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Transgender Rites

Creating practical guidelines for rituals around death and burial for transgender and nonbinary Jews

Paula Jacobs
June 23, 2020
Kerry Swartz
Kerry Swartz
Kerry Swartz
Kerry Swartz

When he was a rabbinical student intern at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue, Rabbi Steven Philp received dozens of pastoral inquiries from across the globe. He clearly remembers one such call two years ago from the rural Midwest. “A transgender individual reached out to me for practical steps to make arrangements for tahara,” the physical and spiritual preparation of the deceased for burial, said Philp, now a rabbinical fellow at New York City’s Park Avenue Synagogue. The caller wanted to ensure, in advance, that they could have tahara performed when they died. “I went online but could not find any resources.”

The Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had, in 2017, published a teshuva, or rabbinical Jewish legal response, “Transgender Jews and Halakhah.” The teshuva addresses numerous halachic questions that may arise relative to transgender individuals based on their gender identity, including issues related to both rulings of law and communal norms—from conversion, marriage, and divorce, to biomedical questions such as gender-conforming surgery, and lifecycle issues such as brit milah and preparation for burial.

But at the time, as with other Jewish rituals pertaining to transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, there had been little practical discussion about how tahara might be affected. The CJLS teshuva does address the question of who should prepare the body of a transgender person for burial: Taking into account values such as honoring the deceased, personal dignity, and modesty, this teshuva concludes that the body of a transgender person should be prepared by those of the same gender identity as the deceased.

But there are often additional practical issues to be considered, including: participation of transgender Jews in the tahara ritual (which is traditionally segregated by gender—although some chevrot kadisha (burial societies) have discussed using mixed-gender teams), special liturgy for transgender meitim (deceased persons), discovery of unexpected anatomy during the tahara process, and the appropriate tachrichim (burial shrouds). Importantly, serving on a team for trans-meitim requires special training on practical issues such as separation of gender identity and bodily characteristics, understanding of different transition paths and trans-bodies, and respecting values of privacy and modesty.

This past March, comprehensive practical guidelines became available with the publication of “Toward a Gender-Inclusive Hevra Kadisha” by the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston.

This document provides a framework for inclusion of transgender and gender-nonconforming Jews in traditional Jewish death and burial practices. It reflects two guiding principles: kavod hameit, respect for the dead; and respect for the gender identity of those being served—as well as kavod for haveirim (members of tahara teams), and welcoming trans and nonbinary Jews as team members.

Included are tahara guidelines for both transgender and nonbinary Jews, such as their entitlement to a full Jewish burial with all the attendant rituals, including the choice of tachrichim, as well as appropriate liturgy for trans men, trans women, and nonbinary Jews according to their lived gender identity. For example, since the process of tahara may include gendered pronouns to refer to the deceased individual, this document offers alternatives that conform with the Nonbinary Hebrew Project.

“Transgender and nonbinary people worry about rituals that are important to them after death,” explained Rabbi Micah Buck-Yael, director of education and training at Keshet, an organization that works for full equality of LGBTQ Jews and families in Jewish life. “It’s important that our communities care for transgender and nonbinary people and that our communities empower transgender and nonbinary people to be givers of care. This work is important because core to every chevra kadisha is that every individual deserves chesed and kindness.”

Jewish tradition is hypersensitive about issues around burial and preparation for burial, said Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, scholar-in-residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. When the person is no longer physically present and only the soul is alive, Judaism, in both the mystical and rational realms, sees the person as vulnerable and in a place of profound transition.

Moskowitz recalls a conversation with an Orthodox rabbi who was providing end-of-life bedside care to a trans person who had not come out, but for whom it was very important to receive tahara by someone of the individual’s self-identified gender. “It is horrific that someone’s final deathbed thought will be whether their wishes will be respected and whether they will be respected as a person,” said Moskowitz, explaining that the rabbi’s role is to offer comfort and reassurance.

Indeed, kavod ha-meit should be paramount, explained Michael Slater, an emergency medicine physician and longtime member of the Progressive Chevra Kadisha in Chicago, who has been advocating for conversations about transgender tahara for more than a decade.

