The Tzitz Eliezer, a Traditional Orthodox Rabbi, on Transgender Jews

Believe it or not, Judaism is no stranger to discussing transgender and intersex issues in our traditional texts. As far back as the Mishna (redacted before 200 CE), Judaic tradition describes six different genders: male, female, tumtum, androgynous, ay'lonit, and saris. We'll certainly be exploring those categories more in upcoming posts, but for now, we're going to focus on the writings of one particular halachic (Jewish law) authority, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, also known as the Tzitz Eliezer, which was the title of his largest collection of halachic opinions.

Without going into too much detail on his bio (read more about him here), it's fair to say that he was one of the greatest halachic minds of the past century, was one of the leading authorities on medical issues in Jewish law and was very well respected by Jews from all backgrounds. (He himself was very traditionally Orthodox.)

One of his most fascinating responsa discusses major organic changes to the body. The majority of the responsum (10:25:26) discusses heart transplants, but the Tzitz Eliezer takes a very long - and very interesting - detour into the world of genital reconstruction surgery and its halachic implications. We've chosen three sections to focus on that really are fascinating, especially when we remember the Tzitz Eliezer's background and outlook on Judaic law.

To make things even more interesting, in his writings on gender reconstruction surgeries (from 1971 and earlier!) and their implications, he references books from the early 1800s and stories about transgender Jews from over 1000 years before that to show that these issues weren't just around, but were seemingly commonplace. 

(In the following quote: "get" is a Jewish divorce contract.)

The Tzitz Eliezer presents us with a case of someone assigned female, marries a man, and later comes out as a transgender male*.

*It should be noted that in traditional Judaic law, genital reconstruction surgery is what is meant by "became" here, and by the Tzitz Eliezer's definition, it's a requirement to have been "changed." That's not to say that he encouraged genital reconstruction surgeries (they certainly have their own challenges in traditional Judaic law which we'll discuss in the future), but, he recognized that they are a reality and that transgender people exist and are a part of our Jewish world. 

There are a few issues here to discuss:

  • The transgender man has had a "rebirth"of sorts and is now considered a different person, in a legal sense, because he will have assumed a new name and a new body. The marriage contract (ketubah) was written for someone else and not for him, which makes it questionable as to whether or not it's still valid at all.
  • If the ketubah is valid, it means that two men are married, which isn't possible by the Orthodox definition of marriage, which means that the ketubah could now be considered invalid. 

So what do we do? The Tzitz Eliezer's response is nothing short of astounding: There is no need for a get  because the person isn't a woman and the marriage itself is no longer valid - the "marriage" was a contract between two people, one of whom doesn't actually exist anymore. (This blog post has some very cool background on the analogy the Tzitz Eliezer uses to explain his reasoning, including a comparison of transgender people to angels.)

Every morning, observant Jews begin their daily prayers with a series of morning blessings. Traditionally, Orthodox men say "Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has not made me a woman" and Orthodox women say, "Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who has made me according to God's will." (The progressive movements have changed both of those blessings to the gender-neutral "who has made me in God's image.)  

The question being asked here is, for a person who was assigned female at birth but is actually a man (with genital reconstruction surgery), should he say a blessing thanking God for not having made him a woman? Here's the answer:

The Tzitz Eliezer's response shows us that a surgical transition (or really, any kind of gender transition) is important - so important that we must thank God for it and acknowledge it every day. (People assigned male at birth but are actually females should say "according to God's will" as their blessing, he says in a separate responsum.) Remember - this was one of the leading halachic authorities of Orthodox Judaism!

While it may be uncomfortable for many of us to hear or say "has changed me into a man" because we know that the person was never a woman in the first place, this line of thinking is quite revolutionary in its context. 

Finally, we end with one last section from this responsum. It comes from a segment discussing organ transplants, which were considered to be problematic in many cases:


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 [email protected]