Welcome to our second installment of “Queer Clergy in Action” spotlighting lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender rabbis and cantors. This behind-the-scenes look at queer clergy covers both those who have paved the way and up-and-coming trailblazers. Coming out can be really difficult and it can be especially risky for those who are, or aspire to be, clergy. Nonetheless, this vanguard has helped open up the Jewish world, and we’re very proud to shine an extra light on their work, their ideas, and their stories. If you missed our first post in this series about Rabbi Steve Greenberg, the first out gay Orthodox rabbi, you can read it here.
In 2003, Reuben Zellman became the first transgender rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform Movement’s seminary. Ordained in 2010, Rabbi Zellman has spent the past two and a half years at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, CA, as Assistant Rabbi and Music Director. We were thrilled to catch up with him by phone.
How has being queer informed your work as a rabbi?
The primary ways being queer has informed my work are really twofold. First of all, I wouldn’t have even considered becoming a rabbi if not for support – serious nudging, actually – from the queer Jewish community of which I was a part. I belong to Sha’ar Zahav, which is such a supportive community, and people there basically convinced me that I could – and should – be a rabbi. Continue reading
We hear from trans-activists (including on this blog – see yesterday’s interview with Nick Teich) that one impediment to transgender inclusion in the Jewish community is that many people are unsure what trans inclusion actually looks like. The suggestions below provide a vital entry point for allies seeking tangible steps to make their community more transgender friendly.
These steps are excerpted from a pamphlet created by Rabbis Elliot Kukla, Reuven Zellman and TransTorah, in collaboration with the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation and Jewish Mosaic, which in 2010 merged with Keshet.
Share these steps with friends, family, clergy, and others in your community.
Did we miss any? Add your suggestions in the comments section.
Nick Teich is a busy person. In between pursuing a Ph.D. in social policy at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, working as a licensed social worker, and founding and running the first-ever summer camp for transgender and gender-variant kids, Nick wrote Trans 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue, hailed as a go-to source for “students, professionals, friends and family members.” We caught up with Nick to ask him about the inspiration for the book, how it’s been received, and why a “simple guide” is so vital.
How has this book not yet been written? What inspired you to write it?
There are a lot of books out there that are clinically-focused, academic, or just plain memoirs. I thought it was important that students of gender-related disciplines, students who will be working with people in a clinical setting, and the public in general learn what transgenderism is, starting at the very beginning. I run into a lot of people who feel like their questions are “dumb” or that they should know more about the subject than they do, and I believe that holds them back from learning more. This is not a subject most people know much about, if anything. I wanted to give people an easy-to-read and somewhat entertaining way to learn about transgender people and the issues they face in society. It was important to me that there be some levity because the subject is often so serious, so I added cartoons, one for each chapter, that playfully mock ignorance and discrimination toward transgender people.
As October moves on into November, we move from LGBT Month into Trans Awareness Month, culminating in Transgender Day of Remembrance. (You can find much more about Trans Day of Remembrance in our Jewish Guide to Marking Transgender Day of Remembrance.) Check out this series of videos of transgender Jews and allies created as part of the “I AM: Trans People Speak” project. We’re grateful to Keshet members Alex, David, Stacy, Stephanie, and Suzie for sharing their lives with us and to the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition for this project.
“Eventually, [my job] became unbearable because the senior staff were making my life miserable because I was open about being transgender. So even somebody like myself, with all these credentials and all this training and all this experience — still gets discriminated against. I can’t reach my full potential, because of other people’s discrimination against me. [Judaism] connects me throughout the generations, with people all over the world. …Being Jewish has helped me in dealing with being transgender.”
We know that this post is much longer than our usual posts. We do hope you’ll stick with it to the end – Rafi’s story is very compelling. We promise it will be worth your time!
(This talk was delivered at Bonai Shalom, Boulder, Colorado, November 2, 2012)
My name is Rafi. I am a transgender Jewish man. This means that I was born female and transitioned to male. Thanks to advances in medical science, this is not something that you can see when you look at me. I’m an appropriate height for a (Jewish) male, I have lots of facial hair and other fur, my voice has deepened to the level of a higher-pitched male. For the most part, I “pass” as a dude.
