Euphoric Halakhah: The Trans Halakhah Project

In March, 2023/5783, the Trans Halakha Project (THP) — a project housed at SVARA that aims to catalyze and nurture euphoric and dignified embodied Jewish expressions for and by trans Jews — published 11 teshuvot (halakhic rulings) that seek to answer questions that arise for trans Jews. What follows is a description of the principles on which the THP rests.

“What is the blessing that one should say over administering testosterone gel daily?”

When I began taking testosterone, I was yearning to figure out what berakhah (blessing) could be said to acknowledge the beauty and benefit of this daily experience, one that reflected the complexity and multifaceted nature of HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) as I understood and experienced it. My search began with a question of “How can I bless this?” as I never once considered “Can I do this?”

And while my life is guided by the yeses and nos of halakhah (rabbinic law), the question of permission in this instance never crossed my mind. Instead, I sought to use halakhah as it has been used for centuries — as a language of Jewish thought and action. I asked, “What is the language I can use from the tradition to describe this experience?” This shift in concern from “Can I do this?” to “How do I talk about this?” is, for me, a way of claiming our trans experiences as subjects of halakhah rather than objects. We are the authors and the actors, not the material to be talked about. When it comes to questions of identity, dignity and self-determination, halakhah does not give us “yes” or “no” answers. Instead, halakhah, in its most powerful moments, becomes the language we use to express our deepest truths.

Commenting on a sugya — a Talmudic text — in Sotah 20a, Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator, describes this process of using halakhah as a language through which to describe new realities. He claims that to engage teaching and decision-making guided by one’s moral intuition and learning is,

[paraphrased translation] to know the foundational teachings of the Mishnah with an understanding of the reasons behind each teaching — not only what is permitted or forbidden, pure or impure, but also why the law is that way and what source it has. They are then able to apply their learning, so that when a new question is asked in the beit midrash, they know which cases it is analogous to and which cases it is similar to, so that they can learn this thing by analogy and reason; they know how to use the existing teachings to answer the new question.[1]

Locating and using the right analogies is our tradition’s mechanism for ensuring that seemingly new emergent realities and the questions they bring with them are not shunned from the beit midrash but instead find their home in our mesorah, our tradition, through deep learning and understanding. The Yad Ramah, commenting on a similar phrase, also describes the unfolding process of halakhah as the process of “intuitive reasoning from my own understanding, which is to say, I listen in order to understand this thing and what it might emerge from, to then give reasoning from within myself.”[2] This is how our tradition grows, how the Torah expands and how halakhah moves.

Analogies work when we deeply understand both the question being asked and the cases to which it might be compared. In order to understand how to relate to electricity on Shabbat, I must understand both how electricity itself works and the nature of Shabbat melakhot.[3]

The gemara (Sotah 22a) teaches that to offer rulings without this proper learning and understanding can have deadly consequences. If we rule without truly understanding, we put people in danger. And yet, there are countless leaders, teachers and poskim[4] who teach and rule about trans people — our lives, our bodies, our relationships—in ways that simply do not understand us. Cisgender halakhic decisors and teachers, along with legislators throughout the United States and globally, are ruling about us without the proper learning, and it has put us in danger. As we learned both from this gemara and from the slogan credited to disability rights activists in South Africa in the 1990s, halakhic language and treatments that are about us and completely without us are dangerous.

Too often our conversations about trans realities and traditional norms are about solving perceived problems or figuring out how to make adjustments or concessions to a normative system. How do our leaders and teachers respond when our bodies and our realities do not “fit”? Why do we take the cis-normative, binary system of applied Jewish law and maneuver, reconfigure and contort trans experiences to find ways in which we fit within the system? Pages of ink have been spilled in recent years by cisgender rabbinic authorities who ask and answer questions about the ways in which we do not fit. This is none other than dysphoric halakha, a halakha that defines trans-ness by the ways in which we aren’t right, we don’t work, and we are out of place. Dysphoric halakha seeks to get us to fit.

Writing about this dilemma in the context of context, R’ Daniel Sperber notes that

… contemporary halakhic decision making seems to lack adequate sensitivity to the questions that are asked. It is marked by a well-known tendency toward stringency and prohibition, for that is the way to avoid ‘complications’ … this approach to halakhic decision making is not the traditional one.”[5]

Instead, Sperber calls for the return of an era of “friendly” poskim, who hold the following characteristics:

… pleasant relationships with people; purity of character; sensitivity and patience toward others; moderation in matters related to the community; empathy with others’ suffering and joy; independence of thought; the ability to take a firm stand even in the face of pressure and criticism; the capacity to decide doubtful cases; the profound, truly felt desire to benefit others, in the sense of ‘repairing the world,’ and to draw them nearer to the Torah and its pleasant way of life; and deep and broad knowledge of the written and oral Torah.[6]

This core mission of halakhah as a tool for magnifying goodness and pleasantness is encoded into the Torah and the earliest teachings of our sages. As it is written in Proverbs, “Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peaceful. She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy” (3:17). Originally referring to personified wisdom, this verse is understood by our sages to be a reference to the unfolding project of Torah itself. In the Talmud, the Babylonian sage Abaye teaches that the entire Torah itself is given to elaborate and live into this principle (Gittin 59b).

What Sperber describes as halakhah guided and shaped by “pleasantness” and “friendliness,” I would deem “euphoric halakhah,” the process by which we uncover legal principles and applications that enable us to find the authentic, affirming, joyful and liberatory expressions of who we are. Instead of asking “What are the points of dissonance between our tradition as it has been practice and trans experiences?” we must ask, “What are the profound opportunities for revelation that trans people can offer our learning communities and legal tradition?”

