear a blouse, and politicians trying to tell parents and doctors what hormone blockers they can or can not prescribe. Let’s call this attack on a small, scapegoated minority what it is: an attempt to score cheap political points off the backs of an incredibly vulnerable population in an attempt to fight the culture wars instead of do what state politicians are supposed to do - serve their constituents and find common sense solutions that make their lives better.
The inflection point in America generates from a simple premise - that the culture of America can be determined by laws and politicians. Typically the politicians attempting to make those determinations of what our culture ought to be are coming from a place of Christian values, and of a particular brand of conservative Christianity that many of my pastor and minister colleagues would not agree with.
Let us be very clear: Judaism’s approach to gender and identity is not at all aligned with the restrictive bills or anti-trans positions we are seeing all across America right now. Some politicians have been proclaiming that there are only two genders, and that your gender assigned at birth is the only relevant gender for the rest of one’s life. According to Judaism going all the way back to the Talmud, this is incorrect. There are six genders according to the Talmud - zachar, nekeva, tumtum, androgynus, saris hammah, and aylonit. Those roughly translate as male, female, one that has neither set of genitals, one that has both sets of genitals, one without a functioning male genitalia, and one who presents as a man but possesses female genitalia. So the rabbis understood that gender was a spectrum almost 2000 years ago.
As time has gone on, our society has medically and psychologically understood that gender and sex are two different things - the appendages you have are not the same as what you yourself fundamentally identify as. The process of aligning those two incongruous things is much easier today than it ever was before - hormone blockers, and surgeries referred to colloquially as ‘top surgery and bottom surgery’ have never been more advanced, more routine, and more understood than today. These medical procedures - after careful, deliberate work with a series of doctors across multiple fields typically over several years - have brought great relief and peace to folks who have struggled with their sense of self for many years.
From a Jewish perspective, affirming and supporting the gender identity of a person is rooted in two huge overarching commandments. The first is that humans are created ‘betzelem elohim’ - in the image of God. One might erroneously conclude that this moral statement from the first chapter in bereshit concludes that God made a person physically one way, and therefore we humans should not change it. That is incorrect. The Jewish interpretation of betzelem elohim based on a section of Talmud called Sanhedrin is that God made humans all in the image of God, and yet each one is completely unique, for as the Talmud says ‘for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy One Blessed Be, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another.’ In other words, God made humans complex, and diverse. And we celebrate that diversity as a sign of how wondrous God is. A person as they are in their own identity and humanity is as God wants them to be.
The second moral principle is pikuach nefesh - saving a life. The saving of a life is the most important principle in Judaism. If a starving person on the brink of death finds food, but it happens to be a pulled pork sandwich, they eat the pulled pork sandwich. If it would violate shabbat to put out a fire but the fire could kill a family in their home, you put out the fire. When a population is acutely and measurably predisposed to suicide - you help them. You do what it takes to affirm and protect their lives.
The politicians engaged in passing these laws often fall back on the idea that they are protecting children from harmful or unnecessary hormone therapy or surgery - that there is some pernicious woke leftist agenda encouraging otherwise happy healthy 9 year old boys to wear dresses and cut off their penises. This is, frankly, absurd. I know several trans and non binary children. I know their parents. In fact, some of you know, my younger child identifies as non binary. I AM one of these parents. No parent is encouraging anything of their children. Parents of trans and non-binary children are trying their best to navigate a strange and confusing world in which a child feels weird and different, and wants to wear their clothes different and their hair different than their parent might have originally expected. We are simply parents doing what parents do - protect and love our kids as they are, ensure their happiness, and give them what they need to flourish. That’s our agenda. It doesn’t seem pernicious to me.
The Conservative movement overwhelmingly supports transgender rights. Our movement believes that doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists are the experts on what and when it is appropriate to prescribe medicines or perform surgeries. We rabbis support families as they go through these transitions, to support and love them, and create necessary ceremonies that affirm these transitions. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the Conservative movement’s Supreme Court, has issued three legal responsa on transgender and non-binary issues in the past 15 years. All affirm the role of the doctor and patient in determining what and how to go about the transition. All affirm that gender identity is fluid, and that individuals determine their gender identity, not the gender assigned at birth. The responsa are all ex post facto attempts to solve Jewish questions like what language do we use to call a trans or non binary person to the torah? If a male trans person converts, do they need the ritual ceremony of hatafat dam brit - which is normally done as a poke and a drop of blood drawn from the spot where a man would have had a non-ritual circumcision? What language and legal contract language would we use for the marriage of a non binary or transgender individual? Which set of hevra kaddisha - the men or the women - would serve for a trans person that died? There are more, but you get the idea.
