The Torah and Transgender People, Actually

On Wednesday, December 2, 2015, the Jewish Journal, a weekly Jewish newspaper based on the West Coast, published an offensive and transphobic article by Dennis Prager. The author, who used transphobia - and not Judaism - as the driving force of his thesis, turns our Torah and Jewish tradition into a weapon to demean and defame transgender people and those who love them. This is unacceptable and shameful.

We love that Judaism has a robust tradition of debate and discussion. We love that Judaism accepts many different viewpoints as legitimate. What we cannot accept, however, is ignorance of the actual texts - and Jewish theology. 

Prager begins with the false assumption that the Torah is the ultimate guide to Jewish life. While Judaism clearly places the Torah and its laws in the highest regard, modern Jews are Rabbinic Jews - which means that we are part of the great tradition of rabbinic thought and scholarship of the past 2,000 years, and that theology is what guides us in our daily lives. If Prager is referring to Karaite Judaism, which rejects rabbinic scholarship and relies only on biblical text, he is mistaken in his use of the phrase "most Jews." (While there are small communities of Karaite Jews, especially on the West Coast, their small numbers preclude them from being referred to in any way as "most" Jews.)

Prager continues on to repeat a traditional assertion that the first human beings in the Torah were  a man and a woman. In actuality, it's highly likely that the first human being in the Torah was what the Rabbis referred to as "androgynos" and what modern science refers to as "intersex." 

Prager's simplistic arguments continue with the assertion that Deuteronomy 22:5, which prohibits dressing in the clothing of a different gender, is a simple, prescriptive law that has never once changed in practice or interpretation. This leads us to ask: Where is his attack column decrying women wearing pants? Surely Prager understands that gender norms and clothing have greatly shifted over the decades and millenia. (Unless, of course, Prager only dresses in tunics and sandals?)

Rounding out his arguments, Prager insists that Judaism requires only male/female gender distinctions. Sorry, Mr. Prager, but the Mishna, Talmud, and even the Midrash prove that point wrong. Judaism actually recognizes six genders: Male, Female, Androgynos, TumTum, Ay'lonit, and Saris, and each of these categories have different halachic (legal) regulations and implications. 

Orthodox Judaism is no stranger to dealing compassionately with transgender people. One of the last century's greatest Jewish medical ethicists, the Tzitz Eliezer, wrote about the halachic (legal) implications of genital reconstruction surgery and the impact transitioning genders has on marriage and daily prayers. In his writings, he references legal cases from the middle ages and from post-Temple times, as early as 200 CE. 

Departing from incorrectly interpreted Judaic thought, Prager regurgitates thoroughly-debunked "bathroom predator" myths as justification for his attempted dehumanization of transgender people. 

After an odd diversion into a discussion of racism and affirmative action (gotta throw your base some meat?), Prager returns to his thesis: His interpretation of Torah is more important than compassion and safety.

Disgusting. 

Prager warns that "future generations will pay a big price for this unprecedented experiment." What Prager misses is that it's the past generations who have already paid the price. 41% of all transgender people attempt suicide due to a lack of societal acceptance. Transgender people have been rejected by their families, by their communities, and by their religions, and it's literally killing them. When Prager mocks compassion as a motivator for trans acceptance, this is what he's mocking, and these are the sins he's encouraging.

The Torah is very clear that compassion is required above all else. Leviticus 19:18 commands us to love our neighbor as ourself. In Pirkei Avot 2:10, Rabbi Elazar instructs us to make our neighbor's dignity as precious to us as our own. 

Prager's column is more than just transphobia. It is a personal attack on a dear friend of SOJOURN's and we refuse to allow it to go unchecked. We join our colleagues at Keshet in fully denouncing it and redoubling our efforts to create inclusive and accepting Jewish communities for all people. We refuse to allow Prager's dangerous rhetoric to do anything but inspire more education, compassion, learning, discussion, love, and acceptance.

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Robbie Medwed

Robbie Medwed began working with SOJOURN when it was known as The Rainbow Center as a volunteer in 2008. He served as chair of the TRC Advisory Board and as co-chair of Purim off Ponce (2010, 2011) before moving into his current role as Assistant Director, where he oversees SOJOURN's educational programming and outreach, including our award-winning workshops and training seminars. Robbie holds a master's degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has written curricula and nationally-recognized inclusive programs for the Marcus JCC of Atlanta, BBYO, USY, Camp Ramah, the Jewish Teen Funders Network, Babaganewz, and JewishGPS. Robbie is also a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and cyclist. Robbie can be reached at robbie@sojourngsd.org.