Sunday, November 25, 2012

On the Possible Inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah in our Liturgy

Bilhah and Zilpah Listserv Postings
As many of you know, at our next minyan meeting on Sunday, December 2nd, we will be voting on whether to include Bilhah and Zilpah in the communal recitation of the Amidah. In advance of that meeting, the study group’s findings are posted below. These were shared at services a few weeks ago, but we appreciate that not everyone was able to attend.

I would like to encourage the community to discuss this on the listserv and on this bloc so as to share your perspectives. Earlier, I had asked people to e-mail their comments to me, and that had the unintended consequence of making me the sole recipient of everyone’s views. I would like to rectify that now.

This exploration grew out of one of our principles: a commitment to liturgical innovation and the right of the service leader, within very broad guidelines, to introduce new materials in order to expand learning, deepen spirituality, or heighten attention to issues. For example, the traditional Aleynu says, "Who has not made us like other peoples of the world or families of the earth, and not made our lot like theirs or our fate like any others'."  When the community decided to use the Reconstructionist version that replaces the phrase with "who gave us true teaching and planted eternal life in our midst," we originally paused to allow time for those reciting the traditional Aleynu to finish because it takes longer to say.  Over time, that pause fell by the wayside when no one seemed to be doing the traditional Aleynu.

The intention of the study group has been to use this question as an impetus for Jewish learning and to create an avenue for communal discussion and to deepen our connections to each other.
As a brief background, Bilhah and Zilpah are the “handmaidens” of Leah and Rahel who birthed sons considered leaders of four tribes of Israel. The sons born to Zilpah (Leah’s shifhah) are Gad and Asher; the sons born to Bilhah (Rahel’s shifhah) are Dan and Naftali. The reason we chose to focus on the possibility of including them in the recitation of the imahot is that their children account for one third of the tribes of Israel.

Below are the opening comments from the d’var we shared:

Through study and consultation with many members of our community, we have identified a number of reasons both to include and not to include their names in the listing of the imahot. As we formulated our approach to learning, we agreed that, despite what our personal inclinations might be, we would be open to hearing whatever our search brought to us. We do not have a recommendation one way or the other but have come to the conclusion that including them or not including them in the community recitation of the Avot v'Imahot section of the Amidah is a matter of personal and community conviction. And as a matter of process, more important than coming up with an answer, is using this exploration as a way to get to know each other in a deeper way and build community.

