Tikkun Magazine

Credit: absolutearts.com/shoshannah.
Credit: absolutearts.com/shoshannah.

Magazine, July/August 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stern College: Gender Transition and Jewish Ethics

by Joy Ladin

In 2003, as a bearded, kippah- and tzitzit-wearing man, I joined the faculty of Stern College. In spring 2007, after receiving tenure, I informed my dean that I would return the next semester as a woman. Stern is part of Yeshiva University, modern Orthodox Judaism's premiere institution of higher learning, and Orthodox Judaism, like most traditional religions, classifies the things transsexuals do to fit our bodies to our souls as sins. As someone born male, my sins included wearing women's clothing and taking hormones that destroyed my fertility. I was also violating customs and conceptions of gender that are held to with religious conviction by many Orthodox Jews.

I was sure that coming out as trans would end my employment by Yeshiva University, but after months when I was forbidden to set foot on campus, the unthinkable happened. When my Lambda attorneys demanded that I be allowed to return to teaching, the university said yes. We spent the summer negotiating the conditions of my return—including which bathrooms I would be permitted to use. Finally, September arrived. After years of shame and hiding, I was finally going to stand before my students and colleagues as the person I knew myself to be. More importantly, after millennia of intolerance, an institution representing Orthodox Judaism was about to welcome an openly transgender employee.

As I walked through the halls, I kept waiting for something to happen—for my transition to matter to someone. It didn't. Teachers rushed to and from classes, students talked on cell phones and swayed back and forth in prayer. I wasn't something to stare at; I was just another middle-aged woman going about her business.

But to the New York Post, I was news. The article was splashed across page three:

Literature Professor Joy Ladin, formerly known as Jay Ladin, 47, showed up for her first day of school sporting pink lipstick, a tight purple shirt and a flirty black skirt.... Many at the Jewish university are horrified by the presence of the transgender professor.

Conservative Orthodox Reactions

The university maintained official silence about me, but the Post found a faculty member who was willing to voice Orthodox "horror" at my presence: Rabbi Moshe Tendler, who, as the Post noted, is "a senior dean at Yeshiva's rabbinical school and a professor of biology and medical ethics." Rabbi Tendler didn't mince words: "He's not a woman. He's a male with enlarged breasts ... He's a person who represents a kind of amorality which runs counter to everything Yeshiva University stands for." Rabbi Tendler's comments suggest a startling (for a professor of biology and medical ethics) ignorance of the complexities of gender and, as a number of Orthodox commentators noted, violate Jewish laws that require that individuals be spoken of with respect and compassion. But Rabbi Tendler's impolitic remarks express feelings that are alive and well in the Orthodox world—feelings that are a fact of life for transgendered Jews living in Orthodox communities, and which must be acknowledged in any meaningful dialogue about gender identity issues and Judaism.

Gender identity is so central to traditional Judaism that it is more or less impossible for traditional Jewish communities to accommodate those who aren't simply male or female. I can't even participate in a traditional Jewish religious service, where men and women sit separately, without identifying myself as male or female. Such concerns aren't limited to the Orthodox world. They are mirrored in feminist debates over whether transwomen should be welcomed at women-only events, groups, and spaces. 

But Rabbi Tendler isn't only worried about what I am; he is worried about what I mean. Gender is a language through which we communicate ourselves to others. For Rabbi Tendler, my presentation of myself as female didn't say that I was a woman—it said that I "represent a kind of amorality," that I reject the very categories that enable us to order and judge reality. Male and female, light and dark, good and evil—such absolute distinctions are the basis of traditional moralities. If, as my transition proclaims, a man can "be" a woman, then there are no stable, fixed categories, and thus no basis for moral judgment.

Never underestimate the power of a tight purple shirt and a flirty black skirt.

I've agonized over the moral implications of transsexuality more than Rabbi Tendler ever will. For decades, not a day passed when I didn't feel the secret shame of presenting myself as someone I knew I wasn't. I tried to be a good boy and man—I did my homework, took out the garbage, and stayed faithful to my wife for a quarter-century. But every time I presented myself as a man, I knew I was lying. The gender language that proclaimed me a good guy, from my perspective, meant that I was a phony, a coward, a betrayer of the deepest truths about myself.

Transition didn't resolve the moral paradox of transsexuality; it simply reversed the terms. Once I began living as a woman, I was being honest and brave, living the only life I could embrace in gratitude and joy—but I was also destroying my marriage and my family, bringing grief and agony to those I loved.

