Would you prefer he or she

Attendees of Congregation Sha’ar Zahav’s transgender Shabbat weren’t just asked their names. They were also asked their preferred pronoun: he or she?

The weekend Shabbaton held June 1 and 2 blended worship, Torah study and workshops — all focused on the struggles and successes of transgender people (or, as some prefer, gender queer or gender fluid).

Congregant Ben Lunine and Sha’ar Zahav rabbinic intern Reuben Zellman, both transgender, helped organize the event which Lunine says is the first of its kind in the world.

“In terms of transgender-related days, we only have one — the Day of Remembrance — to remember people who have been murdered,” Lunine said. “It struck us as a shame that there was no day of celebration.” The Transgender Day of Remembrance, held every November since 1999, honors the memory of the many transgender people murdered in hate crimes over the years.

The event began with a Shabbat evening service June 1, with the highlight being a dvar Torah from Ina Turpen Fried, an MTF transgender congregant.

(To the uninitiated, MTF and FTM signify “male to female” and “female to male” transgender people.)

In her remarks from the bimah, Fried said, “God has given me the opportunity to be fully myself. My generation is one of the first in which many in the transgender community can, more than not, live the gender we know ourselves to be, even if it is not the one assigned to us at birth.”

The Saturday itinerary began with gender queer-themed Torah study and services in the Sha’ar Zahav sanctuary, followed by workshops. Topics ranged from legal issues facing the transgender community to developing new rituals to mark “trans” lifecycles at the S.F. Reform congregation.

One workshop delved into an unlikely source for transgender studies: the Talmud. Led by Zellman and Max Strassfeld, a transgender Sha’ar Zahav congregant and religious studies graduate student at Stanford, the group examined an excerpt from the Mishnah, Tosefta Bikkurim, Chapter 2.

It deals with the androginos, a Hebrew term borrowed from the Greek that possibly refers to hermaphrodites and others who don’t fall neatly into prescribed male and female gender roles.

To quote the Talmud: “An androginos is in some ways like men, and zie is in some ways like women; and zie is in some ways like both men and women, and in some ways like neither men nor women.” (In Zellman’s gender-neutral translation, he replaced the pronouns “he” and “him” with “zie” and “hir.”)

The text goes on to describe Jewish androginos and guidelines for including them in the community. The Talmudic sage Rabbi Yossi is quoted in the text saying, “An androginos is a created being unto hirself.”

The implication, according to those participating in the discussion, is that God created androginos.

“Does this text open up more space, or is it a clampdown?” Zellman asked. “Maybe this two-gender thing is not working. Evidently, there were Jews around who were not male or female, and made as their own creation. We cannot squeeze everyone into two boxes.”

Despite the inclusive nature of the excerpt, other sections of the Talmud are “not always so comforting,” Strassfeld said. “A different tractate talks about stoning to death” one who “penetrates” the androginos.

In another workshop, facilitators discussed ways parents can help their children better understand gender issues.

Stephanie Brill, a midwife and gender specialist, said that 80 percent of the white families attending an ongoing transgender support group she facilitates at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital are Jewish.

“It’s never too late, and you’re never too young to talk about the limitations of gender,” Brill said. “There are boys; there are girls; there is neither; there are both. Gender is a spectrum.”

Rani Z, a Jewish FTM transgender activist from Los Angeles who grew up in Berkeley attending Renewal congregation Chochmat HaLev, co-led the discussion with his partner, Brian D, also FTM.

“Yentl was my role model,” Z said.

That’s when Sha’ar Zahav Rabbi Camille Angel noted, “We can look to Yentl, other texts in the Talmud and Torah that explain that in some ways we have more capacity for fluidity.”

Lunine, a Berkeley native and an attorney with the Transgender Law Center, was pleased with the weekend’s events. “We can be a proactive, strong minority,” he said. “Ultimately this is creating a new holiday: a transgender, celebratory Shabbat.”

Just then, Lunine interrupted himself to turn to his parents, who were leaving the synagogue. “I just want to say goodbye to my son,” his father said.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.