Trans Lives in American Jewish Contexts

IMG_7409On Tuesday January 24, 2017 the Desmond Tutu Center hosted the next installment of the seminar series “Religion and Trans Lives in a Global Perspective” entitled, “Trans Live in American Jewish Context.” This event was hosted by Rabbi Reuben Zellman, the first openly transgender person accepted by a rabbinical seminary, and Brett Krichiver, Senior Rabbi at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation.

Reuben Zellman began the seminar with a brief history of his experience coming out to the Jewish community as a transgender person. Zellman explained that although he received a large amount of feedback illustrating that “people are not ready” and that he was even “embarrassing the Jewish people,” he also received an abundance of feedback from people that were curious about his situation or were even in a similar situation themselves. His journey truly began in 2003 when he noticed a newspaper on a subway in San Francisco with his picture on it. This was shocking to him because it was the first time he had seen a transgender person mentioned in the media that was still alive. This fact shocked the audience. He continued to elaborate on the fact that transgender people are four times more likely to be impoverished than cisgender people and that 41% of transgender people attempt suicide at some point in their life. This introduction showed how important it is that this topic is discussed.

Rabbi Zellman then began to explain transgenderism and its relation to the Jewish community. Jewish traditions are and have been extremely gendered for thousands of years. These traditions can obviously cause issues for transgender people in the community that want to be involved with their faith but do not know their place within their own religion. And although some people take the Torah and other sacred texts literally, the history of the religion of Judaism had been known to change its interpretations of its sacred texts based on the times in which they are being interpreted. For example, Rabbi Zellman is often asked to interpret a specific phrase within the Tanakh (the collection of Jewish canonical texts) that has to do with how one identifies themselves. For many centuries this verse was interpreted as an insult against crossdressing, but Zellman explained that when a transgender person identifies as the gender they were born into, they are identifying as someone that is not them.

Rabbi Zellman truly believes that the Jewish community can have a positive impact on the liberation of transgenderism. He expressed his belief that it is in fact time for this liberation to occur. As Zellman described, it has been far too long for these discussions to not be had. His last remarks during his speech encouraged allies to let their stance be known, especially during times of public oppression.

Rabbi Brett Krichiver, who serves as Senior Rabbi to Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation  was the IMG_7423respondent to Rabbi Zellman. Krichiver agreed with Zellman on the fact that many Jewish traditions are strictly binary. Not only with gender but also purity and impurity, allowed and not allowed. He asked if there was a way to use these historical traditions in a positive progressive manner. The answer, in his opinion, was yes. The Tanakh explains that even prophetic voices reached obstacles and had to transform tradition to keep up with the times. Krichiver believes the Jewish community has the capability to keep doing so.

The question and answer portion of the seminar was very interesting and many compelling discussions emerged. A question that perplexed our speakers was “Do you think it is more beneficial to get rid of gender completely or add more?” Krichiver began with analyzing abundance versus scarcity and how it affects people. Zellman then brought up the fact that by a case by case perspective it is easy to have an answer to that question. He continued to explain how it gets a lot more complicated when you are dealing with a large group of people, especially a whole society. Genders are real and that is something that is okay to accept. They are real and important but they can also transform in terms of their relevance to us as humans, and make them not such a negative fact of life for those who identify as transgender.

By: Julia Reyes

Partners: Center for Faith and Vocation and Seminar for Religion and Global Affairs at Butler University

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