We chose four avenues for data collection: rabbinic text (Michelle Greenfield), the Hebrew words by which Bilhah and Zilpah are referenced - “amah” or “shifchah” plus the concept of pilegesh (Chana Dickter), the processes of other communities that have wrestled with this issue, and feedback from our community as we included Bilhah and Zilpah in the community recitation of the Avot v'Imahot section of the Amidah (Naomi Klayman). Further, the chapter, Attitudes, Beliefs, and Values from David Teutch’s book, AGuide to Jewish Practice was a valuable resource for us as we grappled with the question of how this inclusion might or might not support our communal values.
This study was not meant to be exhaustive, but rather an initial exploration, limited by our time and energy.
Rabbinic Text Search
A review of Rabbinic sources (talmud and midrash) on the Imahot and on Bilhah and Zilpah led us to sources which, not surprisingly, contradict each other.
Although there is a strong early tradition of there being four mothers, we also found a Midrashic tradition (attested to in Song of Songs Rabbah as well as other sources) that specifically claims there are 6 mothers, including Bilhah and Zilpah on the list. In these midrashim, the inclusion or exclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah is likely not driven by values.  It would seem as though when the rabbis were looking for things that added up to four, there were four mothers.  When they wanted seven, they added the four mothers and three fathers. And when they wanted six, Bilhah and Zilpah were included.
Other sources contribute to a sense that these two women were important in the life of Joseph.  Midrash on Geneses 37:2 imagined them as having been Joseph’s caretakers, as his mother had died.  There is even a Midrash that imagines Joseph referring to Bilhah as his mother.
No texts were found about Bilhah and Zilpah's faith or religion, though one obscure Midrash does imagine them as the product of a relationship between Lavan and one if his maidservants which, in a system of Patrilineal descent gives them the same status as Rachel and Leah.   
Other Synagogue Practices
Three synagogues/minyanim were identified in North America that include Bilhah and Zilpah in the Avot section of the Amidah at some point in a service. What is unique about Dorshei Derekh, is that we are the only community that I have found so far that is subjecting this decision to a communal process; the others made a de facto decision by a few people with little process. I know there are other prayer communities that I have not been able to contact, and perhaps there are others that have gone through a similar process.
Congregation Bet Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue in NYC appointed a study/work group to develop their own siddur. The group included the assistant rabbi at that time, Ayelet S. Cohen. The group decided to include Bilhah and Zilpah in the Friday night recitation of the Amidah. No discussion of weighing the implications was reported, but this is what appears at the footnote:
“As a community of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight Jews, we have experienced the ways in which families are excluded and erased from Jewish community and family life. Because of the way we love, some of us have lost our children or have been excised from their lives; many of us will never be legally recognized as the parents of the children we have raised. Likewise, many of us are the children of parents who are not legally recognized. Yet despite this, we know that our relationships are holy and our families are real. Therefore, we acknowledge all our ancestors, Avraham, Yitschak, Ya’akov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, her handmaiden Bilhah, Leah, and her handmaiden Zilpah. Our ancestors descended from all of them, whether their relationships were celebr4ated or not, whether they were regarded as equal or not.”
Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a Conservative synagogue in Elkins Park, added Bilhah and Zilpah to the minhah service. When Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom was developing their siddur, he decided to add them to the minchah service without consultation with the community. Their names are included or excluded at the discretion of the service leader, and that is announced just prior to the recitation of the Amidah. Rabbi Rosenbloom first became aware of the possibility of included their names at a female baby-naming service conducted by Rabbi Lenny Gordon.
Ahavat Olam, a progressive synagogue in Vancouver, CA, includes Bilhah and Zilpah in the Shabbat morning recitation of the Amidah. Rabbi David Mivasair explained that he shares leading services with one other person. When that other person included Bilhah and Zilpah in the Amidah, Rabbi Mivasair decided to continue that tradition. This was not discussed by the community.
Compiled Reflections on Values
Avadim hayinu bemitzrayim (We were slaves in Egypt [Deuteronomy 6:21]). "create empathy with all who are down-trodden, victimized or in pain, and support for them." Some of the rejection of Bilhah and Zilpah is due to class and race issues. - Supports inclusion
B’tzelem Elohim (Human beings are created in the image of God) "no human being should be treated merely as an object" Bilhah and Zilpah should not be treated merely as objects (wombs/surrogates) but as putting their lives on the line for Israel in enduring pregnancies for the propagation of the tribes. -  Supports inclusion
Darkhey shalom:  "utilizing ... resources in ways that create harmony. ... Applies to conflicts between religious groups", A change to the status quo has the potential to incite conflict within our community. - Could support exclusion
Diversity "We benefit from our exposure to different ideas, cultures and ways of being in the world."  Recognizing the diversity of mother role - Supports inclusion.
Egalitarianism Although it speaks of equal treatment only for "women and men, homosexual and heterosexual, and people of all races and ethnicities. This principle to extend to socio-economic class. It recognizes the infinite worth of every human life, especially as mothers of Israel. It also sends a message of inclusion and respect to all members of our community. – Supports inclusion.
Emet (Truth and integrity) Provides the truth about our origins, recognizing all six mothers, voiding the untruth of omission. – Supports inclusion
Inclusion and Pluralism "Welcoming all into our communities regardless of ... family status". Supports embracing a wider range of people, strengthening the community and encouraging it to serve all its members.  –  Supports inclusion.
Kehila (Commitment to community) and Klal Yisrael (Unity and survival of the Jewish people) and Sh’lom bayit (Peace at home)   Some in our community take offense at this and would find it distracting. However, the same could be said of other minority groups that we feel compelled to include and other ways that we have expanded our prayers, such as the Imahot and "yo shvay tayvel" at the end of kaddish.  - Supports exclusion
K’vod hab’riyot (Human dignity)  :  "we are bound to respect the dignity of each human being and act in a way consistent with that dignity."  - Supports inclusion.
Pluralism:  "We embrace pluralism not as a necessary evil but as a source for creating vigor in Jewish life".  Bringing the rare practice of including B&Z enhances pluralism. – Supports inclusion.
Shalshelet hakabbala (Preserving the chain of tradition) PROBLEMATIC as Bilhah and Zilpah are not seen as part of the dominant oral tradition in our prayer services. But then neither was including the imahot until we started doing it.
Tzedek:  "We live in a just society only when every one of its members is treated justly."  Inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah as equals with Rachel &Leah is a way of retroactively treating them justly as mothers.  - Support inclusion.
Hebrew Text Study
In the text, Bilhah & Zilpah are referred to as both “amah” or “shifchah”.  What types of relationships do these terms imply when used in the Torah?  Another  textual term is “pilegesh” How were these terms used and understood in the ancient Middle East?

