Conservative Rabbis Okay 'Long Overdue' Way to Call Non-binary Jews Up to Torah

'As an initial step, it is time to ensure they are appropriately honored when called to the Torah,' three Conservative rabbis say as a rabbinical committee endorses language that does not invoke gender

The Forward
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
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An Israeli woman lays tefillin in Jerusalem in 2019.
An Israeli woman lays tefillin in Jerusalem in 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
The Forward
Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Being called up to the Torah is an honor. But for non-binary Jews – those who identify as neither male nor female – it can be fraught, because the Hebrew translates to “son of” or “daughter of,” followed by their parents’ names.

To address the issue, the Conservative movement recently unanimously approved a different way for Jews to be summoned that doesn’t refer to the person’s gender.

Now instead of being named aloud as ben (son of) or bat (daughter of), non-binary Jews can use mibeit, “from the house of” followed by their parents’ names.

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The rabbinic “teshuva,” or response to a question about Jewish law, passed the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards 24-0, with one abstention, on May 25.

The three Conservative rabbis who wrote the teshuva called it “long overdue,” and said it ideally would have been written by a non-binary rabbi. But in the meantime, they continued, “non-binary individuals attend our services and are part of our communities. As an initial step, it is time to ensure they are appropriately honored when called to the Torah.”

As with other guidelines written by the committee, which is part of the Rabbinical Assembly – the movement’s association of rabbis – it is non-binding on individual rabbis and synagogues.

But the teshuva signals that the Conservative movement, one of the four major streams of Judaism, is trying to do a better job of including non-binary people, who often report feeling excluded in congregations in which so much social life and ritual – from men’s and women’s clubs to bar and bat mitzvahs – categorizes people as either male or female.

The new teshuva, however, is hardly the first time that Jews have introduced gender-neutral language into services.

Keshet, a group which advocates for LGBTQ Jewish issues, in 2019 published a guide to a general neutral b’nai mitzvah.

People at the annual LGBTQ Pride march in Jerusalem, in 2016.Credit: AP

And the Reform movement put the same language into the most recent edition of its High Holy Day prayerbook, said Rabbi Hara Person, CEO of the movement’s rabbinical group, the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The CCAR Press sells certificates for lifecycle events, from baby namings to name changes to weddings, with one certificate specifically designed for name changes for gender affirmation ceremonies. Each type of certificate now comes in a gender-neutral version, as well as male and female.

“Eventually this language will find its way into the next generation of our prayerbook,” and will be used on a daily and weekly basis, said Person.

One of the three rabbis who authored the Conservative movement’s teshuva, Guy Austrian of the Fort Tryon Jewish Center in the Manhattan neighborhood Washington Heights, said the matter first formally came up at his synagogue five years ago.

“We had increasing numbers of non-binary members, and gabbais (those who summon people to the bima) were trying various forms for calling them up, and it had become awkward and inefficient,” he said in an interview. These members and synagogue staff asked him and the gabbais asked him and Ft. Tryon’s ritual committee how to handle these honors “in a more consistent and dignified way.”

Added Austrian, “Over the last five years, I’ve fielded many calls from rabbis and ritual committee chairs in other communities, who wanted to adopt this liturgy as well, so it seems to be spreading.”

The teshuva, which he co-authored with Rabbi Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, and Rabbi Deborah Silver of Shir Hadash in New Orleans, states that “to be called to the Torah by one’s name is a sacred encounter not only with the flow of our history but with each other.”

“Our names are announced in public for the room to hear and for the community as a whole to witness our answering the call,” it continues. “We bring all of ourselves, all of the facets of our identity, past and present, to that moment.”

This article originally appeared in the Forward. To get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox, click here.

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