Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Trans Halakha
Duration
0:00 / 44:24
Published
September 14, 2023

Earlier this year, the Trans Halakha Project—an initiative of SVARA, a queer and trans yeshiva—published a series of teshuvot, or answers to questions about halakha (Jewish religious law). These pieces speak to questions of Jewish life and practice for trans people, from who is obligated to undergo circumcision or to follow the prescriptions around menstruation, to whether it’s permissible to wear a chest binder when immersing in the mikveh (a ritual bath that traditionally requires nudity). While there have been some previous efforts to apply halakha to specific questions of trans life, almost none of this work has been produced by trans people themselves until now. On this week’s episode of On the Nose, managing editor Nathan Goldman speaks with three members of the yeshiva’s Teshuva-Writing Collective: Laynie Soloman, Alyx Bernstein, and Rabbi Xava de Cordova. They discuss why the collective took up these particular questions, how they understand the nature of religious authority in Judaism, and what it means to reimagine halakha for trans flourishing.

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Texts, Events, and Further Reading:

Trans Halakha Project

The Teshuva-Writing Collective’s teshuvot

Beit Yosef by Rabbi Joseph Karo

The Talmud

An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Take,” Rabbi Benay Lappe, ELI Talks

Euphoric Halakhah,” Laynie Soloman, Evolve

Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Joseph Karo

Are Trans Women Obligated in Niddah? How Can That Obligation Be Fulfilled?,” Rabbi Xava de Cordova, Trans Halakha Project

Embracing Halakhah That Was Not Addressed to You,” Rabbi Xava de Cordova, Evolve

The Androgynos in the Laws of Milah & Niddah: A Potential Approach to Trans Halakha,” Alyx Bernstein, Trans Halakha Project

A Created Being of Its Own: Toward a Jewish Liberation Theology for Men, Women and Everyone Else,” Rabbi Elliot Kukla, TransTorah

Trans Talmud: Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature by Max K. Strassfeld

The Talmud and Other Trans Archives” event with Max K. Strassfeld, Joy Ladin, Jules Gill-Peterson, and Ari Brostoff, Jewish Currents

Immersing in a Mikvah While Wearing a Chest Binder,” Jamie Weisbach, Trans Halakha Project

Mai Mevarech: A Berakha for Testosterone Gel,” Laynie Soloman, Trans Halakha Project

Milah & Hatafat Dam Brit in a Case of Sakanah (Danger),” Ariel Ya’akov Berry, Trans Halakha Project

Compiling the Next Trans Codex: Learning from the Writers of the Trans Halakha Project,” upcoming event series, Shel Maala and the Trans Halakha Project

Tefillat Trans: Blessings and Rituals for Trans Lives


Transcript

Nathan Goldman: Welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents podcast. My name is Nathan Goldman, and I’m the Managing Editor of Jewish Currents. I’m thrilled to be joined today by three members of the Teshuva-Writing Collective of the Trans Halakha Project, an initiative of SVARA, a queer and trans Yeshiva. Earlier this year, the collective published a series of teshuvot, interpretations of Jewish religious law that speak to questions of Jewish life and practice for trans people. The teshuvot consider a wide range of important aspects of trans Jewish life, from questions like “Who is obligated under the ritual of brit milah--circumcision--and prescriptions around niddah—menstruation—to whether it’s permitted to wear a chest binder when immersing in the mikvah, a ritual bath that traditionally requires nudity. While there has been some previous work to apply halakha—Jewish law—to specific questions of trans life, almost none has been authored by trans people themselves until now. To discuss this exciting project, I’m joined by three of the Teshuva authors: Laynie Soloman, co-director of the Trans Halakha Project and Associate Rosh Yeshiva and SVARA; Alyx Bernstein, a Jewish professional and educator, and Rabbi Xava de Cordova, Rosh Yeshiva of Shel Maala, an online queer Yeshiva. Thank you all so much for being here with me today.

Laynie Soloman: Thanks.

Xava de Cordova: Yeah, our pleasure.

Alyx Bernstein: Thank you for having us.

