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Tears of Compassion, Tears of Redemption
Weeping for Our Trans Children
as shared at Congregation Beth Shalom, KS on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 5784
Today, we hear the cries of our ancestor Rachel. In the haftarah Rachel weeps for her children. Leading up to this moment, the haftarah recounts the prophet Jeremiah’s address to the ten exiled tribes. Jeremiah comforts the tribes, speaking of God’s ongoing love for Israel and promising a divine response to their plight, specifically the return from exile. On Rosh Hashanah, known also as Yom Hazikaron – The Day of Remembrance – we invoke this promise. Just like Jeremiah promises the Israelites that God will remember them and have compassion on them, we also pray for God’s remembrance and compassion.
Amidst this sweeping account, Rachel refused to be comforted until receiving specific assurance of her descendants’ wellbeing. God promises Rachel that there is hope. Rachel’s children will be able to return to their homeland. Rabbi David Altschuler, who helped revive Torah study in 18th century Prague, says that Rachel essentially wants her children to have a good future. It’s not just about where they live, but also about how they live. God’s assurance is that Rachel’s children will have a good end to their story.
We’ll get back to Rachel in a moment, but first, I want to tell you about one of the conversations that I had in preparing for my interview here last spring. There’s a colleague of mine, who happens to be a friend of Rabbi Glickman’s, who lives in St. Louis. Now I know St. Louis and Kansas City aren’t so close, but there are some similarities and relationships between our communities. This person’s name is Rori Picker-Neiss, and she’s actually called a “Maharat” (one name for female clergy in progressive Orthodox world). She works for the JCRC, which is like our JCRB/AJC. When I texted Maharat Picker-Neiss, she was actually in the midst of driving back and forth from Jefferson City and was incredibly generous in carving out a few minutes of time to talk with me. Maharat Picker-Neiss was spending so much time at the capital because she has a trans child, and Missouri was debating legislation she believed would be harmful to her child. There are trans kids in every denomination of Judaism, just like there are trans kids in all religions. In fact, as it so happens, one of Maharat Picker-Neiss’s Reform colleagues in St. Louis, Rabbi Daniel Bogard, also has a trans child. In the past year or so, they have been part of a community of families who have been on the front lines of opposing what is referred to as “anti-trans legislation.”
While there are a lot of reasons why it can be difficult to raise kids in America – shortage of ADD medication, mass shootings, police brutality – LGBTQ+ youth, and trans and nonbinary youth in particular, along with their families, face a unique set of challenges. Transgender people are people who feel that the gender everyone else has perceived them as since birth does not match who they know themselves to be. With the support of their broader community, transgender youth can flourish while making choices in conjunction with trusted adults in their lives that are both age-appropriate and in alignment with their identity. In order for this to happen, people need to have bodily autonomy. This year alone, at least 44 states have collectively introduced over 400 pieces of anti-trans legislation, which would make it difficult and sometimes even illegal to access various things that are essential for trans people’s autonomy and safety.
This anti-trans legislation can take many forms, but one particularly harmful type limits trans children’s access to robust medical care, access which is currently under threat in over twenty states. Gender-affirming medical care is essential for the wellbeing of young people who experience symptoms of distress that results from realizing one’s gender does not match their assigned sex at birth. Though some of this language may be new to some of us, there have long been people in our communities who have experienced what is now referred to as gender dysphoria. What I’m about to tell you might sound like it’s straight out of a Netflix series, like Unorthodox or Shtisel. But it’s actually real, factual Jewish history.
In the 1930s, a young girl named Bayle was growing up in a Ukrainian shtetl. From an early age, she spoke in a deep voice and carried herself differently than the other girls. As an adolescent, Beyle was able to go to the city of Odessa and met a professor. This professor helped Beyle transition to being a man. When Beyle returned to the shtetl, the community greeted him excitedly. In 1936, Yeshaye Katovski recounted this story in the Yiddish paper, the Forvorts. Describing Beyle’s return, he wrote, “And when we saw “her,” it was as if we were stunned: Before our eyes was a handsome, healthy, redheaded man. Anyone who didn’t know Beyle previously would never have known that he had been a girl. From then on in the shtetl, he was called Berel-Beyle…Berel-Beyle soon learned to daven and was in synagogue every day. Later on, he got married to an old girlfriend, Rachel, who was a nice girl. In our shtetl, Berel-Beyle always had a good name as a fine, upstanding Jew.”
Conversations about helping someone live their life as the gender that best aligns with their identity have existed for some time in the Jewish community. Similarly, these conversations are ongoing in the American medical community. Since 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics have put forth policies that give guidance on best medical practices for trans youth. More recently,the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry came out in strong opposition against legislative efforts that block access to gender-affirming care. Such efforts, they say, “have been shown to increase youths’ risk for suicidal ideation and other negative mental health outcomes.” Sadly, we know this to be true. More than half of transgender and nonbinary youth have attempted suicide.
It is unsurprising, then, that Rabbi Daniel Bogard, who has driven more than two hours to Jefferson City as many as eight times in one legislative session to testify against anti-trans legislation, says it is the bills about gender-affirming care that worry him the most.
Here’s the thing: I’m not talking about this to get on a soap box. I’m talking about this because this year, when I hear the haftarah and think of parents crying out for their children, hoping and praying for their children’s future, I cannot help but think of families with LGBTQ+ kids. I’m talking about this because it is something that affects families across America, including right here at Beth Shalom.
When I started here this summer, people were so loving and welcoming. It’s clear to me that this is a very caring community, and a community that in particular cares for our children, including their friends’ children. Right now, there are parents in the Kansas City community who are scared for their family’s safety.
