November 18, 2018

Letters to the Editor: Responses to Dennis Prager’s column on ‘the Torah and the transgendered’

The following letters are reponses to Dennis Prager's Dec. 4 column, “The Torah and the transgendered.”

Read Dennis Prager's Response

We are 235 members of the synagogue that Dennis Prager referred to but did not identify: Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (PJTC).

When PJTC needed an education director, it was clear from our first meeting with him that Rabbi Becky Silverstein was the best person for the job. Some of us anticipated that members of our community may have questions or concerns about the fact that Rabbi Silverstein is transgender, and our leadership prepared to address any inquiries we received. Those anticipatory meetings, however, lasted far longer than any concerned conversations.

Rabbi Silverstein is an exemplary rabbi and teacher who communicates a message of love and community, and challenges us to empathize and to question in the talmudic tradition of our people. His passion for Torah is evident in his everyday conduct, as well as in his Shabbat sermons and when he teaches our children.

PJTC deeply values Judaism and Torah. We did not, as Prager suggests, hire Rabbi Silverstein out of “compassion,” nor do we embrace him now because we think he feels “awful.” Rather, we proudly call Rabbi Silverstein our teacher and friend because he epitomizes the best aspects of Torah and reminds us daily that we are all created in the image of the divine.

Geoff DeBoskey, Faith Segal, Franci Levine Grater, Joshua Levine Grater, Ruth Several, Amy Richardson, Hayley Karish, Roberta Tragarz, Sandy Hartford, Cantor Ruth Berman Harris and 225 other members, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center


 

“Do not judge your fellow person until you arrive in his place,” our sages say.  

We Jews have a long and painful history of being persecuted for the crime of not fitting in, of being different. For anyone who sees himself as a Jewish teacher or guide to do this, especially by using the considerable power of his pen against a vulnerable young person, [he] risks the danger of acting in a way that can only be defined by our collective memory as rish’us, plain old-fashioned wickedness.

Having said those things without reservation, let me make it equally clear that I do not speak from a position of moral relativism. If this or any rabbi were speaking up for promiscuous sexuality, for abuse of others, or even for irresponsibility in relationships, I would be on the other side. The very opposite happens to be true in this case. This is a young rabbi who truly loves our tradition, cares deeply about Judaism and has a great talent for teaching Torah.  He (I follow the rabbi’s choice of pronoun) also happens to be committed to faithful monogamy.  

We have plenty of places to direct our righteous anger right now. Let’s keep it away from one another. We all have better things to do and more important battles to fight.

Rabbi Arthur GreenIrving R. Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion, Hebrew College  


 

Once again, in a tired and predictable manner, Prager has chosen to take the entire Torah and say, “Only my interpretation is correct, only my reading is accurate.” In personally attacking both my synagogue, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, of which I served as the rabbi for nearly 13 years, and my colleague and friend, Rabbi Becky Silverstein, the stellar education director that our community hired over a year ago, Prager has trespassed on one of the very values of the precious Torah he claims to love and respect as his “guide in life.” 

Prager is entitled to his personal views on the binary nature of gender, and his interpretation of the Torah, but that doesn’t make him the final arbiter of anything. I find it sad that he doesn’t have the decency or respect for the dignity of another human being, Jewish leader and an entire community.  Maybe a little of his much-maligned “compassion” would serve him. However, he would do well to limit his public display of ignorance and willful misreading of Jewish texts, primarily the Torah, which much wiser and profoundly more knowledgeable sages than either of us, understood was anything but black and white.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center 


 

In response to your recent article, “Torah and the transgendered,” (Jewish Journal, 12/2/15).

I noticed that that you tried to shame an individual rabbi and the transgender community as a whole, in service of posing the question of the authority of the Torah in modern times.

Two weeks ago, we, at Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world's first LGBT founded Jewish community, memorialized the recorded hundreds of trans people murdered or taken by other forms of violence this year alone, during international Trans Day of Remembrance. Many fell to the hands of murderers incited by the very arguments you are expressing. Many took their own lives due to the type of spiritual violence that your view perpetuates by questioning a person's theological commitments, relationship to Torah and ultimately, God.

