In The Image of God

Kate Bornstein, author of Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us, describes trying to end her Jewish marriage with a get, a divorce document. She says “I couldn’t give a get. I went to four or five rabbis who said that only a man could give a get to my ex-wife, but I had already transitioned [from male to female.] I finally found a radical dyke rabbi in the East Village who helped. “It was, she muses,” more of a comedy than anything.”

The “trans” movement has, in a way, taken some of feminism’s work and pushed it even further. If a culture that thrives in part on gender oppression loses its concrete anchor on “gender,” the system as a whole must shift.

The division of people into the rigid categories of male and female isn’t as universal as we might expect. The Talmud records seven genders [See “What the Talmud Says about Gender Ambiguity” page 25]; Navajo culture identifies forty-nine; many African and Asian cultures have been documented as believing in sex/gender transformation. For some, a “trans” identity is really about leaving the gender assigned at birth and fully embracing another. For others, it’s about moving beyond the concept of binary gender After all, what do you call a femme dyke who identifies more with drag queens than straight women? Or someone who self-identifies as a “trans-butch-boy-dyke-fag”?

Letting go of the need to label can be liberating. Some people live happily in the gray areas of gender, experimenting with gender identity. Still others identify themselves as between, or outside, the concepts of male and female. Transgendered people can help us see even more clearly the assumptions and biases of a binary-gender society.

Jews who make the transition across genders—some of whom have found one another on list serves and through outreach programs—are adapting Jewish ritual for a whole new set of life cycle events. Bay Area rabbi Jane Litman has led mikveh rituals with people at various stages of gender transition—which, she reports, were extremely powerful. Litman says that, for her, the rituals were “closest to a conversionary mikveh . . . it’s a chance to let go of the past, to let go of the pain of what it is to be in a wrong presenting-gender body, to allow mikveh to heal some of that and to welcome the future, while taking in the present moment. Conversion is a rebirthing ceremony, and this is a similar rebirthing.”

Ritual is almost always used to get us through changes—from the weekday to Shabbat, from single to married, from gentile to Jew. So marking gender change with ritual seems like a natural move for a Jew. Litman’s mikveh rituals tend to include a specific kavanah, or meditation, for each dunk: on the first dip in the water, the participant is invited to think about what aspects of the past need to be relinquished; then, after saying the blessing for immersion, dunking while thinking about a positive vision for the future, and then comes the Shehechiyanu, the blessing for being in the present moment. The third dunk, Litman says, is typically “an opportunity for people who have had an ambivalent relationship with their bodies to feel fully present in that body and blessed by G-d.”

Participants’ reactions to the ritual are, she says, often quite profound: “A lot of people cry. The emotional rush of feeling seen, of feeling acceptance, is very powerful.” She tells one story of a yeshiva boy who, growing up, was always extremely jealous of the women going to the mikveh; after a mikveh ritual marking her transition to female, she looked at Rabbi Litman and paraphrased the words of b’nai mitzvah with particular poignancy. “Today I am a woman,” she said.

Another ritual slowly becoming a mainstay for transgendered Jews is a name-changing—or name-taking—ritual. In Josh Goldman’s ceremony at New York’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, he changed his Hebrew name from Shulamit Chaya to Shmuel Chayim and combined the traditional baby-naming blessing with elements of the blessing for converts. In a self-published periodical Timtum: A Trans Jew ‘Zine, Micah Bazant writes: “Names are very powerful things. For a lot of people, the names given to us by our parents represent a gender identity which was wrong, humiliating and forced. So don’t ask people what their old name was. And don’t ask if our current names are our ‘given names.’ If someone wants you to know, they will tell you. And ifyou know someone’s old name, don’t share it with other people.”

Many of the Jewish “transguys” in California, former Jennys and Jessicas, have chosen to take names that are recognizably Jewish; in my own circle I know or know of at least four Micahs, two Isaiahs, a Jaron, a Mordechai, an Avi, several Aris and a Levi. Why? Micah Morris says that “A lot of us started out with names that were not very Jewish to begin with, and coming out as ‘trans’ is a way to get back in touch with who we are and what our identity is—which also for a lot of us means getting back in touch with our Jewish identity.”

There are other ways Judaism is being integrated into the gender transitioning process. For Benjamin Harvey (not his real name), his adult bar mitzvah helped to mark his becoming, literally, a man. And Micah Morris has created a personal ritual of reciting the Kaddish while injecting hormones. He says that, for him, the Kaddish is “both about mourning and thanking God, and when I was first starting to transition, there was an aspect of mourning what I was giving up, and there still is an aspect of thanking God for helping me get to this point.”

