The Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, during its annual meeting, on March 28, overwhelmingly approved an expansive resolution affirming the full inclusion, equality and welcoming of all transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming individuals.
The resolution commits the RRA to work for “full inclusion, acceptance, appreciation, celebration and welcome of people of all gender identities in Jewish life and in society at large.” The document also “strongly advocates for the full equality of transgender, non-binary and gender non-confirming people and for equal protections for people of all gender identities under the law, at all levels of government, in North America and Israel.”
In keeping with the ethos of Reconstructionist Judaism, the resolution’s passage followed a democratic and deliberative process. Over the past year, representatives from Reconstructionist congregations, as well as the board of governors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, approved similar resolutions. All of the central organizational bodies representing Reconstructionists have now raised their collective moral voice.
The RRA vote comes about a year and a half after the Union for Reform Judaism passed its Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People. The RRA is pleased to join the ranks of a growing number of Jewish religious and cultural institutions formally affirming transgender inclusion and establishing new policy guidelines.
The resolution aims to be a blueprint for action. Already, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College has graduated rabbis who identify as transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming. Individually, congregations have been taking steps toward the full inclusion of people of all gender identities. Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, for example, is in the process of creating a fully inclusive chevra kadisha (burial society) that will ensure that Jews of all genders will have access to respectful and traditional rites throughout their entire lifecycle. Other congregations have been experimenting with methods of calling people up to Torah using non-binary and gender-neutral language.
Under the March resolution, efforts will be made to aggregate and share these innovations among the approximately 100 congregations and 350 rabbis of the Reconstructionist movement. In addition, the movement’s website for ritual resources, ritualwell.org, will be expanding its existing resources giving expression to all-gender-inclusive values.
Citing both changing social practice and traditional Jewish values, the international association of Conservative rabbis passed a resolution on May 22 calling on Jewish institutions and government agencies to embrace the full equality of transgendered people.
The Rabbinical Assembly’s Resolution Affirming the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People begins, “Whereas our Torah asserts that all humanity is created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s divine image….” It discusses historical evidence of “non-binary gender expression” in Jewish texts dating back to the third-century Mishnah. It calls on synagogues, camps, schools and other institutions affiliated with the Conservative movement to meet the needs of transgender people and to use the names and pronouns that people prefer. It also encourages Conservative institutions to advocate for national and local policies on behalf of transgender people. In light of its passing, the Jewish Independent spoke with several local rabbis from across denominations about the resolution and about transgender inclusivity in their communities.
“The statement feels comprehensive and as positive and embracing as it should be,” said Rabbi Hannah Dresner of Or Shalom, which is part of the Jewish Renewal movement. “We need always to try to get to the heart of what the halachah (Jewish law) and the mitzvot are trying to do for us. The way they were concretized in another century does not limit them for all time. Halachah is a process. I think it is beautiful when any part of the community pulls up a chair at table and says we are participating in the ongoing evolution of halachah. This is at the heart of what it means to continually create Torah, to turn Torah over and over, to continually participate in the exchange between the Holy One and human beings, which is God giving the written Torah and our response by taking it in and answering in the voice of our humanness. This is at the heart of what the halachic process is and should be in any sphere.”
LGBTQ people are fully welcomed at Or Shalom, and people are called to the Torah by their preferred gender identification. Or Shalom is currently working on infrastructural and ritual changes to be more explicitly and fully inclusive of LGBTQ people in all spheres. “There are alternatives that are easy and sweet,” said Dresner. “We just have to do our work.”
When asked what he thought of the Conservative resolution, Rabbi Dan Moscovitz of Temple Sholom, a Reform congregation, replied with typical humor: “Great, welcome to the party.” He said he views the resolution as a return to the deep values of the tradition, not a departure. “This is at the core of who we are commanded to be as human beings – to find the tzelem Elohim (image of God) inside of each individual and to not be confused or distracted by outside appearances, generalizations or labels,” he said.