Euphoric halakhah is a halakhah that moves, that flows, that is people-driven, that takes seriously the “friendly” principles that have given it shape for thousands of years and that responds to the deeply human needs of all of us — our bodies, our intuitions, the mess and the delight of being human together. I want to experience — and I want us all to experience — halakhah that finds the places where we fit, where we learn and feel something in our tradition that clicks, that feels blissful and powerful and holy and good. We do not need to be solved. We need to be free.

Thus far, the Trans Halakha Project has published 11 teshuvot (halakhic rulings) that seek to answer our questions, along with a compilation of berakhot and tefillot that have been curated from the existing practices and the creativity of trans folks. They demonstrate what might happen when we stop asking Can we exist?” and instead ask How can we thrive?” They offer a window into what is possible when we take who we are as a given and as a blessing, and we read the tradition authentically through what we know to be true.

These teshuvot ask almost a dozen questions, including “What obligation do Jewish communities have to create gender-inclusive mikvahs (ritual baths)? How should Jewish communal leaders respond to trans and/or non-binary Jews whose needs are not met by existing mikva’ot in the local community?”[7] (Lara Haft); “How should we care for and relate to body parts removed during gender-affirming care?”[8] (Willemina Davidson); “Given trans understandings of gender, who must undergo circumcision as part of their conversion process? What alternate rituals are possible in a gender-expansive framework?”[9] (brin solomon).

Here it is important to note that the rigid binary framework of “euphoric” vs. “dysphoric” halakhah is — as we know all binaries are! — not necessarily fundamental to the questions being asked. What feels like a dysphoric question in one context (perhaps a room full of cisgender people exploring how to fit trans-ness into a normative system, “What should we do about … ” in which the “we” is surely not us) can become euphoric in another context — like in a room full of trans folks whose shared identities and experiences can enable a world of playfulness, joy and witnessing.[10] We must figure out how to simply live our lives Jewishly, which includes moments of encountering the edges between our bodies and experiences and what has been most normatively legislated by halakhic decision-makers throughout our history. Yet, when we ask these questions together and of each other, the edges can feel less painful.

As I read these teshuvot, I felt euphoric. And as I wrote my own teshuva about the berakhah for daily testosterone gel, the exploration was one of profound euphoria. Like putting on a jacket that fits just right or encountering someone who I know just simply sees me, I felt the freeing delight that I can only describe as euphoric — a moment of deep alignment, witnessing, joy and pleasure.

These teshuvot are driven by and embody core principles that animate the rabbinic tradition, and in reading these teshuvot, I could feel these principles come alive.[11] Here are a few of them:

  1. derakheikha darkhei noam / דרכיה דרכי נועם — that Torah is pleasure-full and pleasure filled, and the pursuit of mitzvot and Torah should not feel painful; if it is hurting us, something is going wrong and needs to be addressed (Proverbs 3:17, Gittin 59b).
  2. lev yode’a marat nafsho / לב יודע מרת נפשו — that our hearts know, that we have self-knowledge that is to be trusted and acknowledged as true, real expertise (Proverbs 14:10, Yoma 83a).
  3. minhag yisrael torah hi / מנהג ישראל תורה היא — that the minhag (custom) of our people is Torah, authentic and authoritative; when we want to know what we should do, we look to our people to find out (Berakhot 45b).
  4. ein ledayan eleh mah she’einav ro’ot / אין לדיין אלא מה שעיניו רואות — that a judge has only what their eyes see; that we can rule only on that which we have seen, what we understand and what we truly know (Bava Batra 131a).
  5. And finally, eilu ve’eilu divrei elohim hayim / אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים — these and also these are the words of the living G!d (Eruvin 13b) — that these teshuvot are all different. They’re written in the unique voices of their authors, they honor and cite each other, and they don’t all agree. It would be impossible to follow all of them, though I invite you to try.

Through the combination of these principles, these teshuvot bring new life to our tradition. We hope that they bring honor to our sages, to G!d and to our people, and that they help us live halakhah as it has always been lived: as a tool for creating powerful alternatives to guide our lives towards freedom and resist empires that seek to dominate us.

The questions of a halakhah that is guided by and informed by the wisdom of trans experiences are not those of “can we … ” or of “yes” and “no,” but “how”? How do we live these rituals and practices in ways that align with our deepest truths about how we are? How do we find language deep within our tradition to talk about the choices we make and the ways we reshape and remake our tradition through aligning it with our lived experiences?

May we all, through this work and exploration, find the moments of deep euphoria with our tradition that allow us to joyfully feel our way into new expressions of halakhah and Torah, and that our communities create the conditions that will allow this to be so.

[1] Rashi’s on Sotah 20a, ‘u’sevar sevara’

[2] Yad Ramah (R. Meir Abulafia, 13th-century Christian Spain) on Sanhedrin 5a, ‘u’sevirna’

[3] Categories of work that are not permitted on Shabbat.

[4] Halakhic authorities.

[5] R’ Daniel Sperber, “‘Friendly’ Halakhah and the ‘Friendly’ Poseq,” Edah Journal (2006).

[6] Sperber 35-36, see also Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2:7

[7] Lara Haft, “Gender-Inclusive Mikva’otpublished by Trans Halakha Project’s Teshuva-Writing Collective at SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva (2023).

[8] Willemina Davidson, “Caring for & Removing Body Parts Related to Gender-Affirming Care” published by Trans Halakha Project’s Teshuva-Writing Collective at SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva (2023).

[9] brin solomon, “Conversion & Circumcision: A Trans Approach” published by Trans Halakha Project’s Teshuva-Writing Collective at SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva (2023).

[10] With gratitude to Azariah Liron for this hiddush.

[11] If you’re in the mood for an academ-ish paper that digs into some of these principles, feel free to peruse this article that I had the pleasure of writing with SVARA-nik Russell Pearce.

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