Transgender Orthodox Jews

August 6, 2015

by Rabbi Dr. Zev Farber


An analysis of the challenges–both halakhic and social–faced by transgender individuals in the Orthodox Jewish world, with some suggested resolutions. 



One of the most stable identity markers for most people is their gender. We live in a world that divides itself neatly into categories of “male” and “female.” This is true of our language, our bathrooms, our sports teams, etc. For many of us, this reality is perfectly comfortable and intuitive. For those who feel that they were born the wrong sex or who don’t feel comfortable with either of the most common gender identities,[1] this dichotomy can feel isolating.

As challenging as being transgender already is in the larger world, Orthodox Judaism poses some unique challenges. In this essay, I will outline some of these challenges and suggest ways of ameliorating or solving the problems. My goal is to stimulate thought about how to integrate transgender Jews who wish to be part of the Orthodox world, into our shuls and our communities in as seamless a manner as possible.[2]


Clarifying our Terminology

Since discussions of liminal or non-binary sexual identities can get confusing, and since there is no absolute agreement on terminology, I would like to define my terms up front. When discussing a person’s gender identity, at least six things can be meant.

  1. Genotypic (or Chromosomal) sex – this refers to the person’s genes as per his/her DNA (XX or XY, XXY, etc.)
  2. Gonadal sex – this refers to the nature of the gonadal tissue (testicular or ovarian)
  3. Morphological sex – this refers to the appearance of the genitals (penis, vulva, etc.)
  4. Phenotypic (or Endocrinologic) sex – this refers to the appearance of the person qua his/her secondary sexual characteristics (facial hair, breasts, etc.). In some individuals, these can be mixed.
  5. Gender presentation – this refers to how the person presents publicly, i.e., the person’s social identity.
  6. Gender identity – this refers to a person’s innate, psychological identification as a man or woman, which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned to the person at birth. (For some people, gender identity can be hybrid.)

In addition, here are some other terms that would be best to define up front:[3]

  • Sex – the classification of a being (plant, animal, or human) based on the type of gonads and chromosomes possessed.
  • Gender – the category—male, female, or other—to which a person is assigned by self and/or others.
  • Gender expression – the ways in which a person manifests masculinity or femininity, usually as an extension of the person’s gender identity.
  • Gender Dysphoria or Gender Identity Disorder (GID) – a strong identification with a sex other than the one assigned to a person at birth. People with GID experience considerable distress because of the conflict between their morphological and/or gonadal sex and their sense of self, and can be divided into two categories.
    • Those whose dysphoria is caused by gender expression (masculine-feminine spectrum – dependent on social strictures).
    • Those whose dysphoria is caused by gender identity (male-female binary – not dependent on social strictures).
  • Transsexual – a transgender person who takes steps to express the characteristics of the opposite sex through hormone treatment and/or surgery.
  • Transgender – a) An umbrella term encompassing a wide variety of gender identities; b) a person with GID  who lives in a gender role more consistent with their identity than the traditional gender assigned to them at birth
  • Intersex – a person born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit neatly into the standard binary sexual identity categories of male and female.


–Part One–


I will begin with what seems like the most difficult issue but is, in many ways, the easiest. Some transgender individuals identify so strongly with the opposite gender that their preferred solution is Sex Reassignment Surgery. This operation, which changes a person’s morphological sex, is available for all morphological sexes (male, female, and intersex), although the surgery is simpler for patients born morphologically male than for those born morphologically female.


Male-to Female: The Prohibition of סירוס (Castration)

For morphologically male patients who opt for sex reassignment surgery and wish to become morphologically female, the most obvious halakhic concern is the prohibition of סירוס, castration. The prohibition is derived midrashically from Lev. 22:24, “You shall not offer to the Lord anything [with its testes] bruised or crushed or torn or cut. You shall have no such practices in your own land.”[4] Commenting on this last phrase, the Sifra (“Emor”, par. 7.11) writes:

“You shall not offer” – I only know that they may not offer [castrated animals] how do I know that they cannot perform [the castration]? The verse teaches: “You shall have no such practices.”… How do we know this applies to humans as well? The verse teaches: “among you” – These are the words of ben Ḥakhinai.[5]

This midrash appears also in b. Shabbat 110b, and is codified by Rambam in the Mishneh Torah (Sefer Qedusha, “Hilkhot Issurei Biah”, 16:10) and in the Shulḥan Arukh (Even Ha-Ezer 5:11). Although I have no definitive solution to this problem, I will point out some matters worth considering.

  • Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 11:78), writes that for a person who cannot have children already, castration would not be prohibited. This brings up two possible extensions.
    • Hormone replacement therapy (taking estrogen and testosterone blockers) is an important part of the larger process of transition, and during this process, the male generally becomes chemically castrated. Thus, if the individual undergoing male-to-female transition is already chemically castrated due to hormone therapy, the prohibition of סירוס should no longer apply. In theory, one could argue that this merely throws the prohibition of סירוס back on to the process of taking hormones. Nevertheless, this argument is far from decisive. Taking a single dose of female hormones will not render a morphological male sterile. As there does not appear to be any objective point at which the next dose will cause sterility, it is hard to declare any single act of taking hormones an act of castration.[6] Moreover, whether chemically causing sterility can be defined as an act of סירוס is also unclear.
    • Perhaps this could be extended to morphologically male individuals who do not feel psychologically able to consummate heterosexual sex with a woman because, as someone that identifies female, she cannot bring herself to consummate sex in the way a male does. (Rabbis regularly “grant” a heter not to have children to homosexual males for similar reasons.)
  • Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, EH 4:36) permitted a woman who had a severe nervous condition to have a tubal ligation, even though he considers this to be forbidden (ibid 4:35).[7] Since the need for expression of one’s gender is basic to a person’s identity, it is known that quashing the person’s ability to do so risks the person’s life. An exceedingly high suicide rate exists among those who are prevented from expressing their gender identity and being true to themselves with respect to gender expression. (The case of Leelah Alcorn is one sad example of this trend.) Thus, the Talmudic principle of “’וחי בהם’ – ולא שימות בהם” (‘live with them’ – but do not die because of them)” should be a factor here.[8]
  • A stance that pits a transitioning individual against his or her religious community often leads to the forcing of that person out of the Orthodox community . Since transitioning out of a desire to live in their correct gender role can be characterized, at worst, as mumar le-teiavon, and, at least the surgery part, is a transgression that can be violated only once, it might be best to take the position that “let them break one Shabbat so they can keep many more Shabbatot.”[9]