Jews often express a yearning to have synagogue be a safe, accepting, space. Josh Goldman, a 26-year-old FtM says, “I’m comfortable most of the time being read as male, but with my friends and family and faith, I want to be the full me, which is “trans” and not “guy”; I have 23 years of female experience. Ina religious environment, you’re supposed to be fully seen and understood—you can’t ‘pass’ in front of God!”

If you want to make your shul a comfortable environment, Micah Morris, a 22-year-old religious-school teacher, suggests that “the golden rule really applies—if you don’t want people to ask you about your genitals, don’t ask about theirs. If you don’t want people to ask about your medical history, don’t ask about theirs. Keep in mind the principle of lashon hara, gossip: if something’s not necessary to say, don’t say it!” If someone who shows up to services doesn’t appear to be clearly male or female, suggests Jaron Kanegson, director of the Berkeley-based Youth Gender Project, “Give up your need to know. You probably don’t need to know, but think you need to know, and that creates a lot of anxiety.”

Before beginning gender transition, Ali Canon, a 37-year-old writer, invited over “more than a minyan” of friends and family fora ritual to mark the beginning of the journey. He also visited the men’s section of Jerusalem’s Western Wall as “a rite of passage as a Jew and the man I was becoming.” In fact, he asserts in an essay in the forthcoming anthology Queer Jews, the experience of “passing” at the Wall served as the catalyst for his gender transition and FtM identity. For, he writes, “I had claimed something most sacred about myself as a man before those ancient stones.”

But writer and editor T.J. Michels had a different experience at the Wall, which she also recounts in Queer Jews. Michels, who identifies as a “transgender butch,” was attempting to visit the women’s section of the Wall, when she was stopped by a screaming Israeli soldier who had evidently perceived her as male. Michels “backed away from him” and moved over to the men’s section, where she “felt a wave of unwanted [male] privilege” and a sense that she needed, as a way of rejecting that privilege, to pray from the women’s section. She returned to the women’s section, where the guard looked her up and down and asked, with deep disdain, if she was a woman. Though the word didn’t resonate with her gender, Michels writes, she “had to say yes. I headed up to where the women were gathered, and prayed. Sobbing, I asked God to guide me, with patience, to become a better Jew.”

While Orthodox Judaism—which maintains and enforces theme chitzah at the Wall—is not likely to dismantle most gendered aspects of Judaism anytime soon, some Orthodox rabbis have begun to address transgender issues. In 1998 a belt din in Jerusalem ruled that transsexual pop star Dana International, now a woman, could be counted in a minyan. The Israeli newspaper Maariv quoted the rabbias saying, “One who is born male remains so his entire life.” Yet other shave begun to use Jewish law and Jewish legal process to honestly address the needs and interests of transgender Jews. Another Orthodox Rabbi has ruled in his not only that a MtF transperson doesn’t count in a minyan, but that her ex-wife doesn’t need a get, because she’s no longer an eshet-ish—a woman’s husband.

God-language is another way trangender Jews are addressing the tradition. Some Jewish feminists have argued that replacing “King of the Universe” with “Queen,” for example, helps take the sting out of a patriarchal deity. But Bari Mandelbaum, 27, identifies herself as “gender queer,” which, she says, is “when you have a gender that is defined outside traditional concepts of gender. I don’t think I’m “trans”—I’m not crossing over anything, I’m stepping outside the definitions. I’m not a girl who wishes she was a boy, I’m not a girl who’s kind of butchy. I’m something else entirely. “And as a result, she says, “I’d personally like to see gender taken out of God altogether; any attempt to gender God is to try to make God a clergy member or a president or someone like that, who’s considered higher than us but is like us. To lay humanity over God, including to gender God, is to mis perceive what the great unknowable actually is. God is an entity, an energy, greater than the whole and the whole itself.”

For many Jews, our cultural identities are marked, like transgender life, by questions of either/or, of “passing.” Are we white or “other”? Do we want to be a community unto ourselves or to engage with the rest of world? In these ways we may all be boundary crossers, with something to learn from those who are pushing the boundaries further. 

Danya Ruttenberg who first brought to Lilith’s attention the subject of transgender Jews, edited Yentl’s Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (Seal Press)