The dominant approach to gender in Western society has its origin in Christian thought that understands both sex and gender as binary. In that understanding, everyone is either male or female, and gender and sex are identical. While Jews gradually absorbed that perspective, classical rabbinic Judaism had a much more sophisticated understanding.
The Talmud contains hundreds of references to other categories. These include, for example, the androgynos (a hermaphrodite with male and female organs), the tumtum (someone with hidden or underdeveloped genitalia), the eylonit (a masculine woman) and the saris (a feminine man). It is clear from even this short list that the Talmud recognizes that sex organs do not necessarily make people purely male or purely female. The Talmud also recognizes that an individual’s gender orientation does not necessarily match his or her sex organs.
This perspective is underlined by the Mishna: “The androgynos is like a man in some ways and like a woman in some ways, like both a man and a woman in some ways, and like neither a man nor a woman in some ways.” (Bikurim 4.1) While the talmudic rabbis did not know about chromosomes or hormones, they certainly understood that sex and gender are independent variables, and they made it licit for people to be true to themselves in regard to gender expression.
In reaching this stance, the rabbis had to deal with several aspects of the Torah’s teaching that seem to dictate a different position. One of these aspects is the Torah’s prohibition of cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5). The Talmud says that what is prohibited is falsifying identity for the purpose of spying on the other sex. The great medieval commentator Rashi says that the prohibition is limited to concealing identity for the purpose of adultery. The Shulhan Arukh notes that cross-dressing is permitted on Purim because its purpose is simha (celebration, joy) and that it is forbidden if it is for the purpose of fraud. In limiting the prohibition to situations of fraud and deception, the talmudic and medieval rabbis indicated that cross-dressing in a way that is true to the cross-dresser’s identity is permitted.
The other biblical prohibition is of castration. Of course, this is irrelevant for female-to-male transgender people. Most male-to-female transgender people do not have “bottom surgery,” in which case it is not an issue for them either. Contemporary Jewish bioethicists treat vasectomy as an equivalent of castration, so for those who would allow vasectomy, voluntary castration should be treated similarly.
In terms of contemporary Jewish ethics, several key values are relevant to this issue—inclusion, tzedek (justice), and briyut (health). People who wish to be included in our Jewish community should be warmly welcomed. In the spirit of every person being b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), their diversity should be understood as adding to the divine presence among us.
In a world where tzedek is often withheld from people for reasons of class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and family structure, among other reasons, it is incumbent upon Jews to fight injustice in all its forms. “We were slaves in Egypt.” Transgender people, subject to many kinds of injustice, deserve our support.
Briyut is concerned with both physical and emotional health. Preventing individuals from expressing who they are clearly leads to psychological problems. The mitzvah of healing is not limited to health professionals; it is incumbent upon every Jew. Supporting transgender people in who they are is part of that mitzvah.
Bioethics questions are sometimes asked about the hormone treatments and surgery that transgender people often utilize. Here the psychological health issues must be weighed against the risks of treatment. Hormone treatments are to date regarded as extremely low-risk, and the surgery is in the same class as plastic surgery, something that can be elected by an individual after weighing the gains against the risks.
Our current understanding differentiates among sex, sexual orientation and gender as three independent variables that can appear in individuals in any combination. Given that reality, it is important to allow individuals to name and describe themselves.
There are several basic measures that Jewish communities should take. They should include transgender people in their nondiscrimination policies, including employment policies. To avoid embarrassment for transgender people, buildings should have at least one single-stall restroom and notices near other restrooms giving the location of the single-stall restroom. Programming to help people come to terms with the issues raised above should be a regular part of Jewish communal life.
The mitzvah that takes precedence over virtually all others is saving a life. In a world where sexual minorities are subject to ridicule and suicide, we all need to stand up for the full diversity in our communities.
This content was originally published on the website of Minyan Dorshei Derekh, at http://www.minyandorsheiderekh.org/2012/11/understanding-transgender-issues-in.html.