Whole Self Movement

December 15, 2014

By Brook Wilensky-Lanford

Guernica Header

Image of Rabbi Becky Silverstein wearing a suit and a magenta tie.

The first thing you learn about Rabbi Becky Silverstein is that despite the “Becky,” he uses male pronouns. Upon meeting him, you might see what he calls “a female-bodied person” wearing clothing typically associated with men: jackets, slacks, a snazzy tie. That Becky is a “he” is the occasion for a small instant of cognitive dissonance. For Rabbi Silverstein, it’s appropriate that this moment is generated first in language, as that’s how his own process of identifying as a genderqueer person began, during conversations with mentors at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts.

For Silverstein, it’s also fitting that gender identity begins with semantics, because the work of a rabbi is one of active engagement with the rich canon of Jewish texts. The Torah, as well as the countless scholarly commentaries about it, wrestles deeply with the problems of language. A rabbi must embrace such debate, parsing differences in meaning between Hebrew and English, as well as between ancient cultural conceptions and modern ideas. In Silverstein’s view, conversation is a crucial tool for contemporary American Judaism to fully recognize, understand, and welcome transgender Jews into the community, starting with the same talks the nation is having about gay and transgender rights, as well as women’s equality. All of these battles for inclusion, he argues in the interview that follows, are linked: “Misogyny is at the root of all homophobia and transphobia. It’s no surprise that a movement that still struggles with the place of women would also struggle with the place of LGBTQ- identified folks.”

American Judaism must also turn conversations about gender identity toward religious rituals. This is particularly true in the Orthodox community, where individual participation in the faith is strictly circumscribed by gender roles. Many Jewish rituals presume a solid gender identity grounded in physical anatomy. How might circumcision work, though, for a new convert identifying as male but without male genitalia? How can the mikvah, the ritual bath that is used by Jewish women to achieve ritual purity after menstruation and childbirth, welcome those who are not designated female at birth? Perhaps predictably, the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have moved forward proactively in terms of ritual. Rabbis Elliot Kukla and Reuben Zellman, the first transgender rabbis ordained by the Reform movement in 2006 and 2010, respectively, have been leaders in this regard. Rabbi Kukla wrote the first blessing sanctifying the gender transition process, and the two co-authored a guide to “Making Your Jewish Community Trans-Friendly” and created TransTorah.org. But across the diverse American Jewish landscape, there are stirrings of change.

The number of out transgender rabbis and rabbis-in-training doubled in 2013—from three to six. And this past summer, Rabbi Silverstein became the first openly transgender rabbi to be hired by a Conservative synagogue, the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center in California.

There, he is well positioned to be a leader and a role model for both trans people and the wider Jewish community. It all starts, he posits, with that moment of language confusion, the moment that either resolves into acceptance and inclusion, or becomes an obstacle. As Silverstein wrote in a recent sermon, confronting that which feels threatening is uncomfortable work. “It requires us to discover the place in our bodies and our minds where that threat exists, to name it, and to actively work to unseat it.”

Brook Wilensky-Lanford for Guernica

Guernica: How do faith and gender go together for you? Were you ordained as a rabbi first, or did you come out as trans first?

Rabbi Becky Silverstein: That’s a great question, and the biggest. I feel really fortunate because my journeys with regard to my Jewish identity and my gender identity have been a bit of a confluence.

I came out as a lesbian during my first semester at Smith College, and the Hillel there was very gay- or queer-identified. So in coming out in that space, there was never any dissonance for me. My experience was that being gay in the Jewish community was great and wonderful. I had the support of friends, and I started what I call my spoiled experience of having a queer Jewish community. I came out as trans or genderqueer in my second year of rabbinical school. That’s where I learned the language of the genderqueer or gender-fluid or trans community. And I started using that language.

A few classmates in particular influenced me, including my colleague and good friend Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, who is another trans rabbi and someone whom I had grown up with. Ari was already out as trans and brought a transgender vocabulary to our class conversations. Around the same time, I started working with Keshet, an organization working for LGBTQ inclusion in the Jewish community. That’s where I met another social group who are also queer Jews.

They encouraged me to play around with gender pronouns and with my own gender expression. Developing my Jewish identity, becoming a rabbi, and working as a facilitator in a Jewish community for LGBTQ inclusion happened at the same time. I never really had an experience that was overwhelmingly negative; I became enveloped in these very supportive communities.

