Rainbow Day offers new thinking on gender for educators

In the Mishnah, the rabbis asked how people of indeterminable gender fit into society, and what should be done with them.

“At least they asked!” said Reuben Zellman, a rabbi-to-be who led a workshop on transgender issues through a Jewish lens at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco earlier this month.

The workshop — held during a program that brought together numerous Jewish day school and religious school educators — was part of the second Yom Keshet, or “Rainbow Day,” to take place in the Bay Area. The last one, held in the fall of October 2004, was designed to help make Jewish institutions friendlier to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, be they parents of students or the students themselves.

The day was put together by the Denver-based Mosaic: The National Jewish Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, founded by three former Bay Area residents: Caryn Aviv, David Shneer and Gregg Drinkwater.

Zellman, a 2003 U.C. Berkeley graduate, made headlines that year (and was featured on the front page of the March 14, 2003 issue of the Jewish Bulletin) when he became the first transgender person — Zellman was born a woman and now identifies as a man — to be accepted to rabbinical school. He is now a third-year student.

Zellman devoted much of his workshop to talking about those who are born “intersex,” which means with sex organs that are neither male nor female. While this is more common than many might think, the standard practice these days is to operate on them immediately, a completely different way of treating the matter than was discussed in Jewish sources.

“The rabbis asked how to give these people a place, which is a lot better than we are doing now,” he said.

Zellman said there had been a virtual explosion of interest in transgender issues in the mainstream media in the past year or so, adding that “whenever there’s something new in the media, at least 80 people call me and tell me about it.”

He said this was mostly a good thing, and said he felt it was a privilege to be living in these times, where people are thinking and talking about this.

“A trans person used to be considered a freak show, but now trans lives are being taken more seriously,” he said.

“Transgender people are talking about identity on our own terms.”

Zellman outlined several differently gendered categories that appear in Jewish texts. “Tumtum” and “androgynos” are two of them, with the tumtum being of indeterminable gender, and androgynos being more intersex, with characteristics of both genders.

Zellman said that in rabbinic times, it was widely accepted that all people, regardless of whether they were born outside of the binary gender system, were created in the image of God, and that “the same penalty applied if an intersex person was killed.” He then added, “I wish we had the same laws today, as intersex and trans people are not treated equally.”

Zellman has been helping Mosaic compile a collection of Jewish texts that deal with these issues; they will soon be up on Mosaic’s Web site. Information: www.jewishmosaic.org.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."