Is women’s side where my cousin should sit in shul?

I attend a Modern Orthodox shul here in Northern California. I have a cousin in Chicago with whom I am quite close who will be visiting me over two Shabbats in August. This cousin was born male, but she now identifies as a woman. She is undergoing a transition, but I do not know how far along it is. For all intents and purposes, my cousin presents and passes as a woman. In her own community, she sits on the female side of the mechitzah, and she expects to do so when she visits my shul. Is this OK? Do I need to ask my rabbi where my cousin can sit? — E in San Francisco

Dear E: Your cousin is to be commended. Mensch is not an expert on issues pertaining to gender transition, but he knows it is a difficult and emotionally trying process one is unlikely to embark on frivolously. Likewise, Orthodox Judaism is not an easy or frivolous path, and so it would seem your cousin is a serious and determined woman.

Your question is timely, as our notions of gender identification do seem to be evolving and the number of individuals who are openly transitioning is increasing. And by “our notions,” Mensch is referring to society at large, the cultural zeitgeist. It naturally follows that those more committed to traditional religious observance would tend to be slower to change their mores. Interestingly, the Modern Orthodox branch seeks to incorporate traditional Jewish values and observance with life in the modern, secular world. So you find yourself wondering whether to hew traditional or modern in this dilemma. It is notable, too, that the dilemma here seems to be yours alone. Your cousin has made her choice and feels comfortable, indeed compelled, to sit with the women in shul.

Mensch has done some research on this topic and, unsurprisingly given it involves Jews, has uncovered no consensus on what is right. As is often the case when it comes to change and liberalization of standards, the opinion of rabbis seems to lag somewhat behind that of their congregants. Which is to say, while a number of rabbis have expressed discomfort, and even outright opposition, to the notion of a transgender person sitting in shul among the sex with which he or she identifies, there seem to be a number of individuals who have decided to do so anyway, with varying degrees of openness.

A Modern Orthodox rabbi in the Bay Area contacted by Mensch, someone who generally swings to the right, was kind enough to ponder your question and offer that he sees nothing wrong in your cousin sitting with you in the women’s section at shul. Indeed, he expresses nachas at the notion of any and all Jews davening on Shabbat. Likewise, this rabbi sees no issue with a transgender man sitting among the men. However, he has two suggestions.

First, he encourages people to daven in shul where they feel comfortable but to remember that others are there to daven in comfort as well. In his opinion, shul, especially on Shabbat, is not the place to introduce and discuss matters that others might deem controversial. Secondly, this rabbi sees a potential halachic problem if a transgender man sitting on the men’s side is called to the Torah. In such an instance, he would encourage the man politely to decline such an invitation. Of course, this is one opinion.

So where does that leave you and your cousin? Mensch feels quite confident encouraging you and your cousin to attend shul together during her visit and to do so joyfully and in complete comfort. You need not reveal nor discuss anything about her with anyone. Follow her lead, which may involve nothing more than enjoying a nice Shabbos with your community and a favorite cousin.

And while she is here, make the most of what San Francisco has to offer by taking her one Friday evening to Kabbalat Shabbat at Mission Minyan (www.MissionMinyan.org), an eclectic group of serious Jewish celebrants who welcome, in their words, “women, men, gay folks, straight folks, Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, yeshiva bachurs, babies, rabbis, the perplexed…” It’s a great time.

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Jonathan Harris

Jonathan Harris is a synagogue administrator and writer-editor living in San Francisco with his wife, three daughters and an ungrateful cat. Send your questions to advicemensch@gmail.com.