The brief citations below are not intended for anything other than to provide a very broad, basic understanding for reference in future discussions.  They were collected during a very pleasant hour spent lost in the internet.

1. Pilegesh/ פילגש  :  A pilegesh was recognized among the ancient Hebrews and enjoyed the same rights in the house as the legitimate wife. Since having children in Judaism was considered a great blessing, legitimate wives often gave their maids to their husbands so they could have children with them when those women themselves where childless.  According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanh. 21a), the difference between a pilegesh and a full wife was that the latter received a ketubah and her marriage was preceded by a formal betrothal ("kiddushin"), which was not the case with the former. Any offspring created as a result of a union between a pilegesh and a man were on equal legal footing with children of the man and his (ketubah owning) wife.  (no citation)
NB:  anyone interested in pursuing such a relationship is welcome to visit
2.  The following is from a brief e-mail correspondence with Wil Gafney:
“Amah & shifchah are used completely interchangeably in the corpus and it is no longer possible to distinguish them. Both types of enslaved women and girls are sexually available to their owners for pleasure and/or reproduction. For that reason I chose "womb-slave" to emphasize that aspect of their servitude in those narratives in which they are so used. The translation is semantic (womb) and philological (slave).
Here are some references for Amah in the Tanakh:   Judg 9:18; 19:19; 1 Sam 1:11, 16; 25:24–25, 28, 31, 41; 2 Sam 6:20, 22; 14:15–16; 20:17; 1 Kings 1:13, 17; 3:20; Nah 2:7; Psa 86:16; 116:16; Job 19:15; 31:13; Ruth 3:9; Ezra 2:65; Neh 7:67”

Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim, 29 Shevat 5764 - Torah: Exodus 21:1-24:18; Maftir: Exodus 30:11-16; Haftarah : II Kings 12:1-17
An amah is a girl sold to a man because of her family’s dire poverty She becomes a servant to that man. Because her status is anomalous – she is a part of the family but was acquired in the manner of slave – the Torah here lays out her special prerogatives. According to Professor Nahum Sarna, the “laws safeguard her rights and protect her from sexual exploitation.”
Biref4. Most intriguing was a summary from the book: Savina J. Teubal. Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar and Sarah. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1997, in which she posits that Hagar was a Naditu priest and argues that she may have been Pharaoh's daughter, or his royal wife or sister. Teubal argues that Hagar's function was childbearing, a rather important function that was of great significance for childless priests like Sarah. Drawing a distinction between "shifhah" and "amah" [slave, maid] terms that are both attributed to Hagar in the Bible, Teubal links the first term to the function of a woman who bore children for a barren priest and who served herself as a priest. That Hagar was childless before coming into Sarah's service provides the likelihood that she was a priest. Teubal argues that Hagar was Sarah's companion, a clan member of equal status rather than a slave or a servant as the later interpretation of "shifhah" and the term "amah" suggests.
Community Feedback (as of the date of the d’var)
·         It is possible that Bilhah and Zilpah were initially excluded from the Imahot based on class and/or race prejudice.
·         It is possible that Bilhah and Zilpah were initially excluded from the Imahot because their alliance to God is not evident or because they do not explicitly represent Jewish spiritual values.
·         The inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah could be taking feminism too far, listing so many more mothers than fathers and could alienate some men in our community.
·         The addition of Bilhah and Zilpah reminds us of the contributions of so many nameless and voiceless people over the millennia, especially women, who toil and care for their families and the children of others.
·         We might put elipses after Rachel and Leah, and pause in the davvening to indicate that we can never name in the prayer all the ancestors in all the generations.
·         The inclusion of Bilhah and Zilpah could be distracting to the point of discouraging participating in our service.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Understanding Transgender Issues in Jewish Ethics, by Rabbi David Teutsch

Understanding Transgender Issues in Jewish Ethics 
A Presentation on November 10, 2012 -- David Teutsch

The dominant approach to gender in Western society has its origin in Christian thought that understands both sex and gender as binary. In that understanding, everyone is either male or female, and gender and sex are identical. While Jews gradually absorbed that perspective, classical rabbinic Judaism had a much more sophisticated understanding.