For morphological females who wish to transition to morphological males, the halakhic issues are less daunting. Even following the position that סירוס אשה is prohibited de-oraitta, this would only be relevant if a person were to get a hysterectomy or an oophorectomy, both of which are done for many women to avoid cancer. The procedures that create a synthetic penis[10] and scrotum (metoidioplasty, phalloplasty, and scrotoplasty), however, are not really comparable to castration.[11]


Surgical Transition as Definitive Halakhic Transition

Once the surgery is done, the question becomes, what sex the person is post-surgery, halakhically speaking. Although attempts have been made to define people’s sex in halakha by their genotypic sex, little support for this can be found in the sources. The Talmudic sages knew nothing about genes. The closest thing to a genotypic argument in classical rabbinic literature is the rabbis’ definition of a castrated person as male. This is a very different issue, however, since the castrated person both looks like a male and believes himself to be a male. I do not believe it is sound reasoning to analogize this case to that of a genotypically male person who has sex reassignment surgery, looks totally like a woman (phenotypically and morphologically), and believes herself to be a woman.

In my view, different halakhot lend themselves to a morphological definition, a phenotypic definition, or some combination thereof. Since with post-operative transsexuals, the morphology and the phenotype are the same, I would argue that once a person has a surgical transition, halakhically, his/her sex is the one to which he/she transitioned. The cases in which morphology and phenotype conflict are where complications about definition arise.


–Part Two–


How should halakha view a person who is phenotypically one sex but morphologically the other? This is a very common reality for transgender individuals who undergo hormone treatment (taking estrogen and testosterone blockers) without surgery–though even that process may chemically castrate the phenotypic male.

This liminal situation interacts with halakhic categories in such a way as to make a number of halakhot difficult to navigate. Three in particular come to mind: sex and marriage, ḥiyuv mitzvot, and seating in a shul with a meḥitza or separate seating.


Talmudic Precedents?

Although the rabbinic literature does not discuss people who are phenotypically one way and morphologically the other way, it does discuss some types of intersex people, like hermaphrodites (אנדרוגינוס) or people with ambiguous genitalia (טומטום), as well as men who have been castrated or whose penises have been cut off/destroyed.

The existence of intersex people and people with disorders of sexual development makes this category particularly complicated and intricate. For example, people with Klinefelter’s Syndrome—a chromosomal disorder—typically have small testes that do not produce standard levels of testosterone. A shortage of testosterone can lead to delayed or incomplete puberty, breast enlargement (gynecomastia), reduced facial and body hair, and an inability to have biological children (infertility). Some affected individuals also have genital differences including undescended testes (cryptorchidism), the opening of the urethra on the underside of the penis (hypospadias), or an unusually small penis (micropenis).[12]  (Klinefelter’s Syndrome is only one example of many similar disorders; more are being uncovered regularly.)

Taking the hermaphrodite as an illustrative example of intersex, the Talmud records a debate about whether the hermaphrodite should be considered a male (m. Yebamot 8:6) or its own category (t. Berakhot 5:15; b. Yebamot 83a). From the fact that these two options are considered, but not the option of female, we can deduce that, for the rabbis, the existence of a penis was a defining factor, but this is only partially acurate since, as noted above, the rabbis did not consider removal of a penis by castration, in cases of a non-intersex male, to be definitive of changing the person’s sex.

Thus, I believe that the best explanation of the rabbinic view–and a good starting point for a modern halakhic treatment of the problem–may be found in the interplay between phenotype, gender identity, and morphology. According to the rabbis, someone who is phenotypically male, identifies as male, but has lost his penis, remains male.

The rabbis do discuss the odd possibility that some castrated men may have an orifice where the penis or scrotum had once been;[13] they even discuss the status of penetrating that orifice, saying that such is not considered sex.[14] These discussions actually strengthen the above point, since they imagine a certain continuity with the man’s past, including his male identity and his male phenotype. In such cases, loss of a penis should not be considered definitive of the person’s gender, but this is very different from cases of sex reassignment surgery.

The distinction between surgically transitioned males and castrated males is illustrative of the problem of how complicated it is to define someone’s sex. How much is it about genitals, how much about phenotype, how much about gender identity, and how much about presentation/gender expression?


Sex and Marriage

When it comes to matters of sex, it is difficult to ignore genitals (for obvious reasons). Again, with post-operative transsexuals, that matter seems simple. If a male transitions to a female and has a vulva and no penis or scrotum, to me it seems counterintuitive to claim that penetration of said person’s vagina by a male should be considered mishkav zakhar (male homosexual sex). The same would apply to a female who transitioned to male penetrating a woman’s vagina with his neopenis—this can hardly be called nashim mesollelot.

I would further argue that even if a man were to have anal sex with a person who surgically transitioned to female, this could not be considered mishkav zachar. The lack of a penis and the creation of the morphological and phenotypic female body makes this person a woman, sexually speaking. Finally, in both of the above cases, I believe qiddushin would be tofsin. In other words, surgically transitioned people are fully transitioned, for the purposes of sex and marriage.

But what about a person who is phenotypically female but morphologically male? Here I believe that for the purposes of sex, it would be very difficult to argue that someone with a penis, even if this person has breasts and other female secondary sexual characteristics, is female halakhically, for the purposes of sex. In other words, anal sex with a phenotypic female/morphologic male would be considered mishkav zachar. Similarly, sex between a female and a morphological female/phenotypic male would be nashim mesolelot. I further believe that qiddushin would not be tofsin between the people described above.

Note: I don’t know what to suggest when it comes to marriages for people who are phenotypically one sex and morphologically another. In this case, the sexual identity of the partners and their social identities are in some tension with each other. Since all these matters are about humans, and the interplay of so many variables differs from one person to the next, perhaps there is no one answer and the issues cannot be solved in the abstract. [15]


Ḥiyuv Mitzvot

When it comes to ḥiyuv mitzvot, I believe matters are completely different. It is very difficult to imagine that the principle exempting women from many of the positive time-bound commandments (mitzvot assei she-ha-zeman gerama) is based primarily on the existence or absence of a penis. Here I think that sexual/gonadal identity plays a supporting role to social identity. In other words, ḥiyuv mitzvot has to do with the person’s gender role as a male. In such cases, the morphological sex plays a very limited role in comparison with phenotypic sex, gender presentation, and gender identity.

