Monday, July 27, 2020

What Does Being Transgender Really Mean?

Yiscah Smith  (New York Post)
The first time I ever encountered the issue of transgenderism was on a made for TV movie many decades ago. I recall feeling great sympathy for the transgender child – a young boy that felt he was actually a girl. He was constantly bullied by his peers. What a way to have to go through life! I thought. But it gave me a measure of comfort to ‘know’ that this was an extremely rare and abnormal state of mind. The fact that I had never heard of it, underscored that belief.

Fast forward to today. It is obviously not as rare as I once thought. In fact as Rabbi Efrem Goldberg noted in a dramatic lecture on this subject, it is a lot more common that most of us would ever imagine it to be. He had in fact encountered such an individual in his own Shul.  A member who was otherwise an exemplar of Torah and Mitzvos asked him a Shaila (Halachic question) about whether he could - at age 60 - change his sex from a man to a woman. Rabbi Goldberg consulted a world class Posek (who apparently wished to remain anonymous) and was told that he gets 2 or 3 that Shailos like that every week!

Rabbi Goldberg went on to describe the pain such people go through – to the point of depression and even suicide. Although it is not clear what role Pikuach Nefesh plays in such decisions his answer was that it is not permissible to mutilate oneself for purposes of changing one’s sex. Rabbi Goldberg’s point however was that what these people feel is legitimate pain at their circumstance and they are not in some sort of rebellion against God. One may not judge them and instead should have great sympathy for what they go through.

I mention this in light of documentary film reviewed by Sarah Ridner in First Things. The film is about a former Chabad Shaliach (emissary) in the old city of Jerusalem. After a series of identity changes – he became an Orthodox woman whose name is now Yiscah Smith.

Interestingly his journey did not begin in Chabad. He was raised in a secular family and was drawn to examine his Judaism via a chance visit to Israel. After exploring several versions of Judaism including spending some time in the Jewish Theological Seminary, he eventually gravitated to Chabad Chasidus.  That is where he resided Hashkaficly for the next 20 years. Which included marriage and six children - ultimately becoming a Chabad Shaliach.

And yet after all that ‘soul searching’ he made another drastic change to his life by coming out as gay and abandoning Orthodoxy. After a 20 year loving relationship with his wife and children - he severed ties with them.

Apparently that was still not enough. There was still something missing in his life. Long story short he became a woman and returned to Orthodox observance. Now at almost 70 years of age, this is where and who he is.

So here we have someone who sincerely sought out spirituality found it, loved it, abandoned it and finally returned to it as a transgender human being. Whether this is the final version of Smith’s identity remains to be seen.

I do not buy Smith’s rationalization about the Torah’s impressibility to mutilate your body despite its clear prohibition. It is similar the rationalization by some in gay community about the permissibly of male gay sex  despite the Torah’s clear prohibition against that. But I certainly understand the attempt in both cases. If one seeks spirituality while at the same time trying to live their lives as they believe it was meant to live, it is only natural to try and find interpretations that fit into that model.

But the Torah does not work that way. If it did, it would practically be meaningless since one can find ways to interpret the Torah to mean anything one wishes - so that it fits with a personal circumstance or worldview. That is for example how the Conservative Movement permitted driving to Shul on Shabbos.

What prompted me to write about this case is that despite what is known about transgenderism, there was always something about it that made me question what it really is. What does it mean  to be a woman in a man’s body (or vice versa) in today’s world? Especially if one does not go through with the sexual reassignment surgery. Which is often the case. 

It used to be called cross-dressing and considered a mental disorder. It is also explicitly forbidden by the Torah. Now it no longer is considered a mental disorder (although it is still of course forbidden by the Torah). My issue with it was alluded to by the author: 
A secular woman can dress androgynously in a T-shirt and jeans and do most public things that a man does. In contrast, in order to appear as an Orthodox woman, Smith must wear long skirts or dresses, pray in the women’s section of the synagogue, and perform rituals reserved to women (such as lighting Sabbath candles)... 
Although Smith comes across sympathetically in I Was Not Born a Mistake, the film’s vision of womanhood as defined by lipstick, colorful formfitting clothing, and standing on the women’s side of the m’itsah is shallow and brittle. 
It is in fact true that most secular women have no problem wearing men’s clothing. Blue jeans and a T-shirt is for example as normal as could be in our word today for either sex. And yet if a transgender man who did not have the surgery did that - would he feel like a woman wearing men’s clothing? I don't see how.  Does this not imply that it is in reality about cross-dressing and not about feeling like a woman? 

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have sympathy for transgender people. We should. Their pain is real. But I’m just not sure we can avoid calling it a mental disorder. At least not in all cases.

Just some of my thoughts.