The Talmud contains hundreds of references to other categories. These include, for example, the androgynos (a hermaphrodite with male and female organs), the tumtum (someone with hidden or underdeveloped genitalia), the eylonit (a masculine woman) and the saris (a feminine man). It is clear from even this short list that the Talmud recognizes that sex organs do not necessarily make people purely male or purely female. The Talmud also recognizes that an individual’s gender orientation does not necessarily match his or her sex organs.

This perspective is underlined by the Mishna: “The androgynos is like a man in some ways and like a woman in some ways, like both a man and a woman in some ways, and like neither a man nor a woman in some ways.”  (Bikurim 4.1) While the talmudic rabbis did not know about chromosomes or hormones, they certainly understood that sex and gender are independent variables, and they made it licit for people to be true to themselves in regard to gender expression.

In reaching this stance, the rabbis had to deal with several aspects of the Torah’s teaching that seem to dictate a different position. One of these aspects is the Torah’s prohibition of cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5).  The Talmud says that what is prohibited is falsifying identity for the purpose of spying on the other sex. The great medieval commentator Rashi says that the prohibition is limited to concealing identity for the purpose of adultery. The Shulhan Arukh notes that cross-dressing is permitted on Purim because its purpose is simha (celebration, joy) and that it is forbidden if it is for the purpose of fraud. In limiting the prohibition to situations of fraud and deception, the talmudic and medieval rabbis indicated that cross-dressing in a way that is true to the cross-dresser’s identity is permitted.

The other biblical prohibition is of castration. Of course, this is irrelevant for female-to-male transgender people. Most male-to-female transgender people do not have “bottom surgery,” in which case it is not an issue for them either. Contemporary Jewish bioethicists treat vasectomy as an equivalent of castration, so for those who would allow vasectomy, voluntary castration should be treated similarly.

In terms of contemporary Jewish ethics, several key values are relevant to this issue—inclusion, tzedek (justice), and briyut (health). People who wish to be included in our Jewish community should be warmly welcomed. In the spirit of every person being b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), their diversity should be understood as adding to the divine presence among us.

In a world where tzedek is often withheld from people for reasons of class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and family structure, among other reasons, it is incumbent upon Jews to fight injustice in all its forms. “We were slaves in Egypt.” Transgender people, subject to many kinds of injustice, deserve our support.

Briyut is concerned with both physical and emotional health. Preventing individuals from expressing who they are clearly leads to psychological problems. The mitzvah of healing is not limited to health professionals; it is incumbent upon every Jew. Supporting transgender people in who they are is part of that mitzvah.

Bioethics questions are sometimes asked about the hormone treatments and surgery that transgender people often utilize. Here the psychological health issues must be weighed against the risks of treatment. Hormone treatments are to date regarded as extremely low-risk, and the surgery is in the same class as plastic surgery, something that can be elected by an individual after weighing the gains against the risks.
Our current understanding differentiates among sex, sexual orientation and gender as three independent variables that can appear in individuals in any combination. Given that reality, it is important to allow individuals to name and describe themselves.

There are several basic measures that Jewish communities should take. They should include transgender people in their nondiscrimination policies, including employment policies. To avoid embarrassment for transgender people, buildings should have at least one single-stall restroom and notices near other restrooms giving the location of the single-stall restroom. Programming to help people come to terms with the issues raised above should be a regular part of Jewish communal life.

The mitzvah that takes precedence over virtually all others is saving a life. In a world where sexual minorities are subject to ridicule and suicide, we all need to stand up for the full diversity in our communities.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Transgender Jews: Moving Towards the Blessing of Inclusion

Many thanks to all those who made the Stefan Presser Memorial Social Justice Shabbat 2012 such a profound experience.  Donald Joseph, our chair, Rabbi Annie Lewis, our Darshan, and our four fabulous speakers all deserve our thanks: Nurit Schein, David Teutsch, Leiah Moser, and Yoel Solís.

Here are the talks by Rabbi Lewis and Leiah Moser.   They are long!!

To See and to Celebrate: Community, Identity and the Stories of our Selves

Shabbat Chayei Sarah 5773 * November 10, 2012  

see me through
your own eyes
i am here.

don't look for me
in poems
i'm not there.

don't look for me in
shadowy faces
i'm not there.

see me through
your own eyes
i am here.

once. when or with whom
i disappeared went
into hiding behind
my own skull
wasn't seen for a decade or two
wasn't seen for a decade or two.

now i am back
carrying my life in a small bag
now i am back
holding open my hands
holding open my hands.

see me through
your own smile
i am here.

see me through
your own smell
i am here.

see me through
your own eyes
i am here
i am here...

