Transgender Jews Attempt to Reconcile Identity, Religion

While Orthodox gays feel more tolerance in the community, most religious transgender Jews still hide deep in the closet

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Yiscah Smith (left), Lior Broizbah and Dana Friedman, transgender religious Jews.
Yiscah Smith (left), Lior Broizbah and Dana Friedman, transgender religious Jews.Credit: Emil Salman, Moti Milrod, Brian Friedman
Ariel Horowitz
Ariel Horowitz

Ariel Horowitz

For as long as Arye (a pseudonym used to protect his identity) remembers, he has felt different. “From a very early age I knew a fatal mistake had been made,” says the tall 20-year-old man with blond hair and a knitted kippa on his head.

During his childhood, Arye went to a state religious school, where boys and girls studied in separate classes. “I always felt that I needed to be with the boys, but all the time they pulled me in the direction of the girls. During prayers, for example, I wanted to sit in the boys’ section. I would wear pants, tzitzit and a kippa and identified as male. There was always a gap between who I was and what I was.”

Over the past year and a half, Arye has come out of the closet as a transgender man, and today he is active in a group of Israeli religious transgender people. The group was founded about a year ago and has some 60 members, a large number of whom are still in the closet and afraid of being outed due to the exposure, the response from the religious community around them and the social implications.

In June, a week after Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, the head of the pre-military academy in West Bank settlement Eli, called the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community “perverts” and caused an uproar, the religious transgender group members marched together for the first time in the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem alongside other religious marchers, both straight and LGBT.

Over the past two decades, the Orthodox religious community in Israel has slowly changed its attitude toward gays: They have gone from almost total denial of the phenomenon some 20 years ago to inclusion and tolerance even in the strongholds of bourgeois religious conservatism. The protest that broke out last week against the appearance of pop star Ivri Lider in the settlement of Elkana shows that while attitudes have changed — it’s unlikely that an openly gay singer would have been invited to perform in a religious town 20 years ago — the change still has its opponents. Yet despite the more accepting attitude toward gays, the question of transgender men and women is almost never discussed in this community, and may still be met with bewilderment, shock and even disgust.

Jewish law on the matter is complicated. The Bible explicitly says: “A woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the Lord thy God.” (Deuteronomy 22:5) From this, it would seem that adopting external dress and behavior identified with the other gender is forbidden. Some rabbinic adjudicators have chosen to view the transgender phenomenon in this way and demand a person keep the gender identity in which they were born physically.

The accepted halakhic opinion today is that a person’s status according to Jewish law — as a man or woman — does not change with their change in gender identity. Yet Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a major rabbinical authority known as Tzitz Eliezer who was consulted particularly on medical issues until his death 10 years ago, ruled in the 1950s that a person’s halakhic gender status could change as a result of undergoing sex reassignment surgery.

Dealing with God

Yiscah Smith, a transgender religious Jewish woman.Credit: Emil Salman

With great enthusiasm and a heavy American accent, Yiscah Smith, a 65-year-old woman, tells the story of her coming out as transgender, which she describes as “coming out from slavery into freedom.” Smith was born in 1951 into a New York Jewish family. Today she lives in Jerusalem, where she is a well-known figure in the religious LGBT community, works as a Jewish educator and teaches Hasidic thought.

While studying sociology in college, Smith was exposed to the idea of the kibbutz and decided to visit Israel. During the trip he become more religious. Ultimately he married a woman and the two started the process of becoming ultra-Orthodox. “I went up to Jerusalem and entered the Haredi world, in the framework of Chabad. My wife and I had six children and I was the chairman of the Chabad House in the Jewish Quarter [of the Old City],” she says.

“I accepted this lifestyle for myself, but I gradually lost myself.”

Eventually, her whole world fell in on her. She divorced and gave up religion. “I felt I had no place in the religious world,” she says.

After meeting transgender people in the nonreligious world, Smith understood she was not alone, but as time passed, she returned to religion and the religious community. “I asked God to help me, because I couldn’t breathe any longer. I understood that I needed to start on a journey of gender change, and God would guide me. The minute I understood that, my life changed. As if God had stretched out his hand to me and said: ‘Yiscah, I am guiding you.’ So there is not just gender change here, but spiritual correction. I started to live who I really am.”

Beginning the journey

The status of transgender religious people is complex not just within the religious community but also among religious LGBT people themselves. Elisha Alexander, a transgender man from a Conservative Jewish home who today is the head of the Ma’avarim (Transitions) organization for transgender Israelis, says that sometimes the “trans” narrative is more easily accepted by religious people than the gay narrative. He claims this is because the issue is about a feeling of incongruence between the person and his or her body, which is unconnected to sex.

“Dealing with sexuality is difficult for conservative communities, so actually transgender people can be accepted more. Religion is often an excuse for transphobia, while it is really a matter of pikuach nefesh,” he says, referring to the principle of Jewish law that values the preservation of life over almost anything else — that is, transitioning becomes a matter of saving the person’s life.

