Wheeling, W.Va., native and author Noach Dzmura illustrated these challenges in a thought-provoking discussion sponsored by the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh and Bet Tikvah, Saturday, Nov. 19.
Dzmura, the communications coordinator at Congregation Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, Calif., underwent a sex-change operation to become a male.
Raised in the Byzantine Orthodox Church, Dzmura converted to Judaism nine years ago. His first exposure to Judaism was at Beth Tikvah services in Pittsburgh in 1997.
“I didn’t know anything about Judaism,” he said. “I had never seen a religion that included gay people.… It was amazing.”
“I immediately felt at home … and the eastern European music in the services was the same as the eastern European music of the Byzantine Orthodox Church.”
Dzmura emphasized that transsexual and transgender Jews face obstacles in gaining acceptance from rabbinical authorities and society as a whole. Jewish law poses an obstacle as well since many scholars believe it prohibits sex-change operations.
Dzmura noted, however, that Jewish law is fluid and adapts over the ages. He pointed out that an Orthodox rabbi in Washington, D.C., recently presided over a wedding service between two gay men. He recounted how another Orthodox rabbi, Eliezer Waldenberg, at one time a dayan on the Supreme Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem and an authority on medical halacha, once concluded that if a person were distraught enough about gender identity to consider suicide, a sex-change operation would be permissible
Shortly after he converted, Dzmura researched the Talmud for its perspective on gender variance. He also sought to “bring the richness of Jewish tradition to people struggling with gender identity today.”
Dzmura is the director of Jewish Transitions, a program that offers guidance on gender transitions and whose current programs focus on conversion and burial practices.
He also edited the anthology “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community,” which includes personal descriptions of individuals’ experiences struggling with their sexual identity and place in the Jewish community as well as discussions of how Jewish law and tradition regard gender variance.
The sex of an individual affects nearly all Jewish rituals, from conversion ceremonies to where an individual can sit at temple to the rituals observed by burial societies, he said. Therefore, confusion and ignorance of gender variance can cause distress to transsexuals and transgender persons, making it harder for them to gain acceptance.
“We need change that involves the entire community,” Dzmura said, from acknowledging and accepting young children of ambiguous gender to changing language to make it more inclusive of the transgender community.
For transgender and transsexual persons, he noted that ambiguity about one’s gender is not such a bad thing.
“Up-in-coming youth are saying ‘I am both or neither [sex] …’ The third space is for people who value ambiguity,” Dzmura said.
He thinks that language and society’s obsession with categorizing people is counterproductive.
“How do we start talking about each others’ souls and not about each others’ bodies?” he asked. “Be careful about what words you use.”
(Ron Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)