Equality for Transgender People: It’s in the Torah

Vancouver journalist Matthew Gindin says that the Conservative Movement’s recent resolution to embrace transgender people is not a departure from tradition, but a much deeper connection to within the Jewish ethical tradition

Citing both changing social practice and Jewish values, the international association of Conservative rabbis last week passed a resolution calling on Jewish institutions and government agencies to embrace the full equality of transgender people. Some see this as a departure from tradition. But, as the resolution claims, a stronger case can be made that full equality has much deeper within the Jewish ethical tradition.

Contrary to the widespread view that the Hebrew Bible forbids major types of non-heteronormative behaviors (specifically homosexuality and cross-dressing), recent Jewish scholarship into Middle Eastern law and the Torah has in fact raised compelling objections to those interpretations. In their book “The Bible Now,” Shawna Dolansky of Carleton University along with renowned biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman make the case that the laws against anal sex between men in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were not rooted in a condemnation of homosexual love (a concept which did not then exist) but rather in the view that penetrating another man degraded the passive partner. The view that the proscription is against degradation, not against gay love is confirmed by Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian and Greek texts from the time. Anal penetration was in fact a form of violence perpetrated on lower classes of men, and a technique of battlefield terrorism (for a more detailed discussion of this and other aspects of Friedman and Dolansky’s argument see here and my own blog post here).

The forbidding of cross-dressing in Deuteronomy 22:5 is another law that has been subject to many 21st century interpretations, yet Rabbinical tradition views this as a law against cross-dressing for the purposes of fraud or espionage. The Talmud says what is prohibited is cross-dressing to spy on the other sex; Rashi says the prohibition is against cross-dressing for the purpose of adultery; the Shulchan Aruch says that cross-dressing is permitted on Purim because its purpose is simcha (joy) but that it is forbidden if it is for the purpose of fraud. So, again, a prohibition against a specific kind of fraud has been used as a way of policing cross-dressing.

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