Speaker series looking at ‘Gender Identity and Judaism’ to feature Joy Ladin


Bill Motchan , Special to the Jewish Light

Gender identity and Judaism is the theme of an upcoming Bais Abraham Congregation summer speaker series. 

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael will discuss Allyship as a mitzvah on June 21, and Rabbi Garth Silberstein will explore Jewish law and transgender identity on July 22. 

Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael and Rabbi Garth Silberstein

The series will feature Joy Ladin on June 28, when she will describe her experiences and how gender roles are changing. Ladin is a nationally recognized speaker on trans issues and Jewish identity after her transition at Yeshiva University made her the first openly transgender employee of an Orthodox Jewish institution. She recently gave the Jewish Light a preview of her upcoming talk.

What takeaways do you hope attendees will get from your Bais Abe presentation?


I’m hoping to help people learn to think and talk about this with one another instead of getting stuck in toxic silos of you’re either with us or against us. We need to lower the temperature of anxiety and create a space where we can negotiate over this. Everybody is a stakeholder in gender.

Do you find that some people are confused about, or have difficulty understanding the concept of being a trans person?

When I was growing up, there was no category for people like me. I thought I was the only one of my kind. It seemed like I was in aberration. It is very hard to understand people who are either male or female. While most people can be sorted into these two categories, there are also other ways of being human. Binary gender tells us that there are only two ways to be human, male or female, which is not true. The Talmud recognizes six different kinds of human bodies, including four that we would now call intersex.

What kind of familiarity did your students have with the trans community?

Most of my Orthodox students hadn’t even heard of trans people when I returned to teaching after my gender transition. As Orthodox Jews, they grew up learning to see human beings as being created in the image of G-d. So they would look past my gender and just treat me as human. And they know how to treat a human being. They knew that you treat people with respect.

You’ve spoken about the fact that the Torah includes one genderless character and that’s G-d. Don’t a lot of Jews—and non-Jews—think of G-d as being male?

There’s a lot of patriarchal tradition that associates whatever is best, whatever is strongest, whatever is most powerful, whatever is smartest, with maleness. We think about G-d as the best, the strongest, the most understanding, and there’s a habit of thinking of G-d in male terms. But in the Torah, I don’t see any indication of that. Sometimes G-d is a fire in a bush. Sometimes G-d is speaking out of thunder. Sometimes G-d appears as three angels. It’s not surprising that we relate to G-d in gender terms, but it’s dangerous when we project, when we think that G-d really is male or is female.

What is your assessment of states like Missouri, where the legislature recently passed two bills banning gender-affirming care for minors and restricting trans students’ ability to participate in sports?

There are a lot of people who are anxious about the way gender is changing and the way recognition of trans people is changing gender. Of course it freaks people out to think that that’s changing. These are profound fears, and they’re not driving the legislation, but the political operatives are taking advantage of anxieties over change and lack of knowledge of transpeople. There aren’t that many of us, so it’s easy to not know a trans person. We need to start addressing the anxieties. We need to be able to talk about what gender means to us, which means we need to be able to start talking about our anxieties without being stigmatized.

Registration information on Ladin’s presentation is available at www.baisabe.com/event/JoyLadin.