The Secret Life Of Hasidic Sexuality A Jewish Journey Between Genders

Though I am not entirely sure why, people seem just plain fascinated by the (supposedly) cloistered communities of black clad Jews who briskly swarm — entourage and side curls in tow — through the streets of Brooklyn, the Diamond District and Old Jerusalem. For sure, some of it is the sheer “otherness” of their look and their seeming lack of interest as to what is occurring street level, including you and all the other passers-by. But whereas the Amish seem to spark a warmer, folksy response for their dogged embrace of the sartorial choices of their 18th century forbearers, Hasidim are often treated as circus freaks for having made a similar decision. I think it is this same lurid fascination that compels us to respond to the barkers call to gawk at the bearded-lady and the boy with the lobster claw hands that draws our imaginations to contemplate Hasidic intimacy.

I saw two examples of this in action in the popular media this past week. The first was through the lens of Deborah Feldman, a former Satmar Hasid whose rejection of that tradition has recently garnered her a good measure of media exposure — and book sales. The ladies of “The View” tremulously queried her as they might an escapee of the Taliban or some tribe of Cannibals, but the discussion could not conclude until Barbara Walters (prompted by the producer) gave her all of 60 seconds to explain the (apparently primitive) Satmar mating practices. What she did manage to cover, though it ended up sounding like some antiquated misogyny rite, formed the basis of Taharat HaMishpacha (family purity), a brilliant and beautiful concept that is practiced by religious Jews of all stripes — from the most Hasidic to the most left-wing modern Orthodox.

To hear a better explanation of the idea, I would direct you to Oprah Winfrey’s generous and open-minded interview with four Lubavitch women in Crown Heights. There too, she wanted to hear about how they had sex, but unlike Ms. Feldman, who seems to have had an unusually negative experience, these women were proud of their tradition and eager to talk about it.

In short, religious men and women physically separate during the days of menstruation and add on an additional “clean week,” making about 12 days out of the month in total. This is not done, as Ms. Feldman suggests, because the women are considered “impure,” which is a common and unfortunate mistranslation. Rather, the women are tameh — a word that indicates a spiritual change as the result of the loss of potential life. When men ejaculate, they also become tameh and also require immersion in a mikvah or ritual bath (though due to the relative frequency rates, most men — Hasidim excluded — do not hold themselves to this standard). In neither case is there any assumption of dirtiness or lack of purity. In that same vein, a human corpse is considered the most tameh object on Earth as it is now the empty shell of a former actualized living force. The mikvah — through its laws, dimensions and construction — is a kabbalistic practice that restores the non-corporeal equilibrium of the practitioner.

For those who don’t accept the spiritual basis for the practice, there is a sociological one as well. As correctly explained by one of the women conversing with Oprah, when there is no physical outlet available for a couple, they are compelled to deal with each other on an intellectual and emotional level. They communicate only through words and body language which engenders another — perhaps deeper — level of intimacy. In addition, many couples describe the conclusion of this period of separation as a monthly honeymoon, and in a time when the majority of marriages fail, sustaining the excitement level can only be a good thing. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, it does wonders for other anatomical regions. In truth, to the average observant Jew, sex is not something mundane and titillating, but, rather, holy and sacred. From this perspective, it is the puerile obsessions of the secular world which are bizarre, not the concept of family purity and seeing one’s intimate life as something sanctified — to be guarded and cherished.

Ms. Feldman also intimated that the purpose of Hasidic (aka Jewish) martial intimacy was solely to procreate. This is obviously not the case as couples continue to perform themitzvah (right action) of intercourse during pregnancy, after menopause and when there is a biological inability to conceive. Actually, the main purpose of sex — as explained by Jewish law — is to create something called devek, best translated as an intense spiritual/emotional cleaving between the couple. The stringencies associated with this practice — general separation of the genders, refraining from physical contact with the opposite sex and the modesty laws — are all designed to promote the ardent primacy and exclusivity of the marital relationship. Nothing is meant to stand in the way of its fullest development.

