October 23, 2018
The Facebook messages usually start with a shy “Hi, Rabbi Becky,” though sometimes it is more direct: “Can I ask you a question?”
They almost always come from the transgender and gender-nonconforming young people I know through my work with Keshet’s LGBTQ and Ally Teen Shabbatonim.
On any day, I am balancing conversations about coming out to parents, changing one’s name and/or pronoun, issues at school or other parts of life as a trans youth, plus a few conversations with colleagues about how to work with transgender conversion students or what ritual I would use to celebrate a name change.
Each message provides me the opportunity to affirm the place of transgender people in our communities, and each conversation provides me an opportunity to counter the harmful messages that transgender people receive each day: We don’t have the right to exist. We are not imbued with inherent dignity and worth.
Our Jewish textual tradition has always had a place for those who do not fit neatly into binary boxes of sex and gender. From the creation of the first person in Genesis 1, we learn that humanity is created in God’s image, and that “male and female God created them.”
The ancient rabbis of the Talmudic and Midrashic eras understand this verse to mean a variety of images, including that God created one person with a male side and a female side, or that God created a golem that spanned the earth.
“My gender is golem,” a trans young person joked when we studied this text recently.
A joke, yes, and also an assertion that this young person has existed since the beginning of humanity.
The rabbis of the Talmud explore what it means for a person to be one of six sexes, four of them beyond the simplistic male and female.
Both Rebekah and Joseph can be read as being gender non-conforming.
As a transgender rabbi, I know well the obligation to live out this Torah, the obligation to both honor the sacred texts that speak specifically about gender and to live into those texts that speak of compassion and community, which remind us that as Jews, we must act in such a way that honors our own history of oppression.
In Pirkei Avot 2:4, Hillel teaches al tifrosh min hatzibur, do not separate yourself from the community. I understand this to mean both that I must not separate myself from the community and that the community must not create conditions that push me out.