When Reuben Zellman was a girl, he didn’t know that he wanted to become a rabbi. But since he began identifying as male four years ago, his Jewish involvement has become more intense and, with the support of his synagogue community, he realized that he wanted to become a leader of the Jewish people.
Zellman has recently been granted his wish with admission to the Reform movement’s rabbinical school. He will begin his studies next summer. Sources say that Zellman will be the first transgender individual ever to study in rabbinical school.
"I applied to rabbinical school because I love Torah," said Zellman, in an interview from his San Francisco home. "I realize that there are political ramifications to what I’m doing and hope that they will be positive," said the 24-year-old, who currently studies music and teaches Hebrew School at his synagogue, the predominantly gay Sha’ar Zahav. "And I hope people will remember that I’m a regular human being like others are."
Zellman, a California native, declined to specify how his physical appearance has changed since he began his transition from female to male, but described himself as a transsexual as well as someone who falls under the broader scope of transgender.
He prefaced his application to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion with a letter explaining his story to officials there, both because he realized that it was an unusual situation for them to consider and because he wanted them to be prepared for things like receiving his high school transcripts with a different, and female, name on them.
"Yes, we did have to stop and think about this situation, but the real question was ëis he a qualified candidate the way others are,’ and the answer was ‘certainly,’ " said Rabbi Roxanne Schneider Shapiro, national director of admissions and recruitment for the Reform seminary.
"Our concern about Reuben was the same as we have about any candidate who has gone through any major life-changing event: we ask if they are in therapy and if this is the right time in their life for them to go to rabbinical school.
"While he is very concerned for the transgender community, his is not a transgender agenda," she said. "It’s a Jewish agenda. This is just part of who he is."
The Reform seminary’s decision comes just as the Conservative movement wrestles with issues related to sexual orientation and identity through the deliberations of its rabbinic committee of legal decisors. Last week the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards decided to again consider rabbinic ordination of gays, among other things, as it did a decade ago.
It comes as well as the Orthodox community begins to publicly face the reality of homosexuals in its midst, sparked by the recent film on the subject, "Trembling Before G-d."
Issues specific to the transgendered are, for the first time in contemporary Jewish circles, being considered separately from homosexuality.
Transgender is a broad term which can mean any of several different things: people born with ambiguous genitalia or with both genders’, or who may be born with the chromosomes of one sex but with the sex organs of the other, or may have the chromosomes and physical characteristics of one gender but feel that they are the other, and who may cross-dress or take hormones or have surgery to change their sexual identity.
Transgender individuals may, in the end, be hetero-, homo- or bisexual. Zellman says, "I identify as queer."
Now their concerns are making their way onto the mainstream Jewish agenda. The Jewish feminist magazine Lilith devoted most of an issue to exploring transgender Jewish concerns last spring. The Reconstructionist and Reform seminaries both recently held symposia on the subject.
"These were the first times there have been public forums on transgender issues" in the community, says Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, an instructor in liturgy and homiletics at the Reform seminary, who organized the symposia.
The Reform movement has also taken action. Its Commission on Social Action passed a resolution Monday supporting full acceptance of the transgender and bisexual. In it, the denomination pledges to support legislation opposing discrimination based on gender identity.
The resolution urges Reform congregations to develop inclusive policies toward all Jews "regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity," and asks the rabbinic and cantorial arms of the movement to discuss ritual participation of and for transgender Jews.
"There is recent awareness that the bisexual and transgender populations are deserving of the same kind of support we’ve offered in the past to the gay and lesbian communities," says Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action.
While terminology involving transgender people may now be becoming part of common parlance, Jewish literature going back to the Torah has addressed issues of people with ambiguous genitalia and those who seem androgynous.
The Talmud explores a range of situations and includes references to people who are men, people who are women, people who appear to be both and people who are regarded as neither.
The legal and ethical issues involved (secular and religious) are complex. Making things even more complicated is current scientific debate over what determines gender: sex organs, hormone levels, chromosomes or even the way the brain functions?
Biologists today "are teaching us what the Mishnah already knew: that gender is not binary," Rabbi Wenig said.
Rabbis have long considered questions like: should a married man who becomes a woman be required to give his wife a Jewish divorce? May a transsexual of either sex marry? Can a woman who transitions into becoming a man be counted in an Orthodox minyan?
The Reform movement and contemporary Orthodox decisors of Jewish law have been grappling with these issues since the 1970s, when sexual reassignment surgery first became widely known.
In the Conservative movement, Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz, who teaches Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, submitted to the Law Committee a paper addressing questions of whether someone may undergo sexual reassignment surgery, what their sexual status is if they have and if such medical procedures can redefine the basic status of male and female.
Reuben Zellman, as he went through his own gender transition, studied the relevant Jewish literature but feels "I also didn’t have a choice in the matter. This is just what I had to do, and I’m very happy the way that I am."