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. 

 

INTRODUCTION – THE COMPLEX NATURE OF GENDER

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]

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Davening Among the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes – by Rabbi Zev Farber

May 9, 2012

Several months ago, a guest speaker visited our synagogue for a talk on current events in the Middle East. I enjoyed the talk and after services I asked my wife what she thought. She responded: “Did you notice that the speaker never once turned his face towards the women’s section? He had his face turned away from us the entire time, as if we weren’t even there.”

I had to admit that I had not noticed this. Why didn’t this man, a modern person speaking about Israel, turn towards the women? He was a secular Jew, so it could not have been due to “extreme piety” of the ignoring-women variety. I am sure that there is no other speaking venue where he would distinguish between men and women in this way.

Perhaps the placement of the podium in the room had something to do with it. Like most (not all) Orthodox shuls, our podium is situated in the men’s section, so naturally, the speaker faced the men. A slight angling of the body is all it would have taken for the speaker to face the women as well, but my guess is that he absorbed the subconscious message of the building’s logistics: “The people in the main section—the one opposite the podium—are the important ones. Face them.”

Watching the Flintstones with my children one day, it struck me that our synagogues have an uncanny resemblance to lodge no. 26 of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes, where Fred and Barney go to have a men’s night out. I say this in jest, but it is illustrative. The men of the LOWB wear a special garb, they have a special code and gestures which they use, and there are no women. Although our synagogues are a step advanced from the Stone Age lodge—we let our women watch—the resemblances are worth noting; only the men have the special garb, only the men know the secret handshake, and when the Grand Poobah speaks, his podium faces only men.

To be fair, the synagogue I attend is quite modern and sensitive to women’s issues, and our rabbi is overwhelmingly so. In addition, the architectural plans for the new building include a fifty-fifty split with a podium in the middle. However, I think the anecdote is illustrative of the pernicious message which is unconsciously and unintentionally being sent to the women and girls in our community: “You are not really here.”

Of course, the placement of the podium is only one way—albeit an obvious one—that Orthodox synagogues communicate to their participants that women are not really in the room. This message is also communicated by access to the holiest and most central feature of the synagogue, the Torah scroll, which is removed from the ark, inevitably by a man, during Shabbat morning services. The Torah is then handed to the man leading the services and carried around so everybody can touch it and kiss it… well, not everybody.

It is true that in some Orthodox synagogues the Torah is either passed to a woman to carry through the women’s section or is carried through the women’s section by the man leading the services. However, in most Orthodox synagogues the Torah is carried only through the men’s section; the message being that access to the Torah is only for participants in the prayer services, not for onlookers. Some synagogues that are sensitive to the problem decide on the awkward solution of carrying the Torah slowly near the meitza (barrier). The women can then scramble to the meitza and vie for access in Darwinian fashion.

Traditional garb is another way Orthodox synagogues send the message that the men are the real participants. Men’s ritual accoutrements, special prayer shawls around their shoulders or over their heads, and leather straps and boxes on their heads and arms, are significant ritually and spiritually. Needless to say, the average Orthodox woman does not wear tzitzit or t’fillin and has no ritual equivalent of her own.

Other ways the second-class position of women in the synagogue is communicated are even more complex, as they appear hardwired into the halakhic system and changing or tinkering with them would be more than a little problematic for the halakhically observant.

Firstly, for the prayer service to start, or at least for certain special prayers to be said, there needs to be a minyan (a prayer quorum) of ten men; women do not count. Without ten men services cannot be held, but services can run from beginning to end without even one woman present. This, of course, is in compliance with the halakhic rulings found in the Talmud; nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that women generally show up late, if at all.

Secondly, women do not lead anything; not just the special minyan prayers (devarim she-be-qedusha) but activities that are not minyan-related at all, such as misheberakhs for the US government or the State of Israel, opening the ark to take out the Torah, or reciting birkot ha-shaar.

