September 18, 2019

Letters to the editor: Transforming traditional translation, continued

Transforming Traditional Translation, Continued

We rarely agree with Dennis Prager and certainly found his column unnecessary and hurtful (“The Torah and the Transgendered,” Dec. 2). That said, we also disagree with those who feel that the Jewish Journal should not have printed Prager’s article. The reader who likes to “pick up a free copy of the Jewish Journal each week to keep informed of diverse activities and thinking in Jewish Los Angeles,” but decided not to contribute to the Journal’s support because the reader found the article “ugly and mean-spirited,” overlooked the fact that the Jewish Journal’s strength is that it regularly provides a forum for opinions and thinking that are diverse.

We hope the Journal’s even-handed decision to print several pages of letters reacting to Prager’s column, in addition to Prager’s usual self-serving response, was not lost on its readers. 

We, too, read David Suissa’s column (“What’s a Dollar a Month Worth?”) inviting readers to contribute to the Journal, and rather than politely declining, we decided to send a contribution in addition to the subscriptions we presently purchase.

Stu and Micki Bernstein, Santa Monica

The deluge of letters vilifying Dennis Prager for his column is yet another manifestation of too many Jews’ inability to amicably, or merely intellectually, discuss important issues without dismissiveness and ridicule.

In nearly two pages of letters in the Jewish Journal and myriad comments on its website, members of our Jewish community, including members of our educated elite, accused Prager of being mean-spirited, bigoted, ignorant and of publicly humiliating a transgendered rabbi. 

Some went so far as to say he should no longer be published in this paper. 

Let’s be clear. Those who wrote the letters want to quell any attempt at open, rational dialogue with anyone right of center. Sadly, we live in an age of muddled thought and political correctness, an age of “micro-aggressions” and Orwellian doublethink. 

It used to be that arguments and debate defined our tradition. To be sure, within the Talmud, there was plenty of name-calling: Am Ha’aretz (ignoramus), Sageh Na-Hor (dimwit) and re’kah (empty headed). But there was an acknowledgement that the discussions were for clarifying what God wanted from us. Opposing sides could sit down, share a meal and talk; they could agree to disagree. The academies of Hillel and Shamai exemplified this. 

Too many Jews now cast aspersions on a man who raises questions that most of us won’t because we can no longer think beyond what’s popular — or because we are too afraid.

Rabbi Michael Gotlieb, Kehillat Ma’arav

I have always found Dennis Prager’s thinking on gender intriguing. I welcome his views and am disturbed by calls to censor or remove his column from the Jewish Journal. However, when he writes about gender issues, while his thinking over the years has clearly evolved, I suggest it might need to evolve a bit more. 

Before the term “transgendered” even existed, I knew I suffered from a form of gender dysphoria, now identified as bi-gender. Trying to survive as a bi-gendered person growing up in the ’50s and ’60s caused me to focus closely on the language in the Torah.

Torah’s language regarding gender identity and the prohibition of cross-dressing is far more complex than Prager’s facile, peshat reading. For example, he notes that, in Bereshit/Genesis, “when the human being is created, the Torah emphasizes: ‘Male and female He created them.’ ” But scholars of Talmud and Jewish commentators for millenia have recognized the ambiguities in this language. I’m surprised someone as sophisticated as Prager refuses to acknowledge them.

Aside from interpretations of Bereshit, rabbis recognized a variety of gender identities. In addition to zakhar (male) and nekeivah (female), these categories include androginos, a person with both male and female sexual characteristics; tumtum, a person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate; aylonit, a person who is identified as female at birth but develops male characteristics at puberty and is infertile; saris, a person who is identified as male at birth but develops female characteristics at puberty and/or is lacking a penis, either naturally or through human intervention. Hard to believe our rabbis were so savvy regarding matters we consider contemporary, but there are literally hundreds of references to each of these categories in the Mishnah and Gemara, and even more in classical midrash. Individuals with these conditions were included within the Jewish community and the community accommodated their differences.

Surely, one’s psychological and spiritual identities are equally God-given. Could it be that God intended them to predominate over mere biology? Perhaps the prohibition on cross-dressing is actually a prohibition on masquerading as someone other than your true spiritual self? I don’t know the answer, but I somehow doubt Dennis does, either.

I hope you continue writing columns in the Jewish Journal for many years to come, Dennis, and continue to challenge your readers. But please don’t get defensive when folks disagree with you.

Nikki Chayim, Los Angeles