When I was a little girl growing up in Colorado, I felt there was something different about me. I yearned with all of my heart to be a boy. I wasn’t particularly masculine as a child. Although I did love going fishing and “fixing things” with my father, my favorite colors were pink and purple, I played with baby dolls almost exclusively, I loved drawing and coloring, and playing make-believe games with friends. But at night, when I was about to go to sleep, I would pray, “Dear G-d, please make me a boy,” and was disappointed when I awoke and was still very much a girl. Continue reading
Even as voices from the transgender community slowly become part of the ongoing conversation about inclusion, there’s one set of voices rarely heard — kids of trans parents. We’re proud to bring you this piece as part of our series for Transgender Awareness Month.
“Bella,” the thirteen-year-old daughter of a Jewish trans parent, generously offered to answer some questions, Dear Abby style. (“Bella” is a pseudonym that she chose.) We asked Bella to imagine herself several years ago when her parent came out as transgender, and pose those questions that plagued the younger her. She answered those same questions, older and wiser, and we hope you find them as powerful and inspiring as we did.
Q: My life feels like it’s falling apart – splitting at the seams. My family, my rock, my safe loving home, is changed. Not gone, exactly, but like a puzzle with the pieces shoved into the wrong holes. Will it ever get any better? How can I learn to deal with my new life? Continue reading
I’m a white gay Jewish man. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t even know what “cisgender” meant.
Three weeks ago, I went to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Germany with a group of LGBT Jews. At Sachsenhausen, gay men or those accused of being gay were forced into isolated heavily guarded barracks in order to prevent “infection” of other prisoners. These men were tortured, castrated, and used in scientific experiments.
Their families denounced them. They had no support network for food or care. When a gay man entered the camp his life expectancy was ten weeks. For Jewish homosexual men, it was a week. When the guide told us this kernel of information, as a group of mostly gay men, we were stunned. How could people do this to each other?
Later on in the week, one gay man reluctantly asked me, “Why do we have to include the ‘T’ in LGBT?” It sounded like a chore. I almost choked on my curry.
And then the next question: “Why should a gay man care about trans issues?” Gulp. “What is a gay man’s responsibility to trans people?”
This wasn’t light dinner conversation. No one intended to be rude. It just wasn’t obvious. He knew to include the “T” but didn’t know why. To satiate their hunger for an answer, I put down my fork.
After reviewing all the arguments in my mind, the complexity was reduced to this:
While I am a trans ally, it’s really that I’m a human ally. Trans people are people. I firmly believe that every person should live with full dignity and have full access to opportunity regardless of whether or not they fit within society’s restrictive and rigid binary code for gender or sexuality. I firmly believe people should feel safe expressing themselves fully in their community. Every person deserves the right to be visible and heard. As a human ally, I want a world where my future children see every person treated with respect and are taught to do the same. I want my children to live and succeed, not just exist and recede into seclusion. They shouldn’t feel alienated, be called freaks, or attacked for being true to themselves.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to be a human ally. Trans issues resonate with me more strongly as a gay man. Not only can I understand a feeling of terror at the thought of telling my friends and family about my “dark, deep secret,” but I can identify with feeling oppressed and repressed. In middle school, I was taunted for having a “high-pitched” voice. In high school, I was made to feel like an outsider because I didn’t play a sport, which didn’t conform to preferred gender norms. This type of homophobic gender policing is directly connected to transphobia. It is tied to a fear of gender variance.
Fortunately, as a gay man, I can identify with a sweet relief of having a safe and welcoming environment where I can relate with others who’ve also felt this way. I understand how much stronger I feel when I’m surrounded by allies who are willing to walk with me.
I care about Trans Day of Remembrance because I have lived with the fear of being other and because I have glimpsed what it feels like to have a supportive community. I’ll hold a lit candle for trans people who’ve faced violence, been murdered, or committed suicide just because they refused to be invisible. In my mind, as a Jew, I will remember the denial of humanity which resulted in 6 million Jews murdered and countless more for being “other.” I will praise those courageous enough to be visible and my fellow allies who refuse to compromise on protection from abuse and discrimination.
