In 2003, Reuben Zellman became the first out transgender person accepted into a Jewish rabbinical school, an experience he describes as both a tremendous privilege and a challenge. A California native with a degree in linguistics from University of California, Berkeley, Zellman is completing his Rabbinical internship at New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah.
For that congregation and for the LGBT Jewish organization Mosaic, Zellman compiling Jewish texts that deal with gender issues, and suggests how trans Jews can be welcomed into the faith (cbst.org/trans.shtml). In that arena, Zellman insists the best advice isn’t his.
“More than two thousand years ago, [Rabbi Hillel] taught that we must treat other people the way we wish to be treated ourselves.” Zellman states. “[But] people will ask a trans person questions about their genitals that they would be horrified if someone asked of them.”
Zellman identifies as transgender and queer, and says, “I use the pronoun ‘he,’ but I don’t identify as a man. Identity isn’ t simple, and there’s no reason that it ought to be. Humanity is much more wonderfully complicated and diverse than we have ever acknowledged.”
Zellman argues that Jewish institutions should welcome trans Jews because “our progress as a people is impoverished if we don’t. When trans and gender-queer people aren’t welcomed and embraced, we lose some of our most committed, passionate and thoughtful Jews.”
One of those passionate and thoughtful Jews is Noach Dzmura, a scholar of gender, sexuality and rabbinics. The gay transgender man is a member of a Reform congregation that accepts him as a man, but Dzmura contends that there are ways he is subtly exclued—what he calls covert inauthentications.
“In his Master’s thesis, ‘Textual Relations in the Restroom: Countering Inauthenticity in Jewish Transgender Lives,’ ” Dzmura writes: “Rather than overt condemnation, one’s identity may be challenged by covert inauthentication…[or] one’s gender or sexual preference may be misattributed, downplayed, or ignored.”
Dzmura insists that the way to combat those exclusionary practices is for trans Jews to share details of their personal histories.
Dzmura writes: “Through storytelling, we can narrate the part of our lives that our bodies no longer tell. If I gloss over my girlhood I am depriving myself of those precious—even if preciously difficult—experiences. If I want real intimacy with people, I need to tell the truth of my life.”
Dzmura argues that compelling arguments for embracing gender variant Jews lie in the most indisputable place: the Talmud and Jewish scripture.
“When G-d creates Eve from Adam’s side, He’s essentially performing a sex-change operation.” Dzmura contends. “When a man leaves his family and cleaves to his wife, a midrash [a rabbinical interpretation] tells us he is thus returned to his original dual-sexed state.”
The religious scholar says when Rabbis codified early oral traditions of law—which later became part of the Talmud—they described a multigendered Jewish community that included androgynous persons, castrated eunuchs, masculine women, and people who had a flap of skin covering their genitals. Each group, Dzmura says, was guaranteed basic human rights, and each had a role in the ritual life of the Temple and in family life.
These texts and Judaism’s ability to change over time are what give the scholar hope that the faith can be an inviting spiritual home for trans people.
“Judaism is not one single condemnatory voice—it’s a multiplicity of voices and opinions. Judaism is like a 2000 year-long Internet chat room with an ongoing conversation, and people coming in and going out all the time.”
To reach Judaism’s potentiality, Dzmura believes trans and non-trans Jews need to continue that conversation and carry on the Jewish tradition of re-evaluating scripture and law.
“We need to study the texts of our tradition and to come up with new ways to interpret passages that are oppressive. We need to experience what happens to Jewish ritual when it can no longer be performed by people who are solely traditionally gendered. When we do, how does this change the shape of Judaism?”
Trans writer Jacob Anderson-Minshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org