Much of this issue of The Observer is a reaction to the furor that resulted from the news that Professor Joy Ladin, previously Jay Ladin, was returning to work as a woman.
Although Ladin's transformation is understood by most Orthodox Jews to be a violation of halakha (Rabbinic law) Chana argues that they are still obliged to show her understanding and compassion:
I have decided to explore the issue of transsexuality and transgenderism within this paper. I have specifically decided to explore it within the context of the Orthodox Jewish community. There are many questions. Is it permissible or impermissible to transition as an Orthodox Jewish transsexual? If one does so, does he retain the status of his original sex, or that of the one he currently physically presents as? How are Orthodox Jews to treat such a person? And perhaps most importantly for us, in terms of our desire to understand, what does it mean to be an Orthodox Jewish transsexual? What is such a person like, and what does he feel? There is no doubt that we must follow the Law, whatever the Law proclaims. But that does not mean that we must blind ourselves and refrain from understanding exactly what it is we do when we practice that Law. It is upon us to understand the struggles and the pain of our fellow Jew, to love him and to wish we could help him, and indeed, to do so in any way possible within the Law.
To understand a person is not to condone his actions. To understand a person is to tell him you appreciate his pain, and realize that he walks in darkness. You understand his natural desire to be accepted by others, and perhaps to have his sins dubbed mitzvot. You understand this desire because you have felt it yourself. This understanding is separate from what you will actually do, the Laws you will keep, your comprehension of that Law, and of the Halakha. To understand is to exercise compassion toward another, to the extent that it is possible. One who understands another person's situation, and who realizes that this person acts out of honesty, not malice, that he acts to preserve himself, not to aggravate or horrify others, could not possibly act cruelly toward him. For he would realize that this person is similar to himself, and to laugh at this person, or deride him, is to deride himself. We are one people, and we share one heart and one destiny. It is upon us to exercise our understanding, compassion and kindness whenever it is possible, in the same way that we would like to be judged in that manner when we too fall. The Halakha is our final master, and we bow to it. Yet we do so with heavy hearts, because if there were a way to help our brethren, we would desire to do so.
I applaud Chana for going as far as possible within the confines of her religion to stand up for Ladin. She'll probably take some hits for it at YU, but maybe her article will cause the students to show a little more compassion and a little less judgment.
Still, though, Chana remains within the confines of her religion. She cannot declare that a man becoming a woman is a moral choice because she cannot go against clear statements by Orthodox rabbis and even the Torah itself. The most she can do is call for compassion by pointing out that we are all sinners.
But transsexuality is not a sin. Changing your clothes and even your body to reflect the gender you identify with harms nobody and is a standard medical treatment for gender identity disorder. The Bible and the Talmud were written by men living in an earlier, less scientific time, not by the all-knowing Creator of the universe who probably doesn't even exist.
I've written before about How Orthodoxy Causes Good Men to do Evil. Compassionate Orthodox people like Chana are trapped between what they probably know is right (in this case, to understand AND to condone) and the law they believe comes from God.
Sometimes I feel guilty trying to convince people like Chana that their mostly deeply-held religious beliefs are factually incorrect. I don't always want to be the kid telling his friends that Santa doesn't exist. But other times, I see good people constrained by out-of-date moral dogma and I want to do everything I can.