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Justice for All: Respecting Identity and Protecting Dignity

Justice for All: Respecting Identity and Protecting Dignity

Transgender symbol painted on young person's palm

One of my earliest memories of queerness happened at home, watching TV with my mom. There was a special about a transgender woman, and I was intrigued. My mom, however, was somewhat disturbed by the program, and hissed the word “disgusting” at the screen, along with a couple of choice slurs. I asked her why she was saying this, and she said that it was because being transgender was “unnatural.”

This experience was formative for me. At that moment, I began to believe that what I was wasn’t right, and shouldn’t exist. I started to make a concerted effort to hold back any feminine behavior so that no one would think I was one of those people I was warned about, which kept me in the closet, about so many parts of myself, for decades.

Parashat Chukat presents what is “natural” in a different light. In it, Moses is instructed to speak to a rock to make water come from it. Instead, he loudly admonishes his own people and hits the rock with his staff, forcing the water to come forth. As a result, God punishes Moses and Aaron, saying they will not be the ones to lead the people into the Promised Land, despite their consistent leadership to this point. In Queer Jewish Notions: Proof that God Isn’t a Homophobe, author Amy Soule suggests the punishment was given not merely because Moses did not follow God’s instructions, but also because Moses attempted to dominate nature by asking for something unrealistic, though the time for such experiences had passed. Similarly, many transgender people have been forced to remain in the closet because of the cruel words and actions of others. In its attempt to dominate trans people’s lives, society has asked us to do something unrealistic – to deny our most natural and comfortable states of being.

This tension around what is “natural” has had terrifying consequences for transgender people. Some people in power believe gender is inherently tied to configurations of sex organs, and as a result have tried to force transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms that conflict with the gender identity that is “natural” to them. The consequences of this daily humiliation can lead to severe depression and anxiety, contributing to the alarmingly high rate of transgender suicides.

Another way to look at Moses and Aaron’s punishment is that it had little to do with the act of hitting the rock. Moses was furious because his people asked for water, a basic need, and even after God told him how to get it, he responded with anger and outrage toward the Israelites. Aaron, looking on, did nothing to stop him. In that moment, Moses denied his people’s dignity, insisting instead that they were a wicked people for having basic human needs. It could be because of Moses’s anger at his people, and Aaron’s lack of response to Moses that God punished them.

Each of us, as members of the Jewish people, is obligated to pursue justice. That pursuit can take many forms – fighting mass incarceration and the death penalty; fighting for a level playing field for all, regardless of race or gender; advocating for civilians trapped in international conflicts; and more. Consistent in each of these actions is a profound recognition of human dignity. Those things that are just and worth pursuing are always about allowing someone to live a full and happy life. In Parashat Chukat, we see that Moses and Aaron failed in that pursuit, cursing their people in much the same way that trans people are cursed for their basic needs.

The Reform Movement is dedicated to the pursuit of transgender rights and inclusion. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Reform Judaism’s social justice hub, is spearheading a campaign to engage Reform Jews in local teams across North America to fight for basic rights and protections for transgender kids in schools as a part of the larger Urgency of Now Initiative. I, and so many other trans folks like me, have known what we are from the beginning. Our lives have been made easier by those who have not only accepted us, but loved and affirmed us in our identities. I would never have made it to where I am today without the love and support of people in my life who have seen me for what I am and affirmed my dignity. In this campaign, the Reform Jewish community offers that same affirmation and support to trans students. We must redouble our efforts toward justice to ensure that every person’s identity and dignity are respected and protected. Together, we can mobilize to be a positive force for change in the lives of students.

How can you get involved?

  • Research what protections or regulations your local school board has in place for transgender students. Evaluate where there is room for improvement.
  • Contact Lizzie Stein, legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center, to get involved in this campaign and support local trans students in your community.

Learn more about the Reform Movement's work to protect transgender individuals at

Lea Andersen served as this year’s Tzedek Social Justice Fellow at the Asheville Jewish Community Center in Asheville, NC, and will begin rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in July. She is a member of Temple Emanu-El in Sarasota, FL.

Lea Andersen
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