When I was ordained last June, I was out as genderqueer. I use the word “genderqueer” and “trans” somewhat interchangeably. Different folks use “trans” as their specific identity, and I use it as an umbrella term depending on how I’m feeling about my gender on any given day.

I made the decision to use male pronouns everywhere in my life, including my job search, last year. For example, my previous employer while I was an intern was one of the few places that didn’t use male pronouns for me. If I tried to apply for a job and the employer didn’t acknowledge me as male, I wouldn’t consider that prospect. I’ve always been fairly out wherever I worked. That’s just my way of being in the world.

My life has been a series of micro-aggressions.

 Guernica: You mentioned that you felt supported. That’s certainly fortunate. Do you think that’s an unusual experience? How apt is Judaism at embracing genderqueer identities?

Rabbi Becky Silverstein: I think I was extremely lucky to have those communities. Those groups were my support system. In some ways, they still are, even though I’m no longer living near Boston or studying at rabbinical school. Without having those places where I could completely relax and be myself and know that my whole self would be seen, I wouldn’t have gone through my job search the way I did. It’s an incredibly awkward thing to say to someone in a phone interview, “By the way, the pronouns I use are ‘he,’ ‘him,’ and ‘his.’”

My life has been a series of micro-aggressions. There were a few moments when I felt truly discriminated against in a major way, but more often smaller acts would take place. Those two circles of support helped me handle that onslaught. I think I’m incredibly fortunate, and I don’t think many people have a similar experience. Mine arose from the context of living in Boston where other queer Jewish professionals who came before me were doing the work of inclusion.

As for how Judaism is doing, I’m only one rabbi. I work in Los Angeles in only one Conservative synagogue, and my experience includes one other Conservative synagogue and a couple of Reform synagogues. I have a limited scope, but I’m certainly involved in the discourse.

About twenty years ago, the Reform movement and the Reconstructionist movement were ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis, and these congregations have continued to grow in terms of their sophistication in using LGBTQ language and in terms of their support of same-sex marriage. In the past two or three years, their youth movement, for example, has really begun to tackle the question of how to address transgender issues in their communities. And individual synagogues have their own unique approaches.

I have not seen a movement-wide push for transgender inclusion—although they have ordained around four or five more trans rabbis at this point. The first out transgender rabbi was ordained out of the Reform movement and lives and works in San Francisco, Elliot Kukla. The trailblazers are still involved with Keshet.

I think many Reform places are positive spaces for trans-identified and queer-identified folks. They are ironing out the areas of micro-aggression—the points where the gender binaries are reinforced or where we’re still fighting for visibility within synagogues.

The Reconstructionist movement has been at the forefront of inclusion from the beginning. They welcomed trans-identified rabbinical students who formed a trans working group. Their rabbinical school in particular encourages conversations about gender. Their Judaism is value-based, and many of their communal decisions are made by coming to a consensus. Their theology encompasses social justice—the Reconstructionist synagogues I know are either having conversations about trans inclusion or are prepared to have them. Discussing which values guide their world and whether they are living those ideals is part and parcel of what it means to be a Reconstructionist Jew.

Guernica: That’s interesting. The issue of embracing trans identities is almost a theological difference, or a philosophical one.

Rabbi Becky Silverstein: Absolutely. I would say that all of the Jewish movements share the theological basis of wanting to treat all people as though they were createdb’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. But the different movements employ their own unique theological emphases.

The Conservative movement has been slower to change. They started ordaining out gay and lesbian rabbis only two years ago. Their previous gay and lesbian rabbis had been closeted: Rabbi Benay Lappe and Rabbi Dawn Rose come to mind. And, depending on the synagogue that you’re in, it really varies. It’s also a movement that in many ways still struggles with egalitarianism between men and women. For instance, at the synagogue where I work, our B’nai Mitzvah requires the women of the family to come up to light candles—never any of the men. The leadership reflects gender equality, we have a female cantor, we include the matriarchs and patriarchs in our prayer.

Some synagogues don’t include the matriarchs in their daily prayer. A few Conservative synagogues limit what women are allowed to do. And I really believe that misogyny is at the root of all homophobia and transphobia. It’s no surprise that a movement that still struggles with the place of women would also struggle with the place of LGBTQ-identified folks.

