Monotheistic fundamentalists believe in different variations of the same god, but they have a common mindset. While America today may be focused on jihadi terrorists who kill in the name of Islam, we have Christian terrorists attacking health clinics in the name of Jesus here in the States and Jewish terrorists firebombing Palestinian families in the name of Yahweh in the West Bank. The fundamentalist mindset may lead to violence of the physical kind, but it also yields spiritual violence. Here is one such instance of particular interest to me.
Before I go into detail, however, I need to say that many who live a religiously orthodox life are of the highest moral character. There is something about a fundamentalist or literalist mindset that promotes bigotry, but not all are susceptible. In this instance, it’s important to note that the orthodox Jewish community was the first Jewish denomination to accept trans women, way back in the 60’s and 70’s. It was the work of the Tzitz Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, who blazed that path, and saved my life by giving me hope.
Today, though, the public face of fundamentalism, including Jewish fundamentalism, is often one of hatred prompted by ignorance-based fear. At issue today is Dennis Prager, a very loud orthodox Jewish man who cares little for all the other Jewish believers and non-believers, and who holds a particular grudge against trans persons. It is a common tool for the uninformed that when they are making their point, for which they have no evidence based on their personal value system, that they resort to ad hominem attacks. They change the subject, and they attack ever larger groups to help smear the target of the moment.
Putting aside Mr. Prager’s disrespect for non-orthodox Jews, which is evident in this column, and his broad assumption that they care nothing for what’s written in the Torah, he attacks the trans population based on what he believes the Torah says on the subject. Now I don’t expect that he would rush to read a book such as Torah Queeries, or more to the point under discussion, TransTexts or TransTorah, but if educated Jews are known for anything, it is for a culture of immersion in study, of both texts and commentary. He’s clearly made no effort to learn anything about a group of people with this particular medical condition.
I’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he wouldn’t treat any other group impacted with a medical condition or variation the same way. But when it comes to people with sexual variations Mr. Prager shows his superficial understanding of the subject with a simplistic reading of sex and gender in the Torah about which I knew more after third grade in my yeshiva in Queens. I was well aware then of the midrash that the first human being was created as intersex, or what was historically known as a hermaphrodite. So much for the Torah’s rigid gender distinctions.
He smears the entire community by claiming it wants to end gender distinctions, when that is not the case for the vast majority, and ends up demeaning the Jewish value of compassion as the liberal community’s fallback position. Jews do have a long history of valuing compassion and mercy, but they also have a habit of demanding respect, and that is all trans Jews ask of those who choose to see sex and gender in a very constrained and limited manner. He ignores the science and medicine, practiced by many Jewish physicians, which buttresses the practice of medical transition today. He smears trans persons by misgendering them, disregarding that the Tzitz Eliezer, a somewhat greater sage then he, had no problem recognizing trans women as women.
The worst part of his sloppy diatribe against trans (note that he uses the archaic form, transgendered, having not bothered to check any style guide) persons, though, is his personal attack on a colleague of mine with whom I sit on the board of Keshet, the national Jewish LGBT education and advocacy group working for the full inclusion of LGBT Jews into Jewish communal life. He says:
Likewise, a Southern California synagogue has hired as its director of education a biological female rabbi who identifies as male, wears masculine clothing, is referred to as male and insists on being called by her/his given female name. Obviously, the congregation and the rabbi believe that the Torah’s view on gender distinction is irrelevant.
He doesn’t have the decency to mention Rabbi Silverstein’s name, which is a cheap shot in any debate, and seems to believe that the crux of the problem is the Rabbi’s maintenance of a female-sounding name. That’s Rabbi Silverstein’s business, and his congregation not having a problem with it implies nothing about their belief in Torah or Jewish values regarding sex and gender. It’s a function of common human decency and respect.
A human being who has two X chromosomes, mammary glands, a vagina, a uterus, produces eggs, and menstruates is a female. That is not opinion. That is science. No amount of midrash or left-wing dogma can rewrite science or the Torah.
The hard right throws around the terms "biological female" and "biological male" with abandon, reveling in their ignorance. All one needs to do is Google "intersex" to take a tour through the complexity of biological sex and its myriad of manifestations. My colleague at Keshet, Executive Director Idit Klein, briefly touches on that sexual diversity in her response to the Prager articles in the Jewish Journal. TransTexts is a source for those interested in learning more.
In his second article he mentions that none of the letters that was written in response to the first column actually quoted him. So I wrote this column, and I’m happy to further engage him in debate, though there are those far more learned than I who can do so. My mother (z"l), whom I recently buried, would be ashamed at what passes for orthodox Judaism today.
Mr. Prager – I, for one, don’t condemn the Jewish Journal for publishing you. The Right has shut down debate in this country (and Israel) for too long, and it’s time we engaged in discussion. But to give you one example of why many have called you intolerant, bigoted and transphobic, I will quote you as you demand:
When Bruce Jenner came out as a woman, he/she took a female name, Caitlyn.
"He/she" is a slur, an epithet, often hurled at trans women when they are under verbal or physical assault, sometime to the point of losing their lives. Had you simply taken the time to talk with someone who knows this community, or is of this community, you might have recognized it and not tainted the theme you claim to have wanted to present. There are enough Jewish LGBT organizations today, and Jewish LGBT leaders, who could help you learn, but I fear that your hostility towards all non-orthodox Jews blinds you to these particular issues of sex and gender. It’s not as complicated as you seem to believe, certainly not for a man steeped in study and debate. You might want to choose a hevruta partner to study the topic, from a Jewish perspective or not. You’ll find it enlightening.
I’ve been accepted and embraced by family and friends, even those who were and remain practicing orthodox Jews. You should give it a try.
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