NG: I wanted to start by asking you about just some basic terminology. I think many of our listeners will be familiar with the word teshuvot and its meaning as a word for repentance, but maybe not in this specific context. And then I was also struck by the way that Halakha was defined on the webpage for the Trans Halakha Project. It’s been traditionally and often now thought of just as meaning “law,” but it was defined on that page as pathways and practices of Jewish expression. So I wonder if you could give us a quick introduction to those terms as you conceive of them in the context of this project.

LS: It feels seasonally appropriate to dig into the word teshuvot. As you said, Nathan is connected to the idea of repentance most often, especially as it’s understood in interpersonal dynamics and healing and reconciliation. Teshuvot is a noun with the root shin vav bet, which means “to return” or “to turn,” and also “to answer.” So here, we’re interacting with a genre of rabbinic literature that is basically question and answers and, throughout history, has been a way of engaging with teachers and comrades who live in different places, often. The practice of letter writing to rabbis or community leaders to answer questions related to practice or different things one might do, so those are a genre called “she’elot u’tshuvot”—sheilahs and teshuvahs, questions and answers. And so we are using that language, and I also want to uplift one interpretation that one of the coordinators who helps do the work of the Trans Halakha Project, Olivia Devorah, offered, that there’s something in the connection between these two words—teshuvot as a restoration or as a process of healing and teshuvot as a process of answering—that we see this work as healing. We see, as you said, Nathan, these questions haven’t been asked by trans people to other trans people and answered by trans people. So there is a healing element too. There is a restoration and a repair that we see as happening as part of this process. So I think we’re operating on a double meaning with that word here.

XdC: I think also, there’s something on the funnier side, for me. Thinking about the genre of literature that we don’t have as much in Judaism, but the genre of apologetics, writing that’s a defense of the faith. When I was writing my teshuvot, I really felt like I was writing an apology for my own hot take, by way of explanation, you know? A little repentance for having so hot take. That’s my third layer of flavor to add on to the term.

LS: Your hot take is a restoration, Xava, restoring the hot takes to our tradition.

XdC: Thank you. I’m honored.

NG: I wonder how you think of halakha in relation to the understanding of law, or if you think it sort of transcends that definition.

AB: The word “halakha,” it literally is related to walking, right? Like “lalachet,” to walk. It’s not just about the law and the prescription of the law. That’s certainly part of what halakha looks like in a lot of communities. But ultimately, halakha is a way of doing Jewish. It is a way of being a Jew. Now, when most people say halakha, they are referring primarily to a very narrow vision of what that looks like, mostly through an orthodox lens. Sometimes you’ll meet people who are like, “There’s a conservative version of halakha, too,” or “there’s an egalitarian version of halakha.” But ultimately, I think the most expansive definition of what halakha means, and the one I see as operative in the Teshuva-Writing Collective and in the way I experienced that was ways of doing Jewish that are seriously committed and accountable to Jewish tradition, while also recognizing and incorporating the people doing that.

AB: And we didn’t come in, all of us in the collective, with the same version of what that looks like. Our Judaisms look different. So, for me, I come from a more traditionally observant lens. And so for me, what halakha looked like was more similar to the more narrow definition. But what for some of my co-collective members it looked like was much more expansive and grounded in their lived reality as Jews. And that’s part of what I think was special, was very rarely do you get halakhic dialogue and halakhic conversation cross those different approaches. We were very intentional about what we called our hashgacha, our approach to halakha. And so that dialogue, I think, was really rich, and produced something very interesting at the end when we’re putting all of these alongside each other, some of which are looking at the Beit Yosef, which is a very classical work of halakha from the 16th century, and some of which are, “We don’t care about the Beit Yosef, we’re doing a different thing.” And that’s two different sides of the coin that are all under that word halakha.

LS: I’ll just add to this piece. I love what you said, Alyx. I agree so much that dynamic, different understandings of halakha that brought people into this project, for me, is so inspiring. And I just want to offer that I think understanding halakha as Jewish law exclusively constrains or restricts our understanding of halakha and contorts it into how we experience law from a Euro-American Protestant state-backed enterprise, which is not a correct assessment of what halakha is or what it’s trying to do. So if we understand it as law, it necessitates more expansive understandings of what law is, which is a thing that includes discourse and narrative as opposed to just rules and regulations that are enforced by a state. I think that’s one of the things that has turned off a lot of our people from the idea of halakha, is it’s over conflation with law as we understand it within a state-backed context.

