Reform Jews are not the first religious group to take a welcoming stance towards transgender people, but so far, their approach may be the most comprehensive. On Thursday, the Union for Reform Judaism unanimously passed a resolution calling on synagogues to make bathrooms gender neutral, train staffers on LGBT issues, and show support for the transgender community. The recommendations even got into the nitty-gritty details of temple life, the AP reports, including eliminating gender-specific pronouns on name tags and sorting Hebrew-school classes by birthdays rather than gender. The URJ is a loose network and organizing body for Reform synagogues, so it hasn’t mandated that local communities to adopt these measures. But it’s a strong signal to the Jewish community: At least in our temples, the URJ says, transgender people will be fully welcome and accommodated.
In many ways, this resolution is unsurprising. According to the AP, the Reform community ordained its first transgender rabbi about a decade ago, and it has long supported gay marriage and advocated legal protection for gays and lesbians. And previously, minor groups, like Reconstructionist Jews, have been vocal about welcoming transgender Jews. But the resolution does serve as a moment of contrast in American culture. Just this week, Houston voters shot down a measure that would have prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and housing on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. As Russell Berman reported, the campaign to defeat the measure stoked fear of transgender people using public facilities: “No men in women’s bathrooms,” the slogan went. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage this summer, religious groups have been forced to articulate their views on gender and sexuality. Many, including Catholics, conservative evangelical Protestants, and Orthodox Jews, have reaffirmed their opposition to homosexuality and transgender identity.
The Reform movement also stands apart from other Jewish groups on broader issues of gender equality and sexuality. In 2012, Conservative rabbis wrote a paper officially sanctioning same-sex marriage, but noted that homosexual behavior is forbidden under Jewish law and eliminated several aspects of a traditional wedding ceremony from their proposed guidelines for same-sex ceremonies. When the Supreme Court decision came down in July, the Orthodox Union, which represents a large portion of Orthodox congregations, affirmed that it is “emphatic in defining marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. Our beliefs in this regard are unalterable.” And this week, a major body of Orthodox rabbis prohibited the hiring and ordination of female rabbis.
If anything, questions about how to welcome and treat transgender people are even more complicated than those of gay marriage and the status of women. For religious groups that believe gender is an essential part of human nature, determined by God, the very idea of fluid gender identity is theologically problematic. For Reform Judaism, this kind of deep, definitional question is less difficult to take on; the movement’s history is grounded in the ideas of adaptation and reform. As Jewish immigrants came to the United States from Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century, a group of rabbis in Ohio led a movement to shift their practices to align with mainstream American lifestyles. They dropped a lot of traditional prayers and expectations of strict dietary observance. This posture—that tradition can be updated, that certain values supersede textual teachings—is at the very root of Reform Judaism.
And that’s why this group could pass a resolution affirming transgender identity without a single dissenting vote, while other religious groups struggle mightily with questions of sexuality and gender. To be sure, even Reform Judaism struggles with questions of identity, like who qualifies as a Jews, and who Jews can marry. Not everyone can be Jewish. But at least now, Jews can be transgender, and they will have somewhere to attend shul.