Are there times when devotees, or entire communities, fall short of these lofty goals? Yes. Does that mean that their underlying principles are weird or beyond the contemplation of the average person? No. In fact, the world at large would do well to consider the adoption of a version of them. I’ve heard it said that divorce is the second most traumatic experience that a family can go through next to the death of a close relative. Wouldn’t it be in be in everyone’s interest to gird marriage to the greatest extent possible thus sparing couples, families and nations from voluminous anguish?

Their style might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in this regard, the Hasids have it right.

On the face of it, “Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders” (just out from University of Wisconsin Press) is the story of how Jay Ladin, the author and an English professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, transitioned into living as Joy Ladin. But it’s Ladin’s relationship with Judaism that anchors this book and makes it stand out.

What do you do when you’re drawn to religion despite the fact that your religion wants to reform you, erase you, abhor you? Ladin, who is not strictly observant but nevertheless remains strongly rooted to Jewish tradition, could have taken the easy way out: She could have walked away from Judaism. Instead, she argues with God. We get to listen in on her side of the conversation.

Much of the story is filled with suffering. Ladin describes how she took out a life insurance policy to benefit her wife and three young children and then counted down the weeks until the two-year no-suicide clause expired. She relates the experience of coming out to her family, and of being separated from them while she and her wife become divorced. In one particularly awful episode, Ladin’s 13-year-old son finally seems ready to accept that his father is transgender, and offers Ladin fashion advice. But the next day, Ladin unthinkingly thanks him in earshot of his wife, who then criticizes her for even trying to get the kids to accept her. The next time Ladin visits her son and two daughters, they refuse to look at her.

At the same time, this memoir is also a tale of actualization. Ladin shares details of feminizing her appearance — shaving her beard, growing out her hair, learning through trial-and-error how to apply makeup, shopping for affordable women’s clothes, training her voice. She reveals the awkwardness as well as the thrill of learning, as a middle-aged woman who had previously been a married heterosexual man, how to date women. Her children still call her “Daddy,” but they come to accept her, and her son becomes a LGBT ally at his high school.

Ladin is a tenured professor at Stern, the women’s college at Yeshiva University, a modern Orthodox, religiously conservative institution. Y.U. includes undergraduate and high school campuses where the curricula conform to Orthodox Jewish principles, and most Orthodox Jews consider Y.U.’s rabbinical seminary to be the most prestigious in the country. All the undergrads and high school students are Jewish, primarily Orthodox. Even in the secular medical school, law school and other graduate programs, Orthodox Judaism is in the air: classes are not held on Shabbat or Jewish holidays, and only kosher food is permitted.

Several weeks after she was awarded tenure, in June 2007, Ladin told the dean at Stern that she was transitioning to become female. She was kept on the payroll but forbidden to set foot on campus until September 2008, when her attorneys demanded that she be allowed to return. Since New York City prohibits the firing of employees based on gender identity, legally Y.U. had to retain Ladin on its academic staff. On her first day back at Y.U., the New York Post snapped a photo of Ladin and then published it under the headline”YE-SHE-VA.” Ladin was taken to task for “sporting pink lipstick, a tight purple shirt and a flirty black skirt.” In fact the shirt was not tight and the knee-length skirt was far from immodest.

At Y.U., the distinction between male and female is as absolute as that between milhig(dairy) and fleishig (meat). You can tell whether a student is female or male from a mile away, since females wear skirts, never pants, and males wear skullcaps.

“Gender is so central to tradition-based communities such as Orthodox Judaism,” Ladin writes, “that it is more or less impossible for those communities to accommodate people who can’t be easily identified as male or female.” Ladin points out that this rigidity is hardly limited to Orthodox Judaism — the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, for instance, welcomes only those born female — but within Orthodox Judaism, being trans is considered sinful and amoral.

Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a senior dean at the rabbinical school, as well as a professor of biology and medical ethics, told the Post, “He’s not a woman. He’s a male with enlarged breasts,” pointedly referencing that Ladin had been taking progesterone and estrogen to feminize her appearance. “He’s a person who represents a kind of amorality which runs counter to everything Yeshiva University stands for. There is just no leeway in Jewish law for a transsexual.”

