by Rabbi Ariel Abel
Vicky Thompson was a transgendered woman who vowed she would kill herself if she was sent to an all-male prison. Earlier this month, Vicky was found dead in her cell in Leeds’ Armley prison.
What does the Torah say about this? When Judah condemned Tamar to death for prostitution, it was pointed out to him that he was the patron. He backed down saying: “You are more righteous than I”.
This degree of open honesty is desperately needed in times to prevent avoidable tragedies. The Torah proscribes crossdressing and forbids the removal of male genitalia in both men and mammals. However, several prominent rabbis have discussed issues of transgender and their practical Halachic outcomes.
Joseph Palaji, a 19th century Turkish Halakhist, stated that a woman who changed completely into a man would not need a get to be released from a former marriage. Palaji even suggested that the blessing “who has made me a woman” should change to “who has turned me into a man”, although he issued a caveat, that it may be best not to recite anything in an “upside-down world, especially as this phenomenon is so rare.”
Thus, perhaps unwittingly, the opening chapter in the transgender Siddur was born. In the 20th century, Rabbi Waldenberg, author of Tzitz Eliezer, ruled that a transgender woman need not divorce his wife with a get as she could not possibly be described as a married woman vis-à-vis her ex-spouse.
Not every case of adopting a gender involves a conscious choice to replace genitalia. The leading Israeli halakhist HaRav Elyashiv ruled that someone born with undescended male genitalia after responding positively to female hormone therapy was no longer certainly a male, although some doubt still remained, and that once a transgender woman has an artificial vagina made, there cannot be said to be any Biblical transgression of the prohibition of the male homosexual act.
Further Halachic discussion on whether or when a gender reassignment may or may not be permitted notwithstanding, rabbinic authorities and religious communities should be the first to see to that transgender individuals are treated with the utmost respect and dignity. They should also ensure they retain every right conferred upon them by the Torah as a parent to have a fully integrated relationship with their children.
• Rabbi Ariel Abel is founder of the Lancashire and Liverpool Regional Community, with pulpits in two synagogues on Merseyside