According to Rabbi Tendler, Judaism cannot help me with these moral problems, because to be a transsexual is to be automatically excommunicated: "There is just no leeway in Jewish law for a transsexual.... There is no niche where he can hide out as a female without being in massive violation of Torah law, Torah ethics and Torah morality." Of course, Rabbi Tendler misunderstands transsexuality—transsexuality is a sense of identity, and since Jewish law governs actions rather than feelings, no legal "leeway" is required to be transsexual. And I certainly wouldn't have returned to Yeshiva if I were trying to "hide out as a female." But Rabbi Tendler's claims that transsexuality is incompatible with Judaism raise a serious and—for devout, trans Jews—agonizing possibility: the possibility that to become whole in terms of gender identity, we have to amputate ourselves from our religion, our faith communities, our God.

Is Rabbi Tendler right? Does Judaism's three-millennia-old tradition have no wisdom to offer Jews like me? 

Hillel on Self and Moral Responsibility

One of Judaism's most famous sages, Rabbi Hillel, spoke directly to the ethical and existential dilemmas that surround transsexuality: "If I am not for myself," Rabbi Hillel asked, "who will be? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?"

Hillel's widely quoted questions press us to confront the uncomfortable but universal fact that none of us simply are; we have to become ourselves, not once, but throughout our lives. Becoming is scary, difficult, painful; I avoided it as long as I could, and when my gender crisis forced me to become myself or die, I felt utterly lost. It wasn't hard to learn how to act like and be seen as a woman, but I didn't want to simply "act like" and "be seen as." I'd done that all my life. After decades of being a persona, I wanted to become a person.

And so, like generations of Jews before me, I turned to Rabbi Hillel. His questions transformed what seemed to me metaphysical impossibilities—turning lies into truth, nonbeing into being, manhood into womanhood—into concrete choices. "If I am not for myself, who will be?" Hillel didn't have to know anything about transsexuality to know that the answer to that is "no one." No one expected me, needed me, or wanted me to become myself. In fact, my wife and three children needed me not to become myself. My journey toward becoming a person could only begin a radical act of being-for-myself—an act that seemed selfish, solipsistic, even psychotic, for I would have to be for a self that didn't yet exist. But Hillel showed me, in the plainest possible terms, that if I wasn't for myself, my self would never be.

But Hillel also taught me that "If I am for myself alone, what am I?" People become who they are with and through other people. Gender identity—my sense of myself as female—was a private matter of being for myself. But being a woman is much more than a sense of being female. "Woman" designates a social status, the achievement of an identity in the world. When I was for myself alone, what was I? A wish, a longing, a disappointment. If I wanted to become a woman, I had to remake myself in the eyes of others, to be for and with them as the self I felt driven to become.

But Hillel's question is more than a call to come out of the closet. It is also a demand that we take responsibility for the consequences, to others, of our becoming. If I am not for myself alone, if I need others to become myself, then I cannot ignore the pain that results from my becoming. For most of my life, I tried to be for others without being for myself—to be the man others needed me to be, to suppress and deny the woman I felt I was. Once I began to transition, I wanted desperately to do the opposite, to insist that after all my years of self-denial, others' feelings didn't matter. Hillel's question forced me to recognize that people I love were in anguish as a consequence of my transition, and unless I acknowledged their anguish, I would be for myself alone. If I wanted to become a real person and not someone acting like a woman, I had to be true to their feelings as I was to my own.

For most of my life, it seemed that the answer to "If not now, when?" was "never." My certainty that I would never really exist was so complete that I couldn't even imagine a process of becoming. In my fantasies, I simply found myself in a magical now in which I was suddenly a girl or woman—fantasies I expected to come true the moment I made the difficult commitment to transition. But transition didn't magically transport me from life as an imitation man to life as a real woman. As Hillel's questions taught me, the "now" in which we become ourselves must be created over and over as we make, each moment, the sometimes agonizing decisions, choices, and commitments to ourselves and others. 

Transsexuals' lives may seem strange to those who do not have to struggle to reconcile the gender of their psyches with the sex of their bodies, but we embody the questions Hillel poses to everyone: How can we become our truest selves? How can we place ourselves in meaningful, moral relationship to others? And if not now, when?

Joy Ladin, David and Ruth Gottesman Professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, is the author of four books of poetry, including the recent Transmigration and Psalms, and numerous essays.

Ladin, Joy. 2010. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stern College: Gender Transition and Jewish Ethics. Tikkun 25(4): 50

tags: Gender & Sexuality, Judaism, LGBT, Orthodox Judaism, Queer Spirituality & Politics