Keshet is a national organization that works for LGBTQ equality in Jewish life. The organization equips Jewish leaders with tools to build LGBTQ-affirming communities, creates spaces for queer Jewish teens to feel valued and develop their own leadership skills, and mobilizes the Jewish community to fight for LGBTQ justice. Keshet’s blog spotlights this work, as well as the voices of LGBTQ Jews, our families, and allies.
Although the Reform and Conservative movements have officially accepted transgender people, I still felt nervous starting rabbinical school as a trans person. Transgender people are a small enough demographic as it is; when you narrow down the list to trans rabbis, we become almost a novelty. Imagine my surprise and delight to find out I was not the only incoming trans student this year at Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion. I sat down with my fellow trans rabbinical student, Lea Andersen, to discuss how our trans and Jewish identities intersect.
Ariel: For a lack of better phrasing, how do you reconcile your Jewish identity with your trans identity?
Lea: My Judaism and my trans identity are part of one package. There’s a concept in Kabbalah that when something wrong occurs, it becomes like a husk formed around your soul. My coming out felt like I was breaking the husk. I saw every single step of the removal of that husk as a mitzvah. It felt like my soul was freer.
A: So would you say it was a singular process then?
L: Yes. Coming into my Jewishness, my trans-ness, my sexuality… all of it was one big process. It feels like that process is almost at an end now… and I’m starting to get to what comes after.
A: Would you say then that you approached your trans identity accidentally? Or did it feel intentional?
L: It was very much intentional. My trans identity was something that was always in the background. But I tried to ignore it, in large part because it was too much. I remember hearing as a child that trans people were really terrible and disgusting. I didn’t want to be “one of those.” But as time went on, and I started to accept myself, I had some really important religious experiences [where I felt a feminine energy while praying]. It just became really obvious that this was the right path.
A: I personally felt like I needed some sort of permission to transition…did you feel that?
L: It was almost the opposite. When I first realized I was trans, I really did not want to be trans or come out. I knew that I needed to come out, for the purposes of my religion and my relationship with G-d, but I was terrified of that. I wasn’t sure I was ready to come out, but it felt like I had been given an obligation to do it, by way of Torah. I believe in the idea of transition as a mitzvah. Given that it’s a mitzvah that men shouldn’t wear the clothing of women (and vice versa) and that G-d commanded us not to lie, we actually have a positive commandment to transition. G-d is telling us to do this. We can’t stay in the shadows because we’re deceiving ourselves and our relationship with G-d. I was like, “I have to do this.”
A: Something that helped flip a switch for me was learning about the different ancient genders and reading as much as I could about them. To put it in Western terms, there’s cis male (zachar), cis female (nekevah), transmasculine (aylonit), transfeminine (saris), bigender (androgynos), and agender (tumtum). I know you also studied this on your own. Did this research help you come to this decision, or was researching a result of your decision?
L: I read about this before, and it was really interesting to see that Judaism does accept trans people. At first I didn’t know where I fit, so it was great to have a place to start. Once I realized I might be trans, I didn’t sleep for three days. I stayed up reading all I could. My trans identity was connected to my religious identity, and it helped me to read about rituals associated with trans Judaism.
A: As trans people, we tend to have a lot of rituals, and that’s the same for Jews as well.
L: Yes. I used to wear a kippah all the time, and that was really important to me. But as I got further along on estrogen, I didn’t feel like I needed it. And then I read an interpretation that a woman’s long hair is her kippah, and so I started not wearing one. I felt okay with that. Recently, I’ve been wearing a headscarf, and that feels pretty okay too. Presentation evolves.
A: And it’s different for every person. It’s a personal practice.
A: And different rituals might be gender-affirming for some people, but not so much for others who grew up with certain expectations since birth.
L: Yes. I’ve seen trans people be very gender-affirmed in different gendered practices. Personally, the women who have inspired me have not been involved in tzniut (modesty). So when I think about what kind of woman I want to be, I think of them.
A: Let’s talk about b’tzelem Elohim (the belief that all humans are created in G-d’s image). It has been used both in favor of trans people and against them. My interpretation of it is that, if women and men are both made in the image of G-d, then G-d must possess both female and male characteristics. Therefore, people who have female and male characteristics are also made in the image of G-d. Because G-d created all of us, any one of us is made in G-d’s image, regardless of what that might look like.