XdC: I think, also, my experience of halakha--and I like to imagine that there are probably a lot of other Jews out there who have a similar experience--is that it falls into the “I know it when I see it” category. Halakha is just this undefinable presence that all Jews know is around all the time. We all feel its gravity on our lives, whether we choose to respond to that pull, or how we choose to respond to that pull. I think even if you’re a completely, quote unquote, “non-halakhic Jew,” you’re still orienting yourself in relationship to this celestial legal body. And I think that helps me think of the Trans Halakha Project in the broadest possible terms. For me, everything that a Jew does in response to this liminal force in our lives falls under the umbrella of halakha. And over time, those responses have built up into this edifice that we can reference and use to inform our own responses. But it is this unnamable quantity that permeates all of Jewish life.

NG: I’d love to hear a little bit about how both the Trans Halakha Project and the Teshuva-Writing Collective emerged. What were the circumstances that made these projects feel both necessary and possible now? How did they come together? I’d also love to hear what brought you to this work.

LS: I think this project first came into being with the Talmud. The Talmud is evidence and a record of a group of people, we call them the rabbis, who felt disenfranchised by the Jewish tradition of their time and who created an alternative that became a powerful thing that we now know as Rabbinic Judaism. And one of my greatest teachers about this movement is Rabbi Benay Lappe, who describes the rabbis as queer in their project of subverting the tradition that they inherited and using the tradition to build a new thing that they called the tradition. So there’s a very powerful, subversive element built into the tradition that we’ve been given. So I think how this project came into being was through an earlier emboldened ancestry that we’re tapping into that was gifted to us by the early rabbis of the Talmud. And the way this particular expression of that came into being is lots of trans folks asking each other questions and making hidden Google Docs for how we do various things, and a lot of energy towards building a thing that could contain these expressions. And so Rabbi Becky Silverstein is the codirector of this project, and was excited to help create a container for our people to come together and find new expressions within the tradition to help us do this work in cahoots.

LS: And the Teshuva-Writing Collective came into being as one avenue of our work, in which we are authoring questions to the answers that we are seeking. So I think one element of how this project came into being was a sense of resistance and dissatisfaction that trans folks, including myself, were experiencing with what I like to call dysphoric halakha. Halakha that is created by cis folks to contort trans bodies and experiences into existing categories. We were seeking, instead, what we like to call euphoric expressions of halakha. Halakha that is revealed in our euphoria, the places where we feel aligned, the places where we give evidence and give voice to something that was underneath that needed us to find it and reveal it. And so our hope is through the Teshuva-Writing Collective to get out of a frame of dysphoric halakha and create new resources that will help all of our community move towards more euphoric expressions of halakha.

XdC: I’ll say, for my own being drawn towards the Trans Halakha project, and towards the Teshuva-Writing Collective in particular, the story of my life is that I was cursed with an abundance of girlboss energy at birth, and my quest and destiny since then has been to learn how to use it for good instead of evil. And what is halakhot and teshuvot if not the logistics, the p’s and q’s of Judaism and Jewish life? And that kind of work requires that energy and, to me, feels like the next step for this thing that seems to be emerging into the world, which is this very distinct flavor of queer Judaism that I think has gained a lot of momentum in the past decade-ish. I think the next step of evolution for that has to be the hard movement-building work of figuring out practical details, dealing with hard questions, getting down into the brass tacks of it all. And that kind of work is exactly the kind of stuff that I am perversely drawn to. So when I saw that this was a possibility, I immediately knew that I had to find a way to work on it.

XdC: Thank God for the perverse drawing, Xava.

AB: It felt like a very natural evolution of the work that was already happening, as far as Shel Maala, the many queer Jewish learning spaces that are popping up. Which is to say that we’re all learning Talmud, that’s the first step. Okay, now let’s learn the next step. Let’s put the Talmud into practice, and let’s learn the Shulchan Aruch. Let’s learn the Beit Yosef. Let’s learn all these next-step things that haven’t quite happened yet. And so, in that way, I think what we’ve done, and what is going to continue to be done at the Trans Halakha Project is doing that movement building work to create a new Jewish space,

NG: I’d love to dive into some more of the specifics, or some of the particular questions that this batch of teshuvot focus on, and why those felt like particularly urgent or compelling subjects. And I think, also, I know that the documents are many of them long and very intricate, but if you wanted to speak a bit to some of the kinds of conclusions that you came to on the questions.