Modern Orthodoxy is in a bind when it comes to women in the synagogue. In a world where gender roles are constantly shifting, it becomes rather difficult for a religious group that is both modern and Orthodox to navigate the many tensions that exist between traditional practices and modern egalitarian values. Sometimes these tensions express themselves around halakhic issues: women leading devarim she-be-qedusha, wearing t’fillin, counting for a minyan, or participating in the Torah-reading ceremony. Other times the issues appear more sociological: bringing the Torah through the women’s section, women holding or carrying the Torah, placement of the podium, or women speaking from the podium.

The halakhic issues require textual analysis and remain extremely divisive and I am not suggesting here that Orthodox communities should make radical breaks with halakha. Rather my aim here is the underlying message that our synagogues are sending to women. We all want to remain true to halakha and create a synagogue environment where men and women thrive, but I fear that without addressing the underlying message of women not really being in the room, instead of creating a home for all Jews, we are creating a men’s club.

In my opinion, wherever one falls out on the halakhic issues—and the spectrum is wide—none of our synagogues really want to be sending the message that women are only spectators. Therefore, I strongly suggest that we take a close look at the messages the structure and culture of our synagogues are sending to women. If the overwhelming message is LOWB-like, what changes can be made, commensurate with the halakhic views of the rabbi and the culture of the institution, to make women feel like they are part of the services and not just watching? Can the podium be placed more centrally? Can the Torah be brought to the women’s side? Can a woman carry it? Can she hold it after g’lilah? Is the meḥitza too tall or difficult to see through? Is there anything at all that a woman can lead or recite out loud during services so that a woman’s voice can be heard as part of the prayer experience?

It is my hope that every synagogue will take this message to heart and think constructively about how to create an Orthodox synagogue experience loyal to halakha and welcoming of women; where women feel like participants instead of spectators. In her famous essay, “Notes Toward Finding the Right Question,” Cynthia Ozick wrote: “My own synagogue is the only place in the world where I am not named ‘Jew’.” I am sure that no Modern Orthodox rabbi or synagogue wants to send this message, and yet unconsciously—but systemically—we do. For the sake of our women, our girls and the health of our communities, the message needs to change.


Rabbi Lopatin’s Travelblog: 24 hours in Cincinnati

August 25, 2009

My wife and I and our kids packed up the car and headed on Saturday night for the great city of Cincinnati.  Just about five hours from Chicago, Cincinnati is in Ohio, but only minutes from Indiana – which feels like Illinois – and from Kentucky – the South!  Reform Judaism is still big in this town, and the original HUC branch has been given a lease on life only recently, and the great Reform synagogue, the Isaac Wise Synagogue (formerly Plum Street Synagogue) is still glorious.  But I want to point out three highlights of this trip that highlight some exciting things from the Orthodox and Conservative movements.

We went to a wedding at Adath Israel  Congregation, which has been led for the past 18 years by Rabbi Irvin Wise (Reb Irv).  You have to see this shul: I’ve seen a lot of shuls of all movements, but this shul is stunning because for a shul of 600 members (or so I was told) it is huge!  It has a Hebrew school building that would be reasonable for a nice sized day school; it has a parking lot bigger than Detroit, Motown Conservative synagogues, and there is a totally unused grassy lot next to the parking lot that is equally as large.  The shul is even more beautiful inside, with a six year, multimillion dollar renovation recently completed.  Stunning and contemporary stained glass windows in the sanctuary, granite counters in the bathrooms, with a combo of automatic faucets and manual ones as well, presumably for those who don’t use electricity on Shabbat.  There were rooms and rooms, and a huge social hall where each table had its own spotlight to shine on the centerpiece.  This shul is a living monument to the glory days of the Conservative movement.  I have no illusions that Adath Israel must have its challenges which affect all Conservative shuls, and especially in the Midwest, but I urge you to go to Cincinnati and see this shul, and you will be taken back 50 years to the days when it seemed that Conservative Judaism would lead all Jews into a beautiful future as proud Americans.  Again, we all know the difficulties all American Jews face, but especially the Conservative movement, but you won’t feel it when you go to a wedding at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.