For Slater, a lightbulb went off when an Orthodox funeral director in another U.S. community told him this story: The head of the chevra kadisha arrived at the funeral home and found out that the meit had undergone “top” but not “bottom” surgery, as is often the case: “If an Orthodox funeral director was seeing this in his Orthodox community,” said Slater, “it was just a matter of time when this became an issue for everyone.”

“Trans men and trans women want to be seen as men or women because they have transitioned to the place where they want to be,” said Rabbi Lynn Greenhough, spiritual leader of Kolot Mayim Reform Temple in Victoria, British Columbia. She points out that burial society volunteers need to be prepared to encounter any type of body. It is something they may not necessarily know about in advance because many trans individuals are not having gender-confirmation or reassignment surgery, with a significant proportion choosing only hormonal therapy.

Often, the natal family may not agree with the choices that their transgender relative made and how they lived, insisting that the meit be identified according to their pre-transition identity. For funeral homes, officiating rabbis, and chevrot kadisha, this issue can be problematic.

“Hopefully these situations will become minimal with growing awareness and greater familial acceptance but that is not yet universal,” said Greenhough. “Many trans lives are precarious; we must work to ensure their lived identities are respected in death.”

When so many details surrounding Jewish burial rituals are segregated by gender, nonbinary Jews face unique questions. But these, too, are beginning to be addressed.

“It’s important to understand that ritual for nonbinary people needs not be more complicated than traditional customs for men or women,” said Emily Fishman, the document project coordinator for the Boston Community Hevra Kadisha. “You do not need to invent a whole new liturgy for nonbinary individuals.”

When it comes to performing tahara for nonbinary decedents, the key differences are the choice of a tahara team, liturgy, and minor issues around tachrichim.

While ideally, a team of nonbinary chevra kadisha members should perform the tahara of nonbinary meitim, in practice such a team may not be available. If a nonbinary team is not available, a tahara for a nonbinary person should be performed by women, whether or not the nonbinary individual was assigned male or female at birth, according to the Boston Hevra Kadisha. (This decision was based on the halachic principle that a woman may perform tahara for a man but not vice versa, as a matter of modesty, according to Jewish religious code, Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 352:2, deriving from the talmudic tractate Semachot 12:10, also known as the treatise Evel Rabbati.) A nonbinary individual may participate in performing a tahara for a man, a woman, or for a nonbinary individual, regardless of whether they—the decedent and the person performing tahara—were assigned male or female at birth.

A nonbinary individual should be wrapped in tachrichim according to their custom in life. For instance, if the decedent wore a tallit and/or kippah in life as a nonbinary individual, they should be buried in such.

While washing the body during tahara, it is recommended to substitute the traditional biblical liturgy recited from the Song of Songs, which emphasizes male and female, with an appropriate verse, such as one that recognizes the multiplicity of human genders (Genesis 1:27) or liturgy with nonbinary suffixes as created by the Nonbinary Hebrew Project.

These are some of the issues covered in the document “Toward a Gender-Inclusive Hevra Kadisha,” which addresses such questions as: Are you prepared to serve transgender and nonbinary decedents? How do you determine the members of a transgender or nonbinary tahara team? How do you train chevra kadisha volunteers and funeral directors? What garments should be used and prayers be recited? How do you respect a person’s gender and treat the deceased’s body with love and respect? And what should you do if you encounter something that you hadn’t expected about the body?

“For me and other team members, there was a sense of urgency once we saw the lack of information. I wanted to get this document out into the world so that the next trans person who dies will have a chevra to serve them with love,” explained Fishman. “Our job is to perform the most honorable sendoff for a person.”

The document was created by a gender task force of cisgender, gender nonconforming, and transgender individuals. Formed in December 2018, this initiative was inspired by a panel discussion about transgender, nonbinary, and queer Jews during a one-day chevra kadisha conference held in Boston two months earlier.