But there is leeway — in fact, it is obligatory — to have understanding of and respect for people who are transgender. The great rabbis have long recognized the limits of male and female categories. In the first centuries of the Common Era, the rabbis of the Mishnahidentified at least four possible genders or sexes. In addition to male and female, they claimed, there are two sexes that are neither male nor female — the tumtum, a person whose genitals are obscured, making their gender uncertain, and the androgynos, a person who has aspects of both male and female genitalia. According to one interpretation, the first human was an androgynos.

As Ladin points out, the rabbis have interpreted circumcision as a procedure that “perfects” the penis. God deliberately left a little extra skin so that Jewish men could remove it and thereby perform a ritual in which their genitals become a physical sign of their true identity. “From a trans perspective,” she writes, “this is a radical teaching. If an operation to alter genitalia is necessary to bring the male Jewish body into conformity with the Jewish soul, then God long ago acknowledged that medical intervention may be necessary for human beings to achieve their true identities.”

While some Orthodox authorities are becoming more accepting of gays and lesbians, transgender issues remain taboo. Two years ago, Y.U. held a forum about being gay and Orthodox, and nearly a thousand people attended. More than 170 Orthodox rabbis have openly condemned homophobia and anti-gay bullying (even while they also condemn gay sexual behavior). Yet, Rabbi Steven Greenberg and his male partner recently were told by the prominent rabbi of a Cincinnati Orthodox synagogue that they were prohibited from attending services there. When Greenberg tried to engage the synagogue rabbi in dialogue and said that some young gay people are in so much pain they attempt suicide, the synagogue rabbi replied, “Maybe it’s a mitzvah for them to do so.”

Tendler’s attitude fits right in with that of his odious Cincinnati colleague. Tendler has said of Ladin, “There is no niche where he can hide out as a female without being in massive violation of Torah law, Torah ethics and Torah morality.” Tendler happens to be correct that Ladin has no desire to hide her femininity. In fact, Ladin’s memoir is essentially an argument as to why being publicly transgender is necessary. In the Orthodox Jewish world, people are trained to keep quiet when they violate particular laws or customs. Why advertise the fact that you don’t wait six hours after eating meat before eating dairy? After all, if your friends can’t trust that you keep kosher, they won’t want to eat in your home.

To Ladin, however, being transgender is not an act of “violating” but an act of “becoming,” and “becoming” necessarily involves interacting within the public sphere. She riffs on the famous series of questions posed by the great sage Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” Ladin writes,

“We become ourselves with and through other people. … For most of my life, I tried to be for others without being for myself — to be the man they needed me to be, to suppress and deny the woman I felt I was. Once I began to transition, I wanted desperately to do the opposite, to insist that, after all the years of self-denial I had given them, their feelings didn’t matter, to demand that they embrace and support the miraculous, cataclysmic process of my transition from death to life. Hillel’s question forced me to recognize that to become a person, a real person and not someone acting like a woman, I had to be both for myself and for others.”

Ladin teaches us how to behave in dignified moral relationships — a lesson her students apparently learn beautifully. Soon after she was placed on “involuntary research leave,” word got around about Ladin’s transition. One student e-mailed Ladin to say how proud she, “an Orthodox woman trained to accept male superiority,” was that Ladin had chosen to join “her team.” Another student told Ladin that although she was “politically very right-wing,” she was outraged that Ladin was not permitted on campus.

Hillel also said that the entire Torah can be summed up as: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow human being.” Orthodox Jewish leaders should thank Ladin for refusing to hide out, for reminding us how human beings should relate to one another.Jesse Kornbluth Decades ago, when I was reporting a story on New York sex clubs for Playboy, the proprietor of one club showed me a special door that provided Hasidic rebbes a discreet exit when their congregants showed up to be serviced. I admire that foresight. “Below the belt, all men are brothers,” Henry Miller wrote, but really, …Read more

 

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