Today, on one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, we take stock of the past year. We look towards the year ahead, considering what steps we need to take for our own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. When we say the words “who shall live and who shall die?” do we understand that this question, in the case of trans lives, is not theoretical? Can we say “who shall live and who shall die” knowing we are doing everything in our power to ensure that fewer childrens’ lives will be cut short in the coming year? And what about the families of these children, some of whom might be here today? How can we best support them, or perhaps ourselves, as they navigate this evolving legal landscape?
Rachel knew the power of a parent’s tears. Her tears were met with divine compassion. Today, in our world, more compassion would go a long way. Considering Rachel’s tears through the lenses of compassion, lament, and protest can offer avenues forward as we strive to bring more compassion into the world in 5784.
Rachel weeps from her burial place in Ramah by the road side, unlike many of our other ancestors who are buried at the Cave of Machpelah. In a midrash on the Book of Genesis, our Rabbis teach that Jacob placed Rachel along the Israelites’ route so that when they set out for exile, she would pray for them. Rabbi Bogard, Maharat Picker Neiss, and the many family members speaking out against anti-trans legislation are using their geographic proximity to cry out, not only for their children but for children across Missouri and across the country.
Whether on the road from Jerusalem or the drive to Jefferson City, the power of a parents’ love for their children can act as a clarion call. Lives are at risk. Our faith demands better. As Rabbi Eliot Kukla, the first transgender rabbi ordained by a major denomination of Judaism, writes, “this legislative attack is often framed as a battle between traditional religious values and modern ideas about gender. But we are real people, not ideas, and we have always existed, including within age-old religions.” Too often, people are reduced to ideas, or political talking points. Though our country might have politicized this topic, it is a deeply human one – families thinking about moving to states with different health care access, children contemplating if their life is worth living. If we are going to talk about the “Book of Life,” we need to take this seriously.
And, as Rabbi Kukla reminds us, trans people have a place at the heart of Judaism, not on the periphery. In Judaism, the idea of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is paramount. Let me be clear: each person in this community matters. Each trans person matters.
Furthermore, on a holiday when we see God as a parent and read stories of the ways in which God plays an active role in childbirth and childrearing, we are reminded of God’s love for us. God responds to Hannah’s prayers for a child. God intervenes to ultimately spare Isaac. And, in today’s haftarah, God’s compassion for their children pours forth. טוֹב־יְהֹוָ֥ה לַכֹּ֑ל וְ֝רַחֲמָ֗יו עַל־כׇּל־מַעֲשָֽׂיו we say in the Ashrei. God’s compassion is for all of God’s creation. God’s compassion extends to trans Jews. It’s a question of if we as humans can get to a place where our compassion, like God’s, extends to all.1
At times, extending compassion takes courage. Even for the parent–human or divine–who knows the inherent worth of their child, it might be scary to learn about aspects of your child that you do not yet recognize, or to worry what might happen to them as a young trans or nonbinary person in this country.
In addition to serving as a cry for change, Rachel’s tears might also have contained some measure of grief, or lament. Back when she was alive, trying so hard to conceive and become a parent, she had no idea what would become of her children and their descendants. Witnessing them wandering, even though she had hope for their final destination, could have proved challenging emotionally. In her new book, Alicia Jo Rabins reflects a similar sentiment, talking about how parenting doesn’t always end up looking like you would expect. For many of us–those who have miscarried, those who have chosen not to have children in a community that values them highly, those who find themselves noticing the hardships of parenting in addition to the joys–our relationship to “parenthood” might be different than we imagined it previously.
As difficult as it can be when our expectations and our reality do not align, navigating the space in between is an important part of being human. Alicia Jo Rabins also talks about how children, with their developmental stages and evolving understanding of self, can remind us that we are all works in progress and developing over time. When someone realizes their true gender identity over the years, they are not changing their mind but rather growing into the truest, most authentic version of themselves. In Judaism, we actually have a word for this: teshuvah. Teshuvah is often translated as “repentance,” but as you’ve probably heard me or Rabbi Glickman say, it really means “return.” It is a deeply human–and deeply Jewish–process to try to understand who we are in this world and to strive to bring our lives into alignment with our sense of self. The braveness with which adolescents face this evolving understanding of who they are–whether around gender or other important developmental issues–can be a model for us all.
Just as Rachel, through her cries, aroused compassion for God’s children, we too can bring more compassion into the world. Just as Rachel refused to settle for anything less than her children’s wellbeing, we too can remain clear eyed about the stakes of protecting all children, regardless of their gender identity.
For some of us, doing so might mean continuing to educate ourselves on transgender issues. For others, we might want to contact our elected officials about certain legislation. Maybe there are certain conversations we want to have with a family member to help make space for everyone to be the most authentic versions of themselves. Whatever cultivating compassion–around this issue and more broadly–might look like for you, we at Beth Shalom are here to be a resource.
We began some of this work in 5783, participating in a training sponsored by “Jewish Experiences'' at the J on being a welcoming community to LGBTQ+ Jews. In 5784, from partnering with Keshet, a LGBTQ+ Jewish organization that is engaged with legislative efforts, to providing pastoral support to individuals and families, to considering how we ourselves can cultivate compassion in our personal lives, the clergy at Beth Shalom are committed to doing this work of bringing more justice and compassion into the world with you.
Like Rachel, we must do this until we know our children will be safe. This year, may our partnerships – with each other and with God – help us collectively move away from alienation, through family dynamics, past legislative roadblocks, and towards a future in which we all merit joy and redemption.
h/t R’ Aaron Weininger