As I understand it, ḥiyuv mitzvot—and I refer here only to the positive time-bound commandments—comes from the social and psychological status of being a Jewish male.  Part of this status comes from how others see the person and some comes from how the person sees him- or herself. Thus, since the person’s morphologic sex is only relevant to his or her sexual partner, this should not be the determining factor. Instead, the main factor should be how the community sees the person and how the person sees him- or herself.

Assuming one leaves the problem of continuity aside (i.e. claims of “he was a male/she was a female last week/last year”),[16] it seems clear that someone who looks like one gender and sees him- or herself as that gender, is that gender for social purposes. A morphological female who identifies as male in gender and looks male through a combination of dress, mannerism, and hormone treatment, should be considered male insofar as ḥiyuv mitzvot. It goes without saying that this is certainly true for people who go through sex reassignment surgery.

I will add that even those who are not convinced by the above may wish to factor in the position of Rav Yoel bin Nun that women can accept upon themselves ḥiyuv mitzvot, that the petur is just that – it exempts them from the obligation but does not bar them from being part of it.[17]

The practical ramifications of my position are that Jews who are morphologically female but phenotypically male must wear tefillin, daven three times a day, shake a lulav and etrog, etc. Additionally, they count towards a minyan and may lead devarim she-be-qedusha during services.[18] Since they identify as males, they should be called up as “ben” not “bat” for aliyot, even if this is not strictly accurate in all ways.[19]

The opposite case, male to female transitioning, may be more difficult emotionally for the person undergoing transition in this regard, but works the same way. Morphological males who are phenotypically female and whose gender identity is female are no longer ḥayav in mitzvot assei she-ha-zeman gerama. Thus, they are no longer obligated in tefillin (though I believe they should continue to wear them, as doing so is a mitzvah for women as well as men), and their status in the synagogue should be the same as any other woman. Thus, in virtually all halakhic/Orthodox synagogues, they will not count towards the minyan, they cannot lead devarim she-be-qedusha, and they will not receive aliyot (other than in partnership minyanim, where they should be called up as “bat” and not “ben”).[20]


Meḥitza and Separate Seating

The prayer experience in Orthodox synagogues is gendered. This doesn’t only apply to the issue of who can lead what prayers, but even to the issue of where the average person sits. On what side of the meḥitza does a person sit who is morphologically one sex but phenotypically another? Here I believe that the only answer can be that the person should sit with the gender that he or she presents publicly. This is because the practice of sex segregation for prayer has to do with decorum and distraction. It matters little whether a person is physically/morphologically (assuming one considers the morphological criteria determinative) male or female—a mix up is not going to ruin the synagogue or the prayer service. Rather, what matters is that the service be conducted with decorum and proper social etiquette, which, in meḥitza shuls, includes gender separation.


A Note about Confusion

Some worry that having morphologically female / phenotypic male Jews sit on the men’s side of the meḥitza could cause confusion regarding aliyot, counting towards a minyan, and other kibbudim. I have three responses.

First, I believe that such a person is ḥayav be-mitzvot such that giving them kibbudim would be appropriate anyway. Second, even if the shul or rabbi does not adopt this position, the risk is not greater than when converts or other people who are not halakhically Jewish attend synagogue. This sometimes creates awkward situations but life is complicated and it is better to have an open shul than a closed one. Third, even if mistakes sometimes occur (as occur with gentiles in the synagogue), kavod ha-briyot outweighs any accidental aveirah here, since the stakes in this case are not high, the percentage of transgender individuals is very low, and good people do their best to navigate; nobody and no shul is perfect.


A Note about “Decorum”

It is important to add that when I refer to decorum, I mean it from the stance of the third party observer. In other words, if someone knowing no one in the synagogue were to watch this person come in and say where the person should sit, the observer would point to the section fitting with this person’s phenotypic sex. In other words, a third party observer witnessing a phenotypic male sit down on the men’s side or a phenotypic female sit on the women’s side would not notice anything strange. In fact, if the transgender person in question made the opposite choice, this would look strange to the observer.[21]

I write this because some might argue that since, in the community itself, the person once identified with a different gender, the transition from one identity to the other is disruptive. Undoubtedly, such is the case, but I do not believe that this is a halakhic issue. Celebrities, scandals, and lottery winners are also socially disruptive, but this has little to do with whether, halakhically, they should go to shul. Furthermore, using this definition of “disruptive to decorum” would necessitate that any person who has begun hormone treatment could no longer attend his or her local shul because he or she would, by definition, be disruptive. Either they would look like one gender and sit with the other, or they would sit with whom they looked like but people would know they transitioned. To me, saying that such people cannot attend shul is simply unacceptable and we need to be more accommodating.[22]


Gender Fluidity or Hybridity

All of the above applies to people who navigate their gender dysphoria by transitioning to the gender with which they identify, whether by surgery or hormone therapy. Matters become more complicated with people who identify as bigendered, ambigendered, or gender fluid. Such people generally do not suffer from dysphoria related to gender identity (male-female), but rather from dysphoria related to gender expression (masculine-feminine). Such people do not experience gender as binary and do not feel comfortable conforming to one form of gender expression. Thus, although many are identifiable as phenotypic males or females, in their dress and mannerisms they can express the characteristics of either gender or both, sometimes leaning towards one and sometimes the other in their outer presentation.

This phenomenon is difficult to navigate both when it comes to ḥiyuv mitzvot and insofar as where to sit in a meḥitza or separate-seating synagogue. The reality of the Orthodox Jewish world is that it functions with a male/female gender binary. Thus, I am not sure how to deal with cases in which people’s gender identities do not conform to the standard gender binary assumed by halakha. Although the percentage of such people is low, it is growing quickly and the matter will require more thought and deliberation.[23]


Summary – Primacy of Phenotypic Gender for Most Matters

To summarize my general approach, I believe that the morphological definition of sexual identity is relevant only when it comes to issues of sex and marriage. For all other issues, including ḥiyuv mitzvot, synagogue participation, and where to sit in an Orthodox synagogue with separate seating, the only relevant definition is phenotypic. Thus, unless the rabbi is being requested to perform a wedding or to consult on a matters of a sexual nature, there is no reason for the rabbi to ask transgender people about their genitals. Moreover, since such a question is invasive and crosses the boundaries of tzniut (modesty), the question should not be asked when unnecessary.