If you'd like to have a principled discussion on the role of the Torah in the modern world, great. Let's work it out.  It is an important conversation to have and it has been discussed since Jews were given the right to become citizens of modern nations. Let's continue the conversation l'shem shamayim- for the sake of heaven. But the type of shaming and verbal violence you inflict through the power of your pen and spoken word kills.

Thank God the Torah reminds us that God, in God's own image, created male and female. It is right there in the verse you quoted, just two words earlier: “In the image of God was he created, male and female.” Perhaps those who would otherwise be harmed by your words will find comfort to know that according to Torah, God is not confined to binary genders. May they draw the conclusion that it should not be applicable to God's human creations either.

Rabbi Heather Miller, Beth Chayim Chadashim


 

Dennis Prager is entitled to his anxieties about the breakdown of gender roles and identities throughout our society; we are all challenged to think differently today about the social order in light of the emergence of gender fluidity as a way of life, and it is reasonable to expect that confronting this new reality will be more challenging for some than others — especially for those predisposed to conservatism in other walks of life. 

But Prager overreaches in his casting as the liberal ethos the value of compassion over and against the normative/conservative ethos of Torah in two dangerous and problematic ways:

First, Prager adduces but one source from the Torah for his argument, from the creation of humankind in Genesis 1. This choice of prooftext is ironic, to say the least: The Torah’s vexing terminology suggests the first creation is multigendered and not binary. Moreover, Prager speaks of Torah as a Karaite, ignoring the history of interpretation in rabbinic text that played with, stretched and made spectral the idea of gender in ways that dramatically transcend the clean black-white divide that Prager imagines in “Torah,” as in other arenas in his moral universe. 

Second, the casting of Torah against compassion also misunderstands the deep interrelationship between the two. Compassion is one of Torah’s most central defining values, the widow and the orphan the central social objects of Jewish moral and religious obligation. Jews who struggle at the margins of the social order, or those who live at the threshold of ordered identities, do not demand of us that we jettison compassion for the brutality of “Torah”; they remind us of the obligations of chesed, of compassionate embrace and loving kindness, that were meant to be the inheritance of Torah all along. 

Yehuda Kurtzer, President, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America 


 

I am absolutely ashamed of the Jewish Journal for allowing the publication of Dennis Prager’s attack on a rabbinic colleague and his synagogue. Sadly, the Journal has a long history of publishing Prager’s vitriol and personal attacks on hard-working and devoted rabbis. His hurtful words belie his bigotry, which used to be reserved for gay and lesbian rabbis and now continues to expand to transgender rabbis. Haven’t we enough bullying? It is precisely this kind of immoral attack that Prager is known for. Words like his have been responsible for pain and suffering. 

The Torah has many interpretations. In my reading of Talmud and Torah, our sages recognized that we don’t live in a binary world. How sad that Prager picks up the radicalized right-wing old bathroom arguments used in the city of Houston by Christian extremists to defeat an equal-rights amendment. Are we to fear transgender people because they are predators? Is that what he is implying? Trans men and women have the most to fear. Statistics show they are the ones who are victims of violence and murder, often at the hands of white men like Prager. 

Liberal Jews use Torah as it was intended as our covenant and document of our relationship with the Divine One. And as our sages recognized, Torah is a living document interpreted in every generation in different ways. That’s why we have so many volumes of commentary.  

Perhaps Prager ought to reread our tradition’s take on character assassination because he isn’t living by the words of our Torah. In Pirke Avot 4:11, Rabbi Eliezer says that when a person embarrasses another in public, he loses his share in the world to come. He emphasizes that even though the perpetrator might be a fully observant Jew and a kind and generous person, if he is abusive, offends or embarrasses someone else publicly, he loses his part in the next world.

Perhaps it is time for a public apology from the Jewish Journal for engaging in such abusive behavior, and most especially from Prager for this and so many times he has bullied others through twisting of Torah. 

