Picture it: Your synagogue is looking to hire a new rabbi and you chair the search committee. Naturally, there are more opinions than there are members of the decision-making body. How do you feel when you discover that the front-runner for the position is cisgender? Does it prejudice you?
The term “cisgender” denotes a person whose sense of personal identity and gender aligns with their birth sex. For some people, life is just simpler than for others. Yet in politics, academia and among most recognized religions around the world, people are grappling with gender and an every-expanding vocabulary to describe it. Are these secular storms a threat to traditional Judaism? Should we bury our heads, fortify our walls? What does gender mean to Judaism in 5779?
My son-in-law has served as a baal tefilah and hazzan sheini at various synagogues, including a very traditional Conservative one. Last Rosh Hashanah, his heartfelt prayers rang out melodically. His sincerity shone from the bimah as his gaze moved from his young family, across the large congregation. He looked resplendent in his crisp white kitel. At the conclusion of the service, throngs of people approached him with enthusiastic exclamations of “Yasher koach,” and warm wishes of “Shanah Tovah.” There were also a few people who said that, “It was so nice to hear a male voice.”
I couldn’t help but wonder: what defines a male voice?
This synagogue happened to be a Reform temple with a female rabbi and a female choir leader. For many years previously, they had enjoyed the exquisite talents of a fully ordained female hazzan – hard-won and progressive steps, in my view. Was my son-in-law just a pleasant change, or perhaps a hearkening back to the comfort of childhood recollections? Once upon a time, a male voice might have been defined as the voice of authority. Today, fathers take parental leave to nurture their newborns and our prime minister sheds tears in public. In our liturgy, we refer to “Avinu,” although there are new books that add to, or replace, male terms with female ones, as well as spiritual leaders who improvise changes to gender as they read. Is that revolutionary?
The story of Creation is an egalitarian one. We’re all created in the image of God. We have three avot and four imahot. What is a female voice? Nowhere in the Tanakh, our holy scriptures, is it stated that women can’t play a public role in Judaism. In fact, the biblical Temple period produced some very powerful women.
It’s more challenging to find precedents for transgender people, as reassignment surgery didn’t exist thousands of years ago. But why adhere so closely to interpretations of the Bible and rabbinic laws that may hurt people in 5779? Can’t we instead try to understand what influenced some of our laws when they were originally enacted? Do we have to interpret ancient laws literally, or can we see them as we believe they were intended, adjusted to current circumstances in a way that makes sense in our society?
The Torah abounds with harsh punishments for transgressions such as breaking the Sabbath, which are no longer imposed. There’s also the much-quoted but never-sought “eye for an eye,” as well as lots of lashings and death penalties. It makes for great reading, but not a great contemporary justice system. Sacrifices, slavery and rape may have been acceptable practices in biblical times, but not today.
I believe it’s OK for individuals to decide for themselves what they want to observe, but not to cherry-pick in order to suppress others.
We’ve seen too many disturbing headlines about people in the corridors of power who cite the Bible to spew hateful rhetoric about gays, while quietly condoning sexual misconduct and a host of other unethical practices. Others read the same verses in the Bible and come to different conclusions. After all, doesn’t it say to love your neighbour as yourself and to welcome the stranger in our midst?
We don’t necessarily need a change of law, but simply a change of heart.
Can we seize this moment to make our Jewish voice a true reflection of the best the Torah has to offer? Could we strive to lead the way, or at least shine a light toward a more tolerant society? In this way, we can revolutionize Judaism by remembering that we are all created in the Divine image, choosing to emphasize the precepts of kindness, compassion, generosity and inclusion over discrimination against any vulnerable minority. We don’t need to revolutionize our religion, so much as our actions; to open up to what is already in the Torah and practice it.
For me, the most moving part of the Rosh Hashanah service is always the recitation of Avinu Malkeinu. But it’s not the male voice that makes the prayer so moving to me. What stirs my soul about Avinu Malkeinu is the beauty of so many voices joining together and acknowledging a force so much greater than us. The humility in this holds great power, because if we realize that in the universe, our ego-driven concerns are about as significant as a grain of sand, then we should grant significance to every other individual with whom we share the earth.
The Torah already contains all the precepts we need to fully follow this intention. If we work together, we are infinitely greater than the sum of our parts. So does it really matter which body parts we were born with, or what, if anything, arouses our desire?
The body part that matters is our heart.