One reason that people react so aggressively to the transgender phenomena is that they see it as an inexplicable choice. The very shocking nature of making fluid that which is so fundamentally solid to most people – their gender identity—brings on insecurity. “What if my own gender identity is not as solid as I thought?” people wonder. “What if my kids follow this new fad and want to have a sex change?” These are thoughts that go through people’s minds and it brings out an aggressive response.

To help combat this reaction, it is important for people to begin to see these phenomena as being outside the person’s control. Instead of feeling frightened by transgender people, it would be more helpful to try to imagine how difficult it would be to feel uncomfortable in your own body, to feel that you are not really you and that your physical sex and your gender identity are discordant. How confusing would that be? Yet this is exactly how many transgender people feel. Shouldn’t this phenomenon make us want to be more compassionate and helpful rather than aggressive and distant?


The 5-ARD Thought Experiment

When thinking about transgender issues, I find the condition of 5-alpha-reductase deficiency-2 (5ARD) to be a helpful analogy. 5-alpha-reductase is an enzyme that converts testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT) in peripheral tissues. The condition is unique to males. DHT has a critical role in male sexual development, and a shortage of this hormone disrupts the formation of the external sex organs before birth.

Individuals with 5-ARD are born with testicles—i.e. their gonadal sex is male—but they usually have female primary sex characteristics. Consequently, they are often raised as girls and develop a female gender identity.

At puberty, individuals often have primary amenorrhoea (they don’t menstruate), and may experience virilisation (development of male secondary sexual characteristics). This may include descending of the testes, enlargement of the clitoris, hirsuitism, and deepening of the voice.

Although most people with 5-ARD identify themselves as females, some may develop a male gender identity coinciding with pubertal virilisation. Others can present with apparent gender dysphoria and transgender behavior.

In the Dominican Republic, in a number of small villages, especially one called Salinas, a majority of 5-ARD patients chose a male identity. The anomaly is sufficiently common there that they have a Spanish term for it, Guevedoche or Guevedoces, meaning, huevo a los doce, “eggs at twelve.” It is also known locally as ‘Machihembras’ (‘first woman, then man’).[24]

The usefulness of this case as a model is that in the cultures where 5-ARD is prevalent, the reality of it is part of life. They know that a number of little girls in their community will inevitably turn into boys when they hit puberty, and that some of them will choose to be boys and others will choose to remain girls. There is no anger or fear of such people in these communities, since the community as a whole has learned to expect it and adapt to it.

What would happen if 5-ARD were a condition common in the Jewish community? Would we help these children with their choices? Would we tell them that once they hit puberty they were no longer allowed in the synagogue? I imagine we would not. If we can begin to think of our transgender children and fellow Jews in a similar way, maybe we can create a more enlightened and empathetic path. Transgender identity, like 5-ARD, is a phenomenon of nature and our job is to help people navigate this complex reality, not to hide from it.


[1] For more on this, see Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation (Seal Press, 2010);

[2] The literature about transgender and halakha is growing exponentially. The most thorough treatment of it to date is, Idan Ben Ephraim, Dor Tahapuchot (Jerusalem, 2004 [Hebrew]).

[3] After checking a number of medical dictionaries, it seems clear that there is little agreement on the meaning of these terms. Thus, my definitions reflect what I find to be a loose consensus and, more specifically, the way in which I use these terms here.

[4]  וּמָע֤וּךְ וְכָתוּת֙ וְנָת֣וּק וְכָר֔וּת לֹ֥א תַקְרִ֖יבוּ לַֽי-הֹוָ֑ה וּֽבְאַרְצְכֶ֖ם לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ:

[5]  לא תקריבו אין לי אלא שלא יקריבו מנין שלא יעשו תלמוד לומר לא תעשו… מנין אף באדם תלמוד לומר ובכם כדברי בן חכינאי.

[6] This same logic is what brought Rabbi Avraham Weinfeld, in his Lev Avraham (vol. 2, p. 35), to state that smoking cannot be forbidden by halakha outright, since it isn’t any individual puff of a cigarette that causes cancer, but the cumulative effect of long-term smoking. (I am not trying to defend smoking in this note, only to point out that poskim have applied the difference between process and one-time action to other cases of halakha.)

[7] Although there is also the fact that pregnancy would be life-threatening in her case, it seems that the psychological factor was an independent consideration.

[8] The principle is found in b. Yoma 85b; b. Sanhedrin 74a; b. Avodah Zarah 27b, 54a.

[9] For those who believe that even after transition, including surgical transition, a person retains his or her birth gender, this argument would be weakened, since every time the person gets dressed he or she violates כלי גבר / בגד אשה.

[10] As far as I know, there is no way with current technology to create or graft on an actual penis.

[11] Metoidioplasty – in this procedure, testosterone is used to enlarge the clitoris. The enlarged clitoris is then disconnected from the labia minora and lowered to the approximate position of the penis by cutting the suspensory ligament. Phalloplasty – in this procedure, tissue from other parts of the body is grafted to form a penis, and an erectile prosthetic is inserted. In both of these procedures, the urethra may be rerouted through the neopenis to allow male style urination through the penis. Scrotoplasty – in this procedure, the labia majora are attached to each other to form an approximation of a scrotum; often two silicon prosthetic testes are placed in the sac to give the scrotum a more authentic look and feel. None of these procedures has any connection with the issur of sirus.

[12] For more on this, see:

[13] t. Yebamot 10:2; Rambam, Commentary on the Mishna, Yebamot 8:6.

[14] R. Hananel, quoted in ibn Ezra, Lev. 18:22, states that some men can grow a vagina / have a vagina constructed (כי יש מי שיחדש בגופו כצורת בשר אשה) and that penetrating a male’s vagina would be considered sex, but, as ibn Ezra says, this seems like an inexplicable comment (וזה לא יתכן בתולדה). What exactly is being pictured here is unclear; it may even refer to a case where the man’s penis is still extant.

[15] For example, I was asked whether an Orthodox Rabbi could perform a halakhic wedding (qiddushin and nissuin) for a pre-operative transsexual woman, who is marrying a biologically female woman. Would this wedding be halakhically valid? Would it be appropriate to do considering how it appears? Such a case brings up the complicated clash between theoretical rules and complex reality.

