A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Stern College: Gender Transition and Jewish Ethics

Article excerpt

IN 2003, AS A BEARDED, KIPPAH- AND TZITZIT-WEARING man, I joined the faculty of Stern College. In spring 2007, after receiving tenure, I informed my dean that I would return the next semester as a woman. Stern is part of Yeshiva University, modern Orthodox Judaism's premiere institution of higher learning, and Orthodox Judaism, like most traditional religions, classifies the things transsexuals do to fit our bodies to our souls as sins. As someone born male, my sins included wearing women's clothing and taking hormones that destroyed my fertility. I was also violating customs and conceptions of gender that are held to with religious conviction by many Orthodox Jews.

I was sure that coming out as trans would end my employment by Yeshiva University, but after months when I was forbidden to set foot on campus, the unthinkable happened. When my Lambda attorneys demanded that I be allowed to return to teaching, the university said yes. We spent the summer negotiating the conditions of my return- including which bathrooms I would be permitted to use. Finally, September arrived. After years of shame and hiding, I was finally going to stand before my students and colleagues as the person I knew myself to be. More importantly, after millennia of intolerance, an institution representing Orthodox Judaism was about to welcome an openly transgender employee.

As I walked through the halls, I kept waiting for something to happen- for my transition to matter to someone. It didn't. Teachers rushed to and from classes, students talked on cell phones and swayed back and forth in prayer. I wasn't something to stare at; I was just another middle-aged woman going about her business.

But to the New York Post, I was news. The article was splashed across page three:

Literature Professor Joy Ladin, formerly known as Jay Ladin, 47, showed up for her first day of school sporting pink lipstick, a tight purple shirt and a flirty black skirt. . . . Many at the Jewish university are horrified by the presence of the transgender professor.

Conservative Orthodox Reactions

THE UNIVERSITY MAINTAINED OFFICIAL SILENCE ABOUT ME, BUT the Post found a faculty member who was willing to voice Orthodox "horror" at my presence: Rabbi Moshe Tendier, who, as the Post noted, is "a senior dean at Yeshiva's rabbinical school and a professor of biology and medical ethics." Rabbi Tendier didn't mince words: "He's not a woman. He's a male with enlarged breasts . . . He's a person who represents a kind of amorality which runs counter to everything Yeshiva University stands for." Rabbi Tendler's comments suggest a startling (for a professor of biology and medical ethics) ignorance of the complexities of gender and, as a number of Orthodox commentators noted, violate Jewish laws that require that individuals be spoken of with respect and compassion. But Rabbi Tendler's impolitic remarks express feelings that are alive and well in the Orthodox world- feelings that are a fact of life for transgendered Jews living in Orthodox communities, and which must be acknowledged in any meaningful dialogue about gender identity issues and Judaism.

Gender identity is so central to traditional Judaism that it is more or less impossible for traditional Jewish communities to accommodate those who aren't simply male or female. I can't even participate in a traditional Jewish religious service, where men and women sit separately, without identifying myself as male or female. Such concerns aren't limited to the Orthodox world. They are mirrored in feminist debates over whether transwomen should be welcomed at women-only events, groups, and spaces.

But Rabbi Tendier isn't only worried about what I am; he is worried about what I mean. Gender is a language through which we communicate ourselves to others. For Rabbi Tendier, my presentation of myself as female didn't say that I was a woman- it said that I "represent a kind of amorality," that I reject the very categories that enable us to order and judge reality. …