Similar to Alexander, Daniel Younes, the chairman of Havruta, a nonprofit organization for religious gay Israeli men, thinks the transgender identity is easier to digest from a religious perspective. “When I studied in a yeshiva 10 years ago, we asked one of the rabbis if a transgender woman needs to sit in the women’s section or the men’s section, and he answered that if she looks like a woman, of course she needs to sit in the women’s section. It was obvious to him. From a halakhic viewpoint, it is easier to deal with the status of transgender people. But in an interesting way, it is much harder for [religious] society to include them. An opposite process is happening here: It is easier for halakha to deal with what is much harder society to deal with,” says Alexander.

Saving lives

Twenty years ago, Rabbi Ronen Lubich, the rabbi of Nir Etzion, a religious moshav south of Haifa, published the first article by an Orthodox rabbi on the subject of homosexuality. The pioneering piece marked the opening shot in the Israeli religious community’s dealings with LGBT issues, and today he understands that the next issue the religious world will have to tackle is how to approach transgender people.

Lubich, a member of the relatively liberal Beit Hillel organization of rabbis, has reached the conclusion that transgender religious people should be treated with inclusion and complete tolerance in the context of Jewish law. “My starting point is that everyone has a place in the religious world, and if a person feels that way, it is important that they have the safeguarding of mental health treatment to help them handle it,” he says. “If needed, it is important to help them accept themselves as they are and help them with their feelings and the reactions of society around them.”

Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, a founder of the somewhat more conservative Tzohar organization of rabbis, also speaks of inclusion and tolerance. He also believes that transitioning is lifesaving for transgender people.

“From the cases I know, these are people who, if they had not gone through the process they went through, there would have been concern for their lives. Without discussing whether the process itself is allowed from the halakhic perspective, I accept them the way they are. I am not saying this in order to be nice and liberal, but because we have a situation of saving lives here, so I am relying on halakhic opinions that think the person is determined by the way they look externally.”

Feuerstein places limitations on this opinion, though, adding: “As long as it is a matter of the behavior of a person with himself, I accept this. But when it is a protest, a demonstrative behavior, it is already something else. And if a gay person comes to the synagogue hugging their partner, I will go up to him and tell him politely and with courtesy that this is not how we behave in the synagogue. The same thing for transgender people — I accept the person standing in front of me, I am willing for them to receive an aliya [call-up] to the Torah and to be the cantor, as long as there is no matter of demonstrative display whose purpose is to shock the foundations of the Jewish world. As long as a person respects the rules of the community and behaves according to them, as far as I’m concerned it is completely okay.”

Advice from Rabbi Soloveitchik

Dana FriedmanCredit: Brian Friedman

Dana Friedman, 51, from New York, grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in New Jersey. As early as childhood, she felt an internal rift: The discourse in the Modern Orthodox world at the time did not help her come to terms with her identity. “In the school where I studied, the world was divided. The Orthodox were the good guys and the homosexuals were the bad guys,” she says. “So there couldn’t be such a thing as a religious gay.”

After she finished high school, Friedman went to Israel to study in a Modern Orthodox yeshiva for American youth. She was exposed to the transgender world when she began studying musicology in college. In 1990 she began the gender reassignment process and left the religious community. Only in 2008 did she find herself returning to Modern Orthodoxy.

“I lived then next to a Chabad synagogue in Manhattan,” she says. “And from what I knew, Chabad Hasidim are not so judgmental, but mostly interested in kiruv [bringing people closer] to Judaism. I started praying there, and they accepted me. During that period I participated in email correspondence with Orthodox transgender people from all over the world, and so I met people who were trying very hard to remain religious. I felt that if there were people making this effort and succeeding, I had to try too.”

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1957.Credit: Wikipedia

“Later I found a Modern Orthodox synagogue not far from my home,” said Friedman. “I still was afraid and didn’t want to talk to anyone, because there were people there who knew me when I still prayed in the men’s section of the synagogue. I decided for myself that if someone makes a commotion because I’m there, I’m leaving and never coming back. But it didn’t happen, from 2008 until now. Today I live as an Orthodox Jewish woman and try to keep a religious lifestyle. I’m not hiding from anyone, and if they ask me in the synagogue, I will tell my story — but I won’t talk about it on my own initiative.”

When asked about the conflicts that arise in the life of an Orthodox transgender woman, Friedman responds, “I may surprise you if I say I don’t feel there are such conflicts. I know there are negative halakhic opinions, but there are also many positive decisions toward transgender people. In general, rabbis often prefer not to take the issue seriously, but to rule it out immediately. Rabbis start to get annoyed and become excitable, but you can’t be emotional when you deal with halakha.”

She says he received her most important lesson on the subject from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the most important leader of the Modern Orthodox movement in the United States in the late 20th century. “He told me that when I hear rabbis, I need to learn to listen to their rhetoric too. Rabbis who are afraid of something specific and don’t want to relate to it in a scholarly fashion will say what they feel without any connection to the facts,” says Friedman.

