Rabbi Raymond Apple
Rabbi Raymond AppleLarry Brandt

Q. What is the Jewish view of transsexuality?

A. The Talmud contains many references to the "androgynos", who has characteristics of both sexes, and the "tumtum", the person of indeterminate sex.

Transsexuality is a different problem. It is analysed from a halakhic perspective in an essay by J David Bleich, a prolific Torah scholar and writer on modern halakhic issues, published in "Jewish Bioethics", edited by Fred Rosner and himself.

Bleich points out that sex-change operations involving the removal of genital organs are forbidden on the basis of the prohibition against "anything which is mauled, crushed, torn or cut" (Lev. 22:24).

A further prohibition in Deut. 22:5, proscribes not only cross-dressing but any action uniquely identified with the opposite sex, and this would also apply to an operation to transform sexual characteristics.

If nonetheless a sexual transformation has been carried out, ignoring halakha, new problems arise in halakha.

Is a man still a man or a woman still a woman from the halakhic point of view?

A number of authorities state that surgery cannot change a person’s birth identity. However, a man who has lost his male genitalia may, according to Rabbenu Asher (Besamim Rosh 340), not enter into a marriage as a man: nor, it appears, could he in his new identity as a woman enter into a marriage as a woman because of the lack of true female genital organs.

Would the wife of a former male need a "gett"? Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer, X, 25:26) says that if the former male can no longer enter into a marriage as a male, the new situation automatically terminates any existing marriage.

Rabbenu Chananel, quoted by Ibn Ezra on Lev. 18:22, says that intercourse between a normal male and a former male who has an artificial vagina is homosexuality in the eyes of halakhah. A former female who has a simulated penis does not require circumcision even if the new organ is physiologically similar to that of a male in every respect (She’elat Yavetz 1:171; Yad Ne’eman).

All of this material makes it clear that whilst there are major personal problems when a person feels trapped in a body of the wrong gender, transsexuality is not the answer as far as Judaism is concerned.

Shemot: Were they really slaves?

The title of the sidra is Sh’mot, "Names". It lists the names of the Children of Jacob who came to settle in Egypt.

Names play a major role in the Bible, not just because everyone has a name to identify them but because having a name generally indicates one’s reputation.

Mishlei says, "A good name is better than great riches" (Prov. 22:1). Kohelet says, "A good name is better than the best oil". The Talmud says, "Your name has an influence on your life" (Ber. 7b). It also says, "Happy is he who grew up with a good name and departed this world with a good name" (Ber. 17a).

There is no better mark of identity and character than a good and clean name. The Roke’ach says in the 13th century, "No monument gives such glory as an unsullied name".

But were they really slaves?

This week’s Torah reading speaks of the Hebrews being oppressed by Pharaoh and the Egyptians. But note that Egypt is called "Bet Avadim", the house of servants. "Avadim" are not slaves but servants.

Slaves are nobodies. They are chattels. Their master owns them. They have no rights. They cannot choose anything for themselves.

Servants, on the other hand, are human beings in an unfortunate situation. In the Torah, servants are people who had to work off their time of difficulty. They have minds and hearts and spirits. They dream of being regular, ordinary people.

Their situation is intolerable but they tolerate it and yearn to be back in society.

The opening of the second Book of the Torah is also the opening of a new phase of history.

With Bereshit, which we completed last Shabbat, we see the beginnings of the history of the cosmos. The focus broadens from the first man and woman to the families of humankind.

Then, with Shemot, the focus narrows again and the Torah shines the spotlight on the story of one of the nations, the Israelite people which from now onwards is the especial concern and interest of the Divine Creator/Lawgiver under the leadership of Moses and his successors.

Rabbi Dr. Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com