We enter today’s parsha with a question.  Has anybody seen Isaac?  He has not been seen since the day his father bound his limbs with wood on an altar on a mountaintop.  But even before that, did anybody really see Yitzhak?  He was God’s gift to his parents.  He was the miracle of Sarah’s old age.  He was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that from him would spring a great nation.  But who is Isaac is his own eyes, in his own right?

When we meet Yitzhak again this week, he is on his way from a place called Be’er Lechai Ro’i.  He has gone out into the field in the light of late afternoon, to pour out his prayers.

This place called Be’er Lechai Ro’i was given its name by Hagar, after she ran away into the desert, fleeing harsh treatment at the hands of her mistress, Sarai. Here, God appears to her and promises her that she, too, will be a great nation.  Here, Hagar gives God a name, El Ro’i, the One who sees me. Here at Be’er Lechai Ro’i, whose name means, “the Well of the Living One who sees me,” parched and worn down, Hagar’s spirit is restored to her.

According to Rashi, at the opening of this week’s parsha, Yitzhak has gone to Be’er Lechai Ro’i to bring Hagar back to his father - so that Avraham might marry her after the death of Sarah.

Giving voice to Isaac on the altar, Rabbi Shai Held offers a different reason for Isaac’s pilgrimage to this place called Be’er Lechai Ro’i.  His experience of trauma at the hands of his father binds him to Hagar.

In Rabbi Held’s words, Isaac prays, “If somehow I make it out of here alive, I am going to go find Hagar and bring her home.  I think I know what she must feel like.  Maybe we could comfort each other.”

Isaac knows there is a person who will understand what he has been through.  He knows there is a place where he might be seen for the fullness of who he is.  There is an oasis where he might be free from the rigid expectations of others. Our Torah promises that there is such a place of seeing and being seen.  Hagar found solace and nourishment in this place and named it “Be’er Lechai Ro’i - the Well of the Living One who sees me.” Yitzhak went there to reconnect to life.  Can we imagine creating such a space of healing and wholeness? A place where we may call out, “See me through your own eyes.  I am here.” 

Throughout my life, there have been times when I have found a type of “Be’er Lechai Ro’i” in the words of a poet or in the pages of a book.  I want to share with you the wisdom of one of those books today, a book called Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights.[2]  Covering was written by Kenji Yoshino, a law professor and poet, a gay American, and the son of Japanese immigrants. Yoshino touches on questions of civil rights and the complexity of expressing one’s full identity in the public sphere. I share his teachings in memory of Stefan Presser, zichrono livracha, who was so deeply committed to civil rights, human dignity and the diversity of human experience.

“Love is a narrative permission,” Yoshino writes, “Stories can be told from within its bounds.”
“Love is a narrative permission.  Stories can be told from within its bounds.”

I discovered Covering as I was living in Israel and applying for rabbinical school.  It was the year the Jewish Theological Seminary changed its policy to admit openly gay and lesbian rabbis.  My first year as a student, as we approached the anniversary of the Chancellor’s momentous decision, I came together with a group of students and faculty to plan a “Day of Celebration.”  We got some pushback as there were those in the community who had disagreed with the change in admissions policy and the responsa ratified by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that precipitated the decision.  They found the change incompatible with their understanding of halacha.  They believed in the pluralism of the Conservative movement and they felt that a celebration of one position would exclude them and render them outside the camp.  In the name of respecting their sentiments, we were asked to tone down the name of the event, to change it from the “Day of Celebration” to the “Day of Inclusion.”

Frustrated, I flipped through the pages of Covering.  Blending personal story, poetry and legal history, Yoshino addresses “the covering demand,” what he views to be the “civil rights issue of our time.”

“Everyone covers,” Yoshino writes in his opening line of the book. The term “covering” was coined by sociologist Erving Goffman.  “Covering” is defined as the act of downplaying an aspect of a stigmatized identity. Though the law presumably protects an individual’s right to inhabit a minority identity or one disfavored by the mainstream, demands may still be imposed on a person to mute the volume or decrease the visibility of traits tied to this identity.

Yoshino gives examples of how Americans have been asked to cover when it comes to aspects of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and physical & mental disability. He reminds us how President Roosevelt covered, hiding his wheelchair behind his desk when appearing before his Cabinet.

He discusses American Airlines’ policy prohibiting employees from wearing all-braided hairstyles, a policy that was challenged in court by an African American operations agent claiming it was discriminatory towards African American women. In that case, Rogers vs. American Airlines, the district court ruled in favor of the airline.