XdC: I wrote a teshuvot on whether trans women are obligated in niddah, the Jewish halakha surrounding menstruation, and we knew from the beginning that niddah and milah are going to be the main central topics, but I specifically wanted to address trans women’s relationship to menstruation because I felt like it was the biggest thing to take down, the biggest target that needed to be attacked halakhically. I start out my paper by addressing why trans women are implicated at all when we read in the Torah. Where the Torah is first talking about putting these laws into practice, there’s this verse that introduces the laws with the phrase, “If a woman has a flow, and her flow is blood.” And if you, as I believe we must, believe that trans women are women, then you either have to convince me that the Torah means something else by the word woman, or that trans women aren’t women. Those are the two options we have from that place. Otherwise, we have to figure out how trans women are implicated in that verse, because it says, “If this happens to a woman, then do X.” And that automatically puts us under that heading, and it’s that kind of revisiting the fundamental suppositions that underlie halakha that is so powerful about the work that the Trans Halakha Project does, I think, going down to fundamental assumptions about who is and isn’t involved in different mitzvahs or communal activities, and challenging those, and coming up with our own answers.

AB: And the way I thought about that was through translation, which is a concept that I developed from the academic work of another trans scholar, Max Strassfeld, which is to say that these are not the same thing. They’re different things, but we can translate, we can adapt the wisdom on the approach that was used by the rabbis for the androgynos to understand how the maybe more expansive, more liberated version of the rabbis would have approached trans people today. And that paradigm of translation, I think, is very live in halakha in general. You’re literally translating halakha. It’s written in a different language, even for native Hebrew speakers. Rabbinic Hebrew and modern Hebrew are not the same language, so you have to do some translation in a very literal sense. But then also, to take ideas and concepts, and a lived experience that is different from ours, where they have candles that have to light up their houses at night instead of electric lights, where they use ovens that are closer to Indian tandoori ovens, they couldn’t clean things in the way that we can clean things now. So anytime we’re making halakha, we are translating the wisdom of the Talmud and trying to replicate their approach.

AB: For me, when I was writing my teshuvot, I wanted to go back and ask a different question from Xava, one that’s already been asked, which is: I was also looking at niddah but for trans masculine people. And I also wanted to look at brit milah for trans feminine people, because the discussions that have already been asked that involve those things tend to take the approach of: This is totally blowing everything up. This is a new thing. We’ve always thought that men have penises, and women have vaginas, and halakha has never had to incorporate any divergence from that before. And I said to myself, “I don’t think that’s true.” Because, as has been discussed in a lot of different venues in a lot of different ways since 2006, when Rabbi Elliot Kukla published his dissertation and his work on the androgynos, there is a degree of admission of gender variance in Jewish law that may not look exactly like trans people today but does, I think, have wisdom to offer.

AB: So I use the androgynos as a halakhic model and use the approach that the rabbis take to model what that could look like. You have to use the wisdom of the past in a non-literal way to inform the present. And part of what I really appreciated about the other teshuvot—I’ll mention the one you said before about binders in the mikvah—is that that’s a question that only comes from actual lived experience, right? You’re not really going to think about that if you’re a cis person trying to do a thought experiment. It’s really something that comes out of trans people saying: I want to immerse in a mikvah. How do I do that in a way that doesn’t make me feel horrible, and exposed, and violated? I call it halakhic misgendering when people use halakha as a cudgel to misgender trans people, and I really wanted to have everything I wrote be informed by that experience that I’ve had of halakhic misgendering.