Rabbi Denise Eger, Congregation Kol Ami


 

My thoughts are not with Prager at this time. My thoughts are with you — the trans teen or adult who may have read Prager’s piece or heard hurtful things in the Jewish community, including my friend and colleague attacked in Prager’s article, Rabbi Becky Silverstein. 

To you: Ner adonai nishmant adam — the candle of God is the soul of a person. Bless you for the meaningful work you have done to connect with your soul; your precious and holy neshama. Your courage and willingness to take risks is more than inspiring. It models for us all the deepest values of our tradition. And it deepens our communities in ways they are longing to grow. It creates new possibilities for everyone to discover our own souls. This community is filled with teachers and colleagues and leaders who welcome you and your voice and your Torah. Bring your light.

Rabbi Susan GoldbergWilshire Boulevard Temple 


 

I commend Dennis Prager on the accuracy of his title, “The Torah and the Transgendered,” and suggest that his readers be mindful of the title and its limitations.

Judaism is a biblical religion but not only a biblical religion and not just a biblical religion. Oral law interpreted biblical law and not infrequently transformed and muted biblical law by the very process of interpretation.

The Talmud has extensive discussions of the transgendered male. It seems that the rabbis knew far more about transgendered persons than they did, for example, about lesbians, and their approach is far more nuanced than the biblical statement. Naturally, they vigorously debate its implications and its religious policy implications.

Because the Torah was given by God, I presume Prager would also concede that according to the Torah, a fetus is not a person, and abortion — whether permitted or not, deliberate or not — is not murder. Exodus 21:22-23, states: “When men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other misfortune ensues, the one responsible shall be fined as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on judges’ reckoning. But if other misfortune ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”

Rabbinic interpretations explained that the other misfortune was the life of the mother, not of the fetus.

Michael BerenbaumDirector, Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, American Jewish University


 

I wonder if Dennis Prager knew before writing his screed that 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide in the course of their lifetimes. Too many transgender teens and adults, after being ostracized, rejected, shamed, fired, raped and misunderstood, determine they simply do not belong in the world. Prager is a self-appointed community provocateur — a role he seems to enjoy — but I desperately want to believe that if he knew this (widely available) fact, he would have paused for a moment before posting. Otherwise, to publicly mock a threatened minority and to single out for public shame and rebuke one transgender person in particular — a dedicated educator and rabbi in our community — is not only reckless but also cruel. Prager’s column has gotten a lot of traction, but it does nothing to advance the greatly needed conversation around the legitimacy and centrality of Torah in the lives of contemporary Jews, the topic he purports to address. Instead, it only belies its author the legitimacy to engage that conversation at all, as anyone who has learned Torah knows that public humiliation, considered the equivalent of death (BM 58b), is an offense far more egregious than a man trotting out in high heels.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR


 

Dennis Prager claims to use Torah as his guide, yet he probably wouldn’t condone death for a woman who commits adultery, nor would he propose that as the standard for determining social policy. 

We also claim Torah as our guide. For us, the fundamental principle of Torah comes right at the beginning: God created the human being in the image of God, male and female God created them.  That means Judaism requires that we work to create a world where all human beings can live as if they really were created in God’s image. In our view, that is a world where transgendered people are fully accepted. We have worked hard at our temple to create a safe space for all of the members of our community. That includes bathrooms for people of all gender expressions and programs in our religious school to teach our children about diversity and respect. We are proud of the Reform movement’s recent decision affirming this commitment to full equality, inclusion, and acceptance of people of all gender identities and expressions. To us, this is good social policy as well as authentic Judaism.

Rabbis Laura Geller, Jonathan Aaron and Sarah Bassin, Cantor Lizzie Weiss, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills


 

I like to pick up a free copy of the Jewish Journal every week to keep informed of diverse activities and thinking in Jewish Los Angeles, so I felt appropriately challenged and motivated by David Suissa’s column in the Nov. 27 issue, inviting people like me to contribute toward the Journal’s support. Then I read Dennis Prager’s ugly and mean-spirited column in the Dec. 4 issue and decided to make a contribution to an LGBT organization instead.

