This past summer, Rabbi Mike Moskowitz became the first Orthodox rabbi to serve at the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, in Manhattan, where he is the Scholar-in-Residence in Trans and Queer Jewish Studies. Rabbi Moskowitz has long supported the LGBTQ community and trans inclusiveness in particular. At the time of his appointment, he spoke about his journey in supporting the LGBTQ community on the podcast Unorthodox, created by Tablet magazine. A lightly edited transcript of his interview with Unorthodox hosts Stephanie Butnick and Liel Leibovitz follows here.
Liel Leibovitz: So here’s the thing. When someone imagines the rabbi they might meet in the world’s largest LGBTQ synagogue, they don’t imagine a dude looking like you, with a black hat and a beard. They don’t imagine a traditional Orthodox rabbi. Tell us about the path that got you here.
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz: The path here was actually a very traditional rabbinic trajectory. I was a rabbi of Columbia University, with Aish New York. I was the rabbi of the Old Broadway Synagogue, which is an Orthodox synagogue, right by JTS [the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary]. And I had transgender congregants and a trans student at Columbia that was really struggling. And as a rabbi of a synagogue in Harlem, it’s a pretty diverse and progressive space, all things considered.
As I started to meet more transfolks and started to create a space that was trans inclusive, I recognized that I was in a unique position to try to provide some scaffolding to support the trans Jewish experience, so people shouldn’t have to choose between a gender identity and a religious identity.
Leibovitz: As you embarked on that mission, I imagine that there were some people in your community who looked at your work and said, “Why are you doing this?” It’s highly, if I may, unorthodox. Did you face a lot of struggle going through that?
Rabbi Moskowitz: Internally I did not find any sort of struggle. There was a kind of an invitation to be a light in the darkness where other people weren’t. So personally I found a level of clarity and comfort in knowing that I felt like I was doing the right thing. But from the outside there’s still tremendous opposition daily, in the emails, on Facebook posts—
Leibovitz: Saying what?
Rabbi Moskowitz: Saying that these things are actually mutually exclusive. You can’t be an orthodox rabbi and be supportive of the LGBTQ community. I wrote an article about marching with Pride that I really feel when so many marginalized segments of society are being targeted, that we as Jews have a responsibility to stand up, because we’re also targeted as a minority. So the idea that somehow we can be passive or apathetic here—like you have to choose sides. It’s either about standing up for those who are the most vulnerable or recognizing that it’s probably just a matter of time before we don’t have the privilege and the entitlement and the agency to do something about it.
Leibovitz: How do you respond to someone who goes on Facebook and just angrily rants at you, “But you know being gay is not allowed in the Torah. It’s halakhickly bad.” [Halakha is Jewish law.] How do you square that? Because you see a lot of people in the Orthodox community who are very sensitive to these issues, but you really took a leadership stand on it.
Rabbi Moskowitz: Gender identity and sexual identity are very different. I think it’s very easy to hate things that you don’t know and it’s really easy to kind of mush all this stuff you haven’t been exposed to into one little space. So I think the first thing is to try to create space for dialogue, to try to recognize that the struggles of a gender identity are actually very different, both culturally and socially and also in Jewish law, as one of sexual identity. I deeply believe in the autonomy of each person’s relationship with God, that it should be the result of our unique life experiences. If we can’t create a safe space for people to be authentic and genuine about who they are in that relationship with God, then what is religion? It’s not about me in intimacy with God. So the Torah says what the Torah says and everybody gets to figure out what that means for them as an individual. I think that there’s a lot that we as Jews can learn from the trans world about being present in the moment, in the most authentic space and embracing a certain amount of fluidity in our relationship with God.
Stephanie Butnick: I’m curious. Given the sort of rigid differentiation between men and women in ultra-Orthodox spaces, how do LGBTQ issues arise in that world?
Rabbi Moskowitz: Within the gender space many people find it very affirming. For the trans experience to exist, there needs to be differences between men and women, or else there’s no space to transition. So when one walks into an Orthodox synagogue you have to make a choice right away. What side of the mechitza [a partition used to separate men and women] do you want to sit on? Because there’s so much gender-based spiritual practice for people who find that type of spiritual practice affirming, the challenge becomes one of providing the invitation and the resources to help the individual navigate all of those gendered choices in Orthodox synagogue, about being counted in a minyan [the minimum number of participants required, 10 men, for traditional Jewish public prayer], getting an Aliyah [immigrating to Israel], chevra kadisha [traditional performance of rites for the deceased] issues. There are all sorts of gender-based spiritual practices that make it a little bit more nuanced. Whereas in a more egalitarian space, in that area you don’t have to make a choice but you also don’t get the affirmation.
