Reform Judaism approves major resolution providing for transgender inclusion

The Union for Reform Judaism passed a resolution by voice vote at the group’s biennial meeting in Orlando today providing for equal rights for transgender people within the religion. There was no opposition to the resolution, which, according to ABC News, “calls for congregations and camps to have gender-neutral bathrooms, encourages gender-neutral language at Reform Jewish institutions, suggests training on gender issues for religious school staff and encourages advocating on behalf of the transgender community.”

While other religious organizations have enacted trans-inclusive policies previously, none reportedly go as far as this one.

Reform Judaism is, by population, the largest denomination of the Jewish faith in the United States, where roughly 40 percent of the world’s Jews live.

Israeli pop star and Jewish trans woman Dana International, via Wikimedia Commons

Israeli pop star and Jewish trans woman Dana International (center), via Wikimedia Commons

That the organization considered the measure in the first place, and that it proved to be wholly uncontroversial within its ranks, is in large part due to the fact that being Jewish in the United States has very little to do with the specific edicts laid out in the Torah, which has some rather harsh words for the gender non-conforming. Rather, according to a comprehensive Pew study published in 2013, 62% of American Jews feel that being Jewish is solely a matter of ancestry and culture; religious belief and observance are secondary considerations.

This being the case, if a member of the Jewish community, who has Jewish ancestors and grew up in Jewish culture, happens to be gender non-conforming, so what? By the community’s own standards, they’re no less Jewish. In the context of Reform Judaism, a person may or may not believe in God, and they may or may not adhere to a particular set of religious observances. What’s important is that they are a decent person, work for justice and equality, have a good sense of humor and play an active role in their community. All of those priorities are more important than strictly adhering to 5,000+ year-old edicts.

In other words, it is by no means mutually exclusive to be trans and Jewish. There’s no reason why the community shouldn’t take steps to be inclusive.

What’s more, there’s at least one good reason why the community should be particularly interested in including trans people: Judaism’s own fight for inclusion in modern society. Trans people are currently one of the most stigmatized groups in the world, and Jews used to be a highly-stigmatized group themselves. Now that anti-Semitism in the United States is far less of an issue now than it was a century ago — when the Ivy League invented the selective admissions process we know today for the express purpose of keeping Jews out — it’d be hypocritical of the community, to say the least, to pull the ladder up behind them.

Today’s a good day for modern-day Jewish values.

UPDATE: As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern points out, Jewish scholars have long held complex and flexible views on the religion’s stance toward gender binaries:

I certainly agree that most American Reform Jews would consider “justice and equality” to be a value of their faith. But I’m not at all convinced that the resolution “has very little” to do with Judaism’s holy books. The Mishnah contemplates gender on a spectrum, acknowledging the existence of tumtums (“sometimes a man and sometimes a woman”), androgynos (whose gender the scribes “could not decide”),sarisim (who could move freely between men and women’s domains), and aylonit(who has female sex organs but presents male characteristics). A gender binary this is not.

The Babylonian Talmud also engages deeply with gender. In the famed Yebamoth Folio, several rabbis engage in a colloquy about the genders of Abraham and Sarah—and decide that both were tumtums, born without sex organs. Clearly, the rabbis held no animus toward the tumtum if they were willing to deduce that none other than Abraham and Sarah were once tumtums themselves. Similarly, a passage in the Mishnah sets out rules for the androgynos—insisting that they be afforded the basic human rights and thus recognizing their intrinsic value.

So trans inclusion is a Jewish value on cultural and religious grounds. Point well taken.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Indigo

    Ha!

  • mf_roe

    What gender is time?, gravity? Why would a creator NEED gender?

  • Indigo

    Linguists dispute exactly how many root words and variations there are, but Inuit has famously many words for snow [https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/there-really-are-50-eskimo-words-for-snow/2013/01/14/e0e3f4e0-59a0-11e2-beee-6e38f5215402_story.html]. We have plenty of words describing same or similar items, venison is deer meat and so on with multiples of Anglo-French and Anglo-Saxon synonyms. Some of the ancient languages have verb forms we don’t even think of such as the Precative (prayer) mood. There’s singular, dual, and plural pronouns as well as verb forms in both ancient Greek and Sanskrit, Spanish has multiple ways of saying “to be” that never cross out Ango-English speaking minds and gracefully points out the (obvious?) difference between “that” next to you and “that” over there next to him/her/you-formal. So there’s plenty of room for us to grow up and grow a fresh paradigm of pronouns. All we have to do is decide we’re willing to indicate those distinctions. I just hope those who love gender neutral deities find a less clumsy way of opening the Lord/Lady’s Prayer with “Our Father-Mother God . . . “

  • mf_roe

    Thank you for taking my comment in the spirit it’s given. Gender goes far beyond the biological distinctions of sexual equipment. Yes we need a positive term for things like a dominant “feminine” personality. Much of the language in use today evolved as deviations of two mythical norms. Many of those terms are still uncomfortable and inaccurate.

  • Indigo

    That’s a very good point. We need more pronouns expressing a wider variety of options.

  • mf_roe

    Expressing your gender using gender neutral language. Thinking about that makes you feel silly, right? How does one define himself or herself without specifying their variation from some neutral generality? Gender issues need more acceptable classes not a one size fits all approach.

  • FLL

    I think that the seeds of progressive thought in Europe were sown during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic age. It’s a shame that Reform Judaism, which began in the 1840s, only spread quickly in 19th-century America, but never met the expectations of its founders in 19th-century Europe. If Reform Judaism had begun decades earlier in Germany and had become as popular in 19th-century Germany as it did in 19th-century America, the revolutions of 1848 might have had more success. This was a lost opportunity for Jewish and non-Jewish progressives in Germany to be on the same page. In any case, Reform Judaism marks an important development for the modern concept of individual freedom, as you note when you write about the inclusion of trans people in Reform Judaism today.

  • Indigo

    Gender neutral language is difficult to visualize, mostly because the concept is new to our languages. We can do it, it is being done in some cases, but it is going to be a long haul to build it into the grammar books, syntax, and especially the pronoun system. We don’t have the semantics for it yet. But we can do that, all we really have to do is to want to do it.

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