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.
The new spate of anti-trans legislation restricting access to medical care and curtailing the ability to play gender-appropriate sports is devastating not only for trans folks but also for all Jews, as it strikes a blow at a core Jewish value: Do not cause distress by referring to a person’s past identity. When lawmakers in Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and South Dakota use the megaphone of their position to let trans folks know that they are reduced to the gender they were assigned at birth, these lawmakers are causing harm through verbal mistreatment of trans folks —especially trans kids—and those who love them, and they are attacking this essential Jewish principle.
In this week’s parsha, Behar-Bechukosai, we are instructed, “Do Not Harm One Another” (Leviticus 25:17). The Talmud explicitly uses this mitzvah as a foundation for a prohibition on bringing up the past when it will hurt people who have transitioned to a new identity (Bava Matzia, 58b), which is further illustrated by the powerful story of Reb Yochanan and Reish Lakish.
When Reish Lakish, the head of a gang of bandits, encounters Reb Yochanan, a great Jewish scholar, he repents and becomes one of the greatest rabbis of the Talmud, as well as Reb Yochanan’s best friend and brother-in-law. One day in the study hall, though, amidst an argument over the precise moment that a weapon becomes a finished product according to Jewish law, Reb Yochanan, perhaps cowed by Resh Lakish’s opinion, makes a snide rejoinder: “A bandit knows about his banditry.” Resh Lakish is so devastated to be identified and judged by an identity he long ago shed that he soon dies. Reb Yochanan is so distressed by the loss of his friend that he too dies.
What’s strange about this story is that Reb Yochanan is actually a champion of the law against harming others. At an earlier point in the Talmud, he teaches that hurting someone through words is worse than damaging someone financially. And yet even he, a committed ally, causes great harm through his carelessness of speech.
What message are we sending to the trans folks in our communities, especially the trans kids, if we allow this new transphobic legislation to stand? As the poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “Lying is done with words, and also with silence.” Have we told lies with our silence? Or have we defended our Torah, and let the world know that these transphobic attacks are attacks on Torah-true values?
The stakes could not be higher. Trans teens are at extraordinarily high risk of suicide. Research shows that the gender-affirming medical care denied by the latest legislation is associated with lifelong decreases in suicidal ideation. The ancient Rabbinic Medresh (Vayikra Rabbah 33:1) links this week’s mitzvah of “Do Not Harm One Another” to a line in Proverbs: “Death and life are in the power of speech.” (Proverbs 18:21) Death and life are in the speech of these transphobic lawmakers and death and life are also in the speech of any Jewish leader brave enough to affirm the Torah-true principle of honoring people in their identities.