Claire Gorfinkel, Altadena


 

When earlier last month Mr. Prager assailed against non-orthodox Judaism as not going deep enough with Torah, I championed his cause.  However, it seems that this month, it is Mr. Prager who has lost his way.  Torah has always been a dynamic; indeed, the rabbis prompt us to “Turn it, turn it, for everything is inside.”  And indeed, it is this directive that connected Maimonides to Aristotle; Saadia HaGaon to Islamic Kalam; and where would S.J. Hirsch be without Descartes, Wissenshaft without Marburg, Kaplan without the social sciences; and most importantly, where would Torah be? Torah is a dynamic; an involvement of the highest integration of human faculties.  Indeed, this is why it is still authoritative.  And in an age where our world is turning with insights from emerging Jewish thinkers outside of the yeshiva like Judith Butler and gender performativity, queer theory, gender studies, women’s studies — all sitting on our bookshelves next to our Sefat Emet, Rambam and Bavli, is there no other logical next turning of Torah than to refract it through our world of contemporary thought until we find new visions?  In the words of Susan Sontag:  “in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”  Torah is an art of the highest aesthetic.  It reflects the greatest of our potential as thinkers, rhetoricians and lovers.  Mr. Prager, why not use all of our faculties when turning Her?

Rabbi Lori Shapiro, The Open Temple


 

Though I disagree with the content of Dennis Prager's latest column, it is not actually the content or his conclusion that angers me enough to contact you.

Prager says that compassion is a beautiful personal trait, though insufficient for public policy.  In dragging Rabbi Silverstein personally into the article, he undermines his own argument by making it personal.  To my knowledge, the two have never interacted.  Bringing the story of another human being into his argument makes the musings emotional rather than his purported goal of a detached, intellectual approach.  Which torah allows for public shaming of an individual who poses no danger and has done no harm? 

I suggest that– like anyone who looks up from our multifaceted tradition with a clear answer and no qualms– Prager must have begun his article by assuming the worst of transgender folks in general, and Rabbi Silverstein in particular.  I would invite him to meet some trans people, do some reading about what claims are and are not being made about the torah, and then to come back to the table with a more balanced view.  After all, the torah has seventy faces and Prager's is only one.

Emily Fishman, Brookline, Mass.


 

Dennis Prager's recent article “The Torah and the Transgendered” should be read as an example of the dangers of being ignorant of 'Torah' and of Jewish tradition.  Prager begins by asking: “Is the Torah really the best guide?”  Based on the ensuing paragraphs, it seams that by “the Torah” Prager is referring to the most simplistic possible reading of various biblical verses.  If so, than the Jewish answer to his question is “No, the best guide is Torah.”  Torah is a more general term that includes all of Biblical and Rabbinic literature – laws, stories, ethics, philosophy, theology, and culture.

Prager stakes his claim “for the Torah, the distinction between men and women is fundamental” on Deut 22:5.  In the Talmud, this verse prohibits cross-dressing only when used as a disguise to invade someone else's space (bt Nazir 59a).  For Rashi, when used for the purpose of adultery (Rashi on Deut 22:5).  For Rambam, when used for the purpose of arousing desire and/or idol worship (Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta'aseh 39)  Etc.  Moreover, the Talmud is well aware that not all people fit into male and female and therefore discusses in several places: androgynos, tumtum, ay’lonit, and saris.  While none of those sources are socially liberal by modern standards, I would argue that for Torah, the distinction between men and women is not so fundamental.

On the other hand, “compassion”, which Prager so easily dismisses, is most certainty a fundamental Torah value.

Prager is correct that compassion is not itself sufficient to create policy.  Often social policy generates unintended consequences.

Therefore, compassion must be tempered by wisdom and reconciled with pragmatism.  Wisdom is built by experience and the rabbinic tradition has thousands of years of experience.  We should not ignore that advantage and trust a simplistic reading of The Torah. Instead, we can embrace our tradition by trusting a more nuanced, mature, wise, and compassionate Torah.

