This week, millions of people learned the story of Leelah/Josh Alcorn, from news stories about her suicide. Briefly, as I understand it, Josh Alcorn was a teenage boy from Ohio who became certain, over a period of years, that he was truly a girl in a male body. He wanted to undergo transgender transitioning; he adopted the name Leelah and the identity of a girl. Leelah's parents, deeply religious Christians, rejected this outright; according to Leelah, they called it "a phase". Leelah grew frustrated and depressed, and finally committed suicide, leaving behind a note describing a life of loneliness and hopelessness.
This post is not a message about transgender transitioning in Judaism; you can read a detailed halachic article on the subject, by Yeshiva University's Rabbi J. David Bleich, here. What I want to focus on is the approach of parents when their children embark on paths that run counter to their parents' Judaism. Transgender teens may not be all that common, but teens who feel personally, emotionally committed to un-Orthodox lifestyles are found throughout our communities. How should we respond?
I cannot judge the Alcorn parents:
* I don't know anything about their actions - other than the little in the news reports, most of which is drawn from Leelah's accounts.
* Teens do go through phases, despite their certainty that the mood of the moment will endure forever.
* Denial is a normal (if unhelpful) way to deal with situations when we are out of our depth.
* Fundamentally, Judaism does obligate parents to educate their children - and even strangers to educate their neighbours (Vayikra 19:17) - in the expectations of our religion.
But I want to identify reasonable, Torah-based ways for parents to handle situations like this one. I would very much appreciate your ideas; please leave your thoughts in the Comments section.
Here are three points which sound to me like reasonable, Torah-based building blocks to me (all of which may have been part of the Alcorns' approach to Leelah):
1. Love - Every child must know that his/her parents love them, and that their parents' commitment to them does not depend upon how they behave. We can show love and disapproval simultaneously, as is implicit in the Chazon Ish's prescription (Yoreh Deah 2:16) of love toward people whose behaviour we believe is inappropriate. Rav Kook was famous for this approach, as well.
2. Respect - Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, in his Pirkei Chinuch (Volume 1, pg. 128), notes that parents must treat their children with the same respect that they employ when addressing adults. This includes both the style (tone of voice, choice of words) and the substance.
3. Professional Counseling for the Parents - There is a parental inclination to keep everything in-house, since we know our unique situation best. Logically, though, one should err on the side of consulting experts who might be able to help parents discern the difference between phases and enduring issues, and to help them strategize. [Of course, finding unbiased experts is difficult; this is a significant hurdle.]
What would you add/amend?