September 20, 2019

I do not need compassion like that

In Dennis Prager's response to the letters to the editor, he welcomed dialogue, and described the letters as “hateful.” The letters simply name the harm caused to transgender people. If defense of a right to dignity is hateful, then I'm not really sure what kind of dialogue he is looking for.

If Mr. Prager wants “dialogue,” then referring to transgender people in the way that they request might be a good first step. If he claims to “only take issue with the rabbi retaining a female name while identifying as a man” and with “deliberate blurring of male-female identities,” why can't he bring himself to refer to Rabbi Becky Silverstein as a man, rather than a “biologically female rabbi?” Would it have been so difficult to mention Caitlyn Jenner without introducing her by her former name and “he?” Mr. Prager may have “never cited this example” about Rabbi Silverstein, but perhaps this is because he would have too difficult a time using his preferred pronouns. If I were to invite you to a dialogue but not care less about what I should call you, would you talk to me? I wouldn't.

If I had never met a Jew before, would you consider my opinions about anti-Semitism before I make an effort to learn a thing or two about Judaism? Should this be different? Has he read what any non-binary people have to say about their experience of gender? Or talked to transgender people about how they navigate sports teams? Or heard from transgender women about their unsafe feelings around men? Had he consulted the voices of transgender Jews, he may have known, for example, that he published his first article not too long after Transgender Day of Remembrance, when the LGBT community remembers transgender people, with particular attention to transgender women of color, who have been murdered for who they are or committed suicide to escape a world of bigotry. Great timing.

No one is telling anyone that women and men do not exist. Men and women are free to identify this way without doubt from others, and their genders are not going anywhere. Some of us, however, experience our genders on a spectrum. Understanding ourselves in this way has caused us bullying, violence, refusal of emergency care, and distance from our families, traditions, and God. With thanks to God and Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Silverstein, it is possible for me to have a supportive community, a Jewish life, and a healthy relationship with my Orthodox parents.

Mr. Prager has made clear why he does not find the lived experiences of transgender people relevant to this “dialogue.” His articles indicate an opinion that the only legitimate kind of information worthy of being taken seriously is Orthodox interpretation of Torah. He dismissed a verse that has been essential to LGBT Jews' affirmation that we too were created in God's image. Based on this dismissal, and on lack of acknowledgement of other Torah quoted, less traditional interpretations are just as irrelevant to this conversation as the actual experience of transgender people.

How many non-Orthodox Jews, when deciding what position to take on an issue, say: “Before deciding, I first want to know what the Torah says”? Undoubtedly very few.

Actually, plenty; just not on his terms. Had he said, “How many non-Orthodox Jews…'Before deciding, I first want to know what Orthodoxy says,'” this would have been too obviously an unreasonable expectation. However, this seems to be what he means.

We non-Orthodox Jews might not always be able to argue text and halacha in the same league with Orthodox Jews (although many letter-writers and Rabbi Seidenberg certainly can!) The sources used in Orthodoxy were written by men, and learning them is also mostly accessible to cisgender men. Why should someone like myself be required to speak only under Prager's terms about issues that effect me, a transgender Jew, more than they effect him? Non-Orthodox Jews have published plenty on these topics, including in ways that consult the Torah, but Mr. Prager is inviting us to a game in which he makes all the rules.

What exactly is at stake for Mr. Prager? I can tell you why this is relevant to me. When my friends of non-binary genders cannot attend a synagogue where they can daven according to their tradition and sit according to their gender identity, that is at stake. When my transgender women friends do not use public restrooms because they fear accusations of assault, when they are in fact the population at a greatest risk of being assaulted, that is at stake. When I have to choose between maintaining contact with my Orthodox extended family and living a truthful life, that is at stake for me. What is in this for Prager and supporters of his articles?

As for his comment about science, many doctors recognize transgender identity. Feel free to argue with them about science, but they might have bigger fish to fry than Rabbi Silverstein's first name.

Itai Gal is a resident organizer at the Moishe Kavod House in Brookline, MA and a Master's Degree student of Jewish Education at Hebrew College.