Open to Me the Gates of Righteousness: Breaking Down Gender Binaries

“Open to me the gates of righteousness,” says the Psalmist, “that I may enter and acknowledge the Holy One.”

Kay Long at the Western Wall.

Kay Long at the Western Wall.

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)

Sadly, we have come to understand that the shaming they are forced to endure becomes an act of murder for too many transgender people, especially teens like Leelah Alcorn, when it ends in suicide.

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.

all gender restroom

Download this sign by clicking on the image.

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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