As for the differences between Israel and the U.S., Friedman thinks Israel is more advanced in its attitude toward transgender people. “Back in 1998, you had [transgender Israeli Eurovision Song Contest winner] Dana International,” she says.

“In America, things happen more slowly, but in everything related to religious communities, I think that the situation in the U.S. and in Israel is quite similar. Both here and in Israel the Orthodox are afraid of everything that is a little bit different, and there is a lot of ignorance among rabbis.”

Although she is critical of orthodoxy, Friedman continues to identify with the Orthodox movement. “I respect the Reform and Conservative very much, but I am not capable of connecting to such Judaism. If there is no belief in the Torah coming from God, there is no reason to be a religious person. There is no reason to perform mitzvot [commandments] if their source is not divine, if their foundation is a mistake. So, with all the difficulties, I remain in the Orthodox world,” she says.

What would the
sages say?

Lior BroizbahCredit: Moti Milrod

While Orthodox Judaism is now making its first hesitant steps toward the inclusion of transgender religious people, Reform Judaism officially opened its gates to transgender people in November 2015. That is when Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm in North America, published a call to Reform congregations to accept all gender and sexual identities, to call transgender people by the names they chose, to hold discussions and increase awareness on the subject, and even to construct gender-neutral bathrooms in the movement’s synagogues and summer camps, if necessary.

Lior Broizbah, 27 from Rishon Letzion, is a member of the Reform community in the city. He came out as transgender seven years ago. He grew up secular, yet drew closer to religion, even though he believed that the Orthodox world would not accept him. “When I stared to take hormones and look like a man, I met a Chabad Hasid who offered to [help me] put on tefillin and invited me to come to his classes. He didn’t know about the process I went through. The classes interested me a great deal, but at a certain stage the Chabadnik discovered I was transgender, and I became frightened. I stopped going to the classes.”

By chance, Broizbah found out there was a Reform synagogue in Rishon Letzion. “When I talked about it in the Reform community, people said to me: ‘Okay, what else is new?’ They had no problem with me whatsoever.”

The synagogue is an important part of his life now, he says. “I am there to stay. It’s my world. I know that the Orthodox world is also taking steps toward the inclusion of transgender people, but there’s no comparison to what is happening in the Reform world.”

Torah and reality

Is the Orthodox world really capable of making such a far-reaching change in its relationship to transgender people? Does Jewish law have the tools to deal with the experiences in their lives? The voices of rabbis such as Lubich and Feuerstein do not represent the central stream of Orthodoxy. More conservative rabbis reject transgender people outright and the majority of the religious public also has reservations about the issue.

Rabbi Chaim NavonCredit: Miriam Tzahi

Rabbi Chaim Navon, who is an author and teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a women’s educational institute for advanced religious studies, is considered relatively moderate. He says transgender people should “accept their born nature.”

“Transgender people are at the cultural and social focus of the LGBT culture and the cultural confrontation in Western society today,” says Navon. “Look at what is happening in the U.S. surrounding the question of whether biological men can be obliged to only use men’s changing rooms. There is a reason that trans people are actually at the forefront of the debate. In contrast to gays, many of whom say, ‘That’s the way I was born,’ transgender people are seen today as expressing the opposite message: It doesn’t matter how I was born. It’s important how I choose to live.

“This is linked to declarations that gender is not two binary options but a scale, and so forth. These statements contradict the very basic fundamentals of Judaism. This is not just the verse ‘a man shall not wear a woman’s dress.’ When it says in Genesis: ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh,’ here the Torah marks a basic uniqueness of men, of women and the relationship between them,” he says.

But it is possible to separate between the person and the phenomenon, as other rabbis do?

“Definitely. For years I have been emphasizing everywhere they ask me that it is forbidden to insult those with a single-sex orientation with labels such as ‘sick’ or ‘perverts.’ This is certainly true concerning transgender people, too. They are certainly people coming from serious personal distress. It does not contradict the negative judgment of the cultural and social phenomenon.

“It’s true that for most transgender people, it’s harder to mark the distinction between the person and the phenomenon. For a person with a homosexual orientation, the serious prohibition from the Torah focuses on a very specific act. For transgender people, in addition to the serious prohibition on the sex change operation, the verse ‘a man shall not put on a woman’s dress’ bans the entire behavioral framework that mimics a different gender.”

So what would you say to a transgender religious Jew who comes to you?

“I won’t encourage a person to identify with a different gender. The verse ‘Neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment’ is not just a specific prohibition, but a requirement for the person to accept their born nature. Many people feel uncomfortable — sometimes to the extreme — with themselves and with various aspects of their personalities and bodies, even without any connection to sex and gender. We will encourage everyone to accept themselves as they were born, and not to reject their natural born aspects.”