The Rabbinical Assembly passed a resolution at the end of May affirming the rights of transgender Jews. After so many decades of Jewish organizations and denominations advocating for “the other,” it was a moment for recognizing the need for human rights advocacy within the Jewish world.
The resolution rested in part on talmudic sources that offer non-binary gender categories, as well as on the rabbinic idea that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.
Using this language and finding these categories within Jewish sources can be a revelation to people who are searching for their place in Judaism. Rabbi Elliott Kukla — the first openly transgender person ordained by the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles — first came across the talmudic gender categories while studying in an Orthodox yeshiva. “I instantly identified with the tumtum [gender undetermined],” he wrote in 2006. “I had spent a lifetime feeling homeless and adrift between the modern categories of ‘male’ and ‘female.’ When I met the tumtum, I finally came home.”
The six genders identified in talmudic texts, in addition to male, female, and tumtum, include androgynos (featuring facets of both), and saris and ailonit, which start, respectively, as male before developing female traits, and vice versa.
The resolution marks a milestone for the Conservative movement, but it is not alone. The Reform movement passed its own resolution in the fall. And in the Orthodox world, there is change, albeit beneath the surface. Yeshiva directors are facing this issue quietly with students and parents, locally and nationally. Consider the case of Dr. Joy Ladin, the first transgender professor at Yeshiva University, who spoke at a synagogue in Montclair earlier this spring. The Orthodox university could have suspended her tenure indefinitely after the professor they hired as Jay Ladin became Joy. (The Torah explicitly prohibits wearing the clothing of another gender.) Instead, she was welcomed back — by some with joy, by others less so — but she came back.
The Jewish community, so at ease welcoming the ger, the stranger, must continue to find the strength of language and values inherent in our own texts and resources to welcome our own members home.