Avi Shafran

Trans and Torah

(Screenshot, via YouTube)
(Screenshot, via YouTube)

Earlier this month, I participated in an Israeli television panel discussion of Orthodox Judaism’s view of transexuality. My fellow panelists were an ex-Hasidic man who now identifies as an atheist female and an ex-Haredi rabbi who currently calls himself “religiously nonconforming” and serves as scholar-in-residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at an LGBT synagogue. 

The female-identifying ex-Hasid vehemently insisted that Orthodox Judaism needs to fully accept the choices of those who are living their lives as the sex different from the one evidenced by their genetics and bodies at birth. To accept not only the individuals as people and as Jews, but to accept the religious validity of their choices. 

Jewish Orthodoxy, the transgender activist argued, has found ways of effectively permitting some things that the Torah forbids, like Jews owning leavened products over Pesach – which can be circumvented by selling such products to a non-Jew and then buying them back after the holiday. Why, the activist demanded, can’t a workaround be found to accommodate choices of sexual expression?

The erstwhile-Haredi rabbi stressed the Jewish ideal of “pursuing truth,” which, he declared, includes finding and embracing the truth of one’s sexual identity, regardless of what one’s body evidenced at birth or even evidences presently. People, he asserted, must find and celebrate their “authentic version of themselves.”

There can be no denying that there are people who are deeply conflicted about their gender identities. They deserve to be safe from harm and, facing challenges the rest of us don’t, deserve empathy and compassion. Dysmorphias, whether about body image or sexual identity, are real. 

But the Torah and its extension, halacha, or Jewish religious law, are unequivocal about the fact that being born in a male body requires living the life of a man, and being born female entails living as a woman. Halacha disallows a Jew to undertake the guise of the other sex – it forbids even his or her wearing clothing worn by the other sex – and certainly taking steps to alter one’s sexual morphology. (Indeterminate biological sex, today called “intersex” is a very rare occurrence and is addressed in the Talmud.) 

And, in Judaism, each gender has its particular life-role to play. The bodies God gave us are indications of what we are and what we are not, and of how He wants us to live our lives.

That is not to disparage in any way those for whom living lives in consonance with their biologies is hard, even very hard. In fact, from a Jewish perspective, people subject to sexual dysmorphia are shouldered with a special challenge to overcome in their lives, in addition to the myriad more mundane trials faced by us all.

The bottom line, though: the meaning and goal of human existence present a dichotomy: Are we here for “self-fulfillment” and comfort (to cater to what we feel is the “authentic version of ourselves”), or to live lives centered on the Divine, even if that entails discomfort?

To be sure, there are times when discomfort can be avoided, like, for Jews, the pre-Pesach sale of bread and such. Entering a legally-enforceable contract to enact such a sale renders the product no longer in the possession of its previous Jewish owner. But, alas, such “workarounds” are not available in most other matters, and in those other realms, some discomfort, even pain, may result. They are inevitable parts of all human lives.

When it comes to adultery or theft, we all readily recognize that even if one’s “authentic version” leads him or her to wish to betray a marriage or to appropriate something that belongs to another but that one feels he absolutely needs in order to feel fulfilled, one must deny oneself and live with – even take pride in – the discomfort. That should be true in every realm.

Because Judaism is not about our wishes but our responsibilities; not about comfort but service. Attaining ultimate meaning in our lives indeed results from “pursuing truth,” but not where truth is defined as how we feel about ourselves but, rather, as a higher truth; That of God’s will. 

Self-denial is, admittedly, an unpopular notion these days. But Judaism has been stubbornly countercultural since Sinai. Just as it rejected societal stances that informed ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and subsequent cultures, it does not yield, either, to contemporary mores, no matter how popular they may be.

The Biblical Avraham is called “ha’ivri” in the Torah, a word that can be translated as “the other sider,” because, the Talmud teaches, “the entire [idolatrous] world was on one side” of a conceptual river and he was “on the other.”

His descendants are likewise charged with, when necessary, standing up to societal pressures in the service of higher ideals.

About the Author
Rabbi Avi Shafran is a columnist for Ami Magazine and also serves as n the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.. His essays have been published in, among others media, The New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC-THINK and Fox Opinion, in addition to Forward, Haaretz and other ewish media. He is the author of five books.
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