LS: I’m really inspired by that framework, and that feels like precisely what I was trying to do in my teshuvot, which is about a very, very specific question that I experienced, and so it emerged directly out of my own experience, which is something I tried to prioritize. And the question I was trying to answer is: What is the berakha—what’s the blessing—that one should say when applying testosterone gel daily? There were a lot of elements that I was trying to incorporate. The daily element of it—the testosterone gel as opposed to other modes of interacting with HRT—is there anything physically about the gel and how it works that interacts with my body such that it would dictate or inform what blessing should be made over it? And I started from the assumption that a blessing should be made over it. Part of what I’m doing, by asking this question, is assuming that halakha can speak to me. And assuming that halakha can be driven by my experience. This is a thing that’s part of my life. I say berakhas over everything else in my life. And so, the core question that I tried to ask in my own investigation is: What blessings that exist mirror and express the kinds of things that I am experiencing so that I can use that blessing as a language to express and give traditional voice to that particular experience? So it’s a new thing, but it’s not a new fundamental experience to experience change. It’s new to experience change in this particular way, in this particular moment, in my particular body, but it’s not new to plant seeds and see what happens when they harvest. It’s not new to express gratitude for rain, because you know the outcome will be bounty, which are some of the images connected to the berakha that I ended up exploring and concluding in the end.

NG: I’m curious if there were particular moments—and I think you’ve spoken a little to some of these—but other moments of interpretive insight that stood out to you. Moments where you found an unexpected resource or resonance in an older text or, through the process of doing this interpretive work, came to a conclusion or way of seeing things you didn’t expect, or that shifted your understanding. I’m interested because these are such richly technical processes of interpretation. I’m interested in getting into the weeds, I guess, to see if there were moments like that stand out.

XdC: I’ve got one right off the dome. I had this really special experience with a source, a halakha from Maimonides from the Rambam Halakhic Authority a lot of folks may have heard of. So he has this really different and mostly unfollowed, and obscure, and bizarre opinion about the way that niddah works. So Maimonides writes in his halakhot around niddah that the way that it works is that you establish the date your niddah cycle begins, then you have seven days of niddah, then you have 11 days of zivah, which is like a different kind of forbidden status. And then that cycle just repeats, regardless of what’s happening with your body. Whether you bleed or don’t bleed, this metaphysical cycle of niddah and zivah status is always operating, and sometimes, you bleed in a way that coincides with it, and sometimes you don’t, but it’s just, for him, something that is fundamental to what he thinks of as women’s bodies that just is happening all the time.

Which is a ludicrous take. It’s really just wild and sounds so different to the way we think about niddah and zivah today. And I’m simplifying it a little bit, but it is as wild as it sounds. And this was exciting for me initially, because it was an example of niddah status operating in a way that was independent from the menstruation itself, so it was a great place for me to start on my work. But on a meta level, the reason that it was more exciting is because this halakha—which Maimonides I’m almost certain authored out of both misogynist and arrogant assumptions that he knew how people’s bodies worked better than those people themselves, because he certainly wasn’t interested in listening to women’s opinions on how niddah worked. And one of the ways I think about Judaism is it has this rule that we can interpret anything any way we want to, but we’re not allowed to throw anything away. Because of that, we have these weird bits and bobs like this halakha from Maimonides that we don’t know what to do with because they’re messy, and they don’t fit into any of the places that we need them to. And I can repurpose that as a way of showing, for instance, how the rabbinic model of womanhood is socially constructed, and niddah is fundamental to that social construction. And this distasteful origin of this misinformed halakha could become the foundation for what I hope will be a liberatory halakha for trans women everywhere, and the opportunity to turn something yucky into something beautiful is part of what’s so magical about this work and this whole process to me.

LS: I love the idea, Xava, of the Rambam just waiting for you. Like he just has been hanging out on the shelf, agitating people for centuries, until you, Xava, came along to restore him to a liberatory purpose.

XdC: It is really generous of you to imagine that the Rambam would wait for any woman.

