Meet the Orthodox Rabbi Advocating for Trans Inclusion

In this article, we share excerpts from an interview with an Orthodox rabbi who is an ally and advocate for Jews who are transgender.

This rabbi, who has asked to remain anonymous, reached out to Keshet in 2016 as a parent of a child who is transgender and as a religious leader. He recently began working actively in support of trans inclusion in his community. Although his advocacy sparked controversy, he continues to work towards integrating acceptance and support for the trans community into Jewish thought and practice.

Can you tell me about your work for trans inclusion?

I’ve been working on a rabbinic response for the trans community that’s about inclusivity and acceptance from a holistic standpoint. The response argues that we have a communal responsibility to validate the identities of trans people because of the high statistical probability of self-harm for those who don’t feel accepted. I’m also working on creating some sort of language of liturgy for name-change–for those who are transitioning–that reflects what we already have in our tradition.

This morning, I saw something fascinating that was written about two hundred years ago about a man who was married to a woman who transitioned. It’s not clear exactly what that transition means because of the way in which medicine existed then, but it says, “in every way.” There were two halachic (Jewish law) impressions. One of them was, ‘Does the husband needs to give his wife a get (divorce)?’ The second was, ‘What blessing should she, now he, make in the morning?’ The rabbi, Haim Palachi, who was a very mainstream, famous Sephardi rabbi, writes that because this person has transitioned to being a man, his husband doesn’t have to give him a get. A get is only given to a wife. Then there is this wild language of a blessing: “Thank you G-d, king of the universe, who has turned me into a man.” We have this innovation already in our tradition and there wasn’t this pushback: it [transition] was much more technical and people felt like it was possible to deal with it and maybe even embrace it.

What inspired you to start writing this response?

I have a trans child, which motivates me a lot. I had been doing a lot of trans advocacy work, and I became marginalized for doing it. I was working in very right-wing places in the Jewish community, and I publicly came out as an ally at my synagogue (where I’m no longer the rabbi) around Hanukkah time. Shortly after, I did a bunch of interviews and articles, and then the funders of my position pulled out. They had warned me months before to stop doing the work that I was doing, and I didn’t. Now that I have all of this time on my hands, I’m trying to figure out what’s next. This work is keeping me sane. There aren’t a lot of rabbis trying to cater to this intersection of traditional Jewish law and LGBT issues–specifically trans issues. Religion used to be the container to support a relationship with G-d and now, for many Jews, it excludes people from that relationship. So I think that we have to start healing from that trauma, and begin to re-contextualize our relationships with G-d as being on an individual basis and with much more autonomy. If you can’t allow people to acknowledge who they are, then how could that relationship with G-d ever be authentic or real? The work that I try to do now is in expanding the space: people shouldn’t have to choose between their religious identity and any other identity–whether it’s an ethnic, sexual, or gender identity.

Why did you start advocating for trans rights? Was there a catalyst?

I got a text from a trans student of mine right before Hanukkah. He had transitioned from female to male and had become more observant over the summer. In this text, he told me that he was really struggling on the deepest level. I felt that there was something to be done about this, because society was causing him to feel this way. Before I had a chance to even text back, the next text that came through said, “I am so happy that you exist.” I felt that the fact that I just was–that there was space for him to have conversations with me–was contributing to him getting through it. What would happen if society was able to transition to be accepting? What would that look like, and how many lives would be saved? That’s really what led me to start thinking about coming out and creating a safe space for people to explore their identity. I see this work as a part of my own spiritual practice–and as a prerequisite for how people explore their relationship with G-d. Like, what does G-d want from me as whoever I am in this moment?

Can you tell me about your journey with your relationship to LGBTQ advocacy?

I think about my own spiritual journey in very fluid terms. I grew up as a secular Jew in a conservative state. I graduated high school in the late 90’s, which wasn’t that long ago, but I don’t think there was anyone that was openly gay in my school–no one that I knew. So although I was never a hater in any way, I also never really had any sort of exposure to the LGBT community. I went to Yeshiva right after high school and went on a very right-wing trajectory for a long time. I got married to a very religious woman and, after many years of marriage, she came out as a lesbian. My first kind of exposure, on a personal level, was with my own wife. She chose a secular lifestyle because she didn’t feel like there was space in Orthodoxy for her to hold both identities simultaneously. I think at that point, I wasn’t in the right space to feel that it was my role to advocate for the LGBT community beyond creating a safe space for my children. My children were suffering in Jewish schools due to the identity of their mother. I guess that was the beginning of my thinking, “What can I do?” Even if just selfishly focused my own children, I felt that they should have an easier experience being the children of a lesbian.