But don’t only go to Cincinnati to relive the glory of Conservative Judaism.  Go there for the kosher places under the supervision of the local Orthodox Va’ad.  I have heard that Orthodoxy in Cincinnati is struggling and splintered – and my friend Rabbi Hanan Balk of the Orthodox Golf Manor Synagogue was not in town for the one day I was there, so I could not delve further into the challenges for the Orthodox community in Cincinnati.  But I must say that the Vaad has its act sufficiently together to supervise  three unique kosher eateries that are worth the trip: First, the quaint Kinneret Kosher that is the quintessential mom and pop dairy restaurant: The pop took our order and provided coloring sheets and crayons to my four kids.  The mom was in the kitchen cutting up the tomatoes for the tuna Panini that I ordered.  Actually, the Panini did taste exactly the way they tasted in Paris, but the quality of the food was not the star here: the grace of a small operation, and the love and sweetness of the owners were what was really unique here.  Second, Marx’s bagels – it’s a chain, but only one has hashgacha : They have the most amazing French toast bagels – that taste exactly like French toast.  OK, you say, fine, but not worth flying to Cincinnati for.  Maybe, but the final place I tried is a fantastic, low keyed, kosher vegetarian Indian restaurant called Amma’s.  They have a great lunch buffet, all you can eat for $8.99, including taxes and dessert and the place is filled with real Indian people, not just a bunch of Jews who think they know authentic Indian.  Amazing!  Amma’s is the  vegetarian equivalent of Kohinoor in the Crown Plaza in Jerusalem, which is the best meat Indian I have ever had.  But meat, anyone can make tasty; vegetables are a different story. I’ve had a lot of vegetarian Indian – including a lot in India when Rav Ahron Soloveichic said I could trust the strict vegetarianism of India, but this food in Cincinnati was by far the best.  I am already thinking of ways of getting back to Cincinnati to get some more of this great Indian cuisine, and to go back for seconds of the rice pudding dessert.  Kudos to Orthodoxy in Cincinnati for getting this places under Hashgacha.  This city is a gem – great museums, skyline, great people and between Adath Israel and Amma’s Indian cuisine, it will take you to a different place as a Jew and a connoisseur of style and good food.  Someone is doing something right in Cincinnati.

Asher Lopatin


Welcoming Gay Jews in the Orthodox Community, by Rabbi Hyim Shafner

June 26, 2009

In the series of posts that I have been writing about welcoming various populations of Jewish people, I am not purporting to address the halachic (Jewish legal) implications of the lives of populations of Jews, I am rather exploring how we as an Orthodox community can tweak our vision of the world and of people, in order to cultivate more welcoming Orthodox communities that can in turn be open to the widest range of Jews.

Last week I wrote of welcoming intermarried families and this week I would like to address how we see another population of Jews that often feels unwelcomed -Jewish people who are not physically attracted to people of the opposite gender, but only to the same gender, and how we as communities observant of halacha can welcome them and to what extent.

Various studies estimate that anywhere from 4%-20% of the American population is homosexual.  It would be dangerous for us to believe that Orthodox Jews are an exception.  That the torah forbids men from having sexual relations with each other is testament that in the Torah’s preview such a desire does exist.

My community encompasses several gay members, some are open about it and some are not, some have partners or are married and others are not, some live a celibate life alone (or have tried to) and others do not.   Just as there isn’t one type of heterosexual person so too there is not homogeneity among homosexuals.  Ultimately people are individuals (an entire universe of their own, as the Mishna in Sanhedrin says), and must be attended to as such.

What should an orthodox Rabbi do when a congregant comes out to him?  What should an Orthodox community’s attitude be toward their gay brethren?   Should we reject them?  Accept them?  Tell them they can never live a life with a family and have children?  Find them a proper partner?

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