Shavuot, a holiday of transformation, is a fitting time to reflect on the trials and tribulations of gender transition.
Shavuot is a festival of transformation, a celebration of the moment when the children of Israel voluntarily received the Torah at Mount Sinai and became the Jewish people.
That moment is echoed whenever someone becomes a Jew through conversion. Tradition tells us that everyone who converts to Judaism also received the Torah at Sinai, and makes the connection between conversion and receiving the Torah explicit through the custom of reading the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. Ruth was a widowed Moabite who lost her Jewish husband, and famously declared to her Jewish mother-in-law, “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”
The Torah doesn’t tell us why Ruth became a Jew, a transformation that cost her her nation, her birth family and her whole social support system. People are often similarly mystified by my transition from living as a man to living as a woman. Like Ruth, my decision to live a life I had never known cost me my home and family and social position.
But when I talk about gender transition to Jewish groups, Jews who have converted often tell me they understand. They know how it feels to be born into lives that don’t feel like theirs; they know the longing to become who they truly are, and the wonder of finally living as the people God created them to be.
Though not a religious process, gender transition is a form of conversion, a process of transforming outward identity to reflect one’s innermost truth. Like those who go through gender transition, those who convert to Judaism are crossing what many see as an unbridgeable divide: Like the distinction between men and women, the distinction between Jew and non-Jew is often thought of as absolute.
Those of us who convert to Judaism and those who alter their gender roles face similar doubts about whether we can ever truly be what we feel we are. No matter what training or procedures we undergo, no matter what certification we receive, we will always have different backgrounds, childhood experiences, and often different appearances, from those born into their identities. That lingering sense of difference is also there in the Torah, which keeps referring to Ruth as “the Moabite,” a term even her future husband Boaz uses when he publicly declares his intention to marry her.
Unlike trans Jews, who, as the recently published e-book Transgender & Jewish attests, are just beginning to be recognized, Jewish communities have had thousands of years of experience with those who convert. But though conversion is marked by rabbinical certification and physical rituals of circumcision and ritual immersion, many Jewish communities struggle, as they do with trans Jews, to fully include those who convert. That struggle is built into tradition. Jewish law requires that those who convert should never be shamed by being reminded of their non-Jewish past.
This “don’t-ask, don’t tell” policy is motivated by tact and kindness, but it builds into tradition the sense that conversion is somehow shameful, something that shouldn’t be spoken about. That makes it harder for communities to fully know — and thus to fully accept and include — those who join the Jewish people.
Those difficulties are even greater when it comes to trans Jews. Few know what to say or not say, do or not do, to welcome and serve trans members. Thanks to groups like Keshet, a national organization devoted to full inclusion of LGBT Jews, and policies and rituals developed by the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements, communities working to include trans members have a growing body of wisdom and best practices to draw on. But as those who convert to Judaism know, inclusion requires more than policies: It requires each community to embrace all members, whatever their differences.
We tend to think of Jewish identity as something that does not or should not change. But Shavuot reminds us that change is at the heart of Jewish identity. The Jewish people changed forever when we received the Torah and accepted the covenant, which itself began with radical change, when Abraham answered God’s call to “Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.” Over and over in the Torah, God tells Jews to leave the life they know, and go to a life they cannot yet imagine — to become who they truly are by becoming what they have never been.
To fully include trans Jews and those who convert, Jewish communities must embrace the transformational aspect of Jewish identity. We must celebrate, as Shavuot does, that being Jewish means not only preserving our identity, but responding to the voice of God, who is always summoning us to more fully become who we were created to be.
Joy Ladin, an English professor at Yeshiva University and the author of "Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders?" will be speaking at Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City in conversation with Nurit Shein on June 8. For details and to register, go to bzbi. com.