“Two Jews, three opinions.” I was raised to appreciate multiplicity within our tradition. Through my study of Gemara, I learned to wrestle with texts, to ask lots of questions, and to challenge initial assumptions. I was taught the value of makhloket leshem shamayim, conflict in the name of heaven. Basically, I was encouraged to be curious.
So when I came out as transgender and faced some people in the Orthodox world saying that was “against the Torah,” I was confused, to say the least. Where was the complexity and nuance that other aspects of Jewish life are afforded?
While some verses in the Torah seem to enforce a simple gender binary, the Jewish tradition that I grew up with also has a more expansive vision of gender and sex. I see it in the Gemara’s acknowledgement of 6 halachic sexes, in the story of Dina changing gender in the womb, in the variety of gendered language used to describe Hashem, and in the idea that we are made in Hashem’s image. There are examples across Jewish history of Jews with more expansive relationships to gender than we may expect, and when we learn about them they can help us understand gender with more nuance. I heard an amazing story of a transition in an old Jewish shtetl at Eshel’s recorded event with Dr. Noam Sienna last month, from his anthology of primary sources on queer Jewish life, A Rainbow Thread.
Hafoch bah ve’hafoch bah, dechulah bah. Turn it and turn it for everything is in it. We learn in this verse from Pirkei Avot to look at the Torah from all possible angles. What I love about our tradition is that there are always new perspectives, lessons, and ways of understanding to be found in ancient sources. These ideas that may seem to be in conflict are an invitation for us to learn more, to ask more questions.
In today’s political climate, trans identity has become a hot-button issue. But human beings are not “issues” to be solved, and nothing within the Jewish tradition is as black-and-white as a politician might lead you to believe. Thinking of trans identity as a binary, an issue you can be “for” or “against,” leads to contempt, hatred, and dehumanization. Trans people are, first and foremost, people who are just trying to live our lives. For those who don’t understand, I would encourage you to take a lesson from our tradition and ask (respectful) questions. Curiosity about difference is worlds better than contempt.