“Open to me the gates of righteousness,” says the Psalmist, “that I may enter and acknowledge the Holy One.”
Throughout our Jewish tradition, gateways are images of transition and portals to the sacred. How ironic, then, that a gateway to the Western Wall, for many Jews the holiest place on earth, was literally blocked to Kay Long, a transgender Jew from Tel Aviv. Naturally, this event was painful for LGBTQ Jews and our allies, serving as an example of how there are still those who wish to prevent us from full inclusion in the Jewish community. But I hope it is equally upsetting to anyone who thinks carefully about the issues involved.
First and foremost, this act of exclusion was a denial of the fundamental Jewish value of betzelem Elohim, the understanding that every human being is created in the image of God and, therefore, worthy of respect. More than that, Judaism commands compassion from its adherents. The Torah is clear that we must act with an understanding of mutual obligation (“love”) toward not only those who are like us (“kinfolk”) but those whom we perceive as being unlike us (“strangers”) as well. Biblical tradition is particularly concerned with our treatment of the marginalized and oppressed, frequently reminding us that we, ourselves, were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Even were someone not willing to accord another the respect and dignity due to them, Jewish tradition is adamant that one must not publicly shame them. Leviticus 25:17 instructs “Do not wrong one another.” The rabbis interpreted this to refer to speaking harshly or humiliating another person. It is worth quoting the Talmudic discussion at length for its remarkably contemporary insight into the profoundly destructive quality of such shaming:
Johanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai: Verbal wrong is more heinous than monetary wrong, because of the first it is written, ‘and you shall be in awe of your God,’ but not of the second. R. Eleazar said: The one affects [the victim's] person, the other [only] money. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: For the former restoration is possible, but not for the latter. A Mishnaic sage recited before R. Nahman b. Isaac: One who publicly shames [a] neighbor it is as though [that one] murdered [the other]. Whereupon he remarked to him, ‘You say well, because I have seen [such shaming]- the redness departing and paleness replacing it.’ (Baba Metzia 58b)
On another level, we can see the refusal to allow Kay Long and other transgender people access to the Western Wall as an attempt to block out the transformations of Jewish life that they represent. In his book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? journalist Touré derides the “authenticity police,” those who feel they have the right to judge whether others are authentically Black. LGBTQ Jews have worked to free themselves and others from similar attitudes within Jewish life. In coming together as communities of choice rather than coercion, contemporary Jews celebrate the growing visible diversity of Jewish experience. In insisting that we are the authorities on our own lives and that we are the ones who determine how we are defined, LGBTQ Jews present a challenge to traditional authority.
The challenge, however, exists within progressive Judaism as well. Liberal communities continue to erect their own gates marked “Women” and “Men,” assuming binary gender identities are the exclusive options present or available to their members. These gates may only be visible on bathroom doors but they are present as well throughout our educational, social, and spiritual activities. When my youngest child began college, she was asked which pronoun she would like used when referring to her. How many synagogues include that simple question on membership forms?
Jewish mysticism teaches that our individual lives and actions are inextricably linked with the very order of the cosmos. Affirming the unity of God requires inward as well as outward harmony throughout creation. When transgender Jews are denied the integrity of identity, the damage is profound for us all.
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We’re incredibly grateful to Yiscah for sharing this excerpt from her forthcoming book, 40 Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living. She describes her book as her “memoir of the joys and struggles with my own spirituality, gender identity, and commitment to living true to myself.” You can learn more about Yishcah here and learn more about the book here.
Approaching the Western Wall thrust me into the very consciousness that frightened me the most in my life and caused my chronic daily anxiety. The walk to touch the stones for myself, a powerful source of gratitude and thanksgiving for hundreds of thousands of Jews over the past 2,000 years, plunged me into the confusing mire of a definitive and absolute binary gender system. Here there was simply male or female, with no room for anything in between. Visiting the Wall requires separation of men and women—so simple for most, but heart wrenching and dreadful for those of us who, at birth, entered the world where this was anything but clear. There was no flexibility, no blurring of the clearly drawn lines. I felt forced to choose, to announce to the world whether I was male or female. Males to the left, females to the right.