Yoshino traces the narrative of the struggle for civil rights for gay Americans.  He tells of a time when there was a widespread societal demand for "conversion," in which those who were gay were subjected to painful methods such as electric shock therapy in the hopes that they would become straight.  Then came an era of passing, as seen in policies of "don't ask, don't tell".  More recently, as the law has expanded protections for those who are openly gay, covering demands remain in place - cultural pressures that ask individuals not to flaunt their sexual orientation.  

In some places in this country, overt discrimination and violence against gay and lesbian Americans has given way to more subtle, institutionalized discrimination and lack of equal protection.  Reading Yoshino’s book helped me to find language for the gap between the work of policy change and the work of culture change.

When I arrived at JTS, people no longer had to hide in the closet, fearing expulsion if their identities were revealed. With the shift in policy, gay and lesbian Jews were able to study at JTS to be ordained as rabbis or invested as cantors.  Yet, that first year after the policy change, when  we were asked to change the name of the “Day of Celebration” to the “Day of Inclusion,” it was clear that though the policy had changed,  the culture had not yet caught up.  It was okay to be queer in theory, as long as one was not too loud or outspoken about it, for fear of offending others. For those of us at JTS who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and queer allies, there was still much work to be done. 

I will always remember that first “Day of Inclusion” at JTS. It was, in fact, a day of celebration and a day of storytelling.   Moving away from the focus on responsa and legal argumentation  that had dominated the conversation in the Conservative movement for years, alumni who had gone through JTS in the closet returned to the sanctuary to speak their truths and to tell their stories.  Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, sang “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy,” inviting all who were present into the space in our fullness.“It’s safe to come out now,” she said.  Together, we celebrated and wept for the blessings of inclusion.

We wept and celebrated and before we knew it, it was time to fight again.  We realized that the Seminary hadn’t extended its admissions policy to bisexual or transgender students and that our Seminary’s Israel program required students to enroll at Machon Schechter, an institution that at the time did not permit the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.  There was much work to be done to create a culture where students of all sexual orientations and gender identities could flourish in our fullness.

My teacher, Merle Feld, once asked me, “Annie, Are you more connected with what has changed already or with what still needs to change?”  In general, I would say I am more attuned to the thirst for change.  However, standing on the stage at my ordination as a rabbi, I had a moment of gratitude for the way things had moved at the Seminary in the five years I had been there.  Machon Shechter, our sister seminary in Israel had just changed its policy to allow for the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis. For the first time a course was offered on issues of “Gender & Sexuality for Religious Professionals.” For the past year, the Chancellor has been meeting with a group of students to discuss the Seminary’s admissions and employment policies for transgender individuals. 

Often, I wish the change would come faster.  And at the same time, I am humbled by and indebted to those who passed through the halls of JTS before me, who fought hard for the inclusion of women and queer rabbinical students. I feel hopeful picturing the faces of the students who are there now, continuing the work of policy and cultural change that my classmates and I inherited.

This week in our country, there is much work to be done and there is much to celebrate in the work of advancing civil rights for queer Americans.  In Minnesota, a proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage was defeated. In Wisconsin, Tammy Baldwin was elected as the first openly gay member of the United States Senate. Same sex marriage was legalized in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Soon by you, Pennsylvania! Soon by you!

This Shabbat, as we honor Stefan Presser, zichrono livracha, as we think about civil rights and as we prepare to hear the stories of transgender Jews in our community, I want to offer some questions for conversation to help us think about our own community, where we have come from and where we hope to go to ensure the flourishing of the multiplicity of individuals within our midst.  To create among us a type of Be’er Lechai Ro’i - a life-giving well, a place of seeing and being seen.  A place of “narrative permission,” where love flows and stories abound.

Here are some questions and prompts for discussion:

Are you more connected with what has changed already or with what still needs to change? What factors in your life have shaped your stance?

Tell a story of an experience when you felt pressure to “cover,” to downplay an aspect of a stigmatized identity in order to conform with social norms.

What can we do to make our “community of communities” here at Germantown Jewish Centre best resemble Be’er Lechai Ro’i, an oasis of seeing and being seen?
A Parting Blessing:

May the One who created the world through words give us the courage to tell our stories. 

May God grant us a life-giving combination of patience and urgency,
as we work for a community and a country where all individuals may flourish in their fullness. 

May we see one another through our own eyes.
As we are.

