Rabbi Mike Moskowitz recently took part in a conversation called “Beyond Acceptance: Orthodoxy and the LGBTQ+ Community” at the Jewish Community Center London. These are his opening remarks during the conversation. For his full remarks, watch the video above.
MODERATOR: Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ synagogue. He’s also authored Textual Activism and Graceful Masculinity.
Rabbi Moskowitz, I want to ask you to speak about how the focus on gender and especially trans experience, especially in Orthodox communities where spaces are so binary—we have that separation, the men’s section, the women’s section. So, what does it mean to be involved with thinking creatively about gender and the trans experience in these spaces?
RABBI MIKE MOSKOWITZ
Thank you for the invitation to be here and to be in this conversation. The first thing is that it’s ongoing. This is the beginning of a conversation.
Theologically, God certainly has gendered attributes. God doesn’t have a body, we are created in the image of the Divine that doesn’t have an image, we have a tradition of gender-based spiritual practice.
The beginning of the Genesis narrative is very much focused on somebody who’s created in the image of the Divine and that one person is then split into a binary. And we’re now all fragments and unique blends. So, the idea that gender plays a role in spiritual practices is not new.
However, when we think about the exploration of that meta question of where does gender lie, particularly in the trans experience, is there a moment in a person’s individualized transition, that Judaism can then validate and affirm the transition? It’s elusive, right? I don’t know that we have access to that information.
And it’s also not necessarily helpful. Because if we’re able to, let’s say, identify on the spectrum, which for each person is different between perhaps a name change, which not everybody takes on, or a haircut, which not everybody does, or wardrobe changes, not everybody does, or hormones, which not everybody does, or surgery, right? So then we’re simply substituting a social construction of gender for a halachic—Jewish Law—construction of gender, right?
I think we’re obligated to think more deeply about the role that gender plays in our spiritual practice. And I think the edge right now is really revisiting what we’ve assumed to be the gender-based spiritual practice that really might not be.
For example, starting with the arc of being born. Circumcision, historically, has been seen as a male rite of passage. And it could be that circumcision has nothing to do with a male identity, it has very much to do with a particular body part. If a person wants to convert to Judaism, you can’t be uncircumcised if you have a foreskin.
The word in Hebrew for foreskin is not at all limited to a particular body part. We find the exact same word orla, by one’s mouth, and one is heart. And so when we think about the circumcision of, of speech, and of heart, and of bris milah—removal of foreskin, it’s not just that people with that body part, it’s a concept.
What used to be called women’s rights are now reproductive rights. What used to be feminine hygiene is now just hygiene. Because some women have a uterus, and not everybody that has a uterus is a woman. So, in thinking about what have we historically assumed to be a gender-based spiritual practice, it’s worth revisiting.
And then when we think about what’s at stake, at the different intersections of gender, and gender-based spiritual practice. For example, in the binary of mechitza—separate seating. Well, is that really a function of an essential identity? Or is it a function of presentation, or an expression? Do we really need to know where gender lies to know where a person should sit?
I think that is very similar to the question of getting called up to the Torah. We assume that in traditional spaces, men are getting called up to the Torah and women are not.
But historically, and in Jewish Law, it’s explicit that it’s actually a social construction later on, that moved away from women being allowed to have an aliya—getting called up, to a community saying it’s actually for us doesn’t feel appropriate to call women up to.
And there’s a legitimate dispute within the commentators. How subjective is this? What happens if a community says, “Actually, it’s our biggest honor to invite women to get called up, because there a shift in the priorities of communities”?
Maimonides writes that somebody who doesn’t have a full beard, who’s a man, shouldn’t lead prayers, because it isn’t dignified. Today we don’t understand facial hair to be an indicator of honor they way they did, and so we are not particular.
So, I think what this requires us to do is not say, “Well, look, this is new for us.” “We don’t know what to do.” If you’re a religious fundamentalist—as I identifiy as to some degree—if you believe that the Torah is eternal, infinite and immutable, and that it was given on Mount Sinai by God, to Moses so that every conversation of Torah and every truth that exists in the world was said over there, which means that God told Moses, where genderqueer people, for non-binary folks, where they should sit in shul.
If you believe that the Torah was given in such a way, we are not here to invent or create as much as we’re here to humbly uncover and discover the Divine will. And so it’s an exciting time to be able to meet the Divine and that four cubits of Jewish Law. It’s that progressive space of what’s next.
That, I think, is the holy endeavor and struggle of trying to understand what does a sanctuary need to be to provide a safe space for everyone to be the most authentic and genuine version of themselves in relationship to God and community.