Hot Off the Shtender: The Trans Halakha Project: Moving Us Toward the Next Unrecognizable Future

by R’ Becky Silverstein, SVARA Fellow & Board Chair

In 2014, a few weeks before I was ordained a rabbi, SVARA’s President & Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Benay Lappe, gave an Eli Talk called “An Unrecognizable Jewish Future: A Queer Talmudic Take.” Much of this talk is what SVARAniks and countless Jews around the world know as “The Crash Talk.” This version opens with Benay sharing a story from the beginning of her time at rabbinical school, where the president of the university was late for a meeting with new students. He had been on the phone with a sociologist compiling the statistics of the 1990 National Jewish population survey. The sociologist shared with him that the data showed that “the good news is that Judaism will exist in 100 years, the bad news is that it will be unrecognizable to us.” Benay goes on to share why this bad news wasn’t so bad. 

What does it mean that the future would be unrecognizable? Unrecognizable to the university president and the sociologist. To who else? And in what ways? 

Reflecting on this moment in SVARA’s organizational development and from my position as board chair, I am aware how much SVARA has grown over the last seven years since Benay’s Eli Talk and eighteen years since its founding. I wonder how much of what SVARA is today would be recognizable eighteen years ago. How much of SVARA today feels like natural growth that brought us to this point in the organization’s history, whether it is recognizable or not. Two SVARA projects are present for me in this reflection. The first is SVARA’s Strategic Plan, which charts a path for growth that will propel us toward the expansive yet unrecognizable future. The second is the Trans Halakha Project

The Trans Halakha Project aims to curate existing resources that have been developed for trans Jews and by trans Jews, identify new areas of halakha that have yet to be developed, and finally to create opportunities for developing new halakhic literature and practice guides that speak directly to these areas of need we identify. Reading these project objectives I am overwhelmed by the possibility of what might emerge from this work. I am ready to dig in to the work of creating law that addresses trans experience authentically and without reservation with trans Jews from all over the world. I can feel the impact of saying to other trans Jews that not only do they matter but that their experience will now be woven into our Jewish tradition. I know that this work can save lives. I can barely glimpse what we might offer the halakhic project in new understandings of obligation, consent, and who knows what else. I can hear Laynie telling me that the Jewish tradition will never be the same. Most of the time I believe that that is a good thing.  

As I consider what unrecognizable future might emerge from our work, I am reminded of someone else who also dealt with this questionMoses. 

On Menachot 29b, we are told the story of Moses finding Gd tying crowns to the letters of the Torah.

Moses asks Gd, who is delaying your hand? Gd replies that in several generations Rabbi Akiva will derive piles and piles of halakhot from these flourishes. Responding to Moses’ request, Gd transports Moses to Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash.   

הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים תשש כחו כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד אמרו לו תלמידיו רבי מנין לך אמר להן הלכה למשה מסיני נתיישבה דעתו

Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row and

did not know what they were saying. 

Moses’ strength was weakened until Rabbi Akiva came to a certain matter.

His students said to him, “My teacher, where did you learn this?”

He said to them, “It is halakha given to Moses at Sinai.”

Moses’ mind was settled.  

Faced with Torah that is unrecognizable to him, Moses feels weak. I imagine Moses asking himself if he missed something in his own learning or where he went wrong in passing down the Torah he had received. Perhaps Moses wonders who broke the chain of transmission, disconnecting Rabbi Akiva and his students from the central moment of covenanting that the giving of Torah at Sinai represents. There is a lot at stake in the continuity of the transmission of Torah through the generations. Moses’ strength returns when he hears that the Torah was in fact grounded in the Torah he received at Mt. Sinai. Yet, the teaching itself remains unrecognizable.

My deepest hope for the learning that takes place at SVARA generally and within the Trans Halakha Project is that we will strive to be Rabbi Akiva, creating or revealing new Torah and halakhot that may be unrecognizable to our teachers and some day to us, yet deeply rooted in the Torah received at Sinai. This means approaching this work with both textual rigor, a core aspect of all SVARA learning, a deep love of Torah, a commitment to the covenant made between Gd and the Israelites at Sinai, however you understand it. At the end of her Eli Talk, Benay tells us that “we are at the tail end of a crash and the Option 3 future will be unrecognizable to most of us, but it will be created, just like before, by the queer, outsider disenfranchised of today.” I hear in Benay’s words a push to have faith in the power of our experiences to create something new. I see in Moses’ experience in Rabbi Akiva’s beit midrash the necessity to lean into the covenant that has sustained our people for ages. Both of these provide a necessary tether as we begin our journey towards a more liberatory halakha.

The Trans Halakha Project has the potential both to create an unrecognizable future for trans Jews who will see their questions and experiences more fully recognized in the body of our tradition and to create opportunities for all people to engage more deeply with our holy tradition — if only we have the trust in ourselves and our community to let it unfold. 

Trans Jews can join us by taking our survey. We want to hear from as many of us as possible, regardless of your current connection to Jewish tradition, community, or law. If you want to talk more about the project or have questions, email us at [email protected]. If you want to stay up to date on the project? Sign up for SVARA’s email list.