In Break From Tradition, Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Gives Emotional Speech About Transgender Acceptance

The New York City resident is making waves for speaking about a sensitive subject.

Rabbi Mike Moskowitz spoke out about trans acceptance at the Old Broadway Synagogue last week, a rare public event within the confines of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. 

Referencing a text message he got from a transgender Columbia University student, the ultra-Orthodox rabbi gave a speech at his Harlem shul encouraging his congregation to practice acceptance. Moskowitz, who is a religious life adviser at Columbia, preached acceptance not just of transgender people, but of all of God's children. 

Moskowitz has background and experience that give his words more weight than those of most rabbis: he has a master's in Talmudic law, an advanced degree in Talmud, is working on his doctorate in Hebrew literature, and has received several rabbinical ordinations. But he also has a trans family member, and his Orthodox congregation includes members of the LGBT community, a rare if not unheard of intersection between the LGBT community and Orthodox Judaism.



Photo: Mike Moskowitz
Photo: Mike Moskowitz

"There is so much healing that needs to happen from the trauma of religion, from people feeling excluded for all sorts of reasons," Moskowitz told A Plus. "From a religious perspective, we value human life even if we don't agree with people… that can't ever overpower our love for the person."

On the third night of Hanukkah, Moskowitz posed a simple question to his congregation: what do you want your candle to be?

"Fear, hate, discrimination, it denies the soul spiritual expression," he said during his speech. "Perhaps the miracle of Hanukkah is the ability to see the darkness as a call and an obligation to banish it with light. That was God's response to the initial darkness… 'ye hee ohr,' let there be light."

Moskowitz's speech will likely stir up controversy in a world that has had trouble finding space for the LGBT community. Orthodox religions of all kinds, not just Judaism, have been under fire for intolerance. Even Vice President-elect Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian — a movement often associated with religious conservatism — once published comments supporting government funding to give "assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior," comments many have interpreted as being supportive of conversion therapy.

Photo courtesy of Twisted Oaks Studio
Photo courtesy of Twisted Oaks Studio

Trans acceptance has been mixed in the Jewish community. ln 2015, the Union for Reform Judaism — a less socially conservative sect of Judaism than ultra-Orthodox — unveiled a historic transgender rights policy that asked Jews to practice "awareness and increase knowledge of issues related to gender identity," including the use of preferred and gender neutral pronouns. On the contrary, conservative Jews like political pundit Ben Shapiro have repeatedly said trans people are "mentally ill," comments that were subsequently shared and endorsed on social media by many in the religious Jewish world.  

Moskowitz says that without his work as a religious life advisor, and his trans family member, there was no way he would have gotten to the point of acceptance he's at now. He was familiar with Shapiro's public comments and described them as "offensive" and counterproductive to the mission of finding common ground. 

"Can [everyone] at least acknowledge that we need to provide a safe space for dialogue? And that we need to recognize the human spirit?" Moskowitz said. "But we're not anywhere near having a safe space for dialogue because of the rhetoric of people like him. So that's really offensive, and it's not helpful."

Moskowitz added that the situation is nuanced and complicated, but he wouldn't ever want to pray to a God that hated children for being who they were. While statistics on trans children are elusive, a few health surveys have shown about 1.5 percent of high school students identify as transgender when asked. Experts believe that these estimates are artificially low because of the number of students who decline to answer or fear revealing their identity.

The three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — all have traditionally defined gender roles. But over the years, interpretation and practice of scripture has changed in a way that redefines those roles. That's something that Moskowitz sees happening now as more trans people speak openly about their experiences.

"I think the intelligent thing right now is to recognize that there is a new question for our generation of 'what does this mean?'" Moskowitz said. "With any religion, there needs to be objective criteria in terms of lines, in terms definition... And I don't believe those lines have been drawn yet, so I think that's the work to do right now."

Disclaimer: the author is a member of Rabbi Mike Moskowitz's congregation in New York City. 

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