When I started planning to have top surgery, I never wondered whether I could get top surgery according to halakha. While my life is guided by the yes’s and no’s of halakha in other realms, the question of permission in this case never crossed my mind. Instead, I wondered, “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 halakha 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, halakha does not give us “yes” or “no” answers. Instead, halakha, in its most powerful moments, becomes the language we use to express our deepest truths.
I had read treatments (teshuvot, essays, and the like) of gender-affirming medical care as “permissible” because of the principle of “Pikuach Nefesh,” an animating framework in Jewish law that enables one to transgress the Torah when in a life-threatening situation. But for me, top surgery wasn’t a case of Pikuach Nefesh—my life wasn’t at stake. While for some this principle might accurately reflect their needs, I found it dysphoric, suggesting that I was transgressing some Torah-based norm, and allowed to do so because of this principle.
Too often our conversations about trans realities and traditional norms are about solving perceived problems and 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 (or perhaps, pages have been typed!) in recent years by cisgender rabbinic authorities that 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.”
We must move beyond a framework of dysphoria. Our task, instead, is to uncover the legal principles that enable us to find the authentic, affirming, joyful, and liberatory expressions of who we are. In other words, we must reveal euphoric** experiences of halakha. Instead of asking “What are the points of dissonance between our tradition as it has been practiced and trans realities?” we must ask “What are the profound opportunities for revelation that trans people can offer our learning communities and legal tradition?”
One of my first moments of halakhic euphoria came one spring several years ago as I began learning a text that we would go on to teach at Queer Talmud Camp:
חולה מאכילין אותו ע”פ בקיאין
ואם אין שם בקיאין מאכילין אותו על פי עצמו עד שיאמר די
With regard to a holeh (sick person) [on Yom Kippur], they feed him according to experts.
If there are not experts present, they feed him according to himself, until he says “enough.” (Mishnah Yoma 8:5)
The mishnah seems clear: one who is ill is permitted to eat on Yom Kippur, ideally under the supervision of a group of experts. The gemara brings sharp attention to this claim, complicating the role of experts and expertise. Is it true that an expert, defined by the gemara as a doctor, can say “No! They don’t need that!” after someone states their medical need? Does a doctor have greater standing? What about a group of doctors? The stamma invokes a verse from Proverbs that becomes a refrain throughout the sugya: lev yodea marat nafsho / לֵב יוֹדֵעַ מָרַּת נַפְשׁוֹ וּבְשִׂמְחָתוֹ לֹא־יִתְעָרַב זָר, “the heart alone knows its bitterness” (Proverbs 14:10). In other words, we are the true experts of our own experiences, and we know what we need. With this verse in hand, the stamma offers a radical rewriting of the mishnah at the conclusion of our sugya:
ה”ק בד”א דאמר לא צריך אני אבל אמר צריך אני אין שם בקיאין כלל מאכילין אותו ע”פ עצמו שנאמר לב יודע מרת נפשו
This is what the mishnah says: In what case is this statement [that one follows the opinion of the experts] said? When the one says “It is not necessary [that I eat].” But if he said “It is necessary,” there are no experts at all; they feed him according to himself, as it is stated: “The heart knows the bitterness of its soul” (Proverbs 14:10). (Talmud Bavli 83a)
In this re-written version of the mishnah which originally prioritized the perspectives of outside experts, experts are undermined. Instead, our Rabbis centered the expertise that is found within the person: expertise is now located in us: lev yodea marat nafsho.
In this text, I found a witness to my experience. I found ancestors who elevated self-determination over conventional expertise, I saw a concern about over-regulation of a medical system that could disenfranchise those who have needs from getting the care and resources necessary to live with dignity. Mostly, in a radical Talmudic move that seems as though it was created just for us to claim ourselves within it, I found the language I was so desperately yearning for: lev yodea marat nafsho.
This Trans Day of Remembrance & Resilience, I bless us that we find the moments of deep euphoria with our tradition that allow us to joyfully feel our way into new expressions of halakha and Torah, and that our communities create the conditions that will allow this to be so.
**I first came across the notion of “gender euphoria” in discussions about Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us. If you have a favorite quote or an origin for this idea, let me know!