[1] Sonia Sanchez is the poet laureate of the city of Philadelphia
[2] Yoshino, Kenji. Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights. New York: Random House, 2006Leiah Lin Moser


Leiah Moser's Words:

Stories don’t come easily to me. The fact of the matter is that only now, when I’m thirty years old, am I finally starting to learn how to tell stories about myself the way that most people seem to be able to do naturally. I’m used to hiding behind the words I use, holding them up up as a sort of mask, a surface I use to comment on the world while at the same time distancing myself from it. For me, words have been a survival mechanism and a safety blanket, a way to hide the fact of my profound disjointedness, to fill in the holes I feel within myself. These holes are many and various, but as far as I can see, they all seem to be bound up in the impossible conflict between what I need to in order to fulfill my responsibilities toward others and what this strange thing I call myself seems to need in order to survive.
The first gap I have trouble hurdling when I try to explain myself to others is that I did not grow up as a child with a strong sense of gendered identity. I didn’t play sports or go in for roughhousing, but I wasn’t into Barbie dolls, I didn’t play dress-up in my mother’s clothes, and the only princess I wanted to be like was Princess Leia from Star wars. I didn’t distinguish much between my male and female friends. My closest friends were always girls, but I always had more male friends than female, and if the boys sometimes seemed a little weird or I sometimes felt a bit more comfortable and emotionally secure playing with the girls, that didn’t seem so unusual. If it had occurred to anyone to ask me in second grade what I felt like on the inside, I probably would have told them “a robot,” and felt that answer made perfect sense.
In rather simple and obvious terms, what happened next was adolescence and puberty. My family moved from Athens, GA to Geneva, IL when I was in the middle of fourth grade, and suddenly finding myself in a new social environment forced me to wake up to the realities of living in a world where people were either male or female, whether they wanted to be or not. In Athens, I’d been permitted to go about life in my own quirky way, more or less insulated from the world around me by my tendency to get lost in worlds of my own imagination. Suddenly it had become very important to know the right way to act in order to “fit in,” and what I quickly discovered was that I didn’t.
At the same time, my body was starting to change, and that in itself came as something of a horrible shock. I imagine that many adolescents, once they’ve gotten over the initial awkwardness of puberty, learn to accept the changes they are going through with a certain amount of hopefulness as they find themselves maturing into the adults they are in the process of becoming. For me, the growing awareness of my developing body was like waking up to find oneself dressed in an ill-fitting set of clothes it is impossible to take off.
At some point or other in middle school I picked up the knowledge that some people are born intersexed and surgically modified at birth to conform with one gender or the other. For the longest time, I secretly believed that this is what had happened to me, because it was the only way I had of making sense of the overwhelming sense of wrongness my body gave me. I used to spend a great deal of time imagining being suddenly transformed into a girl. I’d walk through strategies in my head for dealing with having to exit the boy’s bathroom without being seen. Somehow in my mind this would always happen while I was in the bathroom at school, probably because of the sheer misery of anxiety public restrooms caused me and continue to cause me to this day.
Eventually the discomfort I felt settled into a kind of routine I thought I could live with. I told myself that the feelings I had around my body were probably completely normal for boys. I was convinced that all people born with male bodies were aware on a subconscious level that nature had played a terrible trick on them, and that this feeling was the real reason for all the sexism and misogyny in the world. I comforted myself that at least I was more aware of this than other “boys” and was therefore better able to control and mitigate the sense of resentment I felt at not being lucky enough to be born female. Sometimes I would console myself that in being “male” I was living up to a heavy but necessary responsibility that had been placed on me, and that perhaps in some future life I would be rewarded by being born a woman.
This was the attitude that got me through high school and college, and to be honest it’s almost scary how easily it translated into my new life when I converted to Judaism. I was not raised to believe in any kind of God, and I’m too avid a historian to believe in “Torah mi Sinai” as a matter of fact, but the language of religious obligation carried and still carries a great deal of resonance for me. The idea of a God who commands certain behaviors, not because they are necessary or even comprehensible from a human standpoint but for His own inscrutable reasons, makes a certain kind of sense when even your experience of your own body is of something unnatural imposed on you from the outside.
That was my life for the longest time: Being what I wasn’t for the sake of those I couldn’t live without. It wasn’t all bad, by any means. I had (and still have) a partner whom I loved and who loved me in return. Eventually I found a new community and a new spiritual language in Judaism–a language and a community that inspired me enough to make me want to go to rabbinical school. But at the same time there was always that dissatisfaction at my center, that sense that unhappiness was an essential part of my life–which made me feel very confused sometimes, because one of the religious obligations which I understand myself to be commanded to observe requires that I take pleasure in my existence and in that of the world my creator has placed me in.