[16] The problem of continuity may be more than just social. A person’s gender would fall into the category of a halakhic חזקה. As such, it would require something, like an event or a process, to uproot that חזקה and replace it with another. What would be sufficient to accomplish this—change in morphology? change in phenotypic presentation? change in social presentation?—is an important question that communities will have to think through.

[17] I admit that I have trouble accepting this line of thought, but I believe it works well as a senif lehaqel combined with my main argument.

[18] The reverse case poses an interesting problem: A pre-operative transsexual woman (genotypic male) at a transition stage in which she is undergoing electrolysis and laser treatment to remove facial hair and has been on estrogens for enough time that she is starting to show breasts. What would be the dividing line? The problem here is not merely halakhic but emotional/psychological. The average male-to-female transitioning women, if told she counted toward a minyan, would be hurt, as this would be in opposition to the identity she is working to solidify. She might sooner leave the shul, even if she is “the tenth man.”

[19] At what point the name changes is an interesting problem. Does it change at the beginning of the process? Once hormone therapy commences? After surgery? When does he/she get a new Hebrew name and what happens to the old one? Should both names be used on gittin or in ketubot? These details will need to be worked out over time and hopefully some consensus will emerge.

[20] In response to an earlier draft, someone asked whether I think we also need to consider the difference between whether other members of the minyan know or not. To what extent is it appropriate to require those who hold different halakhic views to accept ours? Assuming the congregation does not know, one could argue that it is a case of זה נהנה וזה לא חסר, but if they do know, am I arguing that the position that gender can be changed is strong enough that it invalidates the position that it cannot? My answer is that I am arguing my position, since I believe it to be cogent and the one most in line with humanitarian (בין אדם לחבירו) values. Nevertheless, each congregation and rabbi will have to make their own judgments.

[21] Unfortunately, some people who transition never really develop the look of the gender to which he or she is transitioning. For synagogues navigating such cases, matters will be much more complicated on the “decorum” front, and much sensitivity on all sides will be required.

[22] One question I have been asked is, what if the synagogue requests that the person take a break from attending during his or her transition period. Transitioning is not an instantaneous change but a process; it is not as if a person is perceived as male one day and female the next, or vice versa. On one hand, I understand this concern, which focuses on the possible disruption to the shul and allowing the community time to digest the situation and giving the congregation some breathing room. If there is another shul in which the transitioning person feels comfortable, this could be a workable solution for some. On the other hand, I have significant concerns with this approach. I tend to be more worried about the transitioning person’s wellbeing than I am about the community. What if there is no other shul? What if this shul is his or her community and its support is emotionally vital? What if the rejection, even temporary, calls the person’s identity, whether it be his or her Jewish identity, religious identity, or social identity, into question. In short, though I understand the desire for space, I would use caution and err on the side of inclusivity.

[23] Personally, I feel it is more important to try to ensure that Jews, who experience and express gender in a non-binary way, feel comfortable in synagogues than it is to be overly concerned about a small percentage of people with complex gender identities rocking the boat of the majority. Nevertheless, I admit that this situation is more difficult to navigate in Orthodox shuls than the phenomenon of transgender, and will require more thought as the future unfolds.

[24] A similar cluster of cases among the Simbari of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea has the local name Kwolu-aatmwol, meaning “female transforming into male.”

Many of the Morethodoxy bloggers and some new ones can be found here-

July 7, 2015

The Missing Question: How Do We Experience Authority? – By Rabbi Josh Feigelson

January 16, 2015

This past fall, the Orthodox/halakhic community experienced the most honest public conversation about itself that I think I’ve ever seen. The arrest and investigation of Rabbi Barry Freundel opened up a series of powerful conversations. Husbands and wives talked about gender roles in Jewish law; friends talked about their feelings about rabbis and Jewish law at kiddush, at Shabbos meals, and walking to and from shul; and, most remarkably, the Jewish press, from the blogosphere to Facebook to the Times of Israel to the New York Times, openly and publicly discussed these questions. In my lifetime, I can’t remember anything like it.

While I welcome all of this discussion, I think that much of it has missed a central, big question, which has to do with a couple of central words, namely 1) authority, and 2) authenticity. To put the issue in the form of a question, I would raise it this way: 1) In what, or in whom, do we place authority? 2) When do we feel authentic? And 3) What do the two have to do with one another?

In some ways, the second question really comes before the first one, so let’s start there. The dictionary on my Mac gives several versions of “authentic.” First, authentic means “of undisputed origin; genuine,” as in the sentence, “The letter is now accepted as an authentic document,” or “authentic 14th-century furniture.” In this definition, we see one of the key elements of the concept: that it is uncorrupted, pure, and exactly what it claims to be. Authentic here means that it’s honest, not a fake. It’s the genuine article.

The second definition is related to this, but gives an historical twist. It reads: “Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original: the restaurant serves authentic Italian meals | every detail of the movie was totally authentic.” In this definition, “authentic” means not just that something is uncorrupted, but that it exists in an unbroken chain with something from the past. In this definition of authenticity, we are aware of the fact that there’s an historical distance between us in the present and those in the past—the people who made the original Italian meals, or the people who lived in the time when the movie is set—but we believe that our experience here and now is just the same as theirs.

You can see where I’m going with this, I imagine. This conversation sounds a lot like a conversation about tradition and change, or continuity and change. Yet, in my experience, those conversations all too often fail to address the way we experience these questions of authenticity—what they mean to us. These are anxiety-producing questions for many people! Consciously or unconsciously, we ask, Is this the genuine article? Is this real Judaism? Is it the pure thing, uncorrupted from the past? Is this the same Judaism that the original Jews—those Jews from the past—practiced? Is our Judaism their Judaism? If it is, we take comfort in knowing we’re doing the authentic thing. If it isn’t, then we worry that we’re committing a fraud, or that we’re breaking faith with the past.

So there’s a lot riding on our experience of authenticity. Yet we also know that, try as we might, our experience cannot be the same as that of our ancestors. We know we live in a different time and place than they did. We know that, at Pesach, we have to see ourselves k’ilu, as if, we are leaving Egypt, because we know that, in fact, we are not. Like that k’ilu, authenticity requires an act of imagination. That doesn’t make it any less powerful or important. But it does remind us that authenticity is, in a fundamental way, in the eye of the person to whom it matters to be called authentic.