If I’d chosen the women’s side, where I knew I belonged, I would have aroused unimaginable extreme attention. If I were to choose the gender that the world defined for me, and that to which my body tragically acquiesced, I would have likewise aroused all sorts of unimaginable attention, albeit internal. By now I had trained myself to pervert my own sense of truth into a disguise, allowing the world’s mistruth about me to direct me as my guide. And so to the left I went—excited to touch the stones and despising myself once again for not being authentic and genuine, especially at Judaism’s most sacred place.
Equally well trained in denial mechanisms, I embraced each step to the Wall as an opportunity to relish in a moment of time where my gender confusion may have not even existed. Ah, the power of imagination!
As I drew closer and closer to The Wall, each of the stones grew in both physical size and in their significance. They dwarfed me and yet drew me closer and closer. I experienced the sensation of being in a magnetic field, utterly helpless to resist its pull. I looked to my left and right to see how others behaved when directly in front of the Wall. How is one expected to behave? What do I do when my face is so close to the stones that every time I inhale and exhale I can feel and even hear my own breath? What is expected? One touches the Wall. One kisses the Wall. One not only touches the Wall, but affectionately, with care and intent, caresses it. One not only kisses the Wall, but glues one’s face to the Wall after kissing it. A touch, an embrace, a kiss that one dreaded breaking. I wanted, I yearned, I sought with hunger and thirst to experience such closeness and intimacy. But with whom? Of course, with God! With HaShem—literally meaning The Name.
Closeness and intimacy with God was never something I had considered. I had not a clue what this meant, entailed, or implied. To complicate matters, I knew enough to realize one can only approach intimacy by being authentic and genuine. Nothing about me at that moment, aside from my yearning to live in truth, was authentic and genuine. What the men around me saw was a lie, my lie. How could I dare think I was worthy of such a deep connection.
Yet, here I was. Not knowing what else to do, I imitated those around me, and for the first time in my life, I gently touched and caressed the Wall in this sacred space and time, and then I kissed it. I kissed what appeared to be a stone. A huge stone, a pretty stone, one that bore and continues to bear witness to history, but nevertheless, a stone. I felt the stone gently touching my hands, my face, and my lips in return, as I experienced a warmth that was both foreign and yet familiar. Such a completely new experience, as if HaShem actually greeted me personally and uttered the words just echoed by 150,000 of my people buried in the Mount of Olives, “Welcome Home.” I sensed I belonged here. I sensed I was dwelling in a space of encouragement and protection. I felt loved and I felt embraced by the Source of Love. This sacred space messaged to me that while I lived in a fragmented and strife-torn inner world, restoration of a unity experienced somewhere in my past was now possible! Oh how I wanted to believe this! Oh how I was desperate to believe this invigorating and redemptive idea. And a part of me in fact did. Immediately!
I touched and then kissed my past, my present, my future, my people, my soul—all at once. And my past, present, future, my people and my soul all at once embraced and kissed me in return. On a conscious level, this was my first real intimate moment with my own spiritual center, my soul. In that sacred moment, I knew that for the first time I had encountered pristine truth, in its most vulnerable and naked state, void of all rationalizations, veils of denial, and garments of fear and shame. Did I know what this implied? Did I even know what this meant? Of course not. But intuitively I was aware that I possessed the secret to this hidden knowledge. All I could pray for at that moment was that I would never forget this moment of spiritual awakening and infusion of vigor, of hope and of encouragement. What else could I pray for? I could have prayed to be praying from a place of truth. I could have prayed to embrace the truth by somehow being the impossible—being that which had evaded me for the past 20 years, being authentic and genuine. But this was far too frightening. I was not yet ready to truly come home. For now I was excited to begin the journey, having no idea to where it would lead.
I had approached The Wall so torn up, my integrity so painfully compromised. As I slowly backed away from it, I was still tormented, but now I felt inspired, energized to discover and learn about another part of me that until now had been ignored in its state of spiritual latency. My spirituality was bursting to be acknowledged, to be embraced, and to find expression.
But just as quickly as I found myself focused on a part of myself beyond gender, I sadly remembered a fundamental truth. Judaism is a culture strictly for males and females. I knew right there, at the most profound place to the Jewish people, that somehow I must be given admission into this world and not be excluded. I was determined not to spend the rest of my life as an outsider looking in from a distance. I could not be relegated to an observer status, forced to merely watch my own peoples’ destiny unfold. They are my people. I am in direct lineage to those who have been pouring out their hearts and prayers without compromise in this very spot for the past 2,000 thousand of years. And yet, how? How could a woman trapped in the body of a man enter? Through which gate?