So what changed things? I’d like to say it was some profound spiritual insight, but in fact all it really took was meeting someone–one person–who had felt the same way I did and had been courageous enough to do something about it. I ask myself sometimes how it could be that something as simple as that could have been the catalyst for such a profound change. You can spend your entire life staring up at the sky and dreaming of flying, but so long as it remains completely outside the realm of possibility you can learn to live with the sadness, carry it with you wherever you go, always there but never acknowledged because you know if you mentioned it to your friends they’d simply laugh and assume you were joking. But then one day you see your first airplane and your whole life changes, because somewhere inside of you a tiny piece of that sadness is transmuted into a faint hope that, though you will never have wings, you may nevertheless someday get the chance to fly. And from that day on it will never be enough simply to live with that sadness anymore.
The situation I find myself in after coming out is that of having to constantly negotiate and renegotiate the terms between the tradition I’ve fallen in love with and the self that seems to be constantly threatening to spill over the boundaries within which that tradition operates. It is not so much the violation itself that I fear as the possibility of finding myself in a place where the tradition cannot support me nor I it. In seeking out the lesser-known corners of the Jewish tradition for language that seems to speak to my situation, I’m never entirely sure whether it’s the tradition’s boundaries I’m stretching or my own. And somewhere throughout the process, silently watching from the wings, is the God who made me in this particular way but then left me alone without comment to search for my own answer to what that means.
A recent incident may serve to illustrate what my dilemma looks like in practical terms. I was contacted by a local rabbi who operates a small, independent religious school for children. She wanted to put me in contact with a family that needed a tutor to teach their daughter Hebrew in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah. I sat down with the family and had a great interview. They seemed very happy with what I had to offer and we arranged for a date for the first lesson. This was the first job I’d ever managed to get as myself, and for a little while I felt super confident.
But then about a week after the interview I received a call from the rabbi who’d recommended me for the job. There was an issue–the daughter had asked the parents about the irregularities in my appearance, and whent hey’d talked to the rabbi about it she’d had to confirm that I was a trans-woman still in the process of transition. The mother called, we talked. She was more or less sympathetic to my situation, but felt like she had to balance my right to have my identity respected with her daughter’s desire to have a “female” teacher, someone who had had a “Bat Mitzvah rather than a Bar Mitzvah,” someone “she could look up to as a role model.” In the end, several days later, I received word that they wouldn’t be requiring my services after all.
I make no judgment about the validity of the mother’s concerns. Twelve years old is a delicate age, as I remember all to well. No one, especially not a child, should be forced into a situation that makes them genuinely emotionally uncomfortable. At the same time, this situation illustrates the kind of difficult balancing act I find myself in every day. I wanted to become a rabbi in order to make myself useful to my adopted people, to fill a necessary function and feel like I was one of the folks working to help keep Jewish communities tightly knit and alive to the wisdom of our traditions. In order to fulfill this function it is necessary for me to be truly present for those I live and work with. I don’t have the option of burying myself deep inside and going through life in an emotionally deadened state. But at the same time, being who I truly am is frequently distracting and often actively disruptive in the places where I am needed. It’s a dilemma I haven’t solved yet, and I don’t expect to any time soon.
My experiences being transgender in the Jewish community have been mixed. It has certainly been the case that throughout this process I have been the recipient of more acceptance and earnest goodwill than I ever would have dared to hope. I believe that many people, both here at the GJC and at the RRC, have been able to pick up on how happy I have been to be able to be more myself and have been ready to respect where I am on this journey. This is one place where the “live and let live” attitude of progressive Judaism has been an enormous benefit to me, which is ironic, as I always seem to find myself arguing for a more structured halachic approach.
The other side to this, however, is that while in itself permission to simply be who you are is an enormous gift that I have no intention of taking lightly, it is only part of the equation. Always in my life up to this point, being for others has meant giving up who I was in order to be who they needed me to be. Now, to draw on Rabbi Hillel, I have been slowly, painfully learning how to be for myself. What still eludes me is how to be for others *as* who I am.
In order to get to that place, and in order to be the rabbi I need to be, it is vital to find a place for transgender identities that can live within Judaism, not simply as an exception falling within the range of tolerated difference, but growing out of our texts and traditions in an organic and essential way. For me, and for many transgender Jews like me who are active in the Jewish community, this is a project that we undertake every day out of necessity, but its eventual success depends just as much on the participation of people in communities like this one throughout the Jewish world.