And this is where authority comes in. To return to our dictionary: “Authority: the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something: he has the natural authority of one who is used to being obeyed; he spoke with authority on the subject.” The first part of this definition is the essence: authority is the power to influence others. When we invest authority in someone or something, we allow it to influence us. If we don’t recognize the authority of someone or something, then we don’t. That is, someone or something is an authority only if we recognize it as such. Unless, of course, that authority is so powerful that it exercises its power over us whether we like it or not. Think of a criminal who shouts, “I do not recognize the authority of this court!” But in the absence of that kind of coercive authority, the authority I’m talking about is that kind of authority that requires our assent.

To bring the two concepts together, we could say: We give authority to those things we deem authentic. And we experience authenticity when those people and institutions in whom we’ve invested authority tell us that what we’re doing is authentic. That is, we assign the power to determine authenticity to people and institutions with authority. Authority and authenticity thus become woven together in a braid, each reflecting and reinforcing the other.

And that brings us to an important question, the question that prompted this reflection in the first place: What happens when authority fails? What happens when the people or institutions we’ve relied on, to sift through the authentic and the inauthentic—what happens when we can no longer rely on them, when we can no longer trust them, when we can’t give them authority anymore? I’m less interested in what they do (that’s predictable—they try to hold on to their authority), than in what we do. What happens to us in that moment when our authorities lose our trust?

One possibility is that we look for new authorities. We find people and institutions we can trust, that we can rely on to judge the authentic from the inauthentic. Another possibility is we take authority for ourselves, and take on the burden of discerning the genuine from the fake. And a third possibility is to stop caring about authenticity, and thus obviate the need for the authority in the first place.

I think we’ve seen all of these responses in one way or another in recent months, years, and even decades and centuries. We may have grown up with rabbinic authorities who lost our trust for one reason or another. Some of us may have found new authorities—new rabbis, new books, new intellectual or spiritual gurus—and replaced our previous rabbis with new ones. Others may have decided that we can’t find a rabbi we can trust, so we’re going to take on the responsibility of halakhic decision-making—that is, determining halakhic authenticity—on our own, from issues in hilkhot niddah to checking lettuce for bugs to whether partnership minyanim are halakhically authentic. We study the halakha and make our own decisions, and we trust that those decisions are authentic. And some of us practice the third option, in which we say, We can’t or don’t care about authenticity anymore, or at least authenticity as it has been defined up until now. We’re going to do what speaks most to us, and we’re not going to worry about whether it’s endorsed by an authority, or whether we experience it as halakhically authentic.

Many of us may be confused about which camp we fall into. Most likely, many of us  have pieces of all of these approaches within us. And that’s normal, as far as I can tell (not that I’m an authority).

My aim in framing the issues this way is to try to help us understand what I think is one of, if not the, major Big Question at the heart of not only halakhic Jewish life today, but in many ways, society today (cf. trust in governmental authority, police authority, medicine, home-schooling, and others that bear elements of this discussion): How do we experience authority? Too often, the question is posed in a detached way, as a variant of, “How does authority work?” When asked this way, we can get useful intellectual analysis—historical, political, religious—but we don’t wind up reflecting on the human dynamics of how authority actually operates in our own lives. And unless we publicly talk about that multicolored, nuanced process, our authorities will continue to fail us.

How do we experience authority? The time has come for conversations—in private and in public—on this basic question.


*Note: This was originally delivered as a dvar Torah at Kol Sasson congregation in Skokie.

What is Chanukah? by Rabbi Steve Greenberg

December 18, 2014

What is Chanukah?  This is how the Talmud begins its short foray into the origins of Chanukah. Remarkably, there is very little material in the Talmud on Chanukah.  While Purim has a tractate all its own, Chanukah merits a few scattered lines and a number of minor mentions.  Chanukah was apparently not very much appreciated by the rabbis.  When the Talmud describes the holiday, it glosses over the great battles and offers the story of a very different miracle: A single cruse of pure oil miraculously lasting for eight days—a story not found in any early sources and whose first appearance is at least four hundred years after the Maccabee victory.

What actually happened?  What did the Maccabees and their supporters celebrate and why for eight days?  What did it come to mean to the rabbis who clearly re-created the holiday?  And finally, what should it mean to us today?

Read the rest of this entry »

The Torah Value of Decentralized Power -by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

October 29, 2014

Recently a prominent Orthodox rabbi was arrested for voyeurism, for putting cameras in a mikvah. Much has been written already about what must be learned from this horrific abuse of power. Perhaps rabbis require more oversight and annual reviews, perhaps there should be more women’s leadership around issues of mikvah, tighter security at mikvaot, etc.

All of these lessons and precautions have merit but I would like to call particular attention to one, the tendency in our era toward the centralization of power in the Orthodox community. If a convert feels that only one court or one rabbi can perform a legitimate conversion for her then even when she is wary of that rabbi or court, even when she suspects that doing his office work is not part of the conversion process, or that not putting her water bottle in front of the clock radio in the mikvah preparation room is not a Talmudic instruction, she is stuck. She must play ball with him if she wants to convert even if she finds the process abusive or suspect if there is no other nearby source of orthodox conversions. In contrast, when there is an open market, when anti-trust provisions are in place, customers’ interests are better served. Is such democratization a Jewish value?

When the Jewish people want a monarch, a figure who will centralize power and hold its reins in the era of Samuel, God frowns upon the idea. We see from the description in chapter eight of the book of Shmuel that God’s concern is one of power’s tendency to corrupt:

“9. And therefore listen to their voice; but you should solemnly warn them, and relate to them the customary practice the king who shall reign over them. 10. And Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. 11. And he said, This will be the customary practice of the king who shall reign over you; He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. 12. And he will appoint for himself captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. 13. And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. 14. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive trees, the best of them, and give them to his servants. 15. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. 16. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your best young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. 17. He will take the tenth of your sheep; and you shall be his servants. 18. And you shall cry out in that day because of your king which you shall have chosen; and the Lord will not hear you in that day. 19. And the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, No; but we will have a king over us; 20. That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles. 21. And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22. And the Lord said to Samuel, Listen to their voice, and make them a king. And Samuel said to the men of Israel, Go every man to his city.”

Even the institution of the high priesthood, with its concentration of power, suffered from the same plague:
“And Eli the high priest was very old, and he heard all that his children were doing to the people of Israel, and that they had slept with the women who came to the tent of meeting (Samuel, chapter 3).”

