|R' Yaakov Ariel (Wikipedia)|
On the one hand, the Torah’s language is unambiguous. It roughly translates from the Hebrew as follows:
A woman may not wear a man’s clothing, nor may a man wear woman’s clothing. It is an abomination to the Lord, your God for anyone that does these things. (Devorim 22:5).
Needless to say going even further than this by having sex reassignment surgery is even more problematic
And yet, as pointed out in an excellent lecture by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, the incidence of people that have gender dysphoria (confusion about one's own gender identity) even in the Orthodox community is far more common than one would have ever thought.
When I was first made aware of this condition, I thought it was so rare, that it didn’t warrant any public concern. In those rare instances that there were people like that – it would be handled by mental health professionals along with guidance from sympathetic Poskim.
But as Rabbi Goldberg noted, having asked a Posekl recognized universally by all segments of Orthodoxy - what he should do about a devoutly religious male member of his shul that had this condition, surprisingly the Posek responded by saying he got this Shaila (Question about Halacha) twice a week!
One might think that there is no issue. That the Torah is very clear and people like this are stuck being who they are and not who they think they are. But the Halacha may not be that simple. The fact is that people that suffer from gender dysphoria have a very high rate of suicide. Making it difficult to know whether Pikuach Nefseh plays a role - perhaps even permitting it in those cases.
To be honest, I have great difficulty understanding those who think they are a different sex than the one the they were born with. You are what you are. And proceed to lead your life accordingly. I am male. I was born and raised as male. And lead my life that way. Never thinking about what sex I am. Never desiring to be a woman. I just don’t get that kind of thinking.
But I cannot ignore that this is indeed the case for some people whether I understand it or not. The pain they must suffer being so different; the rejection by much of the rest of the world - knowing how society looks at them; and if they are religious Jews, knowing what the Torah says – must make it a living hell for them.
With so many people having this problem, it is beginning to impact on various religious institutions in how to deal with them when they encounter them. Which brings me to a story in Arutz Sheva about a girl in the 3rd grade of a state run religious school in Israel.
She had been wearing boys clothing and treated as a boy by her teachers and peers. Although school officials knew what sex she was, her deception had only recently been discovered by the public. The school claims they had a Psak (religious ruling) permitting them to maintain her façade - from Rav Yaakov Ariel, a highly respected Religious Zionist Posek. Which he emphatically denied in a written response – saying that this situation is untenable, strictly forbidden by Halacha, and must stop:
"This situation of a girl dressed up as a boy, in boys' clothes, is impossible and has no place in halachah [Jewish law]," Rabbi Ariel wrote. "A boy is a boy and a girl is a girl. Since this case relates to a young girl [in third grade], the situation must be handled with great sensitivity. There is no question of continuing to allow this girl to be incorporated into a class together with other boys," he concluded.
Here is the thing. Sympathy aside, I simply cannot wrap my head around normalizing people with gender dysphoria. On the one hand, I agree with Rabbi Ariel. On the other hand, I don’t know whether Pikuach Nefesh play a role here. If it does, it should mean allowing the girl to dress like a boy and attend classes with them. On the other hand, does Pikuach Nefesh extend to a situation where the probability of suicide is high - but less than 50%? Is suicide even a Pikuach Nefesh issue?
I think that Poskim need to be up to date on the psychological and medical issues involved before making judgements in Halacha.
However, unlike the LGBTQ community, I do not see normalizing people with this condition any more that I would see normalizing any aberrative condition. I still have sympathy for transgender people. But at the same time I don’t think we can so easily discard a clearly stated Torah law because of that sympathy. Which leaves me with a big question mark about the whole issue.
The only thing I am relatively certain about is that people who think they were born the wrong sex should not have re-assigment surgery until well into adulthood and only after long term psychological counseling – even if were to be permitted on Pikuach Nefesh grounds. Which I am not even sure would apply here.