Your talmudic advice column

Your talmudic advice column

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to for details.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I recently asked my friend how her young grade-school kids — a boy and girl — were doing. She replied that they are fine, and they have new names. The boy now has a girl’s name and the girl has a boy’s name. I asked why? She matter-of-factly replied that they both are transgender.

I was dumbfounded to hear this. I said nothing to her. Should I ask her more about this? Should I discuss this with a responsible authority?

Worried About Trans Kids

Dear Worried,

Yes, you have every right to ask the parent for more details, and to seek out, with sensitivity, more information on this topic from friends of experts or from your own counselors. The mother makes no secret of the facts. She is open and proud of her children and their gender identities.

Gender dysphoria is a seriously hot topic this year in social and political discussions, and in the media. You will find many experts and pundits out there willing to share advice and counsel on the subject.

Complex gender anomalies are as old as human culture. The Torah sets forth strict lines of demarcation in this area, banning what it considers to be divergent behavior such as cross-dressing and homosexuality. The Talmud dealt with gender ambiguities when it addressed the status of the Tumtum, whose physical genitalia were indistinct, and the Androgyne, who possessed genital traits of both male and female. Today’s discussions of gender identity delve more into the inner states and statuses of someone’s personality.

We all do understand that sexual preferences and gender identity are personal to each one of us, across a rainbow spectrum of options. And to many of us, the motives and drives in our own gender preferences and sexual appetites are mysteries when we are young and first discovering them, and for some of us they can remain confusing and evolve throughout life.

Gender proclivities may be evident in young children. We conventionally presume that sexuality and sexual preferences emerge later, during puberty. The revolutions in psychology in the twentieth century helped remove our inhibitions about the public discussion of sexuality and more lately of gender identification.

Yet, even in our frank and open age it’s odd to us to hear that a parent publicly announces that her younger children are transgender.

Since 2014, Amazon has broadcast the Emmy award-winning series “Transparent,” about a parent who comes out to his family as transgender. Because it had so much Jewish content, I’ve watched a bunch of episodes. For sure, though, that does not make me any kind of expert in the area.

Yes, to put your own mind at ease, you ought to discuss this situation with people who have greater expertise in this area, so you can better understand your friend’s choices as she navigates through the biological and societal challenges posed by her children’s transitions.

People on the whole spectrum of gender identity existed throughout history, but lived often in the shadows, in denial and in emotional stress. We should be happy to live in an era where this no longer has to be the case.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

My neighbor’s daughter is having a bat mitzvah soon. I heard from her friends that she is going to have an added enhancement for the occasion. She will go to the mikvah and accept the commandments. That seemed odd to me. When I asked her mother, she told me confidentially that her daughter was adopted as an infant from a non-Jewish family. As is the practice, a beit din court accepted Judaism on her behalf at the time. Her parents never have told her that she was adopted. And now the family’s rabbi asked about the circumstances of the child’s conversion. When told that the court had a woman rabbi as a judge, he ruled that she must be reconverted in the mikvah with a new court of three men present.

First, I am startled that the parents have not told the child that she is adopted. And second, I am upset to hear that a rabbi demands a redo of the conversion.

Should I express my concerns to the parents or to the rabbi?

Concerned About A
Covert Child Conversion in Closter

Dear Concerned,

I am still shaking my head in disbelief. First, I cannot approve of, or even imagine, not telling your child that she is adopted at an appropriate early age.

And beyond that I cannot sanction or envision a rabbinic charade that supports requiring a new conversion and promotes keeping the child in the dark on this significant personal fact of life.

Why would parents hide this information? Are they fearful that an adopted and converted child will be treated differently in our community? Are they worried that a child who knows she is adopted will not love her parents?

No matter what the motives, I cannot condone this parent–rabbi conspiracy to hide these realities. Moreover, it’s customary to have a child who was converted as an infant reaffirm her Jewishness when she reaches adulthood. If she does not know the facts, how can that confirmation take effect?

Yes. The critical particulars will come out in public at some point in this family’s future.

No. It’s not your job to be the catalyst for that to happen. However, you certainly should feel free to express your reservations and opinions discreetly to the parents or to the rabbi.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I read in the Jewish Standard two weeks back that you published your fiftieth Talmudic advice column. I am a huge fan. I wonder if you have one column that you consider your favorite?

Talmudic Admirer in Tenafly

Dear Admirer,

Thanks for asking and for your kind words. I choose as the favorite my column about neckties in shul, published in June 2013, because it was so down-to-earth in looking at an issue that displayed a friction between an individual and an institution, and it generated a good deal of discussion and controversy in our town. I’m reproducing it below.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I am sad for my good friend, a respected community leader and a member of a local Orthodox synagogue for many years, who does not like to wear a tie. His synagogue follows an idiosyncratic rule that no matter how nicely dressed he may be, a man who does not wear a tie cannot receive an aliyah to the Torah on a Shabbat or a holiday. So my friend has not received an aliyah to the Torah on any of those days for many years, even on the special occasions of his parents’ yahrzeits. It hurts me to see him suffer this arbitrary form of petty ostracism and humiliation. What should I do?

Fit To Be Tied in Teaneck (June 2013)

Dear Fit,

Common sense would dictate that you and your friend not go to places where you feel uncomfortable, even if it is a mere trifling practice that creates a sense of annoyance and intimidation for you. You know that an Orthodox synagogue must follow the many laws and customs that govern who should receive an aliyah. For example, a kohein receives the first aliyah, and a Levite gets the second. A man who has a yahrzeit often gets precedence, and so does the father of a newborn child and a groom before his wedding. Major donors to a synagogue get some preferential treatment, as do important rabbis. I’ve noticed also that the gabbai who allocates aliyot gets his fair share of them too. And a woman is not called to the Torah at all.

You may know that some non-Orthodox Jews find the exclusion of women from this process of public honors to be troubling or even offensive. Orthodox spokesmen point out that women receive due respect and honor in their community, just not by receiving aliyot.

Forty years ago, when I asked Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik about the possibility of women receiving aliyot in an Orthodox minyan, he quipped to me, “When women write the checks, then they will receive the aliyahs.” The Rav dodged my inquiry. I understood his reply to be a clever observation or a social comment, but not any halachic guidance.

Now, the synagogue that you describe in your question definitely created for itself a heightened odd character when it adopted an additional “tie rule” to further govern its members’ roles and aliyah rights. Even if its eccentric practice is an approved requirement of synagogue committees, officers, and boards, it still fits the category of a socially undesirable “because-we-say-so” intimidation.

That said, you and your friend may be able to ignore and rise above this nonsense if you keep in mind that Moses, King Solomon, Jeremiah, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon, and many other great non-tie-wearing-Jews would not be offered a Torah honor if they somehow, via time and space travel, showed up in your suburban shul.

The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to


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