In my life, I’ve been a lot of things: Navy nuclear power operator, enlisted and officer, submarine and surface ship. Spouse and parent. Disabled veteran. Jewish educator. Rabbi and chaplain. Counselor. Veterans advocate and activist. LGBTQ advocate and activist. Communal activist.
All of these transitions created the possibility for me to become who I am now: one of two transgender women rabbis in the Pacific Northwest. By getting to know myself through my graduate and seminary work, as well as through chaplaincy training, self-exploration during health issues, and while developing a disability, I was able to come to the realization that I am transgender. I began my transition two years ago, and I have never been happier.
An interesting text from the Torah commentary Mikra’ot Gedolot was one of the catalysts for my decision. Most are familiar with Leviticus 18:22, which directs men: “You shall not lie with a man / In the ways of lying with a woman. / It is an abomination.” There are many who state that this verse is clear and unambiguous. However, there are many questions in the verse, including, What does “in the ways of lying with a woman” mean? Rabbeinu Hananel (10th-century Tunisia) writes: “There could be one who changes the form of his flesh to the form of a woman.”
This revolutionary comment is rejected by Ibn Ezra (11th-century Spain), but the fact that it is included in the commentaries is radical. This comment got me thinking about my gender identity as I was learning more about Torah during my time in graduate school and seminary.
I was trying to come to terms with the verse from Leviticus vis-à-vis the Conservative movement’s effort to accept all gay Jews, including seminary students. I knew just the “peshat,” the plain meaning of the text, but had not yet learned to read the deeper levels of meaning of texts in Torah.
Since beginning my transition (I do not say “transitioned,” because I continue to grow in my identity), I have delved deeper into our traditional texts to study what they have to say about gender identity and sexuality. This has led me to write a number of essays and to create and present workshops on the topic. I have found that in studying traditional commentaries, there is a lot more room in our tradition for transgender people than many realize.
For instance, Genesis 1:27 states: “God created the Adam in God’s image / In God’s image God created Adam / Male AND female God created them” (emphasis added). Most see this as a statement of the binary state of gender: God created men on the one hand and women on the other. Yet, when you study the cantillation marks on this text you see that “male and female” is a single textual unit. And Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 8:1 says on our verse: “Rabbi Yirmiyah Ben Elazar said, ‘At the time when the Holy Blessed One created the first Adam, God created it intersex (androgynos).’”
What an amazing text. God created us in God’s image. God has myriad characteristics, so it logically follows that humans do, too. This text is stating that we can have many possible genders, not a binary state. As I see it, while transitioning my gender, I am not perverting God’s creation of me; I am simply fulfilling God’s will in how I was created.
Rabbi Rona Matlow lives in Olympia
with her wife of 33-plus years, Susan.
Her website is rabbahrona.us.