September 25, 2018

Why transgender inclusion is a Jewish imperative

Just when the LGBT community thinks it has taken another step toward full equality and inclusion, along come the Dennis Pragers of the world to remind us how far we still have to go.

In his most recent opinion pieces in the Journal (“The Torah and the Transgendered,” Dec. 4, and “The Hate Is All in One Direction,” Dec. 11), Mr. Prager portrays transgender people and trans inclusion as incompatible with the teachings of Torah, and calls into question the very Jewishness of those of us who reject his narrow and bigoted view in favor of basic human dignity.

Most deplorably, he attacks — yes, Mr. Prager, attacks — Keshet board member Rabbi Becky Silverstein for having the audacity to identify and present as male while retaining a conventionally female name. 

Mr. Prager’s message is not only wrong — it is wrongheaded.

Wrong, because it demands that the Torah remain frozen in time, incapable of inspiring new generations of Jews seeking answers to contemporary challenges. Wrongheaded, because it appeals to the worst instincts of human nature.

Our Torah is a living, breathing document, whose words and teachings can be understood and interpreted anew to reflect humankind’s limitless ability to evolve, change and grow. Its beauty and wonder lie in its capacity to provoke and guide our community as much today as it did 5,000 years ago.

We claim a Torah that embraces complexity, mystery and inclusivity. Mr. Prager offers a Torah that is simplistic, static and divisive, one that not so successfully masks his contempt and fear of “the other.”

The rabbis of the Talmud understood that human gender is infinitely more diverse than the gender binary. Talmudic discourse over the generations identifies various categories of people who, according to their descriptions in the text, would today fall under the broad umbrella of “transgender.” These include the tumtum (someone with hidden or underdeveloped genitalia), the androgynos (a person with male and female sex organs), the eylonit (a masculine woman) and the saris (a feminine man).

To be sure, you won’t find a transgender liberation manifesto in the Talmud. But you will find thoughtful discussion of real people whom the rabbis clearly encountered in their lives, and an attempt to discern their roles in society. 

Like Mr. Prager, the rabbis concerned themselves with distinctions and differentiation. Unlike Mr. Prager, they well understood and acknowledged the magnificent diversity of human gender.

Mr. Prager’s decision to single out and scorn a specific rabbinic leader and Jewish institution is evidence that his voice does not belong in our discourse or any self-respecting Jewish publication. His words foment fear and hate, and serve to bully and intimidate. 

Our community must resolve to place understanding and inclusion at the forefront of our thinking and our actions. Mr. Prager’s recent comments notwithstanding, the news on that front is encouraging. 

In addition to the historic victory in the Supreme Court for marriage equality earlier this year, last month the Union for Reform Judaism publicly affirmed its commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.

We challenge the Jewish community to build upon this momentum and use Mr. Prager’s words to spur us further, faster. It would be a terrible loss if even one Jewish organization thought twice about embracing or hiring a transgender individual for fear of being attacked in the Jewish media. Or worse yet, if even one transgender Jew decided to leave the Jewish community for fear of rejection.

We urge Jewish leaders of all denominations and movements to join with unflinching courage the fight for full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. 

Know that all of us at Keshet — and countless others — will always stand with you.

Idit Klein is executive director of Keshet, a national grass-roots organization that works for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman is director of youth learning and engagement at Temple Beth Am, a Conservative congregation in Los Angeles, and a Keshet educator. B. Andrew Zelermyer is chair of the Keshet board of directors.