Twenty years ago, Brandon Teena was beaten and brutally murdered by two of his supposed friends. He was a victim of hatred because while preferring to dress as a male, Brandon was biologically female, and his “friends” did not approve.
Before his murder, Brandon tried to report previous instances of physical and sexual assault, but the police were indifferent to his trauma, asked insensitive questions about the incidents,
and questioned his choice to identify as a male.
Sadly, Brandon is only one of many who have had their rights, their dignity and their lives stolen by such hared.
As Jews, we know what it is to have our lives, our dignity and our rights stolen by hatred, and so when it happens to others we are obligated to speak out.
Fourteen years ago, a group of other transgender individuals established Transgender Day of Remembrance to raise awareness about transgender violence and to commemorate those whose lives have been lost. On November 20th, Trans Day of Remembrance came and went, and likely many of those in our community knew nothing about it. But such a day cannot pass by unnamed, unnoticed, or unknown.
The first transgender individual I knew personally was Reuben Zellman.
Now Rabbi Zellman, Reuben is somewhat of a celebrity as he was the first transgender individual to be ordained as a rabbi. I’m proud that the school that ordained him was the same school that ordained me – The Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion –
our Reform Movement’s seminary. I hope this is something that you all can feel proud of as well, being members of the Reform Movement, which has always been on the front lines of any fight for equality within Judaism and the world beyond.
When I met Reuben, we were both students at HUC, and I didn’t immediately know of his celebrity status, or his transgender identity for that matter.
It wasn’t long before I learned about both however, since he often spoke publicly about his journey. As the time, I was horrified and embarrassed that I didn’t know exactly what Transgender meant.
I googled it, which I never would have admitted at the time. Most of my classmates and friends seemed to be “in the know” and I felt like, since I had many friends and classmates who were gay,
and had long been comfortable with the idea of homosexuality, I should have been more aware of Transgender individuals and their plight. But looking back on it now, I suspect I was not the only one to furtively google the term.
And I suspect that there are many in our society, and even perhaps in this community, who may feel they need to do the same. I wish now that someone had sensed my ignorance and put me at ease with a simple explanation.
So allow me to do so for anyone who’s here tonight who’s not exactly sure what I’m talking about: Transgender or Trans are broad terms that encompass anyone
who doesn’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. This includes both people who take medical steps to modify their appearance and those who do not.
Some transmen and transwomen identify completely with their preferred gender,
while others may identify with an alternate gender that is neither male nor female.
Transgendered individuals face Transphobia, the fear of gender variation. They are often met with physical, verbal and sexual cruelty
and are sometimes forced to drop out of school, leave home, or face discrimination at work, in the healthcare system and even in social services.
Sadly, in many Jewish communities, Jews who do not gender-conform are made to feel unwelcome and are unable to access spiritual care or support. I hope you will help me spread the word that Temple Beth David is not a Jewish community
that spurns or turns away anyone because of their sexual preference or gender identity. All are welcome. All are equal. Are a created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God.
Though a Jewish conversation about Transgender identity may seem to be a contemporary phenomenon, the truth is that Jewish tradition has long been aware
of those who do not gender-conform.
In the rabbinic era, our sages presented this awareness, and perhaps even tried to normalize transgender identity, through their commentaries on the very first chapter of our Torah.
On the sixth day of creation,
God created the adam, the first human being, in God’s own image – as the text tells us, ” in the image of God He created him – male and female (God) created them.”
In responding to this text, Rabbi Jeremiah ben Elazar taught: “When the Holy One, blessed be the One, created the first adam (human being), (God) created him (an) “androgynos.”
This seemingly radical interpretation is over 1500 years old. And it’s not an anomaly. The Mishna, an even earlier text, explains that an “androgynos”
is “in some ways like men and in some ways like women, and in some ways like both men and women and in some ways like neither men nor women.”
A few verses later the Mishnah questions itself: “How is he like both men and women?” and the answer: “Guilt is incurred for killing him or for cursing him, as in the case of men and women;…
one who intentionally slays him receives the death penalty…He inherits in all cases of inheritance like both men and women.”
