“Androgynos is in some manners equivalent to men and in some manners equivalent to women; in some manners equivalent to both men and women; and  in some manners equivalent to neither men nor women.?
(Mishnah  Ze’raim, Bikkurim)

I don’t know how many men have studied this text in yeshivah or on
candlelit kitchen tables over the centuries. As I translate with my
study partner, I know I am one of only a few to fit an anomalous gender
category. I am a transgender man at an Orthodox yeshivah. I arrive
every morning at 8.30 and return home around 10 at night, exhausted,
exhilarated. This time to study is a gift.

What is it like to be transgender in Jewish contexts? Sometimes it is
like being a man. Like men, I enjoy the obligation to study.

There is often a brisk wind on the rooftops in Jerusalem, but at ground
level, it is still warm. I am in the courtyard of an Orthodox shul. I
remove my jacket. A man approaches, extending his hand in greeting. I
shake; what man thinks twice about shaking hands? Later, I wonder.
Should I have touched him? From his perspective, I was  an enthusiastic
guy from the yeshivah down the road. What he could not see is that I
was born female.

What is it like to be transgender in Jewish contexts? Sometimes it is
like being a woman. Like women, I face limits on participation in
Jewish ritual and social life imposed by tradition and custom.

I was in Haifa in my second week of ulpan (intensive Hebrew study) when
the war with Hizbollah began. I thought, “Bombs fall on the evening
news, not on me.? The Mediterranean sparkled at the base of the
mountain below my classroom at the university, just there, past the oil
refinery. When I looked up from my textbook of Hebrew verbs that
morning, I saw a large metal canister falling incongruously through my
sky. The oil refinery was the target, but they hit Stella Maris, a
beautiful old Catholic monastery, instead. I stood blinking, waiting
for some explanatory words to run along the bottom third of the  screen.

What is it like to be transgender in Jewish contexts? Sometimes it is
like being both men and women. Like both men and women, if you drop a
bomb on me, I bleed.

I discovered my Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. The scriptorium and tiny
shul are in a dark, cavern-like space on the men’s side of the Western
Wall. I examine the work of the sofrim, or scribes, as commissioned
Torah scrolls grow slowly under their capable fingers, and pull out a
volume from the library to browse. It is ironic to me that, while the
women and most of the men must seek God against unyielding stone under
the glare of the desert sun, men who know this place may daven in a
cool and restful womb.

Earlier this year, men who look no different from those who daven here
beside me beat an observant woman who would not move to the “women’s
seats? on the back of the bus. Men who look no different from these
hung posters in the strictly  Orthodox neighbourhood of Meah Shearim
just before the International Gay Pride Celebration, stating that it
was a religious obligation to kill gay people. It is hard not to jump
to the conclusion that these men would kill someone like me. In this
potentially dangerous Jewish context, I keep my identity to myself.

What is it like to be transgender in Jewish contexts? Sometimes it is
like being neither men nor women. Like neither men nor women, I am
obliged to walk a different Jewish road.

The rabbis’ careful thoughts about our ancient hermaphrodite sibling
may help to resolve the question of transgender space in Jewish life.
What is my obligation? Reveal myself, risk the loss of community, and
give the Orthodox man a chance to refuse my hand?

We are a people of communal obligation. Rather than hiding unknown
among you, I prefer to identify myself, and work through these
challenging differences sitting beside  you in the Beit Midrash, with
the texts of our tradition. In my hometown of Berkeley, California, we
have started to address the question of transgender Jewish lives. Some
of our discussions are Talmudic, some are academic, others occur in
shuls where people of all genders congregate.

Transgender lives are something neither the rabbis nor modern society
could anticipate, yet here we are. Most are neither hermaphrodites nor
transsexuals, who in some cases fall into the purview of modern
halachic teshuvot, or responsa. We are outside of all that, but inside
your shul. We want to study with you, to seek together the authentic,
inclusive life of our tradition.

In the end, we will shake hands.

(Originally appeared 1/6/07 in the Jewish Chronicle, UK under the title “My Struggle as a Sex-Change Man”.  Horrible Title!  What struggle? To live a transgender life is a double blessing!)