Moshe (my housemate) told me about the website “askmoses.com” where you can ask questions of a rabbi under conditions of anonymity. So I took the opportunity to begin a conversation with a rabbi about some issues that have troubled me concerning my transgender body and communal prayer.

I used the pseudonym “Levi”. Here’s a verbatim transcript of our convesation.

Levi : I have a question about the effect of my presence on the orthodox community with which I occasionally daven. It will take some time to explain the background, before I get to the question. OK?

Rabbi Yakov L : Welcome. I’ll be with you in a moment…

Rabbi Yakov L : K

Levi : Hi Rabbi

Levi : Here’s the first part of the background

Levi : I am transgender. In my case, this means that even though I was born female, I had surgery to remove my breasts and to construct a male-appearing chest. In addition, I take male hormones.

Levi : As a result of these actions, and with the complete and entire embrace of G-d, I have a deep voice and a full beard. I joyfully live and work as a man, and no one can tell my original gender by looking at me. I am a Reform Jew, and I do not consider myself to be bound by halacha, nor do I consider my behavior to be against God’s will, or against my personal code of ethics.

Levi : While I am mostly not very observant, I daven sometimes in an Orthodox shul, on the men’s side. No one is aware of my transition, and everyone sees me as male. My question concerns the community. Does my presence spiritually change the experience for the men I daven with if they don’t know my history? In what way?

Levi : That’s the background, and the question.

Rabbi Yakov L : A fasicnating journey

Rabbi Yakov L : perhaps this is why I studied this issue out of the blue last night:)

Levi : ha ha! maybe!

Rabbi Yakov L : there would be two immediate issues that could arise..by the way it is very noble of you to inquire, notwithsatnding your personal views

Levi : thanks — it’s a hard thing to do, anticipating condemnation/judgement

Rabbi Yakov L : certainly…amd my answers are intended to covery NEITHER,,,,

Levi : the concern that arises for me becomes, after I learn of your response, given this knowledge, I will become responsible in another way

Levi : and a gift/pleasure/approach to a more observant life … will be removed from me

Rabbi Yakov L : 1. would be a secnario where you are being counted as an integral part of the minyan…as when there are exactly 10 in shul, creating a situation where they are now relying on your status as a male…which in halacha is at best subject to a dispute

Levi : i do not daven in situations where my presence is necessary to make a minyan

Rabbi Yakov L : 2, if someone were to introduce you to a women with intent of marriage…this too is potentially a halchic issue

Levi : just the introduction?

Levi : Rabbi, I am not attracted to women

Rabbi Yakov L : then the only other immediate issues in that conetxt would if u are called to the Torah etc…as halachic issue NOT as a judgement o fu as a perosn

Rabbi Yakov L : then that is a non issue

Rabbi Yakov L : if it is deemed as imappropriate in halacha that cerates a dillema of ‘stumbling block’ were somone to introduce you etc..

Levi : I would only accept an aliyah in a Reform congregation

Rabbi Yakov L : again very ethical of you

Rabbi Yakov L : 🙂

Levi : I see

Levi : I am trying to be careful about this issue

Rabbi Yakov L : so those would be the issues, miyan, aliyas etc, and introductions as above,,,

Levi : I am curious (but glad) that metaphysically, spiritually, there appears to be no issue. i am reminded of the tale of the BESHT who entered a synagogue and found all the prayers had not ascended

Rabbi Yakov L : I am familiar with the story…

Levi : if someone had the eyes to see prayer, what would this scenario “look like”?

Rabbi Yakov L : letters being acrried upwards by angels

Levi : beautiful

Levi : another related question: again, this is NOT my view, but can it be said that my physical body renders the men’s side of the synagogue tameh?

Rabbi Yakov L : no such concept….there is of course one major issue I overlooked forgive me..

Rabbi Yakov L : separate seating

Rabbi Yakov L : depending on the halachihc definiiton of your gender that can be a major issue

Rabbi Yakov L : since separte seating efefcts the status of the shul in halacha as a place for prayer

Levi : how is the definition made, halachically?

Levi : (either as “male” or “female” because I suspect I would fit more in the category of ‘androgynos’)

Rabbi Yakov L : In a recent responsum of the Tzitz Eliezer, Rabbi Waldenberg claims that one who undergoes transsexual surgery assumes the status of the sex to which he is now surgically assigned.283

Rabbi Yakov L : Some commentators have attacked this responsum, arguing that it implies that an act which is prohibited in Jewish law, and which the law considers merely to be an act of self-mutilation, terminates a marriage duly entered into without the consent, or even knowledge, of the other spouse. These authorities maintain that transsexual surgery has no effect on one’s sexual status on Jewish law.

Levi : i am familiar with that

Levi : but that is usually for a person going the other way (from male to female) — and the surgical options for people in my position are not as clearcut or successful

Rabbi Yakov L : the issues are related,,,

Rabbi Yakov L : anwyay I realy must run

Rabbi Yakov L : SHALOM

Levi : ok

Levi : thank you

Rabbi Yakov L : very welcome

_____

And here our conversation ended, because the Rabbi had to end his shift online — my roommate Moshe asked a question to the next person, a rebbitzin, and she wasn’t very helpful to him. He said I was very lucky to get the person I did.

I have only begun to ask questions. Maybe, now that I have not been judged for my identity, I might have the courage to speak with a rabbi at Pardes. VERY scary notion. But maybe a window is opening here.

Noach Dzmura is a graduate student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He’s studying Gender, Sexuality and Rabbinics toward a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies. As the 2006 recipient of the Haas-Koshland Award, he’s spending this year at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He’s keeping a blog at http://brerrabbi.livejournal.com/ This entry, “Conversation with an Online Rabbi,” is cross-posted to the blog.