Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Transgender and halacha

JTA reports that an Israeli transgender woman was denied access to both the men and women sections at the Western Wall last week - but responded to the rudeness she experiencesd with class and dignity:
After hundreds of comments and likes, Long on Tuesday morning posted a clarification saying that she had no intention of praying at the Western Wall during her visit, and believes that it was more important for the Orthodox worshippers to be there than for her to make a scene. 
“Inside, I believe that God is everywhere,” she wrote, adding that she believes in a “live and let live” motto.
Though I recognize this is an extremely delicate, and perhaps complicated, halachic issue, I still intend to wade in and shoot from the hip. For starts, prayer space is a minor and inconsequential halachic issue for a woman. A woman can pray in front of a man. Even if the kotel women want to insist that Long is a man, that doesn't bar them from praying together. They are, however, barred from embarrassing her. So sending her away from the woman's section was wrong.

The men have a better case - if they recognize her as a woman. Men aren't allowed to pray with women who are dressed improperly, and to be on the safe side many men have the additional stringency of not praying with women at all. So the guys are on firm ground, but why didn't one of them take Long back to the ladies and tell the sergeant at arms, "We recognize this person as a woman, so she prays with you?"  And any dissenting women could  just be reminded that halacha does not bar women from praying with a man. Wouldn't that have been a kind and compassionate way to solve the problem?  

Now, let's up the difficulty level, by leaving aside the prayer space concern which, as I say, are minor and incosequential, and also by abandoning the it-trumps-all public humiliation issue. I want to know two things: (1) Does halacha recognize a gender change; and (2) at what point would a gender change be recognized? When the hormones start? When the operation is over? And if they person isn't taking that route - if no operation is planned - does halacha recognize a change in gender?

The easiest thing is to say that a person can decide for himself how he wishes to be regarded by halacha, that is if I identify as a woman halacha treats me as a women. But I can't think of any reason  to say that halacha works this way. I don't become a kohen by identifying myself as a kohen, and announcing myself a gentile does not make me one in the eyes of the law. So, to make this more concrete:
  • When is a transgender women no longer required to wear tefillin?
  • When is a transgender women first permitted to see her step-mother naked?
  • When does a transgender man acquire the obligation to keep time bound commandments?
I bet the answer to all three questions is the same, and my hunch is that for a man transitioning to women the switch is recognized when the plumbing changes - and not before. But I have no idea if I am right, and no idea when halacha recognizes the change for a woman intent on becoming a man.

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