The resolution is largely the same as that passed by the Reform movement in November 2015. As early as 1965, the Women of Reform Judaism called for the decriminalization of homosexuality. In 1977, Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis adopted a resolution calling for legislation decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults, and an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians. In the late 1980s, the primary seminary of the Reform movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, changed its admission requirements to allow openly gay and lesbian people to join the student body. In 1990, gay and lesbian rabbis were officially affirmed and, in 1996, so were same-sex civil unions. In 2000, a resolution followed fully affirming sanctified Jewish unions for same-sex couples and, in 2003, there was a resolution affirming the full acceptance of trans- and bisexual people, a stance confirmed and elaborated in the 2015 resolution.
“We have trans members, both adults and children, who we embrace and welcome fully,” said Moscovitz. “We call up to the Torah by preferred gender and gender-neutral pronouns which are present on our gabai [person who calls people to the Torah] sheet…. All bathrooms are multi-gendered or non-gendered.”
Moskovitz cited the case of a bar mitzvah boy who now identifies as a female and was offered a mikvah ritual as a transitional symbol, as well as a new Hebrew name and the reissue of the bar mitzvah certificate as a bat mitzvah.
The Conservative movement has been slower to change its position on LGBTQ sexuality than the Reform. In 1990, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), which sets halachic policy for the movement, stated their desire to “work for full and equal civil rights for gays and lesbians in our national life.” Nevertheless, the CJLS maintained a ban on homosexual conduct, the ordination of homosexuals as rabbis and same-sex marriage unions until 2006, when LGBTQ people were first admitted for rabbinical ordination; in 2012, the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) movement followed suit. In 2012, the CJLS allowed same-sex marriages, with the U.K. Masorti movement following in 2014. The 2016 resolution is a milestone for the Conservative movement.
Rabbi Jonathan Infeld of Congregation Beth Israel, which is part of the Conservative movement, applauds the new document. “Kevod ha’ briyot [the dignity of all created beings, cited in the CJLS resolution] is very important…. For me, the over-arching concept of respecting all human beings and making them feel welcome, bringing them into the Jewish community is vitally important and is the keystone of the resolution.”
Infeld said the resolution is an expression of foundational Jewish values. “It is critically important to recognize the humanity and holiness of every person and that’s the essence of the resolution,” he said.
Beth Israel has private, non-gender-specific washrooms available, and calls to the Torah for an aliyah are done on the basis of the gender with which the person identifies, he noted. “We don’t loudly announce our stance so much as we are very happy to have trans and gay people in our synagogue as a natural part of the social fabric of our shul, by being warm and welcoming to everyone who walks in the door,” he said.
Speaking to the JI only days after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, Infeld said, “The Orlando massacre is another reminder of the need to fight discrimination on every level and recognize the humanity of every person.”
Unlike non-Orthodox denominations, Orthodox Jews maintain traditional rabbinic stances against homosexual conduct, and behaviors such as cross-dressing or identifying with a gender aside from one’s birth gender. Nevertheless, there are a number of Orthodox rabbis and Jewish groups that are openly LGBTQ and/or call for greater inclusivity in Orthodox communities. And, in recent years, a number of Orthodox statements have been issued – mostly from within the Modern Orthodox world but also from others – calling for the expression of love, support and inclusion of LGBTQ people without condoning LGBTQ behaviors.
“We do not judge anyone here,” said Chabad Rabbi Shmulik Yeshayahu of Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel. “We love and welcome everyone. We follow the Orthodox halachah that the Torah only allows union between a man and a woman, but gay, lesbian and transgender people are welcomed in our community and no one will judge them or condemn them. We do not ask questions about people’s behavior or police them. We love people, and we do not make everything they do or don’t do our business. We have had and do have gay and lesbian couples here and, in the past, even one Orthodox gay couple, and they were not judged, no one is saying anything to them. Everyone is welcome here.”
An aerial view of the University of British Columbia campus. (photo by justiceatlast via Wikimedia Commons)
Aaron Devor, a leader in British Columbia’s Jewish community, has been appointed to the world’s first academic chair in transgender studies.