The point is, Judaism accepts and affirms trans individuals. Full stop, no ifs ands or buts. Our teshuvot - our responsa - begin from the assumption that transgender individuals have a right to physically assume the characteristics of the gender with which they identify. The question of whether gender is fluid was overwhelmingly answered in our community 2000 years ago. Modern rabbinic pronouncements simply continue to accommodate trans individuals in our rituals and communities to the best of our ability.
Attempts to change, restrict, or ban medical transition in parts of the United States are against the Jewish tradition. They are an assault on parents rights, on doctors rights, on individuals rights. The people crafting the restrictions are engaged in the scapegoating of a vulnerable population, which is the kind of fascist demagoguery that gets equally thrown at other vulnerable minority groups throughout the world, like Jews. These scapegoating attacks sometimes result in hysteria and violence against the scapegoated parties. It is clear, for instance, that the rise in antisemitic conspiracy theories and hate speech in the past decade has resulted in a rise in antisemitic violence. The same will take place for the trans community - the scapegoating results in violence, like the attack on a gay bar in Colorado Springs just a few months ago.
In two verses in this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, the text identifies that men and women both participated in the contributions of materials and the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle. In 35:22 it says “Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to Adonai, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants —gold objects of all kinds.” And in verse 29 it says “Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that God, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to Adonai.” In these two verses, the genders are specified in the text, but not the offerings of each gender - implying that the men and women were both wearing earrings and brooches. It’s not so simple to determine who wears what and what that means in ancient Israelite society. We might map our preconceived notions of gendered apparel and jewelry backwards into the past, but that is mere speculation. While there may have been conventions about gendered dress in the time of the mishkan, the mishkan itself is the collective contribution of the garb and finery of all the Israelites. And the collection - blue stones and all manner of colored gems, gold, silver and bronze, fabrics of purples and reds and blues, and tanned hides - was clearly meant to be a rich and exquisite fantasy. The mishkan was like a drag show, except that the mishkan is the one dressed up in a shimmering and glittering gown. God wants God’s holy place to be sparkling and fabulous. Think Elton John meets Lady Gaga. And of course, nobody stops and asks ‘do we think the mishkan is too masculine… or too feminine?’ Its materials are as God commanded, but its final form is according to its artisans – Oholiab and Betzalel. Gender identity is not dissimilar - our final form, our bodies and our outward physical appearance, are constantly in flux, and serve only as the current manifestation of our true selves. And how we look on the outside - our size and weight and height and attractiveness and apparent gender presentation - is of course only the merest glimpse into who we truly are as people; what we believe; what we feel; all our collected memories; and who we genuinely are and wish to be.
In Exodus 25, regarding the ark of the covenant, the aron kodesh of the tablets that contained on them the ten commandments, we learn the following:
וְצִפִּיתָ֤ אֹתוֹ֙ זָהָ֣ב טָה֔וֹר מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ תְּצַפֶּ֑נּוּ וְעָשִׂ֧יתָ עָלָ֛יו זֵ֥ר זָהָ֖ב סָבִֽיב׃
Overlay it with pure gold—overlay it inside and out—and make upon it a gold molding round about.
Interesting. I can imagine why we would coat the outside of the ark with gold. But why on earth would we need to coat the inside of the ark with gold? Once the tablets of the law were placed inside the ark and it was closed, it was never opened again. Why coat the ark with gold that nobody is ever going to see? The rabbis tell us that it teaches that our outsides would be like our insides - we should be holy and pure on the outside and on the inside. Our physical manifestation should mirror our internal manifestation - beautiful inside and out. For a trans individual, the idea is similar and yet different. More so than remarking on the quality and beauty of inside and out matching one another, this text teaches us that we should respect trans individuals’ desire for their insides and their outsides to line up. They feel one way on the inside - it is right and good to support their efforts to match their insides with their outsides.
It is therefore very Jewish and moral to not only accept but to actively support trans rights in every place - at the local, state, and national levels. If you encounter conversation denigrating trans individuals, you can plainly say ‘my God and my sacred texts teach that people have a right to trans affirming health care. We stand with the trans community.’ Denigrating your fellow human is the opposite of godliness. The Jewish path in the world is not to denigrate, but rather to elevate. Gold inside, gold outside. Shabbat Shalom.