LS: Only you, Xava. The image for me that came up when you asked this question, Nathan, was one where I felt like the Talmud taught me back something about my experience that I had forgotten, which is I explored and spent time investigating the berakha “hatov vehametiv,” which is basically a blessing on improvements or increased goodness. And that is the blessing that I landed on that now has become part of my daily practice of blessing, the improvements and increasing that comes from increasing and improving my hormonal regulation here. And what the Talmud offers is, you say this blessing in some cases where you find a lost object, and the Talmud asks—you know, finding a lost object isn’t an entirely good, pure improvement. Finding a lost object can actually put you in danger, because if the king hears about this new object that you have found, he’s going to come for you, and he’s going to take your object. Amazing statement about kings and how fucked up they are. But I loved this moment, where the Talmud recognizes that this blessing comes not just in unambiguous moments of bliss, but that having those moments of bliss opens you up to haters, and opens you up to harm, and opens you up to the danger that comes from being integrated and living with euphoria. As a trans person. It opens you up to the dangers of empire, and specifically thinking about this king was such a powerful opening for me to sit with the ways in which this blessing doesn’t require only feeling happy. That the improvements can come with all sorts of anguish, or anxiety, or concern about all sorts of things that are real and that don’t take away from the power of them. So that was a moment I felt like I remembered or re-remembered a part of my own relationship with testosterone that was really expansive, and really healing to find.

AB: I think what I have learned the most from my work, and from reading the work of others, is we don’t give our traditional enough credit, in terms of how it can speak to our lives as queer people, as trans people, as feminists, as people grounded in a left-wing tradition of social liberation. And I think that when we’re looking at the rabbis confronting things like gender—okay, they may not be on the same page as we are, but they have a more sophisticated understanding than I think we give them credit for. And then I think, then, our society writ large does. And that isn’t to say that it’s perfect, but that’s why we’re here. We’re here to keep working on it. And that’s not to say that we’re perfect either. And when I was writing it, I felt very much—we are the first generation of authors, of thinkers, of halakhics who are engaging with trans people and who are trans people. And I was thinking back to the first generation of feminists who were doing the same thing for women 50 years ago, who were saying: How do we get women to be equally obligated in Jewish law? Should they be equally obligated in Jewish law? I found myself making pretty similar conclusions to the first generation of feminist halakhics, which is that obligation is not necessarily the paradigm we want to be operating through. And that kind of kinship with feminism but also with a lot of other movements and halacha, to say: We’re taking a first step, and this is going to be a continued conversation that is gonna go forward, was really powerful.

XdC: That piece that you shared, Alyx, really reminds me of one of the reasons that I think that trans work and halakhic work have such a natural simpatico between them. I think that halacha has always been a tool of personal and communal self-creation. When the rabbis did halakha for the first time, they were speaking into existence what they wanted a Jew to be, and what they wanted a Jewish community to be. And they were intentionally writing self-fulfilling prophecies. They were saying, “This is the way it is,” in hopes that that’s the way it would become. And for me, and I imagine for many others, that is often the way transition can feel: This is what my gender is, in hopes that I will be recognized in that, in hopes that I will feel that within myself. Transition is an ultimate tool of self-creation, and taking it on intentionally as a tool of recreating halakha in a way that works for trans people just feels so natural, once I saw those two processes and how they were so closely related.

NG: Because Judaism is so decentralized, it seems like a project like this one raises questions about authority. Who has the right to make decisive interpretations on questions of religious observance? That seems like a question that’s also at play in terms of what you were talking about, Laynie, in terms of dysphoric and euphoric halakha, and authority, and a sense about one’s own experience, and who has the right to, in a way, legislate about it, though that’s not the full frame. I was thinking of—it’s a piece I believe in your teshuvot, Alyx, where you, in the introduction, talk about the fact that you’re not a rabbi, and sort of—I don’t know if caveat is the right word, exactly—but sort of frame your insights in those terms as a kind of resource, but framing the kind of bearing or authority they might have within that context. And so, all these things just made me wonder about how you all think about that question of authority when doing this work? Or if that doesn’t seem like the right frame at all?

