By Becky Silverstein
The Facebook messages usually start with a shy “Hi, Rabbi Becky,” though sometimes it is more direct: “Can I ask you a question?”
They almost always come from the transgender and gender-nonconforming young people I know through my work with Keshet’s LGBTQ and Ally Teen Shabbatonim.
On any day, I am balancing conversations about coming out to parents, changing one’s name and/or pronoun, issues at school or other parts of life as a trans youth, plus a few conversations with colleagues about how to work with transgender conversion students or what ritual I would use to celebrate a name change.
Each message provides me the opportunity to affirm the place of transgender people in our communities, and each conversation provides me an opportunity to counter the harmful messages that transgender people receive each day: Wedon’t have the right to exist. We are not imbued with inherent dignity and worth.
Our Jewish textual tradition has always had a place for those who do not fit neatly into binary boxes of sex and gender. From the creation of the first person in Genesis 1, we learn that humanity is created in God’s image, and that “male and female God created them.”
The ancient rabbis of the Talmudic and Midrashic eras understand this verse to mean a variety of images, including that God created one person with a male side and a female side, or that God created a golem that spanned the earth.
“My gender is golem,” a trans young person joked when we studied this text recently.
A joke, yes, and also an assertion that this young person has existed since the beginning of humanity.
The rabbis of the Talmud explore what it means for a person to be one of six sexes, four of them beyond the simplistic male and female.
Both Rebekah and Joseph can be read as being gender non-conforming.
As a transgender rabbi, I know well the obligation to live out this Torah, the obligation to both honor the sacred texts that speak specifically about gender and to live into those texts that speak of compassion and community, which remind us that as Jews, we must act in such a way that honors our own history of oppression.
In Pirkei Avot 2:4, Hillel teaches al tifrosh min hatzibur, do not separate yourself from the community. I understand this to mean both that I must not separate myself from the community and that the community must not create conditions that push me out.
The community must actively work to ensure I can live with dignity, wholeness, and authenticity.
This looks like both finding ways to embrace my life experience and protecting my dignity in the face of discrimination.
This means recognizing that transgender people are not errant inkblots on a painting, or misdrawn lines in the image of creation that can be erased.
We have hearts and minds, bodies and souls.
We are part of your families and in your communities. We have a history, and a present and a future.
We are actively part of the work of creation, creating and recreating ourselves in the image of God, hamechadesh b’tuvo b’chol yom tamid maaseh bereshit, the one who renews the works of creation daily.
We can not be and will not be erased.
While we can not be erased, we can be smudged, forced to conform to societal norms and outdated understandings of sex and gender. This looks like being forced into dress codes that stifle our self-expression at best and cause psychological harm at worst. This means requiring reams of paperwork to align our legal selves with our actual identities, including notes from therapists and doctors whose personal ideas of gender identity can mean the difference between access to life-affirming care and treatment, or its denial.
It means being part of Jewish communities who consider our place in their community based on what our genitals look like, not on who we are.
Today, 26 states and the District of Columbia either consider gender to be a protected class or actively interpret the definition of sex under Title IX to include gender identity.
Conversely, in 24 states and Puerto Rico, transgender people can be fired for being transgender, can be refused healthcare and can be prevented from living their lives with dignity.
In Massachusetts, we will vote on a ballot question seeking to repeal transgender rights in public accommodations. The New York Times outlines a tremendous potential threat to the ability of transgender and gender-nonconforming people to access protections under federal law that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex with regard to “recruitment, admissions, and counseling; financial assistance; athletics; sex-based harassment; treatment of pregnant and parenting students; discipline; single-sex education; and employment.”
It also highlights the messages that transgender people, particularly transgender people of color, receive every day about their worth and their place in our society.
While transgender people cannot be erased, being told that in the eyes of those in power you don’t exist can be life-threatening.
My Facebook and text messages have not stopped since Sunday afternoon. Transgender friends, colleagues, students and teachers have been checking in; cisgender allies have texted with support and love; people have sent invitations to act.
I feel loved and supported.
And in this moment, when the humanity and dignity of transgender people — of God’s holy creations — are under attack, Jewish communities have an obligation to take action, to affirm the dignity of the transgender community in this moment, and to do the work of weeding out gender-based oppression, wherever it exists.
Becky Silverstein believes in the power of community and Torah in building a more just world.