Of all the terrible things opponents of Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance said during their campaign against equality, the most offensive may have been their implication that religion and trans tolerance are mutually exclusive—that any authentically religious person must be anti-trans, too. It’s just not true: Millions of devout Americans active in their faith communities also support trans tolerance and protections. The latest proof of that fact arrived on Thursday, when the Union for Reform Judaism—my people!—approved a sweeping resolution calling for total trans inclusion among congregations and encouraging activism on behalf of trans rights. There were no objections.
Like most American Jews, the URJ is quite liberal. It first passed a resolution affirming “the rights of homosexuals” in 1977 and called for full marriage equality in 1997. No doubt most of the URJ’s members consider themselves politically progressive. Given that fact, conservatives may castigate the new resolution as a political move rather than a religious one. Even Jon Green at the liberal AMERICAblog wrote (approvingly) that the resolution “has very little to do” with the Torah and more to do with modern Jewish commitments to “justice and equality.”
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.
Of course, the common stumbling block for religious trans advocates is Deuteronomy 22:5, which states that “a woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.” This verse has long been fodder for orthodox believers—Jewish and otherwise—who believe any person who crosses a gender boundary is committing a sin.
But many modern scholars reject a simplistically anti-trans reading of Deuteronomy 22:5 for anthropological reasons, arguing that it was designed to ensure that the Israelites remained distinct from nearby cults—many of which practiced Pagan transvestism. Two leading trans rabbis, Elliot Kukla and Reuben Zellman, offer a more spiritual interpretation, asserting that cross-dressing is only an abomination when one does it for deceitful purposes, like voyeurism. As proof, they note that Jews are permitted to cross-dress while celebrating Purim—an obvious violation of Deuteronomy 22:5. How to resolve this apparent contradiction? Kukla and Zellman decide that cross-dressing in order to increase joy—a fundamental Jewish value—is allowed, even encouraged. The Purim exception, in other words, is really a happiness exception. From their excellent essay:
[C]hoosing to wear clothing that is traditionally designated for a different gender from the one in which we were raised is acceptable if we are doing it because it makes us happy. And if we are permitted to dress in these ways because it makes us happy, then all the more so is it appropriate to wear the clothes that express our authentic selves. For some of us, the truth of who we are is better revealed when we wear the clothes of another gender than of the one we are assigned at birth. When we allow others to see our honest identities, it increases our comfort, helps to bring internal reconciliation, and promotes real fulfillment. Nothing promotes joy as much as the freedom to be who we are meant to be.
As these passages and analyses demonstrate, Judaism has historically viewed gender and sex expansively. There is no inexorable command in the Torah or elsewhere requiring Jews to be intolerant of trans people—and indeed, the letter of Jewish law and the spirit of Jewish tradition would seem to counsel toward trans inclusion. The URJ deserves great credit for affirming its commitment to equality in the shadow of the HERO catastrophe, and for pushing back against the narrative that pits faith against tolerance. Houstonians should take note of this powerful vision of equality.