Thursday, June 4, 2015

Bruce, Caitlyn and the Death of Neutrality

I grew up seeing Bruce Jenner on Wheaties boxes for his success in the 1976 Olympic decathlon, but I had largely forgotten the name until Bruce emerged in the media this week as Caitlyn Jenner, having undergone transgender surgery. One question this has birthed is whether to identify Caitlyn Jenner as the winner of Olympic gold. However, everyone is clear regarding the present: Caitlyn expects to be called Caitlyn, and not Bruce. Using the name "Bruce" intentionally would be an insulting rejection of this new identity.

This is a halachic question. There is decades-old debate in Jewish law regarding the male/female status of someone who has undergone transgender surgery, but it is clear that halachah prohibits a male from undergoing such surgery, since the Torah explicitly prohibits the removal of male genitalia (Vayikra 22:24, Shabbat 110b). So if I were to meet Bruce/Caitlyn, would it be halachically incorrect for me to say, "Hello Caitlyn"? Would I be endorsing a biblical transgression?

The same question comes up in relating to the quite-common phenomenon of intermarried Jews. Is it appropriate to invite a Jewish man and his non-Jewish wife to a wedding, addressing the invitation to "Mr. and Mrs."?

Of course, a halachah-abiding Jew never wishes to insult and hurt people. And let's not be cynical; saying Bruce would hurt Caitlyn. I cannot imagine the depth of the feelings of a morphological male who believes himself to be herself, and who would go under the knife in such dramatic ways to gain a new image. But does that justify counterfeiting Jewish law, by approving of that which Jewish law forbids?

In truth, this question is old. In one example, a millenia-old mishnah talks about how a Jew should relate to another Jew who farms illegally during the shemitah (Sabbatical) year. This mishnah teaches that one may not "strengthen their hand" by encouraging them in their activity - but that one must promote peace and greet them with a "Shalom aleichem". (Mishnah Sheviit 5:9)

In other words, the mishnah instructs us to keep the peace, by greeting warmly but withholding approval.

However, there is a new, complicating element: the death of neutrality. Perhaps one could have maintained an inoffensive ground in the past and everyone would have understood, and hopefully respected, the tactful disagreement. Today, though, there is no middle ground; speaking with Bruce/Caitlyn and awkwardly avoiding use of a first name or a gender-specific pronoun would be perceived as an insult. [Indeed, don't we often expect non-Jewish society's approval, and reject their neutrality, for our choices as Jews?] And so we are told to choose: Are you with us, or are you against us?

I am not sure what to conclude on this point; I'm still looking for relevant halachic background, and thinking it through. [Update 6:50 AM: To clarify: My current inclination is to say that one would not be justified in using Caitlyn. But I think there are nuances to discuss - for example, is this surgery halachically irreversible, such that the problem of lifnei iver (causing the blind to stumble) might be less relevant)?] Either way, I think this new element - a modern intolerance and sense of entitlement, in which our personal decisions must be accepted and approved of by third parties - is worth contemplating. On one hand, I don't want to voice approval, coerced or not. On the other hand, isn't preservation of peace a great value?

How would you greet a transgender relative? And do you have a Torah source to back it up?


  1. In fact Jenner has not undergone sex-reassignment surgery (just hormone treatments), so even the halachic authorities referenced in the link would necessarily consider him to be male.

    I might offer, as a (very) rough analogy, the case of a meshumad, r"l. Their action has certain consequences in halachah (and there were even some of the Geonim who held that a meshumad loses his/her status as a Jew entirely, although that's not accepted lahalachah - הגם שחטא ישראל הוא). I've never heard of, and I doubt there is, any prohibition on calling a meshumad by his/her original Jewish name.

    Same here, then: given that the whole business involves a number of issurim, as mentioned in that link (לא ילבש גבר and, often, איסור סירוס), then I submit that it's still halachically correct to call the person by his/her original name. If it's offensive? Well, it's no doubt offensive to the meshumad too, but that cuts no ice. If possible, we'll use עבותות אהבה to make them realize the gravity of what they've done and, hopefully, return to the true self that they were originally.

  2. As to the prohibition on the surgery itself, Jenner is a Noachide, not a Jew. Does that change the answer?

  3. Anonymous 1:09 AM
    1. Thanks for the update re: his surgery. I've been going by the one or two articles I've read, but I could be wrong.
    2. I'm not sure the meshumad analogy works, for several reasons, including the "update" comment I added this morning - if the surgery has been done, this apparent aveirah is irreversible. I don't believe there would be a mitzvah of having a surgery the other way, even if that were possible.

    R' Micha-
    I believe the issur of sirus is for Bnei Noach as well.

  4. By having this discussion you're just reinforcing the reason that Bruce Jenner did this: he wants to be the star in the family and this is the lengths he'll go to achieve it. Stop paying attention to him.

  5. A Number of related Halachic issues were came up when Dana International represented Israel in International Singing competitions.

    If I recall correctly, Rav Ovadia ruled that in spite of his surgery, Dana International was still considered male, could be counted for a minyan, and there was no problem of Kol Isha, but I couldn't find a source (there is a footnote on the topic at the end of Dana International's wikipedia entry, but the link seems broken)

    But i don't remember anyone suggesting that Al Pi Halacha s/he should be addressed as "Yaron" instead of Dana

  6. On the halachic issue of Yaron vs Dana: I wonder how many of your readers , upon being introduced to a Conservative or Reform clergyperson, would hesitate to address him/her as "rabbi"?

  7. In terms of how to greet a transgender relative, we have also the practical implication of how to greet trans people in our shuls and community.
    I'm wondering specifically about this story from a few months ago about a trans woman being turned away from the kosel.,7340,L-4612205,00.html
    The woman's section booted this person out, who was then too obviously female to be allowed in the men's section.
    I suppose that all trans people who can "pass" will just slip into their current-gender section without making a fuss, and nobody will be the wiser. (Including the men who would presumably count a "passing" trans man for their minyan without realizing.)
    But with many who are pre-surgery or who don't pass as well, I can see this issue coming up again and again in the years to come, and demanding more specific halachic guidelines.

  8. "On the halachic issue of Yaron vs Dana: I wonder how many of your readers , upon being introduced to a Conservative or Reform clergyperson, would hesitate to address him/her as "rabbi"?" Good point, the Rabbi's jewish name is not Rabbi, so how about treating this person as having chosen a different title? Afterall it is no different to any other title, like Rabbi. You could call him/her Caitlyn Bruce Jenner, then shorten it to just Caitlyn. A name is just a title and a means to how you address someone. His family will be struggling to keep up with the name change, and as he is a sports personality, so will most of the public. It is very hard to change the name of someone when you have been repeating it all your life.