What is the Jewish view of transsexuality?…ask the rabbi

October 26, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple answers your questions…

Q. Why does it matter whether you are a Litvak or a Polak?

A. There have always been different kinds of Jews. Their diversity has been more than just geographical. A major difference is linguistic.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

In ancient times the Ephraimites were slaughtered by the Giladites who found that they said “sibboleth” instead of “shibboleth”. Yiddish-speaking Jews were often differentiated by whether they said “vas”, “vos” or “vus” when they wanted to say “what”.

Like the Ephraimites, some Lithuanian Jews could not say a “sh”, so it was “Good Sabbes” instead of “Good Shabbes”, and to this day many South African Jews betray their Lithuanian origins by saying, before making “Motzi”, “Time to ‘vas'”, i.e. to wash their hands.

There were and are different culinary traditions, different ways of praying, even different ways of studying the Talmud. The various groups are also associated with distinctive personal habits and ways of thinking.

The perception is that the Yekke (the German Jew) is precise and efficient. The Litvak (Lithuanian) is intellectual and practical. The Polak (the Polish Jew) is passionate and argumentative.

Whether these perceptions have any real basis is a matter of debate. The debates persist even among Litvaks who have never been to Lithuania and Polaks who have never been to Poland.

There are also debates between Chassidic groups, and at times they actually come to blows, but that is another story.


Q. What is the Jewish view of transsexuality?

A. The Talmud contains many references to the “androgynos”, who has characteristics of both sexes, and the “tumtum”, the person of indeterminate sex.

Transsexuality is a different problem. It is analysed from a halachic perspective in an essay by J David Bleich, a prolific writer on modern halachic issues, published in “Jewish Bioethics”, edited by Fred Rosner and himself.

Bleich points out that sex-change operations involving the removal of genital organs are forbidden on the basis of the prohibition against “anything which is mauled, crushed, torn or cut” (Lev. 22:24).

A further prohibition in Deut. 22:5, proscribes not only cross-dressing but any action uniquely identified with the opposite sex, and this would also apply to an operation to transform sexual characteristics.

If nonetheless a sexual transformation has been carried out, new problems arise in halachah.

Is a man still a man or a woman still a woman from the halachic point of view?

A number of authorities state that surgery cannot change a person’s birth identity. However, a man who has lost his male genitalia may, according to Rabbenu Asher (Besamim Rosh 340), not enter into a marriage as a man: nor, it appears, could he in his new identity as a woman enter into a marriage as a woman because of the lack of true female genital organs.

Would the wife of a former male need a gett? Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer, X, 25:26) says that if the former male can no longer enter into a marriage as a male, the new situation automatically terminates any existing marriage.

Rabbenu Chananel, quoted by Ibn Ezra on Lev. 18:22, says that intercourse between a normal male and a former male who has an artificial vagina is homosexuality in the eyes of halachah. A former female who has an simulated penis does not require circumcision even if the new organ is physiologically similar to that of a male in every respect (She’elat Yavetz 1:171; Yad Ne’eman).

All of this material makes it clear that whilst there are major personal problems when a person feels trapped in a body of the wrong gender, transsexuality is not the answer as far as Judaism is concerned.


Q. How could Adam and Eve have grandchildren if there were no women for their sons to marry?

A. After Cain killed Abel, “Cain knew his wife and she conceived and bore Chanoch…” (Gen 4:17). His wife must have been his sister.

The text does not spell this out, probably in order not to endorse what appears to be incest.

Nor is the birth of Cain’s wife recorded in the text, presumably because the story is more concerned with the sons.

According to the Midrash, Cain was jealous of the beauty of Abel’s wife, who was also a sister, and this was one of the causes of his fratricide.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.



9 Responses to “What is the Jewish view of transsexuality?…ask the rabbi”
  1. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    It would be nice to receive an answer to my question.

  2. Tom Werdiger says:

    Michael, you have a nerve to criticise Rabbi Apple.
    When I last checked your blog you proudly spoke about your male – non-Jewish – partner.

    Thus first let’s understand why an intermarried Jew has the temerity to attack the Halachik views of a respected rabbi

    • Michael Barnett says:

      Tom, Rabbi Apple is not above criticism, irrespective of what my husband is or isn’t, and I don’t really mind if what I have done upsets you, because what was published in this article is dangerous and has the potential to harm the lives of many people.

    • Susie Danziger says:

      Mr Werdiger
      I commend that you at least refer to Michael’s status as married,but declaring that any Rabbi’s interpretation or misinterpretation is beyond challenge shows immense ignorance regarding Halacha and Jewish history.
      I indeed also question your very own temerity in the logical fallacy of attacking Michael Barnett personally.
      Your views on inter marriage,(not mind you were they at all in sync with the issues at hand) and the treatment of those who elect to do so,is luckily not shared by the vast majority of contemporary Jews.Further,countless biblical figures did that which you so vehemently protest. One even married the king of Persia .
      Susie Danziger

  3. Michael Barnett says:

    Sadly, a dangerous and out-dated view of gender diversity is presented by Raymond Apple.

    The mental and physical well-being of young children experiencing gender dysphoria is compromised if they are not supported by qualified medical and mental-health professionals.

    There are alarming rates of attempted suicide by transgender people who are not given professional support. Attitudes such as those in this article only serve to drive the rates of self-harm and suicide even higher.

    • Benseon says:

      Michael, this “dangerous” and “out-dated” presentation by the Rabbi is simply a brief synopsis of contemporary halachic teaching on the subject. Nowhere does the article say that children suffering identity issues should not seek assistance from qualified professionals. To suggest that the article “serve[s] to drive the rates of self-harm and suicide” is a fallacious attack on the Rabbi and I dare say on the traditional Jewish viewpoint that he seeks to advance.

      • Susie Danziger says:

        Luckily this is not at all ”contemporary” halacha but rather an attraction to the darker age of intolerance where Judaism was influenced by the Catholic church.
        The essence of Judaism is the sanctity of life and by belittling the risks which Michael Barnett highlights,shows a lack of understanding and compassion that fortunately is actually not shared by the Jewish majority.
        Judaism has come far since the the chasing of the Dybbuk and the evil spirits but you ,Benseon,appear to hold steadfast to a Jewish viewpoint that has long gone.

      • Michael Barnett says:

        “contemporary halachic teaching”

        Yes, that’s the root of the problem.

  4. Liat Kirby-Nagar says:

    Rabbi Apple, Why is it the text is more concerned with the sons if so much emphasis is on the woman to prove Jewish descent? Or is the latter only a more contemporary Jewish law?

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