The existing system of prophets apparently was much more appropriate in God’s eyes. In prophet there was no concentration of power, no royal bloodline or priestly lineage. Just the opposite was true, the people often ignored the Biblical prophets and they did not have the power to coerce the people except through gaining their respect, through the prophet’s own merits. Prophets were anything but a system of centralized power. It required just study and training, and it was then in the hands of the people, their choice, to hear the words of the prophet and take them to heart.

It seems the free market of ideas, within certain bounds (there was of course the Biblical danger of the false prophet), was a strong Biblical Jewish value. The Talmud tells us that anyone had the potential to be a prophet and that there were no less than 600,000 male prophets and 600,000 female prophets among the Jewish people; surely a decentralized institution.

When it comes to power and conversions let us return to the decentralized system of conversion courts which existed until 15 years ago when the Chief Rabbinate of Israel under the guidance of the recently arrested Rabbi, centralized it. Then we can fulfill the immortal words of Moses as recorded in the Biblical book of Numbers, “If only the whole nation of God were prophets…”

And the Lord God Said, “You’re not about sex”. by Yosef Kanefsky

October 24, 2014

The topic this time is not one I would have chosen, rather one that’s been thrust upon us all: the story of a religious leader who has grossly violated the trust that his community has placed in him, and who has grossly violated the dignity and the sacred humanity of his parishioners.

There are a million different things that could be said here, and you can already find almost all of them in the Jewish blogosphere. One facet that mustn’t ever be lost or overlooked is the humiliation and outrage of the victims. Every community is obliged to be on alert for potential abusers in its midst, and to both be vigilant, and to maintain sound precautionary policies.  (Please see )

But there’s another facet of this story that I want to share some thoughts about. And this has to do with the value and importance of our religious commitments. I could blame no one for reacting to this unseemly spectacle by disparaging religion generally, and Orthodox Judaism in particular. Religion generally, for the hypocrisy that regularly percolates to its loftiest levels, and Orthodox Judaism in particular for its halachik policies that potentially place women into the hands of powerful men who might take advantage of them. And in truth, both of these claims must be taken seriously. (I am working now with my colleagues in the IRF to revamp our conversion guidelines so that it is NEVER only men who hold a woman’s conversion fate in their hands. The RCA is doing the same. And it is high time for Orthodox women clergy!) Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I believe that it’s precisely times like these which reaffirm the importance of religion generally, and of one of Orthodoxy’s cultural/halachik norms in particular.
In a naïve-seeming, countercultural way, we religious folks insist that encounters with other human beings need not have, and to the greatest extent humanly possible must not have, a sexual dimension. We instead strive – religiously! – to see and perceive every person as a Divine creation, a creation whose voice God hears, and whose welfare God seeks. And when we take this religious view seriously, we do not see or perceive other human beings as objects to be used (or abused) for our pleasure, and we do not encounter them as sexual beings at all. This is Biblical religion’s great “chiddush” (revolutionary innovation). And our Orthodox “tzniut” norms, which I know we struggle with sometimes (and chuckle at sometimes), are precisely aimed at helping us maintain this quality of human encounter. And anyone who believes that “tzniut” pertains to one gender any more than the other, has entirely turned the whole thing on its head, cynically rendering it a tool of oppression.

Obviously, religious people including Orthodox rabbis, perversely fail at this religious task sometimes, must be held accountable for their crimes when they do, and deserve every ounce of the humiliation they experience when they are caught.  And equally obvious, at least to me, is that the uniquely religious notion that there is an intense human-Divine relationship ,and the uniquely religious behavioral imperative to  “Be Holy, for I God am holy” are our beacons in the darkness.

Pregnancy and the New Year -by Maharat Rori Picker Neiss

October 7, 2014

(Rori Picker Neiss is the Maharat at Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, MO)

I remember when I first found out that I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, Daria.


It was just over four years ago. I had suspected that I might be pregnant, and yet, nothing could have prepared me for that moment when I stood in the bathroom, looking down at the test in my hand, watching those two lines appear. I was immediately hit with an overwhelming mixture of emotion: excitement, fear, trepidation, wonder, more fear, more excitement. They each hit me like a wave. Excitement at this wonderful new chapter that we were beginning in our lives; fear and trepidation at all that we knew could go wrong; wonder for all of the questions for which we still have yet to find answers. What will she be like when she grows up? Will she be happy? Will she feel pain? How will she change the world?


With each child, those emotions have not lessened and those questions have not dissipated.


Now, as I await the birth of my third child, it is no surprise that I find myself thinking a lot about pregnancy and babies these days.


Pregnancy is actually one of our central themes of Rosh Hashanah.


Over the course of the holiday we recount the stories of three women: Sara, Chana, and Rachel, who each yearned to give birth, and we remember the tears that they shed for their children.


Yesterday we heard the story of our matriarch Sara. The rabbis tell us that it was on Rosh Hashana that God remembered Sara and told her that she would conceive and give birth to Yitzchak. This morning we retold the story of Akeidat Yitzchak, of the intended sacrifice of Isaac. The midrash tells us that an angel showed Sara the vision of Avraham holding a knife over Yitzchak as he was bound to the altar, and it was that vision of her only son, the son that she had prayed for and waited for for so long, about to be slaughtered, that killed her. In that very moment before God stopped Avraham from lowering the knife, Sara’s soul departed, unable to bear the thought of being in the world without her child.


Yesterday we also heard the story of Chana, a woman so bereft at her inability to have a child that she pleads with God for a son, a prayer so famous that the rabbis learn how to pray from Chana. Chana is so desperate for a child that she makes a promise to God, vowing to give her son in service to God, in a sense, giving up her son, just for a chance to know him.


And today, we remember Rachel, another matriarch. Rachel, who like Chana, was the favorite wife of her husband, and yet was unable to give him a child. Like Sara and Chana, Rachel, too, is ultimately able to conceive a child, and in fact, conceives twice. Yet, she, too, gives her life for her children, dying in the course of childbirth as her second child, Binyamin, is born. In the haftorah we read this morning, we hear Jeremiah telling us of God describing the cries that Rachel sheds in Heaven as she watches her children, the Jewish people, march into exile.


But even more so than the powerful stories of these three women whom we remember on Rosh Hashana, we see the theme of pregnancy and birth so clearly in the liturgy of the day itself.


Six times over the course of this day we repeat the phrase: היום הרת עולם. It is translated in our machzor as “Today is the birthday of the world.” But, in fact, the word הרת means pregnant. Today the world is pregnant.


We recite this phrase each time the shofar is blown.

הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם

הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט

כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמִים

אִם כְּבָנִים אִם כַּעֲבָדִים

אִם כְּבָנִים רַחֲמֵנוּ כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים

וְאִם כַּעֲבָדִים עֵינֵינוּ לְךָ תְלוּיוֹת

עַד שֶׁתְּחָנֵּנוּ וְתוֹצִיא כָאוֹר מִשְׁפָּטֵנוּ

אָיוֹם קָדוֹשׁ


This day the world is pregnant

This day stands all the world’s creations up in judgement

stands them as sons or as slaves–

If as sons, have compassion for us,

as a father has compassion for his sons.

And if as slaves, our eyes are raised and fixed on You

until you show us favor, and bring out our judgement like sunlight

Awesome, Holy


Upon close study, this is an odd paragraph.


If we read היום הרת עולם as “Today is the birthday of the world,” then perhaps the rest of the paragraph, which talks about standing in judgment, could make sense.  Anniversaries are an opportunity to look back and reflect on where we have been and look forward to where we want to go. Often times at jobs, the anniversary of the day we started is when we might have an annual review. We evaluate all that we have done over the year, what has been successful, what has not been successful, where we have achieved our goals, where we have fallen short on our goals, and we think about the goals that we want to set for the coming year.


But if we say היום הרת עולם – Today the world is pregnant, then how does this connect with the rest of the paragraph that speaks about judgement?


The Hasidic master, Rebbe Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, who lived in the 18th century, offers one interpretation. He says that we say on Rosh Hashana, היום הרת עולם – Today the world is pregnant, for it is in the stage of pregnancy that mercy was hidden (he’elem), like a fetus in pregnancy. But now it must be awakened by the shofar, that it should be revealed in actuality.


He takes the word עולם, which means world, and he reads it as העלם hidden.


He says that we live in a world in which mercy in hidden.

In actuality, though, we live in a world in which so much more than mercy is hidden. We live in a world in which God is hidden. And though we believe in God’s presence and we seek it in our everyday lives, it is something we have to work hard to find. God does not appear to us through our eyes or speak to us through our ears. God is not discernible to us through our senses.


I always find it funny when people ask me when the baby is coming. Because I have to tell you, the baby is already here. He isn’t just a thought. I can feel him. If you catch me at the right time, you can feel him, too. You can’t see him. You can’t hold him. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t very real and very much present in our world.


The same can be said of God. Just because God is hidden does not make God absent.


And yet, we stand here today, struggling to find the words we need to speak with God, trying to focus our minds on that which we cannot fathom. We imagine that we can see that which cannot be seen and hear that which cannot be heard, so that we can somehow find within ourselves the proper kavannah, the proper intention for meaningful prayer before a God who, no matter how fervent our prayer, no matter how desperate our pleas, no matter how intense our need to see, hear, or feel God, always remains behind a curtain.


היום הרת עולם – This day the world is pregnant. Today, the world holds God in its womb. Present, yet unseen. Within, and able to be experienced, yet obstructed. The word womb, רחם, is the same root as the word רחמים, mercy. The world holds God, hidden, amidst mercy.


And why does this verse come after the blowing of the shofar? What is this cry of the shofar? What are these series of sounds that we make before reciting this paragraph? It is the cry of birth. Because our responsibility everyday, but today especially, is to reveal God in the world. We reestablish God’s reign over the world.


Although today we mark the anniversary of the day that God first created man, in an ironic twist, today, it is we who birth God into the world. We cannot sit in our chairs and wait for God to reveal Godself in the world. We are not passive participants. We are active partners. We declare to the world, on this day, that the world did not come into existence by accident, but was created by the one true God. We declare to the world, on this day, that God rules over the entire world, and we remind the world, today and every day, that God is manifest in this world, hidden amidst coincidences and luck, accidents and happenstances.


I want to offer one more explanation of this phrase.


היום הרת עולם – This day the world is pregnant. Interestingly, this phrase comes from a passage in Jeremiah.  Jeremiah, as we might recall, suffers severely over the course of his life. At one point he says,

Accursed be the day That I was born! Let not the day be blessed When my mother bore me! Accursed be the man Who brought my father the news And said, “A boy Is born to you,” And gave him such joy! Let that man become like the cities Which the Lord overthrew without relenting! Let him hear shrieks in the morning And battle shouts at noontide— Because he did not kill me before birth, So that my mother might be my grave, And her womb big [with me] for all time. Why did I ever issue from the womb, To see misery and woe, To spend all my days in shame! (Jeremiah 20:14-18)


In stark contrast to all of the stories that we mentioned earlier of mothers who had wanted so badly, who had prayed so strongly, to see a child born, Jeremiah prays to God that he should never have been born. He asks: “לָמָּה זֶּה מֵרֶחֶם יָצָאתִי – Why did I ever issue forth from the womb?” And he wishes instead: “וְרַחְמָה הֲרַת עוֹלָם – His mother’s womb should have simply remained pregnant forever.”


Here, הרת עולם has a very different meaning than how we understand it in our machzor.  הרת עולם does not refer to the birthday of the world, or to the world being pregnant, but to one who is eternally pregnant. לעולם – forever


And so I want to offer to you that היום הרת עולם – Today, we are eternally pregnant. Not in the way that Jeremiah speaks of. Today, we are pregnant not just with God, who is hidden away, within us and within our world, but we are pregnant with potential.


Today we stand on the cusp of everything that the coming year might bring. And that potential is limitless.


You don’t need to have stood with a positive pregnancy test in your hand, to know what it means to have birthed something into the world.


And like the day I described four years ago, today we all stand together with excitement, fear, trepidation, and wonder. We don’t know what the coming year will bring, and even for those things we might know about, we have no way to predict their ultimate outcome


הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם, 
הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט -Today we are eternally pregnant, today we stand in judgement


We stand in judgement for all the potential that we hold within us, as to whether or not that potential will be birthed for good or for bad, for success or for failure, for healing or for illness, for gain or for loss, for joy or for sorrow. All of those possibilities are already within us.  They are all real. They are just yet to be realized. They are yet to be birthed.


I want to offer a prayer to all of us here today. May it be in the merit of our prayers today, and in the merit of our efforts to make God actualized in our world, that all of our potential today should be birthed for good, for success, for healing, for gain, for joy. And may we all enjoy a year filled with blessing and new beginnings.


כתיבה וחתימה טובה.


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