L: I don’t think it’s about how your body looks. Your body changes so much throughout your lifetime. A change in your body is not a change in your being b’tzelem Elohim. G-d is not male or female. If we box G-d into a human binary, we are limiting the concept of G-d by trying to understand G-d in terms of human identity. To take the powers of G-d and put them into a limiting box of human understanding…that is a type of idolatry.
A: Interesting, I’ve never heard that perspective. It’s kind of a reversal–instead of trying to place aspects of G-d onto humanity, we are trying to place aspects of humanity onto G-d. It doesn’t necessarily go both ways.
L: Exactly. Whatever humans are capable of, G-d is capable of, and then much more. Yes, G-d probably has female aspects and male aspects, but G-d probably also has aspects that are G-d-gendered, or both, or neither…probably also some gender we could never conceive.
A: What was coming out like for you?
L: I leaned heavily on the work of Rabbi Elliot Kukla. He wrote the blessings I used. There were a lot of people who, sort of unknowingly, were my mentors.
A: Going back a bit, I’m really intrigued by this idea of coming out as mitzvah, because in my experience, I really needed to let go of the feeling that I was being selfish for wanting this for myself. I didn’t have that framework that it was commanded upon me to do it. I heard a lot of, “Why can’t you just be happy with the way you are? Why does it matter what other people think of you? Is it an aesthetic thing? Is it a dating thing?” I also heard, unfortunately, from mainstream feminists, that I wanted to transition because I hated women, and because I hated myself for being a woman. That’s what I was telling myself, too. I felt like I needed to continue to be a strong woman–to be a role model–and that if I transitioned, I would be giving that up. I put this expectation on myself to continue to be a good feminist, and I felt like that was incompatible with my desire to transition. I didn’t realize that my wanting to be male made me trans until I spoke to other women about it. I thought it was just a byproduct of living in a patriarchy. When I spoke to other women who were happy being women, I realized something wasn’t right.
A: How can we make Jewish institutions more trans-friendly?
L: One, de-gender bathrooms. Two, normalize transition ceremonies. Three, basic “Trans 101” training for all clergy.
A: I had a transition ceremony on my one year anniversary of taking testosterone. I found various readings on the internet, and had my friends read them to me on the bimah, and then the rabbis blessed me. It was really powerful. Everyone was crying.
L: That’s awesome.
A: I think another thing to do is to normalize pronoun use for every person. If cisgender people share their pronouns, they’re telling trans people, “Hey, I’m a safe person with whom you can share your pronouns.” It opens up the opportunity for trans people to share their pronouns without being the only ones to do so.
L: It also tells people that pronouns aren’t something that can be assumed.
A: I taught ten-year-olds about gender stereotypes, gender fluidity, multiple genders, etc. We had a great conversation and none of them was confused. There is this story in Torah Queeries: Isaac sends out his servant to find him a wife, and the servant comes across Rebecca, who is described as a “young man.” Obviously, Rebecca is one of our matriarchs, so I said to the class, “Why do you think the writers described her as a young man? Think about it. She’s by herself. She’s offering her father’s food and water as if it’s her own to give. She’s talking to a strange man that she does not know. At this time, women weren’t allowed to do these things. She’s taking on traditionally male roles. The reason why Isaac’s servant is like, ‘This is the one for Isaac,’ isn’t just because she’s generous, but also because she is exhibiting both male and female traits, which makes her more G-d-like, because G-d also has all those qualities.” The kids understood that, and they really liked it. Then we talked about ways that each of them has their own unique qualities that may not fit into society’s expectations of them because of their genders.
L: The story of Joseph has a similar theme.
A: So, how did you get your name?
L: It actually just came to me one day. I was thinking, hey, my middle name kind of sounds like Lea… whoa. My name is actually Lea. I’ve been going by Lea ever since.
A: I consider myself fairly lucky. I was going to be named Ariel regardless of what gender I was assigned at birth. When I started transitioning, I felt like I had to change my name to be taken seriously. But I thought about it, and I like my name. I feel blessed for having been given a name that works either way. So I just changed my middle name to Ezekiel because it means “G-d will strengthen him,” and I very much believe that G-d has given me the strength to be myself–to be trans.
L: I look forward to a day in the future where being trans is just “business as usual.”
A: I think that’s why it’s so important for us to be open about it–so we can work to normalize it. Like, yes, I’m trans. I’m also going to be a rabbi.