Butnick: It’s interesting. When you call it affirming, I would imagine it can be very intense and frightening for someone for whom gender identity is sort of a question at a certain moment, to have to choose a side.
Rabbi Moskowitz: One of the things that is really complicated in the way in which Halakha creates a binary around male and female in certain kinds of halakhic spaces—doesn’t necessarily resonate with people who adopt a gender non-conforming identity. And then it’s complicated. Ideally a tri-chitza, right? [Leibovitz laughs, Rabbi Moskowitz is making a word play on mechitza basically referring to three genders] allows for those who don’t feel like they fit in the binary. I often speak about borrowing language from the queer community. That I was assigned secular, and then identified as ultra-Orthodox, and now I’m some version of religious non-conforming, and that kind of space to be able to be recognized in present tense where I am in a relationship with God allows for it to be much more alive and also conscious and deliberate. If every Jew would be as aware of their religious identity the way in which trans folks are about their gender identity, there’d be no apathy, there’d be no assimilation. It would just be a constant recognition.
Leibovitz: We would be on fire.
Rabbi Moskowitz: That’s what we’re looking for.
Leibovitz: You wrote a piece for Tablet that I found very moving about the importance of accepting people’s choice of their own names and why that actually resonates sort of spiritually as well as civically.
Rabbi Moskowitz: In the Jewish tradition we believe that names are very powerful. That emanates from the power of speech. God said, “Let there be light,” and there was. So this world was created through letters and we find this throughout the tradition. You can look at the article. There’s a way in which transfolks in having to distill who they are in terms of an identity, especially if there’s been a shift into a name, is often the most immediate point of entry in a conversation that either allows for a person to be rejected or accepted. And so when a person speaks about their pronouns and their name, it’s not simple in the mind of a trans person. That’s one of the reasons why I co-authored it with a transman, is to have it in that first person experience that “hello, my name is” is much more of an exposed experience where there’s a posture of vulnerability and fragility for a trans person. So I think one of the things that’s really important as an ally is to listen to that voice about the experiences that we have. “Hi. Are you Rabbi Moskowitz or are you Mike?” The stakes there aren’t actually very high for me. I don’t care. But for a trans person, it represents so much more of the way they’re being seen.
Butnick: How does that play out within a Jewish context?
Rabbi Moskowitz: Some people choose a Jewish name or a Hebrew name. We have it within the tradition as something being very powerful. We have it deep within our tradition that if a person, God forbid, is sick, we add a name. Moses changes [Hosea’s] name [to “Joshua”] in anticipation of an event. The Torah says that we can no longer call Abraham “Abram.” We have to say the new name and not the old name. We find the struggle, it’s literally in the struggle with the angel, that Jacob gets a name change from the individual to the communal [he becomes “Israel”] and the mystics that tell us that it was that moment where he went back for the pacham katan—the smallest, the most vulnerable, the most marginalized. So I think it’s in this space of struggle where we try to create new space to uncover the divine will and it’s in that place of the progressiveness of Halakha, which is the language of halocho, which means “to go” [also “to walk” or “the way to walk”], which is where the Talmud says God exists—in this exile. It’s in that place with God to explore and to expand in these new spaces. As the world continues to move, how can we allow the Torah to speak in present tense? In the Jewish tradition, a name really reflects the embodiment of being able to be present as one’s fuller self.
Butnick: It seems like there is space even within religious Judaism for transfolk, for a questioning. It actually works well within the structure.
Rabbi Moskowitz: I think if we want for there to be space for Jews, then there needs to be space for trans Jews. Because one of those is a choice. Religion, and a religious identity, is an absolute choice of showing up and being present in that relationship with God. Gender identity, sexual identity, those aren’t action items. Those are just identities. They just are. So if we force a person to choose, they will walk away from religion. So if we believe that God is everywhere all the time—“HaShem [an expression for God, meaning “The Name,” as Jews are not allowed to utter the name of God] is here. HaShem is there.” So then what are we doing? We’re just speaking to the reality that God is everywhere. And for each person there’s the responsibility to ask the exact same question, “What does God want from me right now in this moment being who I am?” I don’t think it gets more religious than that.
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz: rabbimikemoskowitz.com
The Unorthodox podcast: tabletmag.com
Congregation Beit Simchat Torah sponsors Talk to Me About HIV, a program designed for rabbis, cantors, chaplains and other institutional leaders at Jewish congregations, schools and community centers throughout New York City. The education and outreach program aims to break the silence and stigma around HIV/AIDS. Go to talktomeabouthiv.org. CBST also provides onsite HIV testing once a month as well as a weekly supportive social gathering for adults aging with HIV/AIDS.