I’m not attacking the Conservative point of view. There are Conservative synagogues that are very involved and are doing a lot of work around trans inclusion. Gil Steinlauf just came out, and he’s with a huge Conservative synagogue in Washington, DC. The synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts, where I previously worked tackled a lot of these issues this year.

There is great work happening in the Conservative movement. It’s just that I’m a tough critic.

Gender issues become significant because certain rituals demand a bodily response.

Guernica: The struggle for trans inclusion sometimes manifests itself in ritual practices. Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, for instance, published an essay in which he describes using a binder— a shirt that compresses the chest—tied with tzitzit, specially knotted fringes, to create a modified tallit, or ritual prayer shawl. And he and Rabbi Kukla authored a prayer to be recited during chest binding. I’m curious about the place of ritual and gender in Judaism in general, and the rituals around gender transition in particular.

Rabbi Becky Silverstein: I seek out my Conservative rabbi friends when I face these questions. What do you do with a female-to-male trans person who is converting? Typically, when a man converts to Judaism, if he’s not circumcised, he gets circumcised. If he is circumcised, we do something called hatafat dam brit; we take a drop of blood from the head of the penis. So what do you do with a transgender person who doesn’t have a penis? How do you construct ritual in a way that’s gender-affirming for them? Do you take blood from somewhere else? Do you take it from the clitoris? How do you have a conversation about where they are in their medical transition—which is really none of anybody’s business?

Gender issues become significant because certain rituals demand a bodily response.

I’m going to Nehirim, which is this queer Jewish organization that is hosting the first-ever LGBTQ clergy event. Around eighty queer rabbis, cantors, and Jewish leaders will be coming together. A lot of people are exploring ritual and Jewish law as it applies to trans folks, and a couple of sessions at this event will explore that subject matter. For instance, Rabbi Emily Aviva Kapor wrote a ritual for going to the mikvah when you change your name; I know many folks who went through that process. Folks are also talking about what blessings you might say over taking hormones, [since] Judaism has proscribed blessings for different types of food. Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari, for our capstone project, created a new covenant ritual for babies that is independent of gender. So it’s not brit milah [the circumcision ceremony], but it’s grounded in Jewish ritual. It involves feet washing. It’s a really sweet rite of passage that can be done for all genders. It’s not specific to trans folks, but it’s about a trans rabbi saying, “I don’t believe in a covenant that’s based on gender. I want to create a covenant for this child based on their very being, based on Judaism’s inherent role in this person’s life, but not tied to whether they’re assigned female or male atbirth.”

Guernica: So, as you suggested earlier, it’s about laying groundwork for progress.

Rabbi Becky Silverstein: Exactly. In the same way I feel a bit defensive about the Conservative movement and my desire to reflect the work they’re doing, there are people in the Orthodox community who are making great strides regarding the acceptance of folks across LGBTQ identities. They’re struggling in a good way. That should not be overlooked. Joy Ladin is a trans woman who came out while she was working at Yeshiva University. She wrote a book [Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders (Living Out: Gay and Lesbian Autobiographies)] about her experience transitioning and continuing to work there and the ways in which the Orthodox community surprised her.

What I mean by “struggling in a good way” is that it’s from a good place, with an open heart, and by acknowledging that queer folks are part of their community and that it’s vital to include them. They’re approaching these conversations thoughtfully and examining Jewish tradition and values. It also means this is a slow process, but that’s how real change is made.

Guernica: I’d like to hear your thoughts about the language of trans inclusion. You framed part of your personal genderqueer journey in terms of gender pronouns, in terms of language, in terms of words. How does this emphasis on vocabulary manifest itself in your rabbinical writings? Do you have a more pronounced awareness of the words that you use?

Rabbi Becky Silverstein: I do often frame my journey in terms of language. For me, those male pronouns encapsulate my identity. Another form of expression for me is the way I dress: men’s pants, a button-down shirt, a tie. I wear a kippah, which is more a gender marker than anything else. So it’s not exclusively the pronouns that announce my identity as genderqueer, trans, or gender-fluid.

I do think that I have become more aware of language in general. The people in my immediate community use different terms for themselves, and I believe strongly in the right to choose one’s own identity and the way one wants to be described. So I’m careful to refer to people in the ways I think are respectful and the ways they want to be described.