I ask you do to the same. It is scary to speak up and to be an effective ally is hard work. It’s worth it; for the sake of seeing a society in which each person is guaranteed the right to live a dignified life with the ability to make choices about their own body, health, and pursue happiness as they see fit.
Thank you for walking with me. I feel stronger already.
I remember Yom Kippur when I was 13. I was in synagogue, proudly wearing the tallit I had been given for my bar mitzvah some months earlier, sitting with my family in the seats we traditionally occupied throughout the High Holidays, four rows back from the bimah and the Ark where the Torah scrolls were kept. It was the Ne’ilah service, the closing moments of the holiday, and the congregation was rising for one final recitation of the Vidui, the collective confession of sins. With the infamous words of Leviticus 18:22, part of the traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur afternoon, still ringing in my head, I too stood up and began to recite the litany out loud along with everyone else. But one sin, one above all, spoke up and demanded I confess it, repent from it, and pray for divine forgiveness: the sin of being a transgender person.
“For the sin that we have committed against You by identifying with a gender other than that which we were assigned at birth” isn’t part of any confessional liturgy I ever learned—it was more like “For the sins which we have committed against You both in the open and in secret”. But it didn’t matter that I could barely even express what I was thinking. I placed my hand over my heart, struck my breast, and begged God to forgive me for all the indiscretions within me: for desiring more than anything to be someone or something other than what I was, for having failed to fulfill the divine plan for me, whatever it was, for not having been strong enough to resist my yetzer ha-ra, my inclination to do evil. I prayed fervently, cried a little even, wishing that God would take away my transgender nature, and hoping He would make me, well, normal. Somehow.
The recitation of the confessional ended, and shortly the service came to a close with the words Adonai Hu Ha-Elohim, “The Lord is God”. The final shofar blast was sounded, and I remembered the verse: Vayomer Adonai solachti ki-d’varecha, “And God said: I have forgiven, as you have asked,” and I knew—or really thought I knew—that, like the people Israel after the High Priest had performed the Yom Kippur sacrifices, I had been cleansed. I went home happy that night: everything would be okay.
As I recall, that lasted two or maybe three weeks.
The next year, feeling even guiltier, I made the same supplication on Yom Kippur. And the year after that. And the year after that. I prayed earnestly for God to forgive me, to take it away, to make me normal, just like everyone else. When I grew older, and was beginning therapy in earnest, one of the questions I was asked was “Why do you believe you are transgender?” When I was younger, I believed it was because God had made an honest mistake. But as I got older and somewhat more theologically
sophisticated sophomoric, I believed it was some kind of test, the purpose of which I could only guess at, and I wasn’t sure whether it was benevolently or malevolently intended. However, every time I prayed for God to “take the transgender away,” it only got stronger, and I ended up feeling, over and over again, miserable and worthless, like I’d failed the test.
I now know something I didn’t at the time: that many other people—trans, queer, both—have prayed that very same prayer alongside me. I was never alone; I always had company. I was not the first, and I will not be the last.
And every time I prayed it, it was an earnest, genuine prayer. But I discovered another prayer, a cry from my soul, that is even deeper, even more earnest and genuine. It took me long enough, but I finally heard it calling, from my kol d’mamah dakah, the “still small voice” within me.
The rabbis teach that all the rituals of confession, all the prayers for forgiveness, all the external trappings of Yom Kippur can only serve to atone for sins that are between a human being and God. Yom Kippur, they teach, does not bring atonement for sins one person commits against another, until the person who did wrong seeks forgiveness from the person who was wronged. This is one of the fundamental lessons of repentance and forgiveness in Judaism. The Hebrew word for “repentance” is teshuvah, which means, among other things, “returning.” The time between the start of the year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called the Ten Days for teshuvah, for turning and returning inward, for the rediscovery of our selves. Yom Kippur asks us to return to the truth about ourselves; not to hide from it. It asks us to be genuine with ourselves; when we deceive ourselves, we cannot forgive ourselves.
I want to ask my younger self to forgive herself for not being perfect, for wronging herself by denying her inner nature, her truth, for failing to heed the kol d’mamah dakah within her. I want to reassure her that everything will be okay, that God doesn’t hate her, that she will eventually find and build a loving, accepting, and affirming community. I want to seek her pardon for the years of denials, purges, secrets, half-measures, traumas, deceptions, and lies I will inflict on her future self.