AB: That’s a great question to ask, and I think authority is certainly part of halakha, and has been a part of halakha. Because I think, in our conversation before about what halakha means, that was behind a lot of what I think we were thinking about: Is there an authority behind halakha? Is there a motivating force? If you compare halakha to law, to Anglo-American law at the very least, what enforces that is violence. The threat of arrest or litigation. Whereas depending on your community, your version of God, halakha doesn’t have that. And so, authority in halakha can either come from a personal relationship, an understanding of God and what you understand the aspect of punishment to be from a divine source. And also, there’s a communal aspect to it. If you go and become a full member of a Hasidic community and then film yourself lighting a fire on Shabbat, you might lose all your friends. And that’s also, I think, an important method of enforcement for halakha. But overall, most halakhic enforcement comes from the self. It’s a self-discipline. People get to choose, or feel compelled, or move in the way that fits them. How do I want to live my life as an individual? Even though it’s a communal experience, it still comes down to the individual,

XdC: I think this is a hot take for a rabbi to have, but the existence of rabbis is basically a manifestation of our failure as the Jewish people to empower people and give them the opportunity to become competent halakhic decision-makers in their own right. In my opinion, in an ideal world, we would never feel any need for rabbis as halakhic decision-makers, because everyone who wanted it would have the opportunity to learn everything that they wanted to learn. And so, the way I think about authority is I imagined myself into living in that world already, and I think of everyone who’s reading these teshuvot as a perfectly competent halakhic decision-maker, which I think, fundamentally, they are, and maybe they just need some more information. And so, it’s like any informed consent model. It’s my responsibility, in the paper, to rigorously, and clearly, and accessibly present the information that backs up what I’m saying. But ultimately, it’s in everybody else’s hands how they choose to use that information, because they are the halakhic deciders at the end of the day, and anyone who makes their halakhic decisions for them only does that because they’ve been given that authority by that person. So ultimately, it’s all secretly a bottom-up model masquerading as a top-down model. So I just choose to live in a world where things are as I want them to be, in hopes that that will get us a little bit closer to it.

LS: Just want to cosign Xava’s hot take here, which is at the core of this project is a commitment to embodying an alternative halakhic paradigm that relocates authority from somewhere else to yourself. And that is not a departure from halakha as it has been given to us. It’s a departure from halakha as it has been told to us by people who have their own stakes in maintaining authority. The tradition fundamentally and natively understands the ways in which halakhic decision-making is impossible without direct experience of a thing. And our tradition, over and over, tells us that the most essential source of authority is the individual’s experience. Even a judge cannot judge about something that they have not truly encountered and understood. So even someone called a judge, who is imbued with power and authority, the Talmud tells us they have nothing if they haven’t actually understood, perceived, and experienced the thing about which they are judging. And so, this hot take of all empowered people: I love it. I agree, and I think the Talmud endorses it entirely. That is how halakha was imagined by the early rabbis, who were a community of people. Not only teacher and student, they were comrades, and they were figuring out: How do we be comrades together?

NG: Now that these teshuvot have been in the world for a few months, I’m curious what any of you have been hearing so far about the ways that Jews are putting them into practice or building on them in their own lives, and what your hopes are for the ways that they might be taken up.

LS: Halakha is about practice, and it’s also about discourse. And it’s one of the features of halakha, that it’s enacted not just through individual behaviors, but that learning it is how it is enacted. And that’s one of the most, I think, dynamic and intriguing features of halakha as a way of being, is that it isn’t only behavioral, it’s also about magnification of discourse at its core. So what I’ve seen is folks learning these teshuvot. I don’t know who’s like, saying “hatov vehametiv” when they put on T gel, but my hope isn’t actually that people do that practice; my hope is that people are impacted by this magnification of discourse, and that this, in turn, supports their magnification of discourse, in the broadest sense, that these concepts and frameworks about authority, about autonomy, about agency, about recovering problematic pieces and subverting them, as Xava mentioned earlier, about translation, which Alyx mentioned, that those become a part of how people who are learning halakha, and therefore creating it, continue to co-create.

XdC: For me, in a practical sense, I’ve been very honored to hear of people studying my teshuvot. Someone told me recently they put it in the syllabus for a college course they were teaching, I find that very intimidating, but just to know that the work is being engaged with, both in a practical and in a study setting, has been so beautiful, and I hope will, as the Teshuva-Writing Collective, God willing, continues, create a norm of people feeling like they should be engaging with the hottest, freshest trans scholarship on trans issues as an ordinary part of their study, as something that’s de rigueur for being involved in halakhic discourse.

