Wednesday, January 11, 2023

An Orthodox Transgender Woman

Orthodox Transgender woman, Talia Avrahami (JTA)
Heartbreaking. That is the best way I can describe my feelings about the situation of Talia Avarahami, a trans woman.

As I have said in the past, this is one of those situations that I personally find very difficult to understand. But at the same time I am quite aware of how real it is for those individuals that suffer from a condition called Gender Dysphoria – the belief that they were born the wrong sex. I will never understand it emotionally. But I get that it’s real.

I sometimes wish we could go back to a time when this condition was considered so rare that it wasn’t on anybody’s radar. When the vast majority of people in the world would live out their entire lives without ever meeting such a person – or even being aware that this condition existed.

But that is clearly no longer the case. There are and probably always were more people that suffer from that condition than was originally thought. But they were in the closet about it - thereby suffering great distress. It’s better emotionally for transgender people to be open about it. I cannot imagine feeling the pain of living what you believe is a ‘lie’ because of the way you were born.

The cultural in which we live accommodates that approach and asks society to accept people as the gender they identify. The problem for Orthodox Jews is that Halacha has a different view. 

When a transgender person is Orthodox, are they to be treated as the gender they were born or the gender they are now? While I am sympathetic to the struggles transgender people suffer, Halacha requires me to treat them as the gender they were born.

That is the dilemma Talia Abrahami faces. Making matters much more difficult for her is the fact that she is a Baal Teshuva who became strictly observant after she physically changed her sex from male to female. How observant? Here is her and her husband’s story from JTA

The couple became religiously observant after spending time in Israel and the two now identify as Modern Orthodox. They were married by an Orthodox rabbi in 2018, and when they had their baby via surrogate in 2021, it was important to them that the infant go through a Jewish court to formally convert to Judaism. Avrahami seeks to fulfill the Jewish legal and cultural expectations of Orthodox women, wearing a wig and modest skirts. The pair both adhere to strict Shabbat and kashrut observance laws. 

Apparently, after having joined a Modern Orthodox community, she never revealed that she was a transwoman that was born male. She and her husband, Bradley, became well integrated into that community. Talia got a job as a social studies teacher in a religious school in Brooklyn. She and her husband had also become active members of a modern Orthodox Shul and had become very close with the rabbi and his wife. 

After she was ‘outed’ all Hell broke loose for her and her family. She was fired from her job and essentially banned from the Shul. 

But this did not happen without the rabbi of the Shul first consulting a Posek in the person of Yeshiva University’s R’ Hershel Schachter. He unequivocally ruled that despite her surgery, she was still considered a man. And had to be treated as such by Halacha.

I can’t imagine how hurt both Talia and her husband must have been by these developments. But Halacha is what it is - despite the well intentioned culture of the times that seeks to honor the gender we choose rather than the gender in which we were born. 

Making this particular case more difficult is the fact that Taliai came to observance on her own well after her surgery. That generally makes her observance much more sincere than many of us that were born and raised that way. Where observance of Halacha is many cases often done by rote behavior without ever thinking about it. 

It is for this reason that I have always viewed a Baal Teshuva to be on a much higher spiritual plane than I could ever hope to be. But what is Talia supposed to do having achieved this level of faith after having changed her sex and living that way for years?  She is now ruled to be a man - a ruling upheld by virtually all Orthodox Poskim.  

There is one legitimate Orthodox Posek recognized by all segments of Orthodoxy that might allow for a dissenting view. But it is not clear if his ruling would apply in Talia’s case.

The Tzitz Eliezer (responsa of the late Rav Eliezer Waldenberg) rules that a person’s gender is determined by their genitalia. He  gave  that ruling to parents of an androgynous child (a baby born with both male and female genitalia). If I understand correctly parents of androgynous children are asked which sex they want their child to be and then surgery is performed accordingly. R’ Waldenberg rules that once the surgery is done, the child is the gender that was chosen for them surgically And is no longer considered androgynous.

This does seem to argue that although Talia’s surgery was not Halachcly permissible, post facto it makes her a woman. 

The problem with this approach is that R’ Waldenberg did not address his ruling to someone that was born with only one set of genitalia. He may very well have ruled that in such a case a man is always a man and a woman is always a woman regardless of the surgery. The only time he made an exception is when the original gender is in doubt because of being born with both sets of genitalia.

There are other things to consider like whether surgery is permitted in cases where suicide is imminent if surgery would be denied. 

Is this a case of Pikuach Nefesh? I don’t know. But in any case, surgery that might be permitted for life saving reasons might still not render them to be the gender they now they believe they are and appear to be because of the now corresponding genitalia.

Which is why I am heartbroken about people like Talia and her family. And as an observant Jew - am at a loss to know what to do about it.