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Transgender Professor at Yeshiva U. -- Mazel Tov!

10/20/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Two weeks ago at Yeshiva University, English professor Joy Ladin, Ph.D., returned to work after a two-year leave. Ladin is transgender -- she was formerly Jay Ladin -- making Y.U. the first religiously conservative university in the United States with a transgender faculty member, according to Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. Ladin, who is Jewish and describes herself as "practicing," teaches at the women's undergraduate school. She had been granted tenure immediately before she told the school about her gender identity in 2006.

This is big news. If the average American isn't too sure what "transgender" means, think of how much more strongly this will hit among most Orthodox Jews, who have yet to invite over a gay man or lesbian for Friday night flanken and matzah ball soup.

("Transgender" is an umbrella term used to describe people whose sense of themselves as male or female differs from that associated with their birth sex. Some transgender people -- transsexuals -- live or wish to live as members of the gender opposite to their birth sex. According to the American Psychological Association, about 1 in 10,000 biological males and 1 in 30,000 biological females engage in cross-dressing. Not all transgender people, however, are cross-dressers.)

Yeshiva University, located in Manhattan, is technically secular. With over seven thousand students, it encompasses a medical school (Einstein), law school (Cardozo), school of social work (Wurzweiler), and other renowned graduate programs that are not specifically Jewish and in which most students are not Jewish.

But in a practical sense, Y.U. is a Jewish institution. Its motto is the Hebrew "Torah U'Maddah" -- Torah combined with secular knowledge." The university includes undergraduate and high school campuses, where the curricula conform to Orthodox Jewish principles. All the undergrads and high school students are Jewish, primarily Orthodox. Even in the secular graduate programs, Orthodox Judaism is in the air: classes are not held on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, and only kosher food is permitted. Most Orthodox Jews consider Y.U.'s rabbinical seminary to be the most prestigious in the U.S.

So why was Ladin -- who was put on indefinite leave after she told the university that she wanted to transition to female -- back on campus? Because New York City prohibits the firing of employees based on gender identity. Legally, Y.U. may not have had a choice. Ethically, Y.U. does have a choice -- to treat Ladin with respect, or to make her feel unwanted and abnormal. Richard Joel, president of the university, has declined to comment specifically about Ladin but did say, "I'm proud of my university and all my faculty."

Then there's the more prevalent attitude. The reaction of Rabbi Moshe Tendler, an Orthodox rabbi and a senior dean at the rabbinical school, says it all. "He's not a woman. He's a male with enlarged breasts," Tendler told the New York Post, pointedly referring to Ladin as male even though she identifies as female and is taking progesterone and estrogen to feminize her appearance. "He's a person who represents a kind of amorality which runs counter to everything Yeshiva University stands for. There is just no leeway in Jewish law for a transsexual." Tendler, who is also a professor of biology and medical ethics, continued, "There is no niche where he can hide out as a female without being in massive violation of Torah law, Torah ethics, and Torah morality."

Tendler also spoke with the Jerusalem Post, saying, "I think a teacher that behaves in so aberrant a way must also impinge on the moral conscience of the student body" and that "we should reserve the right to be judgmental when someone violates the basic tenets of society."

Within Orthodox Judaism, everything comes down to what is permitted and what is forbidden by Jewish law. As a member of an Orthodox community myself, I have enormous respect for Jewish law, which guides my life in huge and small ways every day, every hour. If Tendler can make a persuasive argument that Jewish law forbids being transgender, I would listen carefully. But expressing contempt and disgust for another human being (a widely respected member of the faculty, no less) is never permitted. To my mind, Tendler's comments about Ladin serve more than anything else to devalue his authority as a Jewish leader.

There is ample evidence that the great rabbis have long recognized the limits of the male and female categories. In the first two centuries of the Common Era, the rabbis of the Mishnah identified at least four possible genders or sexes. In addition to male and female, they claimed, there are two sexes that are neither male nor female, called the tumtum (person whose genitals are obscured, making their gender uncertain) and the androgynos (person who has aspects of both male and female genitalia). According to one interpretation, the first human being was an androgynos. The rabbis even discussed two other categories for gender identity that don't appear at birth but develop later in life.

Traditional Judaism privileges categories and boundaries--the demarcations between work and Shabbat, kosher and not kosher, obligated and not obligated. But some things defy categories altogether, or have fuzzy boundaries. Not everything is airtight, even with seemingly obvious binaries. We light Shabbat candles eighteen minutes before sunset; the question of whether or not Shabbat restrictions begin at candle-lighting or at sunset continues to be debated. On Passover, Sephardi Jews eat rice and corn, foods that Ashkenazi Jews shun as not kosher during the holiday; so are those foods kosher for Passover or not?

In daily life, we regularly encounter in-between zones. In fact, the rabbis celebrated these spaces and moments. They spent hours analyzing dawn and dusk, those times when it's not really day and not really night.

In-between zones offer the greatest opportunity to behave in holy ways -- and that includes being respectful of all people, even if they make you uncomfortable.