But the temporal continuum only works in one direction for us mere mortals, which means this exercise is doomed to failure. I cannot literally commit teshuvah by going back in time; I shall have to content myself with a metaphorical teshuvah. But I trust the kol d’mamah dakah within me, which tells me that this teshuvah must be more genuine than any other I have ever professed to make. I have to be willing to forgive my past self for not knowing that things would change, and both my past and present selves for being so hard on themselves, for demanding such perfection, for not giving themselves permission to fail. And I can try to return the courtesy to my future self: to give her permission to screw up, to fail, to commit wrongdoings and to learn from them. It’s a small comfort, but it helps.
A very wise friend of mine told me that beating myself up, as so many trans people do, for not having transitioned earlier is pointless. Whatever happened in the past, she pointed out, whatever decisions I made, were necessary at that time, because they kept me alive and got me to where I am now. When I introduced my blog (with this very point!) as “my record of surviving,“ I was not speaking metaphorically. And I am learning that part of survival—more than simple survival, actually; part of living—is having the ability to forgive myself.
So this is my Yom Kippur prayer this year. May I learn to accept and embrace the person I am, even if I do not know who she is yet. May I have the strength and the courage to forgive myself for the wrongdoings that I have committed against myself in the past, or will commit against myself in the future. May my teshuvah be sincere, and may it bring me closer to knowledge of my own truth. May I learn to recognize and to listen to the kol d’mamah dakah within me, and may I write my own Book of Life in that voice this year. May I love myself, may I remember that I am loved, and may I be at peace. Kein yehi ratzon—may this be so.
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbis Elliott Kukla and Reuben Zellman examine parashat Ki Teitze, proving that clothes most certainly don’t make the person.
For all those who have ever struggled with how to discipline children’s bad behavior, this week’s parashah, Ki-Teitze, offers an easy answer: stone them to death! (Deut. 21:18-21)
Thankfully, Jews have recognized for over a thousand years that this is an unacceptable solution to a common problem. In fact, we learn in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) that this apparent commandment of the Torah was never once carried out. Our Sages refused to interpret this verse literally, as it conflicted with their understanding of the holiness of each and every human life.
With this scenario in mind, let us look at another verse in our parashah: “A man’s clothes should not be on a woman, and a man should not wear the apparel of a woman; for anyone who does these things, it is an abomination before God.” (Deut. 22:5) Just as classical Jewish scholars reinterpreted the commandment that says rebellious children should be stoned to death, they also read this portion’s apparent ban on “cross-dressing” to yield a much narrower prohibition.
The great medieval commentator Rashi explains that this verse is not simply a prohibition on wearing the clothes of the “opposite gender.” Rashi writes that such dress is prohibited only when it will lead to adultery. Maimonides, a 12th-century codifier of Jewish law, claims that this verse is actually intended to prohibit cross-dressing that is for purposes of idol worship (Sefer haMitzvot, negative mitzvot 39-40). In other words, according to the classical scholars of our tradition, wearing clothes of “the wrong gender” is proscribed only when it is for the express purpose of causing harm to our relationship with our loved ones or with God. The prohibition that we learn from this verse is very specific: we must not misrepresent our true gender in order to cause harm. Otherwise, wearing clothing of another gender is not prohibited. The Talmud puts it most succinctly: v’ein kan toevah — “there is no abomination here” (Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 59a-b).
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Alex Weissman examines parashat Re’eh, which contains rules and directions for Temple worship.
This week’s parasha starts with the kind of moralizing binary we are quite accustomed to seeing in Torah. If you do X, great. If you do Y, curses. X and Y are then elaborated in great detail, including instructions on when to worship (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), how to worship (tithes, votives, sacrifice the firstlings of your herds and flocks), what not to worship (false prophets or dream-givers), and what not to eat.
The name of the parasha, Re’eh, means “See” as the first line begins, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse” (Deut. 11:26). Here, we are compelled to see the acts, be they blessed or cursed, and to see each other, blessed or cursed, depending on those acts. We are to be mutual observers, holding our communities accountable to the laws of Torah. Like so many commandments, these are designed to make us kadosh – that is, both holy – and set apart.