The question about writing is interesting for me. I don’t consider myself a writer. I’ve published pieces that are out in the world, but that, for me, is much more part of my identity as a rabbi and a Jewish leader. It’s the age of the Internet, and writing is one way to share ideas. I certainly am aware of what words I use for God and the divine or what pronouns I use when I’m talking about Jewish rituals. In that way, I am very aware. But I’m not sure how much of that is about language and how much of that is about being a feminist. I’m not sure how to neatly separate those.

I’m the first trans rabbi to work at a Conservative synagogue. I’m often the first trans person someone has ever met.

Guernica: I’m curious about whether you see yourself as a resource for other trans congregants or trans rabbis-in-training.

Rabbi Becky Silverstein: I’ve chosen to be out. And not just out to myself and to my friends and to my family, but out in a public way. For instance, I facilitate trainings for Keshet, and we offer Transgender 101. We talk about language and discuss with the youth what their own gender journeys are like. My facilitator bio is very personal, and part of my coming out story is also about exploring the intersection between the personal and the political.

I approach identity politics in a way that I never did before coming out as trans and becoming a leader in the Jewish community. That has been a significant learning process for me. I’m the first trans rabbi to work at a Conservative synagogue. I’m often the first trans person someone has ever met. I want my experience to make a difference for those who will follow.

My rabbi growing up was Rabbi Karen Bender. She was one of the first lesbian rabbis ordained by the Reform movement. Her story is in the book Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation. I have an acute sense of the folks who have come before me, the women, lesbians, trans folks, and people of color who have already been doing this work. I really want to actively claim my place among those leaders.

Last year, when I was working with Keshet, I got to chaperone their Teen Shabbaton for LGBTQ-identified Jewish teenagers. Four, five, maybe six trans Jewish high school students were struggling with their gender, and I shared my story with them. I’m going to try to put some humility aside here: there was one student in particular who said to one of our other folks that they found me intimidating, not because of who I am but because I was a glimpse of who they wanted to be. I’m sitting here tearing up a little bit. But it’s amazing—I got to meet that student, and now we’re in touch. There’s someone who’s considering becoming a rabbi or a leader because of my presence and because I shared my story.

I love going to synagogues and speaking about my journey. I’m already out and I have support from my communities. That empowers me to tell my own story and lead and educate others. I guess I sound like a martyr, but I really believe this: as a 32-year-old trans guy who’s a rabbi whose friends advocate for me, better it be me getting those questions about medical transitions. Better it be me grappling with explaining the use of gender pronouns. Better it be me addressing those conflicts than a trans person who has not had the kind of blessed experience that I had. Better I tackle these issues than that person.

Guernica: Last year you wrote a sermon for the Transgender Day of Remembrance—a day to remember those who have been killed due to transphobia—based on the week’s Torah portion. What was it like giving that d’var Torah, and commemorating that day within the Jewish community, generally?

Rabbi Becky Silverstein: Talking about my identity can be really liberating. It brings it to people’s attention and creates space for me to be fully seen. I knew that our head rabbi, Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, would be supportive of acknowledging the Transgender Day of Remembrance. I was excited about giving the sermon and felt a good amount of pressure writing it. Delivering it was a matter of breathing, reminding myself to go slowly, and believing that what I had to say was important. The great thing about the day and this sermon in particular was having the opportunity to identify as both a member of the trans community and as an ally to trans women and trans women of color. And as a rabbi, I love when Torah or ritual can be tied to real-life experience.

Guernica: Is it exhausting to feel like you, as a trans-identified person, have to be the educator and the activist, on top of the already difficult job of leading a congregation?

Rabbi Becky Silverstein: I don’t want to separate those elements of myself. I want my congregants and the students whom I work with to be able to bring their whole selves to Judaism. I have to model that. Yes, it was exhausting to educate people during my job process; I was just tired and angry. My fiancée often wonders aloud what trans folks—or people of color or people who aren’t able-bodied, for that matter—could accomplish if we no longer needed to defend ourselves so much. If we could spend that energy being creative and contributing more to the world.

If I’m not helping to make that possible, I’m doing something wrong. I feel like the work that I do in the Jewish community moves the whole world forward. We need to work in our spheres of influence, and this is mine. It’s also where my heart is. That’s the other aspect of the struggle that activists know. One way to stave off the exhaustion is to let your heart guide you.

To contact Guernica or Brook Wilensky-Lanford, please write here.