“The panel came about because we believe in pluralism and inclusivity … We felt that it was important to name the issue and welcome the LGBTQ community into our community,” explained Barbara Neustadt, board president of the Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston. “We are a pluralistic chevra kadisha, and serve Jews of all practices, denominations, and across the gender spectrum. We believe very strongly that every Jewish person deserves the right to have a tahara and to be part of the chevra kadisha if they so choose.”

Importantly, this document incorporates input from the transgender and gender nonconforming Jewish communities whom task force member Rabbi Becky Silverstein surveyed via social media. “This document is a perfect example of how Judaism continues to grow by inviting queer and trans Jews into the conversation,” said Silverstein. “We want to invite trans people into building the Jewish world we want to see. What speaks most to me is that Judaism continues to be a vibrant tradition because it is constantly being interpreted, evaluated, and stretched through the experiences of the Jewish community.”

This document, though, should not be viewed as the final answer but as a way to move the community conversation forward, emphasized James Cohen, a member of the gender task force.

Importantly, there must be conversations about transgender and nonbinary tahara, some which are now beginning to occur in small and large communities across North America. “Gender fluidity is one of the core images of our divinity,” said Rabbi David Ingber, spiritual leader of Romemu in New York City. “Over the past two millennia we have expanded the idea of what it means to be created b’tzelem Elohim [in the image of God]. And in doing that, I believe we expand God’s presence in the world because we become less judgmental.”

While most Jewish burial societies with which Tablet spoke have not yet performed tahara for a transgender meit, this topic is on their radar. For example, it was a factor in the founding last year of the Seattle Community Chevra Kadisha, said Wimsey Cherrington, a transgender ally and health provider in the state of Washington.

In Chicago, a formal conversation was kicked off in 2016 with the workshop “Tahara for Every Body: Rethinking Jewish End-of-Life Rituals,” which was sponsored by several local community groups. Led by Noach Dzmura, editor of Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in Jewish Community, the workshop addressed such issues as the meaning of nonbinary, the difference between sexual identity and sexual preference, halachic issues, and strategies to educate tahara teams—and how to form trans-inclusive, gender-nonbinary, or mixed-gender tahara teams in Chicagoland.

This workshop sparked important conversations, including the appropriateness of mixed-gender tahara teams, for Cantor Julie Yugend-Green of Oak Park Temple B’nai Abraham Zion (Reform) in Oak Park, Illinois, and the chevra kadisha that she coordinates as a joint initiative with West Suburban Har Zion (Conservative) in River Forest, Illinois. “Our primary goal is always to respect and honor [the decedent], comfort the family, and make sure that everyone on the tahara team is comfortable with what we are doing,” she said.

Several months ago, Stephanie Garry, chief administrative officer of the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel in New York City, initiated conversations about respecting the deceased with the chevrot kadisha with which it works. “We have certain procedures in place for the trans community. If the call comes, we are ready,” she said. For example, how a trans person self-identified during their lifetime is how tahara will be performed.

Eli Davidovics, director of Chevra Kadisha Tahara Jacob Isaac in Bergen County, New Jersey, which works with the Plaza Jewish Community Chapel and other chapels in the New York and New Jersey area, plans to treat the deceased according to the information provided by the many funeral chapels with which it works.

For the most part, there is general consensus that tahara should correspond with how individuals self-identified during their lifetime. This view is based on the Jewish legal opinion of Sefer Dor Tahpukhot, a contemporary Jewish legal commentary on transgender in Jewish law (Idan Ben-Efraim, 2004).

“Our mission is to take care of the person the best way we can. If a person identifies as a specific gender, that’s how we would take care of the deceased, in the way that they looked at themselves,” said Bob Weiss, head of Oklahoma’s chevra kadisha, which is coordinated by Emanuel Synagogue (Conservative), and which serves the burial needs of 80% of Oklahoma’s Jews, regardless of affiliation.

“People who do tahara are serious, careful, thoughtful, and nonjudgmental,” said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum (Honor and Comfort), a North American organization that sponsors end-of-life education, resources, training and conferences. “The most important thing is to know that there is a group in the Jewish community that will care for everyone no matter who they are and how they appear.”

Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.