The Talmud (bt Shabbat 31a) relates that a potential convert asked Hillel and Shammai: “How many Torahs do you have?”  Each answered “Two, one written one oral.”  When asked if he could be converted with only the written Torah, Shammai refused but Hillel was able to teach the man to accept oral Torah.  Immediately afterwards, the Talmud (same page) relates that another potential convert asked Hillel (and Shammai) to summarize all of Torah on one foot.  Hillel famously says: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor – that is the whole Torah.  The rest is the commentary, go and learn.”  In that spirit, I would like to invite Mr. Prager to study Oral Torah and not stop until he discovers its compassion.

Stevie Green, Los Angeles


 

Mr. Prager’s piece this week, “Torah and Transgender” crossed the line and didn't belong in the Jewish Journal. Beside the absurd claim that any community that hires a trans-person views Torah as “essentially useless” (I wonder what that makes Yeshiva University, following its appointment of Dr. Joy Ladin) the fact that he specifically and personally attacks a rabbi in the Los Angeles community for “insisting” on his gender identity was completely inappropriate. 

The Jewish Journal should be a place of robust debate about issues and values, and I appreciate the diversity of viewpoints you publish, but it is the editor's responsibility to ensure that debate doesn't devolve into personal attack. This article did not match the values of the Jewish Journal and serious consideration should be taken as to whether you continue to publish Mr. Prager’s writings. 

Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program


 

I recently read Mr. Prager's above referenced article and felt strongly that you should know this: Mr. Prager is what drives me away from the religion with which I was raised, the religion of my parents and Bubbe and Zaide. The rabbi he criticized, whom I know personally, is what brings me back. I was appalled at the personal attack and misrepresentations made in that article.

The views espoused by Mr. Prager are antiquated and discriminatory, but to the Jewish community, they are deadly. If our religion was dominated by people like Mr. Prager, I could no longer partake of it – though I am not transgendered, I would still not be welcome, and I can't say that I would want to join in. However, when I speak about Judaism with the aforementioned rabbi or attend services where everyone is welcomed without judgment simply because we are all united by the bond of being Jewish, I am brought back – I want to be here, present, connected.

I'll say it again: Mr. Prager is what drives me away from my faith. The rabbi he mentioned is who brings me back.

Emily Farquharson, Esq.


 

I have often speculated that the reason Jesus and his teachings of Love took root is because the Israelites had forgotten that God's Love is what enlivens Creation.  After reading Mr. Prager's opinion piece, I'm sure of it.

Evelyn Baran


 

Your article by Dennis Prager, “Torah and the Transgendered,” is shockingly filled with hate, bias, and misunderstanding. I don't live in SoCal, so I know nothing about your newspaper and its editorial policy. It is astonishing that such an article would be published anywhere. Really horrible. I know that you can do better. The GLBTQ community needs support, not disdain and condemnation.

Rabbi Dr. Elyse Seidner-Joseph, Makom Kadosh


 

As a current rabbinical student and someone who hopes to live a life guided by the wisdom of Torah and Jewish values of human dignity, justice and compassion, I was saddened to see Dennis Prager's piece, “The Torah and the Transgendered”  printed in the Jewish Journal.

I was not only disturbed by the way in which Prager misrepresents Torah, but also by the way in which he appropriates religious texts in order to shame individuals.  Prager's argument rests on the assumption that Torah is a religious text which outlines one clear and inherently “right” way of living in the world.  This position is inconsistent with Jewish tradition and undermines the true diversity and multivalent expression of Torah.  For example, the Torah teaches in Leviticus 20:10 that adulterers shall be stoned to death, and in Exodus 34:14 that anyone who violates Shabbat shall be put to death.  I can't imagine that Prager, or anyone else for that matter, would advocate implementing such a practice today, and yet it is stated quite clearly in our Torah.  And I don't think  that anyone who chooses to live a life guided by the wisdom of Torah would argue that our choice not to follow these practices is leading us towards a doomed future in which we will be forced to admit that straying from these principles has harmed us fundamentally.  

