Have you ever felt unsure whether you should use your synagogue’s Women’s Room or its Men’s Room?
This question shocks many people—or sounds irrelevant at first—but not all of my friends can easily decide between sex-segregated bathrooms. It is true that most men can go to a men’s room, and most women can go to a women’s room; however, these restrooms can provoke deep anxieties for trans* people.
To clarify, the term trans* (with that asterisk at the end) is an all-inclusive term referring to people of all sorts of transcending identities—whether that be a person’s sex (physical body), or a person’s gender (social role, acting “feminine” or “masculine,” etc.). Whereas someone’s body may indicate that he is a man, that man may play “feminine” gender roles (perhaps he wears elaborate and colorful clothes, is a stay-at-home parent, acts submissively, does all the cooking and cleaning, etc.). If this man’s “femininity” dominates his life, he might consider himself gender-queer (his gender is “queer” in that it doesn’t match the “traditional” roles of his sex). Being gender-queer is one form of being trans*.
The term trans* is not only about transcending identities, but also transitioning identities. Upon receiving candle sticks on the day of her bat mitzvah ceremony, a 13-year old girl may in fact be embarrassedly self-aware of the body of the man she wants to be 13 years from now. Upon graduating college in 10 years, she might undergo surgery for her upper body so that she can start to look more like the man she always longed to become. When that trans* Jew, being transsexual (transitioning between two sexes), then undergoes surgery for the bottom half of her body, she will fully transition into becoming a trans man.
But, all of these surgeries can be very expensive and emotionally damaging. Many trans* people live without ever going through all of the medical procedures to get the “right” body for their soul. Many trans* people live in transition. It is far easier to be a man who dresses up as a woman (a transvestite) than to be a man who becomes a woman (a trans woman).
All that being said: It is fair to ask why Conservative Jews should be talking about this at all. After all, aren’t most of our congregations egalitarian—meaning gender-equal? Can’t male and female people read Torah and lead services?
Yes, they can. But not all people are as simple as male or female. Some trans* people feel genderfluid—as if they can act more like their male counterparts in some parts of their life, and then they can act more like their female counterparts at other times. Some people don’t feel male or female at all. They feel genderless or non-gendered.
Trans* is the English catch-all word for everybody who’s not fully one and the same sex and gender. We Jews have two key religious terms for this.
The first term, ivri (עברי), the Hebrew word for “a Hebrew person,” literally means “one who is passing,” or “one who is transitioning.” Our father was a wandering Aramean. His offspring—our Biblical ancestors—were always passing between the Land of Israel and the Land of Egypt, or passing along the River Jordan. The ivri has always been defined by a life in transition.
We pronounce the second term Adonai, meaning “My Master,” but we actually don’t know for certain how to pronounce God’s four-letter Hebrew name of yod-heh-vav-heh (י-ה-ו-ה). According to the Biblical scholar William Albright, if we “correctly” pronounce the name (yah-veh, he says), the name means, “God Makes Into Being,” or “God Makes … Become.” God’s very name is The Cause of Transition.
Both God and the Hebrew people are trans*. We are a people guided by our processes of transitioning, of passing through different phases, and of becoming.
In the Kabbalah of the Zohar, God’s celestial body includes a male sexual organ (Yesod) as well as a female womb (Binah). The God of the Hebrew Bible offers the Jews motherly comfort in Isaiah (66:13), and that same God offers to hold the people Israel like a father tightly holds his son (Deuteronomy 1:31). God is simultaneously Shekhinah, a female “Presence,” and Melekh, our “King.”
Our God must be a god of no gender or of all genders. And so too are we, in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), a people of all gender or no gender at all. We are trans*, ivri, passing, Becoming.
Conservative rabbis have performed legal acrobatics to prove that Jewish law supports the full participation and leadership of Jewish women, and they have succeeded. Retroactively, many have commented that we cannot even turn to the Talmud to rule about women today, for modern women are not the same nashim (“women”) that were known 2000 years ago, or even 200 years ago. Today, women work more, are more educated, and move more visibly through the public sphere. The argument goes: Women today are not the nashim of the Talmud. Since the Talmud knows no other language to refer to women, the Talmud has little to say about modern women.
