trans and orthodox, or, a bizarre obsession with genitals

December 28, 2006

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) published two articles this week about transgendered Orthodox Jews (When Abba Becomes Imma: Transsexuals in the Orthodox World, and Toronto’s Orthodox community adjusts to Nicole, nee Mordechai (subscription required). The individual stories of Orthodox transpeople are probably the best part of both articles.

“From when I was 7 years old, I knew I was a girl,” Beyer said. “Standing there with the boys, saying ‘she’lo asani isha’ every morning,” the prayer where men thank God for not making them female, “it was like swallowing crushed glass.”

Some interesting and not exactly unfamiliar topics and arguments came up. The focus of the first article isn’t that being trans and Orthodox isn’t necessarily a new thing, but being trans and remaining Orthodox is pretty novel and is being pioneered by a few brave souls. I should get some of the annoying stuff out of the way though.

-Both articles talk about ‘transsexuals’ and refuse the world transgender.

-There is no mention of transmen in either article. I know this may be because of who is willing to speak up, but there wasn’t even a line about attempting to find transmen.

-Genital talk! Hello? When has it ever been appropriate for any news source, let alone a Jewish news source, to talk about someone’s genitals like you’re talking about their eye color?

Criticism aside, props to the JTA for always using the proper pronoun (I hate that I have to give props for this, but the mess-ups happen too often in mainstream news sources). Also, I think they treated their subjects with dignity and respect. And that’s a lot.

Now, onto some specific points. One of the things that differentiates this issue from that of gay Orthodox Jews – and perhaps something that makes it murkier – is that the Western trajectory for gayness ultimately leads to being ‘out’ – it’s generally understood that a general state of happiness and calm will arrive only after you are no longer keeping your sexuality a secret. With transpeople, though, there is a larger spectrum of ‘outness.’ Meaning, it’s not always a requirement to be out about your trans-ness. For many transpeople, being able to pass as one’s transitioned gender, without having to reveal what they used to be or used to look like, is the ultimate goal. And this, it seems, is what might be most frightening to the Orthodox community: having a freak among them who looks just like everyone else!

Transitioning “is an impossible situation,” [Rabbi J. David] Bleich [an authority on Jewish law, ethics and bioethics] said. “Shul is the least of such a person’s problems. If such a person is looking for acceptance, it’s not in the cards. He should be happy if people don’t criticize him to his face.”

I guess the transition itself is more of a problem than the transitioned person. Meaning, if you look like a freak, you’re not wanted here. But that’s less about Halakhah (Jewish law) than it is about cultural norms, no? We don’t go around policing people’s gender and asking what genitals they were born with.

The article fails to mention something so obvious which would shed some light on why this community functions the way that it does: stringent gender roles and many unspoken rules relating to those roles. It’s not the notion of being one gender or another that scares people so much (or even moving between them, so long as you plan to stay far on one side). It’s that inbetween space that is most frightening. Seeing someone, transsexual as they may be and headed in the direction of the other end of the binary, in the inbetween stages of transition is enough to shake those around that person whose lives, religion, and cultural norms are structured heavily around a gender binary. Even the Conservative movement doesn’t know what to do with gender-variant people:

In December 2003, the Conservative movement officially recognized that those who have undergone full sex-reassignment surgery “are to be considered as having changed their sex status, and so recognized by Jewish law.”

Oh, genitals. I never thought I’d see so much genital talk. Sigh. And for all the genital talk, there’s no mention of that other gender taboo: intersex people (for statistics on the frequency of intersex births in the US, see ISNA). The general halakhic argument against sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) is related to the notion that our bodies do not belong to us, they are sort of ‘on loan’ from God, and therefore we are not permitted to harm them or mutilate them in any way. Interestingly, though, many people are not aware that Rabbinic literature addresses intersex bodies at great length. I wonder how, if at all, these discussions factor in to the transphobic revulsion in this article. Probably not at all. Which begs the question, is this about Halakhah or cultural/community standards?

I don’t want to go into the second article too much, but one quote struck me as really central:

“Do I need to expose my five-and-a-half-year-old daughter to this? Why do I have to give her the option that she might say she wants to be a boy now?” Martell asked. “It’s not normal. In a normal, nonreligious society, there would be issues, too.”

The fear isn’t that God will punish the transperson, then. The fear is that your children might be exposed to something that they could misinterpret as an option for them. Which, clearly, it’s not. What this person fails to understand, though, is that the Orthodox Jews seeking SRS were not necessarily exposed to a transperson as a child. If they had been, though, I would assume they’d probably be a happier and far more well-adjusted than they were in all their years of struggling. Here’s one place where I can align transphobia and homophobia. A child exposed to a gay person is no more likely to become gay when they grow up. However, if that child is or becomes gay, they will have a much easier time accepting and loving themselves and will be so much happier. I’m happy to see that there are Orthodox Jews who are taking these bold steps within their own communities, difficult as they may be to take there.



  1. Hi,as a transsexual jewish orthodox mtf i am so happy that finally i can discuss this issue on the net now i must say that i dont consider myself modern orthodox rather a regular haredi so all those silly uneducated people that try to claim that nicholes was modern and hardly religious r just in denial.us transsexuals while a rarity in general but we do exist and suffer painfull lifes and we try as much as we can 2 connect to G-d and i must add that we suffer additional
    Pain due to denial in the
    Frum world

  2. I must add that the claim that we
    r not allowed 2 castrate our bodies because our body is a loan from G-d well i agree that our body is holy but when it comes to saving a life we r even allowed 2 desecrate the shabis and so us transsexuals that stand continuously on the brink of suicide due 2 our inborn condition have a right 2 correct our bodies because its just like a rodef and is similar 2 a person suffering diabetes where
    the doctors have no choice but to amputate his leg 2 save him from immenent death

  3. The bias by many in the haredi world against gays and transsexuals is mostly due to ignorance to the
    Point where if you would try and explain the condition to them they will just boo you down and even close their ears claiming that this condition is not allowed to be heard because it could have a bad hashpueh on them all this while the fact remains that many with this tough condition will even end up commiting suicide but this never gets taken into account.the shas minister who called us narcatic is evil

  4. I would like to address a comman phinomina which seems to be recurrent in the transsexual community and that is that many transsexual women were really men who were suffering a severe case of ocd and so lets at least agree that while there may be justification for a person to undergo transition but it is at least advisable to 1st rule out the possibility of there being another condition it is just advisable because transition is a permanent procedure and there are reversal techniques so caution is advisable

  5. I don’t know what Avigayil lauren is talking about. How can OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) possibly be a reason why a person would transition MTF? That’s ludicrous.

    As far as the articles using “transsexual”, rather than “transgender”, it was because the articles were about transsexuals. Not every transsexual appreciates being lumped into an umbrella category of “transgender”, and the article was sensitive to that. I know that I object to being called TG myself, and I made a point of that to the author of the articles.

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