Prager also fails to mention the instances in Torah which not only affirm gender diversity and the possibility of an individual experiencing themselves and expressing themselves outside of a gender binary, but also discuss how such individuals may participate in Jewish communal practice.  For instance, Bikkurim 4:1 discusses the androgynus–someone who expresses themselves like a man and like a woman. Clearly this text takes no issue with the fact that some people do not fit within a gender binary and instead focuses on possible avenues of self-expression and religious practice for such community members.

The erroneous claim that Torah stands against non-binary expression implies that those individuals who do not express themselves within a gender binary are violating Torah.  This is not only a misappropriation of Jewish text, but a violation of the very Torah which Prager claims to represent.  It is taught in Bava Metzia (58b), one who publically shames his neighbor, it is as if he has shed blood.  And in Sotah (10b) we learn that a person should rather throw themselves into the fire then shame someone else.

This week there was a massive shooting in California.  Worldwide there are millions of displaced people, refugees who are fleeing for their lives.  In this country, people are struggling to be seen, fighting to have their lives recognized and protected appropriately.  There is rampant injustice and suffering in the world. With so many important conversations on the table, so many problems that need to be solved in order to protect life and human dignity, Prager's misappropriation of religious texts in order to problematize gender expression in this moment represents skewed priorities.

I agree with Prager that Torah is valuable and that we should lead lives guided by righteousness and morality.  But, it makes me sad to see him misrepresenting the Torah I love and using it to shame individuals who express themselves outside of a gender binary.  It makes me sadder still to see a mainstream Jewish publication printing such words.   Prager's article, in its attempts to use religion to undermine and invalidate self-expression and to claim that non-binary gender expression is outside of Torah, contributes to the rhetoric of hatred which enables and motivates violence.  This, in the name of Judaism, is unconscionable.

Each day, we bless our God who long ago peered into the Torah and spoke the words which created the world.  We, as beings created in God's image, have an obligation to continue this holy work.  It is our duty to look deeply into Torah and to see its potential to create worlds of goodness.  Mr. Prager, I hope you will join me in this work.  I hope you will join me in seeking to understand all those whom we encounter in the world as beings created and expressing themselves in the Divine image.  May we all be blessed to use our words and our Torah learning to promote human dignity.

Aliza Berger


 

In his most recent column in your paper, Dennis Prager asks, “Is the Torah really the best guide?” He posits that non-Orthodox Jews see the Torah as “essentially useless as a guide to living,” using as proof the acceptance of transgender Jews by many congregations and institutions. In doing so, Prager ignores the import of Oral Torah, Rabbinic literature and Jewish thought and the value Judaism places on interpretation of Torah and a discourse of ideas.

Prager’s assertion that Rabbi Becky Silverstein, anonymously referenced in the column, believes that, “the Torah’s view on gender distinction is irrelevant,” is akin to slander. In fact, Rabbi Silverstein has written and taught extensively on gender in the Torah, Jewish thought and Jewish law. Moreover, having had the honor and pleasure of learning Torah from Rabbi Silverstein, a truly talented teacher, I can assure you that few are more guided by Torah than he.  If Prager had actually asked Rabbi Silverstein, his synagogue, or indeed any of the individuals or institutions maligned in the column about the role of Torah in their lives, he may have avoided breaking the Torah’s command, “you shall not wrong one another (Lev. 25:17),” which Rashi interprets as a warning against provoking fellow Jews with words. It seems this column ignores this mitzvah and several others in the Torah. I guess he must be consulting some other guide.

Stephanie Berkowitz


 

I am offended the Jewish Journal published the transphobic commentary titled, ‘The Torah and the Transgendered’ [sic] by Dennis Prager. Why would you would include such bigotry and ignorance in your publication?

The article is ignorant (“transgendered” implies something has been done to someone, rather than acknowledging how someone self-identifies), white supremacist (the whole bit about affirmative action), and displays a lack of compassion (it’s well documented transgender people are high risk for attempted suicide because of society’s treatment of them, including in articles just like this).
As a cisgender, straight, white woman, I stand with transgender individuals and affirm their right to dignity and respect.
 
I hope you will too, in the future.

Wendy Volkmann