In other words, for as long as Jewish texts have acknowledged those who don’t fit into the binary definitions of gender, Judaism has advocated for their safety and their equality.
Contemporary rabbis, although sadly
rarely joined by their colleagues in the Orthodox world, continue to fight for the rights of Trans individuals, speaking out publicly as political lobbyists and activists.
For example, in 2011, Rabbi Joesph Berman spoke at the Massachusetts State House as part of the Do Not Stand Idly By campaign, launched by Keshet,
a Jewish organization working for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life.
At the State House, Rabbi Berman said,
“As a Jew, and a grandchild of holocaust survivors, I feel a responsibility to speak against injustice…Though at times it may be easier, and safer, to turn away from oppression and injustice, I believe that all of us suffer when others are oppressed.
To see another experiencing oppression and neglect to act, to turn away, is to deny their humanity. In doing so our own humanity is diminished. By acting, our humanity is upheld.”
Rabbi Victor Reinstein, a founding member of the Interfaith Coalition for Trangender Equality, was invited to speak at the legislative hearings for HB 1722,
a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against people because of gender identity and gender expression. His testimony has since been updated
in order to be resubmitted to this year’s Judiciary Committee in support of HB 1722, now known as An Act Relative to Gender Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes.
At the hearing, legislators were deeply moved by Rabbi Reinstein’s words,
as he taught them about the Jewish value of Kavod Habriot, the showing of honor to all of God’s creatures. “We honor God by honoring people,” he said. “To the degree that a human being is debased, so God’s image is debased. Hate crime legislation is needed to protect those who are most easily debased.”
Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, another founding member of the Interfaith Coalition
for Transgender Equality, also spoke at the Massachusetts State House in 2009.
Rabbi Kolin taught those in attendance about the ancient blessing called Birkat Kohanim, or the Priestly Benediction. “The last of the three of these blessings,” she explained,
“(is) loosely translated as: May God lift up God’s face to your face, and there, in that gaze, may you find peace.
The last word,” she said, “shalom, meaning peace, is the same root as the word sh’leimut, or wholeness. To find a sense of wholeness, to be one’s complete entire self, to feel unbroken and uncompartmentalized and undivided, is a sacred thing. It is a holy thing, a blessing for each one of us, for every person to be able to be their whole self, respected and loved for who they uniquely are.”
Finally, one of your own rabbis, Rabbi Dan Judson, wrote to local Representatives, inspired by individuals he met in this very community. Moved by his experiences here at Temple Beth David he wrote, “It is my desperate hope
that we can live in a society where individuals are allowed to express their gender identity without fear of harassment or discrimination. It will not happen overnight, but like all steps forward towards a more open and tolerant society it begins with steps like our Commonwealth publicly taking a stand to say that discrimination based on gender identity is wrong.”
The Act Relative to Gender Based Hate Crimes passed in 2009 and was followed in 2011 by An Act Relative to Gender identity, but our country has a ways to go
before matching the progress of our State. Earlier this month, the US Senate passed ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism,
released a statement, calling on Speaker John Boehner to bring ENDA swiftly to a vote in the House of Representatives.
“ENDA is a matter of civil rights,” he wrote, “LGBT families and individuals must no longer be at risk of being denied equal opportunities in the workplace
and the right to earn a living because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We will continue to proudly join our voice with others in the faith community, business community and more in calling for the enactment of ENDA and equality for all Americans.”
Transgender Day of Remembrance
is not meant to be a singular day of awareness; it is an annual wake-up call to the violence and discrimination transgender people continue to face today.
The work is not yet done. Our world is not yet one where all are equal. As Jews, who know all too well what the cost of hate can be, we must stand with those who continue to fight for their rights; we must light candles with them and mark vigils with them; and add our voices to theirs until the long awaited time comes,
when all are truly equal and none are afraid to be themselves.
Kein Yehi Ratzon,
May it be God’s Will.