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Please stand

The Conservative movement offers a gender-neutral call to the Torah

Na la’amod — please stand for your aliyah. (Design by Jackie Hajdenberg/JTA)
Na la’amod — please stand for your aliyah. (Design by Jackie Hajdenberg/JTA)

How should a person be called to the Torah for an aliyah?

In a way that honors that person, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has said; in that, it follows halacha. In the Ashkenazi tradition, people are called up by name. Stand, Joseph, son of Jacob, they’re called in the Orthodox tradition; stand, Miriam, daughter of Amram and Jocheved, the more progressive parts of the Jewish world add.

But Hebrew is a very gendered language — just about everything, every noun, is male or female, including inanimate objects, and every verb has to be male or female in agreement — and that makes life difficult for people who consider themselves gender nonbinary.

According to a study that the Williams Institute did last year, there are about 1.2 million nonbinary LBGTQ adults in the United States. (The Williams Institute, more formally the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy, is a research institute run by UCLA’s law school.) Increasing numbers of people — particularly young white people — are announcing themselves as trans, the study says. So although the issue is of firsthand importance to a relatively small number of people, many more will be affected tangentially, and the understanding of the dignity of each person will be underscored.

The decision to add a third option — please rise, Arden from the house of Schwartz — came from the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards; three rabbis, all of them RA members and two on the committee, came up with the teshuva that the committee accepted.

One of those three rabbis is Robert Scheinberg of the United Synagogue of Hoboken.

“I also sit on the committee for the machzor Lev Shalem, the siddur Lev Shalem, for Shabbat, and now the daily siddur Lev Shalem, which we’re working on now,” Rabbi Scheinberg said; the Lev Shalem about-to-become-trilogy make up the Conservative movement’s first new prayer books in decades. “It became clear, just as soon as siddur Lev Shalem was published in 2016, that one of the things that it lacked, something for which there still was a need, was provisions for how Jewish liturgy related to people who are gender nonbinary.

“Rabbi Guy Austrian had written a teshuva for his community” — that’s the Fort Tryon Jewish Center, in upper Manhattan — “in 2017 that basically was what most Jewish communities that were handling the issue were doing.” They’d been prompted to fill the need for a nongendered call to the Torah when a nonbinary person got an aliyah, and the words to use weren’t clear, he added.

So a committee of three — rabbis Austrian, Scheinberg, and Deborah Silver of Shir Chadash in Metairie, Louisiana — proposed the gender-neutral call. None of the three of them is nonbinary, and they acknowledge that. They believe that to be most deeply and properly felt, the “teshuvah should be written by a rabbi, or rabbis, with lived experience of being non-binary, which is not the case for any of the three of us,” they wrote. “We hope such a teshuvah will come speedily and soon.”

Until that time comes, though, they offered their teshuva as a step forward.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

Names are extraordinarily important, they wrote; “a person’s name is the marker of their selfhood. The Hebrew shem” — the word that means name — “connotes not only nomenclature but essence — a person’s name is not only what they are called or known by but in some way conveys who they truly are. Thus, a name is unique and precious.

“Furthermore, to be called to the Torah by one’s name is a sacred encounter—not only with the flow of our history but with each other. Our names are announced in public for the room to hear and for the community as a whole to witness our answering the call. We bring all of ourselves, all of the facets of our identity, past and present, to that moment.”

So although the teshuva solves a problem that affects a relatively small number of people, its symbolic importance is great.

The paper the three rabbis presented to the full committee also included ways to call gender nonbinary people to chagbah or galilah — to lift the Torah in the air after it’s read, to show its black-lettered parchment to the congregation, and then to tie, dress, and crown it — to call up Cohanim and Levi’im, and to offer a mishaberach, a prayer for healing.

The teshuva “included some historical background about the practice of calling people up to the Torah by name, which is a general but not universal practice,” Rabbi Scheinberg said. “Almost all the authoritative sources that talk about this practice are from the Ashkenzai world; the purpose as described is to show respect to the people” — to be clear, to the men — “who were being called, and to avoid the potentially embarrassing situation of calling two people up by mistake.” That could happen if two people were asked to have, say, the fourth aliyah; if they were called up by number, both could find themselves on the bimah. That would not happen were they to be called up by name.”

It is important for a person to be called by a name with no embarrassing connotations, both Rabbi Scheinberg and the teshuva continued. “We quote a responsum that says that if a father is an apostate, it would be a source of shame to his sons to be called by his patronymic, so they could be called by their grandfather’s name.” But if it might be more embarrassing or otherwise unpleasant to be called by the grandfather’s name, the sons could choose still to be called by their father’s name, his apostasy notwithstanding.

The point of all of this is that people should be called by the name they choose. That’s derech eretz — the way of civility, Rabbi Scheinberg said.

So according to the teshuva, there now are three ways to be called to the Torah, as the son or the daughter of parents, or from their house. It might seem easiest to make the most general call the default, but Rabbi Scheinberg said that’s not the way to go. “I’m sure that there are communities that will do that, but our responsum says that we should call people up in the way they like to be called up,” he said. “We have found that there a lot of people for whom gender identity is an important part of their identity.

“For myself, my Hebrew name, including my being the son of my parents, is important. I am not sure that I would like people to call me by a different name. We are not recommending that we collapse gender, and we are not recommending making Hebrew nongendered. We are taking a more traditional approach, using the tools of the Hebrew language that always
have existed.”

So men are called up with the formula that begins “ya’amod His Name, ben Father’s Name and Mother’s Name,” and women with “ta’amod  Her Name, bat Father’s Name and Mother’s Name.” Let him or her stand, the son or daughter of his or her parents. The nonbinary formula, “na la’amod Person’s Name mi’beit Parents’ Names” is more polite and formal. Please stand, person from the house of your parents, it entreats. Perhaps not surprisingly, Rabbi Scheinberg said, in Masorti synagogues in Israel — that’s the Conservative movement there — the word “Na” — please — is discarded. Who needs that much formality?

This is just an early attempt at the right formula, Rabbi Scheinberg said. “Language continues to evolve, and how people deal with the gendered nature of Hebrew going forward, especially if there is an increasing number of people who regard themselves as nonbinary, is a question for the future. This is a proposal for now.”

Although “we have heard that it has not been controversy-free,” the proposal “was not controversial on the committee,” Rabbi Scheinberg said. “It passed by a vote of 20 to 0, with just one abstention, and that was a scheduling issue that kept one rabbi away from the committee during the discussion.

‘It was understood that when it comes right down to it, this is not re ally a quote-unquote halachic issue. It is an issue of custom and of derech eretz — of civility and interpersonal relations.

“From that perspective, it is pretty straightforward.”

The full teshuva is available on the RA’s website,rabbinicalassembly.org

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