When our child started transitioning, I was a rabbi at a big university with a wonderful gender studies department, and I spoke to as many trans people, thinkers, and rabbis as I could. I was speaking with rabbis who didn’t even know that this was a thing, and so they didn’t have anything from our tradition to offer. I really felt that maybe there was a unique contribution that I could make.

Although maybe it’s the safest it has ever been for trans people, it’s still not very safe. I, like any parent, have a natural desire to want to protect my children and to create a space for my children to be successful. Whenever we know somebody personally, there’s just a heightened awareness of that thing that they are dealing with or experiencing. Being part of this process, and speaking to endocrinologists about hormones, etc., made me realize that there’s a lot of bridge work that needs to be done within the Jewish community.

Traditional Judaism is so gender-specific and based around rituals. Although other movements have recently come out with different types of responses dealing with some of these issues, they come from a space of egalitarian types of practice. More conservative Jews don’t view these topics as issues to be discussed. Part of the advocacy work has been the legitimizing of the process and acknowledging that Jewish law needs to have a position on this. People who have transitioned from one gender to another have historically transitioned out of traditional Judaism because there was no space to hold both identities. Would they be able to sit on the side of the mehitzah (separation) based on the gender with which they identify? I think that we as humans are in this world to fill voids, to take our resources and to network them. Because I have three ultra-Orthodox rabbinical ordinations, and have spent a really long time learning how to learn, it seems to me that this is one of the ways in which G-d calls us–by providing these kind of obvious opportunities and invitations to either be present or not.

It took me almost a year to really process and come to the conclusion that this was what G-d wanted me to do–from the time that my child started transitioning, to the time that I was really able to be strong enough in my own faith to come out as an ally. I knew what the consequences were going to be. I tried, from the inside, to expand the walls of our community to be able to include this kind of allyship. Because I had a synagogue, and because people knew who I was and felt that it was their job to educate me and be vocal about their opposition, I started getting hate mail. Because I am now out as an ally and am a resource, I also get a lot of direct messages from all over the world from people I don’t know–people who are struggling with their identities: parents of children who are struggling; rabbis who are struggling; and congregants and other clergy members from other faith traditions who are struggling to figure out how to answer these types of questions. I’ve engaged in all sorts of interfaith dialogues. There’s wonderful work to be done, and this has been for me a time of self-exploration. What do I really believe? How much faith do I really have? There are parts of this that are really scary. But I feel like, yeah, this is me being holy, showing up to answer the call, because it is in the face of this overwhelming opposition from the mainstream.

As a parent of a trans child, do you have any advice or reflections to share with other parents, especially parents who are observant?

The most important thing, I think, is to listen. Because we who aren’t trans don’t think about gender in the same way, there’s a way in which we’re almost having two different conversations. My six-year-old was talking about being a boy in ways that I never thought of because, even though I am a guy, I never experienced that tension. As a parent of a trans child, there’s this awkward shift that I think everyone needs to make– from being the teacher to being the student–because this is a learning process. The world is still learning, and the child is still learning and exploring. I think that the sweet spot for parents is to be supportive without being influential–not to pressure the child or force the new or old identity. I think that the healthiest thing that we can do is to be there to reflect. We can be there to help guide the conversation and the exploration, but really–more than anything else–our job is to listen, to support, and to find resources such as therapists and doctors.

There’s a very large support structure made up of parents of trans children. Parents need to be reminded that we are custodians of our children. G-d has given children to us so that we can give them the best chance of being successful in this world. At some point, the natural occurrence is that children outlive parents, so the goal–on some level of parenting–is to be able to empower them to be self-sufficient. I think what that looks like for the parent of a trans child is to try to help cultivate the skill sets that are necessary for what trans children struggle with–whether it’s identity, confidence, or safety issues on a physical level. We want to provide them with the best resources to be able to cope and to be able to adapt and exist independently.

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