An Orthodox Rabbi Discusses Transgender Issues in Jewish Texts

An Orthodox Rabbi Discusses Transgender Issues in Jewish Texts

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Recently, I received an inquiry from someone who was researching transgender issues in halacha. The first thing I told them, before suggesting some sources, was that this issue is far above my pay grade. I am not qualified to comment on the permissibility of any course of action and I can make no recommendations. All I can do is direct them to information. With that understanding in mind, there’s an observation I have since made that is important to share. Some might find this controversial but I don’t think it is. It’s certainly not intended to be. I’m not saying anything of my own invention, I’m just connecting the dots.

Our forefather Yaakov had four wives: Rachel and Leah were sisters; Bilha and Zilpah were their servants (“handmaidens”). They knew that among them, they were destined to bear twelve Tribes. At one point, Leah had six sons, Bilha had two, Zilpah had two, and Rachel had none. Rachel and Leah both became pregnant. Leah realized, “If I have a son, that will be eleven and my sister Rachel will only be able to bear one Tribe – less than our servants!” Out of concern for Rachel’s honor, Leah prayed and God made a miracle. According to the version of the Midrash cited by Rashi, the baby in Leah’s womb – originally intended to be a boy – was turned into a girl (Genesis 30:21 – actually citing a Gemara in Brachos). Another Midrashic understanding is that God switched the embryos in Rachel and Leah’s wombs (Targum Yonasan).

This Midrash has occasionally been used to explain anomalous behavior in Dina (Leah’s daughter) and Yosef (Rachel’s son). At a time when women were typically homebodies sticking to their tents, Dina was outgoing and inquisitive (Bereishis Rabbah), arguably the result of her male origins. Similarly, Yosef was more concerned with his appearance, such as his hair and his clothes, than any of his brothers (ibid). This can potentially be attributed to his female roots.

Michal, the daughter of King Saul and the wife of King David, used to put on tefillin. (Whether this was allowed differs between Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi – Eiruvin 96a and Brachos 2:3.) Kabbalistically, Michal possessed a soul that was male in a previous incarnation (Kaf HaChaim OC 38:9). This does not appear to be the result of a miracle as with Dina and Yosef. Here are people who, for whatever reason, went against their gender norms. It’s important to note that this characteristic is not attributed to Lavan, Pharaoh or Haman. The people described as having tendencies that were not gender normative were tzaddikim (righteous people). They are heroes in the story.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Judaism is traditionally rigid when it comes to gender roles. Deuteronomy 22:5 contains two separate prohibitions against cross-dressing, one for men not to wear women’s clothes and vice versa. There are similarly a number of practices that are limited to one gender or the other.

What might surprise some to learn is that there are not two genders in halacha, but four. Aside from female and male, there are androginos (who possesses both sets of genitals – aka a hermaphrodite) and the tumtum (whose genitals are concealed internally – what Lemony Snicket called “a person of indeterminate gender”). The andoginos and the tumtum, however, do not get to self-define their genders. Generally, they are treated with both the stringencies of men and women out of doubt. Nevertheless, we see that gender issues in halacha are already far more intricate than many would assume.

As much as some would like to pretend otherwise, people struggling with gender dysphoria do exist. (I’ve heard from several in my two decades of fielding questions from the public.) Dealing with this can be a terrible burden even for those in the secular world. It’s an even bigger challenge when someone is a member of a religious community that will not accommodate such a lifestyle change. People are torn between doing what they feel they must to be true to themselves and remaining a part of the only community they’ve ever known. It’s a terrible position in which to find oneself.

What people need in such a situation is compassion, not armchair poskim giving them a list of things they’re doing wrong. They don’t need fire-and-brimstone sermons. They need love and support and kindness.

You can’t tell someone with depression “just cheer up.” (You can, but it wouldn’t be effective.) Similarly, you can’t tell someone struggling with gender dysphoria just to act like what their anatomy says they are. (Again, it won’t help.) It’s easy advice to give when you’re not the one struggling with such issues. They didn’t choose this. They’re not “deviants” or “perverts” or “an abomination.” They’re good people who, for whatever reason, feel the way they do. We can’t control the way others feel and we’re not in a position to judge how others deal with a dilemma we can’t begin to understand. If we wouldn’t judge Dina or Michal for having a “male soul,” we shouldn’t judge our contemporaries who face similar challenges.

Leave the halachic issues for those at that pay grade. All you and I can do – all we should do – is just be a mentsch.

Comments

comments

Comments

  1. Hello,

    May I ask you to define “Male” and “female”?

    What does a “male soul” mean?
    Is caring how you look a “female” characteristic?
    The King must get a hair cut ever day does that mean he is a “female”?
    If the Almighty acts compassionate is he a “female” and acts with judgment “male”?
    A good place to start would be to define terms. The halachic genders you spoke of are not characters traits or emotions, they are based on the physical characteristics of the person.
    I will have to agree these issues are beyond us.
    Free love is not the answer.
    Apologizing for God is a Christian acculturation.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : January 31, 2017 at 3:42 pm

      I do not believe that a soul – which is a spiritual construct – can literally be male or female but that is the term that the Sages chose to use to describe when a person’s inclinations did not align with their gender norms. (And yes, historically, a preoccupation with one’s appearance was strictly a female characteristic. Until modern times, a man wasn’t even allowed to check his appearance in a mirror because doing so was considered a strictly female practice. This is clearly recorded in the various legal texts of previous generations. The fact that it is permitted in modern society – in which mirrors are inexpensive and ubiquitous – reflects that at least some of these gender assumptions are based on cultural norms.)

  2. You can’t tell someone with depression “just cheer up.” (You can, but it wouldn’t be effective.)

    Sorry but you cant get away with “it’s above my paygrade”. Get someone who’s paygrade it is, get a quote and then either back it or explain why it’s wrong.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : January 31, 2017 at 12:06 pm

      If a person contacts me with questions for a research project on this subject (as was in fact the case), I will refer him to sources (as I did) but not give him a list of halachic do’s and don’ts. A poseik (halachic decisor) might be able to do so but I’m not going to bother one with hypothetical situations. When people contact me with matters of practical application that require that degree of expertise, then I do consult with poskim.

      While there may always have been transgender people in the community, this issue is very new in practical application. (I’m doubt very much that anybody was bringing it up in 1870 or whatever.) There’s not a lot of precedent yet. It’s important to remember that every individual’s case is different and that different authorities are going to take different approaches. So for this article, I’m not going to say that a transgender person may do X or may not do Y – that’s not my purpose. I’m going to say that we should be kind to all human beings, which is something we’re capable of. If someone contacts me with a question of actual practical application, I will refer him or her to an appropriate authority.

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book.