Essentially, Torah is asking us to draw a line—a line between “good Jews” (those who follow the mitzvot) and “bad Jews” (those who do not). It’s certainly a line people draw all the time today, often in our own lives. How many times have we heard, “Oh, I’m a bad Jew,” from friends or ourselves as we’ve bitten into a bacon cheeseburger, skipped Shabbat services, or forgot to daven. What constitutes good Jew vs. bad Jew may be different for different people, but the very presence of that line is something that has been deeply embedded in our communal psyche. Today, while we may not be sacrificing the firstlings of our herds and flocks anymore, we still draw these lines in different ways, including lines around “good” and “bad” sexual beings.
As we “see” each other in our communities of accountability, what are the lines that we draw for blessings and curses for sexual practices? As queer theorist Leo Bersani reminds us in his book, Homos, “visibility is a precondition of surveillance, disciplinary intervention, and at the limit, gender-cleansing.” Being seen and visible may seem like a desirable goal, but it can also be dangerous.
As queer people, sexual moralizing has been used against us to promote violent systems of transphobia and heterosexism with painful impacts on our bodies, our lives, and our souls. But what happens when we respond to this external moralizing of our community’s sexual practices with a moralizing of our own? All too often we are pressured to represent ourselves reactively in an attempt to paint a sanitized version of our lives that erases the richness of sexual differences we could be proud of. Bersani again cautions us, “[In] our anxiety to convince straight society that we are only some malevolent invention and that we can be, like you, good soldiers, good parents, and good citizens, we seem bent on suicide.” Bersani is concerned that in our reactive desires to appear “respectable,” we risk further erasing the members of our communities who are already at the margins and do not have the ability to appear respectable even if they wanted to.
Imagine a contemporary version of Re’eh that enumerated the dominant sexual morals imposed on LGBTQ people. My guess is we would easily find practices that would place large portions of our communities at those erasable margins: protected vs. unprotected sex, with one partner vs. multiple partners, with a significant other vs. a stranger, in private vs. in public, not in exchange for money vs. in exchange for money, vanilla vs. BDSM, etc. Yet in our sexual lives, many of us engage in, or even desire to engage in, many of these marginalized sexual practices. How do we recognize the pleasures, risks, desires, and differences in our sexual lives in a way that does not buy normalcy at the cost of sacrificing our margins? The answer lies in Talmud.
“As the curse was pronounced by the Levites, so the blessing had to be pronounced by the Levites. As the curse was uttered in a loud voice, so the blessing had to be uttered in a loud voice. As the curse was said in Hebrew, so the blessing had to be said in Hebrew. As the curses were in general and particular terms, so must the blessings be in general and particular terms. And as with the curse both parties respond ‘Amen,’ so with the blessing both parties respond “Amen” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 37b.).
Blessing and curse are inseparable; if we utter a curse, so must we mutter a blessing. They both come from us in the same ways because we cannot and should not be ashamed of either—we say them both loudly, in Hebrew, and in relationship to others. Given their equal footing in ritual, I want to suggest that the blessing and curse are so intricately bound up with each other that curse and blessing actually bleed into each other so as to become one. In just a few chapters (Deut. 23:3-6), we’ll revisit the story of Balaam, whose curse for the Israelites turned into blessings three separate times! Blessing and curse collapse into each other as the boundaries between them are blurred.
If we see curses and blessings as such, perhaps we can see, as we are commanded, each other as Jews and as sexual beings who are simultaneously worthy of curses/blessings, which are determined not by the shaming practices of moralizing heterosexism, but by communities of righteousness and love who understand that, as Walt Whitman taught us, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Re’eh ends on a hopeful (albeit masculinist) note with more instructions on how to worship, “They shall not appear before Adonai empty handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that Adonai your God has bestowed upon you” (Deut. 16:16-17). If our holiness before God is determined “according to blessing that Adonai your god has bestowed upon” us, then God recognizes our holiness to include our curses as well. Let Re’eh be a model for us all to see the blessings, curses, and multitudes that exist within ourselves and each other as we celebrate the complexity of difference in our sexual and religious lives.