If modern women are indeed gender-queer (not defined) in the eyes of the Talmud, where does that leave modern men if they are the opposite of modern women? Is Jewish law unable to guide the lives of anyone of any gender today?
Perhaps this leaves all of us trans*. Not all of us are transsexual, not all of us are gay, and not all of us are feminists. Yet more and more of each of these kinds of Jews are searching for a spiritual home in a community of other ivriyim (“Hebrews,” or “people in transition”), all wandering in search of meaning and joy, tradition and God.
So back to my first question: Have you ever felt unsure whether you should use your synagogue’s Women’s Room or its Men’s Room?
Statistics indicate that a little less than 1% of people in the USA are transsexual. If we assume that this is true for the whole world, then the Jews still have reason to empathize. After all, we’re also a little less than 1% of the world population. A Jew who can care for any 1% minority is a Jew who can care for the entire Jewish people and more.
7 Ways To Help Trans* People In Our Communities:
Installing just one single unisex bathroom (even if it be in addition to Men’s and Women’s rooms) will create one more room for a trans* Jew (or a trans* non-Jewish guest or synagogue employee).
In many communities, we would hope that men and women both participate in kiddush and candle lighting. These are both nice gifts. Decide on one gift (or gift-package) to give everybody who reaches the age of mitzvot.
When a person immerses into the waters of a mikveh before emerging as a Jew, that person is witnessed by the eyes of a person of the same sex. A transsexual convert—not yet a man or woman—should be consulted on whether to have men, women and/or transsexual witnesses. (This collides with a question in Jewish law to discuss another time: Do Conservative Jews always need men to serve as witnesses so that Conservative Jews can live up to the standards of the Orthodox?)
Women’s League & Men’s Club:
Synagogues rarely host a social club appropriate for a trans* Jew. If a 40s & 50s Conservative Jewish Club group called for a golf outing and a knitting meet-up at the same time, the people who like only golfing or only knitting will go to the correct events. We may want to break down our clubs by ages—not by sex. For those of us who are egalitarian, we may have to ask ourselves why we wouldn’t want women playing golf or men coming for needlepoint? Is this segregation?
Also, when we talk about menopause among women, or impotence among men, we must also remember that not all female people will experience menopause, and not all male people, when naked, will look like “men.”
Just as a Jew might get an aliyyah to the Torah upon turning 50 (no religious obligation, but a nice mi she-beirakh can even be said), a Jew can also get an aliyyah and a special blessing upon changing from one sex to another. This will help us validate and welcome the trans* Jews among us.
During the custom of tohorah—purifying and cleansing the body of the deceased—a man is given to the hands of men, and a woman is given to the hands of women. Trans* Jews must be consulted about whose hands will be the last to handle the body, and the chevra kaddisha (burial committee) must be sympathetic to these wishes.
The Committee on Jewish Law & Standards must re-examine the legal standings of trans* Jews. Rabbi Meyer Rabinowitz’s “Status of Transsexuals” paper, from 2003, is already out of date. For example, it references the inability of two men or women to become Jewishly married. Nine years after his teshuvah was approved, the CJLS approved of two ceremonies for marrying a same-sex couple. A new teshuvah must be written with the cooperative and emotional input of trans* Jews. Whereas it might sound logical that what makes a man a man is his lower half (as is concluded in the teshuvah), many trans* Jews are unable or unwilling to undergo such medical procedures for reasons both obvious and unobvious.
May these words be for peace, for truth, and for machaloket leshem shamayim—a convergence of Heavenly, Divine voices. For more thoughts, see JewishTransitions.org.
Jonah Rank is in his 3rd year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is a musician, a writer, and a Co-Founder of Jewish Eyes On The Arts, and the secretary of Siddur Lev Shalem, the Rabbinical Assembly’s forthcoming siddur for Shabbat and Festivals. Special thanks to Noach Dzmura, Meir Hoberman and Emily Aviva Kapor for help with this blog post. Another version of this blogpost can be found at USCJ100.