New Reform Movement Manual Adds Blessings for Sex Changes

In a groundbreaking move to recognize the experiences of transgender Jews, the Reform movement has published several prayers for sanctifying the sex-change process.

The Union for Reform Judaism this week released the second edition of Kulanu, the union’s 500-page resource manual for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender inclusion. The guide includes two blessings authored by Rabbi Elliot Kukla for transitioning genders.

Kukla, who was known as Eliza when ordained in 2006 by the movement’s New York seminary, originally wrote the blessings for a friend who wanted to mark each time he received testosterone therapy. Still, Kukla believes they are appropriate for multiple moments in the sex-change process, including "moments of medical transitions."

Broad sections of the Jewish community now accept gays and lesbians serving as rabbis and cantors, and many support rabbinic officiation at same-sex commitment ceremonies. But the Reform movement, the country’s largest synagogue denomination, had never gone as far as to say that it is kosher to recite a blessing for a sex change.

"There was a conversation about what we should include and what we shouldn’t include," said Rabbi Richard Address, one of Kulanu’s editors and the director of the union’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns. "This was going to be a little bit out there."

The first Hebrew blessing praises God as "the Transforming One to those who transform/transition/cross over." A second blessing, intended to be said after completing the transition process, praises God, "who has made me in his image" — a reference to the description in Genesis of the creation of Adam.

A final blessing is the familiar Shehechiyanu, traditionally recited to mark special events or notable firsts.

"The midrash, classical Jewish exegesis, adds that the adam harishon, the first human being formed in God’s likeness, was an androgynos, an intersex person," Kukla writes in a brief introduction. "Hence our tradition teaches that all bodies and genders are created in God’s image whether we identify as men, women, intersex, or something else."

First published in 1996, the original version of Kulanu was a 150-page collection of texts intended as a resource for gay and lesbian inclusion. The updated version is significantly expanded, and includes liturgy for same-sex union ceremonies, a divorce document for same-sex couples and a prayer for coming out regarding one’s sexual identity.

The new volume also includes a section on the history of Reform Judaism’s response to the challenge of sexual and gender identity, documenting a 40-year period of increasing willingness to normalize the status of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals in the movement.

The issue of transgender Jews was first addressed in 1978 when the Central Conference of American Rabbis deemed it permissible for one who had undergone a sex-change operation to be married according to Jewish tradition. In 1990, the CCAR allowed such individuals to be converted. And in 2003, the union retroactively applied its policy on gays and lesbians to the transgender and bisexual communities.

"It’s a logical next step in this process," Address said of the new liturgy.

Still, those involved in designing Kulanu — Hebrew for "all of us" — wondered if the movement, even with its trailblazing history on these issues, was prepared to sanctify sex-change procedures.

Along with the liturgy, the new version also includes essays by Kukla and Reuben Zellman, who in 2003 became the movement’s first transgender rabbinical student, aimed at making congregations more sensitive. The material instructs congregants in matters of using the proper pronoun and encourages synagogues to install a gender-neutral rest room.

"We are living in the midst of one of the greatest transitions in American Jewish life," Address said. "And this is part of it."

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