Advocating for transgender kids
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi of Montclair tells how the Reform movement cares for her community
In response to the increasing number of resolutions passed by a large number of states targeting transgender children — and in some cases transgender adults as well — the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis passed a resolution in February affirming the rights of transgender people and situating that resolution and those rights in Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Dr. Nikki DeBlosi of Montclair is on the CCAR’s resolutions committee.
She is not transgender but she is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she said; in fact, her membership in it predates the terminology that it uses now. “I was at Harvard,” where she earned her undergraduate degree, “when the first gay and lesbian studies class was taught,” she said. That was in the early 2000s. “Now I am called a queer elder.
“That’s the sad part about the queer community. Many of us don’t really have queer elders. There was a whole generation of queer men who died as a result of the AIDS crisis.” And there’s a terrifyingly cruel irony in that. “There is the same attack on the health, lives, dignity, and well-being of anyone who is gender-diverse.
“Now, after the demise of both Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” — the Clinton era bill about gays in the military who would be tolerated as long as they shut up about their sexuality, was repealed in 2010 — “and the Defense of Marriage acts” — the legislation that banned same-sex marriage, repealed in 2015 — “it is harder to attack gay and lesbian families like mine that live very white-picket-fence lives in the suburbs. We look just like them. But we’re seeing now that that approach hasn’t protected the most vulnerable in our country.”
Those most vulnerable people, including transgender children and adults, must be protected, Rabbi DeBlosi said.
Of course, one reason that such protection is necessary, according to Reform Judaism, is because “we all deserve dignity. It’s easy to say that trans people are people, and therefore they are created b’tzelem Elohim. In the image of God. But our movement — in Judaism in general, but in our movement, we are uniquely positioned to say this — we honor diversity.
“There are many relevant texts, but there are two that are particularly relevant. One is a text that many people are familiar with, the other less so.
“The text that many people know, from Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5, is that if you save one life, it is as if you have saved the entire world. That text shows the value and uniqueness of each person. Each of us has unique value.
“There also is a midrash from Genesis Rabbah where the rabbis want to know why there is gender diversity,” she continued. It’s about the creation story; people want to know if God created two people, male and female, or if the first created being was singular or plural. “In the midrash, Jeremiah says that the being is an androgynous, neither male nor female,” perhaps both, perhaps neither, perhaps nothing. “The rabbis talk about that midrash hundreds of times,” Rabbi DeBlosi said. “Rabbi Elliot Kukla” — a Reform rabbi, chaplain, artist, and trans activist — “did research, and he found that there were 149 references to the androgynos in the Talmud, and that’s just in the recorded text.
“So why don’t we talk about this diversity?”
As we consider the anti-trans legislation being proposed and often passed today, we also should keep the language that surrounds the legislation in mind, she suggested. People say that these new rules are consonant with “biblical values,” Rabbi DeBlosi said. “Well, I have biblical values too, and my biblical values are very different. And so is my language. I keep thinking about Anita Bryant,” the orange promoter and anti-gay activist who was omnipresent in the 1970s.
Although anti-trans advocates say that they are fighting to preserve children’s rights, “I saw a meme that says that we are not trying to turn cisgender children trans,” Rabbi DeBlosi said. “We are trying to turn trans children into adults.
“The stakes are incredibly high.”
Rabbi DeBlosi doesn’t know what fuels the hatred that many people, including politicians and their base of voters, have for trans people, but “I see a real fear of difference.” That’s something that she sees a great deal, because she’s different too.
“I am a person who converted to Judaism as an adult,” she said. “And as an overachiever, I became a rabbi.”
Nikki DeBlosi grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, as a Catholic; she went to Arlington Catholic High School, where a flag on a wall displayed what could have been her own personal motto. “God has told you, man, what is good and what God requires of you. Only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It’s from the book of Micah, which is part of the Jewish canon and the Catholic one as well.
It’s a concept that Rabb DeBlosi thinks about a lot.
Another concept is the ger toshav, the stranger who dwells among you. “I don’t want to have to hide being a convert,” Rabbi DeBlosi said. Enough with being a ger toshav! She’s not any kind of ger. She’s not a stranger. She’s a Jew now. “But my name is still a stranger’s name. I don’t want to have to hide being a convert, and a trans person shouldn’t have to hide that either.
“We should remember that the religious right is attacking human beings,” she said.
She discussed best practices, and what the Reform community can do to help people who feel like outsiders. “Tolerance is a great first step,” she said. “It’s like ignoring a bad smell in the elevator. But I don’t want to treat human beings as if I would love for you to be a cisgender, straight, white Ashkenazi man with a born-Jewish wife. As if that’s the default, and when we deviate from that default, we deal with it.”
But now we know that there are texts “where we can see gender diversity,” she said. “We might argue that this is a new reading of them. Behaviorally, our tradition has decided to ignore it, and the rules of Jewish behavior often are entirely gender-based. When we look at Jewish tradition, we see a lot of opportunity to reclaim these categories that include diversity, and we also get to ask a new question.
“What do transgender, gender-nonconforming, queer — what do all these labels say about our Judaism? Sometimes we have forgotten to ask, but those voices are beginning to be heard in a new and powerful way.”
Rabbi DeBlosi is proud of the Reform movement, which, as she sees it, has a long road ahead of it but has traveled further along that road than other parts of the Jewish world. “It’s been over 50 years since women in the Reform world were ordained as rabbis,” she said. “We haven’t been perfect, but we have been working toward inclusion for more than 50 years.
“I am of a generation who was at HUC with teachers who were out as gay and were among the first to be out as rabbis. We have to think about how hard it was for them to listen to all that negativity, to hold the weight of all those texts that have been used as bludgeons. We need to listen to them.”
The new generations of Reform rabbis and teachers and scholars “should not have to work as hard as I did, and they certainly shouldn’t have to work as hard as that first generation did,” she said.
She talked about a nonbinary 8-year-old who listened to her tell the story of the first human being God created, and “asked me if it’s two or if it’s one,” she said. She told the child about Jeremiah’s similar questions, “and there was a light in the child’s eye. And the child said, ‘God made some like me first!’
“It matters how we interpret these texts,” Rabbi DeBlosi said.
“I was a campus rabbi at NYU for eight years, and I know that there is nothing new. People have existed for a very long time. But if you are discovering something about yourself, and you have no models, if you haven’t ever met anyone like yourself…”
She also mentioned Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, the 13th-century French philosopher. “There is a text attributed to him that says, ‘Would that God had made me a woman.’ We don’t know what that means, and we can’t ask him, but we can think about it.” One meaning to take from it is that trans people “is not a new reality, but a newly voiced reality.
“So we are calling on our colleagues to preach, teach, and speak about gender diversity in our own traditions, and to speak against the laws that are being voted on today.”
Rabbi DeBlosi is on CCAR’s board; after two terms as an at-large member, in February she was installed as vice president for diverse rabbinates. About 30 percent of rabbis work in non-congregational jobs, she said; “and the pandemic has changed so many things. We at the CCAR see an opportunity to serve the Jewish people” by acknowledging and accommodating
Rabbi DeBlosi thinks a great deal about language and the messages that language gives. She thinks a great deal about the messages hidden in the Jewish tradition, waiting to be discovered. She thinks about the children whose lives can be affected for the better by these messages. “We have a powerful countercultural message that comes from sacred ancient texts,” she said. “I have to advocate for it.”