By Rabbi/Cantor Sam Radwine, ’21, Academic Dean, Cantorial School
A few years back, a friend disclosed to me that her teenaged child was beginning their gender transition. My friend, who I will call Julie, described the process that both their child and their family were experiencing. First and foremost, Julie knew that her child needed her family’s unconditional love and support. As a mental health professional, Julie also realized that she and her spouse needed to deal with their own reactions to this process. Julie described her child’s transition process as they dealt with a variety of issues, from the reaction of friends, family, and schoolmates, to the medical, physical, and psychological aspects of their journey.
I found myself speaking to Julie on a regular basis and checking in on how they were progressing. At first, I thought that I was simply staying in touch to be a supportive friend to Julie. I then came awareness that I was attempting to come to grips with my own lack of understanding of gender transition. As someone who is part of the “Alphabet Soup” known as LGBTQ+, I have come to the realization that I still need to further my embracing of some of the other “letters” in the “soup.”
Probably no other verse of the Torah addresses this issue more than in Parshat Mishpatim. Exodus 22:21 states: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Mishnah in tractate Baba Metzia (58b) cites this verse in reference to the obligation to provide just and fair treatment to converts to Judaism. It states that just as the Jewish people were once oppressed as strangers in Egypt, so too must they not oppress converts who have joined their community. The Talmud in Baba Metzia 59a explains that this verse applies not only to converts, but to all people who are considered “strangers” in a given community. This includes anyone who is not a full member of the community, such as a resident alien or a guest.
In Mishneh Torah, Rambam cites this verse as one of the sources for the obligation to provide fair treatment to all non-Jewish residents in a Jewish community. He writes that just as the Jewish people were oppressed as strangers in Egypt, so too must they ensure that they do not oppress non-Jewish residents in their own communities.
But what about those in our own community? In his book, “Covenant & Conversation: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, z’l, explains that the concept of the “stranger” in this verse is not limited to someone who is new to a community, but rather it refers to anyone who is vulnerable and in need of protection. He writes that the verse calls upon us to extend compassion and kindness to those who are marginalized and in need, and to ensure that they are not mistreated or oppressed. Rabbi Sacks views Exodus 22:21 as a powerful message about the dignity of every human being and the obligation of all people to treat each other with justice and compassion.
Currently, I am serving as Rabbi of a congregation in Missouri, a state which is sadly leading the nation with a barrage of anti-Transgender legislation and resolutions in their legislature. The Missouri congregation is also become home to a number of transgendered, non-binary and gender fluid people who are seeking a safe, welcoming, and spiritual home in the Jewish community. It is clearly time for all of us to speak out. Politics may divide us, but Torah must unite us; Mishpatim compels us to act. We are no longer “strangers,” but the experience of our people reminds us to care and protect the marginalized and vulnerable. Our community can only remain whole as long as we both welcome and defend all who join us.