AB: I think part of what I find interesting—for those of us who wrote about milah—brit milah, about circumcision—that’s not really something that individual gets to choose for themselves, because most of the time, the people we’re talking about are converts, who are relying on a rabbi to shepherd them through this process of conversion. And I don’t know if there are a ton of trans women who are converting, who are encountering rabbis who are making them have brit milah and can say, “Actually, I found this source,” or who are worried about the requirement, which does exist for conservative Jews, for them to have brit milah, but have rabbis who are saying, “No, no, don’t worry, I know about this resource.” I don’t know if that’s happening yet. But I hope that that’s what eventually will happen, that we will have people who come into the Jewish community who are held and affirmed by the work that we’ve done.

The other part of that also is—and I’m thinking particularly about the work of one of my collective members, Ariel Berry—Ariel Dunat now, they just got married—who really was honing in on the issue of giving a brit milah to someone for whom it’s medically dangerous, which is a live issue in halakha, and I know that because it’s an issue of discussion among people who are responsible for conversions. So it’s not just trans halakha we’re touching here. There are bigger halakhic questions. Rabbi Jamie Weisbach’s teshuvot, hatzitzah, on binders in a mikvah has implications for other prosthetics and medical devices and immersion with those, which is an area of halakha that thankfully has been explored and written about, but continuing that conversation. And that’s something that I hope, that this will land beyond just trans people, that the ideas and the way we’re pushing halakha forward is going to go beyond. And I don’t know if that’s happening yet, and I hope it will, and that it is

XdC: One of my primary motivations in writing my teshuvot was looking around and realizing that as far as I could personally discover, there was nothing that I could find of a trans woman writing about niddah for trans woman, ever, before this moment. And if a trans woman out there picks up my teshuvot and reads it and says, “This is the most foolish dreck I’ve ever read, I’m gonna ignore this forever,” I love that actually, because at least now, she had access to serious engagement on the material from someone who understood it, who is a part of the community. She had the resource she deserved to reject. My greatest sense of whether these teshuvot have been successful is if someday someone writes a paper called, like, “The Disputation of Xava de Cordova’s Completely Mistaken and Foolish Take on Niddah.”

AB: Yeah, the reactions to our teshuvot that are published, if that ever happens, will be very fun to read, I’m sure.

NG: I’ll bring us to a close by asking what’s next for the Teshuva-Writing Collective and for the Trans Halakha Project, for people who want to be following the work you all are doing? What is on the horizon?

XdC: I will say, for the Teshuva-Writing Collective and also for Shel Maala, my Yeshiva, we are collaborating on a shiur series—a lecture series—that will be going all through the fall, starting on October 19 and going all the way to December 21 on those Thursday evenings. A lot of the writers of the teshuvas from the Teshuva-Writing Collective, along with an author from Tefillat Trans, which is a book of ritual and prayer that was also published by the Trans Halakha Project this year, will be offering learning on the topics of their teshuvot that people can come to, and enjoy, and savor. So, I highly recommend that, people who are interested in these topics. We’ll put a link to the registration in the show notes, so you should all definitely come to that and take the next step on the journey with these teshuvot.

LS: Also, we’re going to keep writing and we’re going to kick off a second cohort of the Teshuva-Writing Collective, God willing, in February. We are coalescing around a central topic, which is p’ru u’r’vu, fruitful multiplication, which will include questions related to procreation, reproduction, queer family building, decisions not to have children, surrogacy, and all sorts of ways that that topic has tendrils that we’re excited to see what Torah trans folks will find in it and about it through our own bodies and lives.

AB: And I think what I have found to be really special is just the members of our first cohort are really brilliant and are still out there teaching, whether that’s at SVARA or Shel Maala, or some of them are in rabbinical school and about to begin their career. Some of them are already rabbis and in their careers, and some of us are early career professionals who are still figuring this whole thing out. We’re not going anywhere, and I think that we’re going to continue to teach, to learn, to grow, to share what we have to say, whether that’s through the big-scale stuff of the Teshuva-Writing Collective or on a small scale in our communities, in our classrooms, and in our lives. And that, I think, is never going to stop, which is amazing.

NG: Thanks so much to all of you for joining me today and to our producer, Jesse Brenneman, and thanks to our listeners. Please rate, review, and subscribe to On the Nose, and subscribe to Jewish Currents. You can find us online at JewishCurrents.org. See you next time.

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