Devor, a professor of sociology who is also the president of the Jewish Federation of Victoria and sits on the board of Hillel BC, assumed his new duties Jan. 1. Devor is also the founder and academic director of the Transgender Archives, which was launched in 2011 and already comprises the world’s largest collections of documents recording transgender activism and research.
Devor defines the term transgender as including a diversity of people.
“Anyone who feels that the gender that was assigned to them on the basis of their genitals is not the correct one, that it’s not the proper fit,” said Devor, who is himself a transgender person. This includes, he said, people who want to present as or become the opposite gender but also many people who reflect “something more creative or original or different, or some combination of what we think of as the two standard genders.”
Devor has encountered surprise that Victoria, perceived by some as a parochial provincial capital, has become a global centre for transgender research and study. In his experience, he said, Victoria has always been a progressive community and the University of Victoria ranks high among the educational institutions in the world.
That Victoria would become a centre for transgender academia is due in part to Devor’s ongoing involvement in the subject as an academic and as an activist, but also through the support of the university for his endeavors, he said. Individuals who have been collecting relevant materials know Devor and contact him when they want to contribute them to a legitimate archive, and the imprimatur of the University of Victoria adds to their confidence, he said.
“I know the people who have been collecting and I have approached many of them and many of them have approached me after they started to understand what we have here,” he explained. “It’s all donated by people who have been amassing their own collections and want a safe place to put it.”
Popular culture, he said, has helped bring transgender awareness to a tipping point. In 2014, Laverne Cox, a star of the TV program Orange is the New Black, was on the cover of Time magazine. The program Transparent, in which a family addresses the gender transition of the father, began the same year. The openness of Chaz Bono, who North Americans have known since doing walk-ons on the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in the 1970s, also helped increase consciousness.
“There are huge limitations, in a way, to communicating effectively through popular culture,” said Devor, but “one of the things that happens through popular culture is people tend to feel like they know the stars, know the personalities that they see on television and in the movies and that they follow on the internet and so on. Even if they’ve never met them, they start to feel like they know them. So, when public figures in popular culture say and do things, it becomes real for a lot of people. One of the things that we know helps to undermine prejudice is when you feel like you know someone of that particular type, whatever that type is that you’ve been prejudiced about.”
Many people still don’t understand it, he added, but are willing to keep an open mind.
“My sense of the public attitude that we’ve reached just very, very recently is that, by and large, the public takes the attitude of, ‘I don’t really get this but I guess it’s OK and I’m willing to go along with it,’” he said. “I haven’t done a survey on this but I’m a keen observer, a well-placed observer … that’s my take on it.
“I think we’ve reached a tipping point in terms of people holding goodwill toward trans people, and I don’t want to overstate that,” he continued. “We’ve just reached a tipping point, but I think in terms of knowing what to do to actualize that goodwill, I think people have very little idea what to do, which is why we need more research and more translation of that research into the real world.”
As the world’s first chair in transgender studies, Devor hopes to be a part of advancing understanding. He hopes that the research being developed will aid in the creation of better laws and policies, while also “changing hearts and minds.”
“There is law and there’s policy and there’s practice,” he said. “Individual members of societies put all of this into practice. You can have good laws on the books but it doesn’t necessarily mean that what’s going to happen in everyday life will very well reflect what those laws are.”
Legally, most provinces have some protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and gender expression.
“The province of British Columbia is not one of those, which is surprising,” he said. Some people contend that the word gender in the human rights code is sufficient, but most of the provinces, he said, have enacted legislation that specifies gender identity as a prohibited grounds for discrimination. Still, he prefers the term “gender expression.”
“Discrimination is based on what you look and sound like more often than on how you actually feel about yourself,” he explained. In other words, heterosexual people may experience bullying or violence if they exhibit what are perceived as traits of homosexuals.
In the Jewish realm, Devor said, religious organizations are addressing trans inclusion. Just last November, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution on the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming people. The resolution affirms the Reform movement’s commitment to the full equality, inclusion and acceptance of people of all gender identities and gender expressions.
The Conservative movement has a responsum from 2003, which Devor consulted on, and may address the matter in future.