By Rabbi Alicia Magal, ’03, AJRCA Professor of Tefillah
Justice, Judges, and Jewish Non-Gendered Names
Each year I confront Shoftim with its memorable phrase “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20) – and reconsider what the doubling of the key word means. Repeated for emphasis? Repeated because the means should also be just, as Rabbi Simcha Bunam taught? Repeated to teach that just as we want justice for ourselves, we should also seek justice for our neighbors… and also for the strangers who are not like us? And I found myself facing my own judgment of a student unlike others I had taught.
This year, the idea of the opening phrase “Shoftim v’shotrim titen lecha – Judges and officers shall you make for you in all your gates” (Deuteronomy 16:18) really challenged me. Shoftim is not just speaking to officials but to every person since, let’s say the truth, we are all judges, and we do judge others all the time. It is one thing to agree with the theory of these teachings, but it is another to apply them in everyday specific cases!
We will be celebrating the B-Mitzvah of a young student this Shabbat who is female by birth, but presents as a boy in dress, style, and intense focus on sports. I’ll call this student “Kim” since that name could be used for a boy or girl, as is the name of the student. Kim asked also to change the Hebrew name to a slightly altered version of the name of the relative for whom the student had been named. No problem. But how would I address the student during the service? What pronoun would I use? I asked the parents to see what they had decided with their child. The answer was that they hadn’t come to any final “judgment” with Kim and seemed to use “his” or “hers” at various times. So I was on my own and had to be honest in my own judgment of how to address the student and how to adapt the Hebrew gendered language of the service. “Them” still seems awkward to me as a plural form for an individual.
The parsha also speaks about how even kings must follow the rule of having Torah scrolls… no one is above the holy laws. Another topic is the establishment of cities of refuge, where someone who causes the death of another unintentionally can withdraw in safety from vengeance. And then there is the ceremony of Eglah arufah, the purpose of which is to teach responsibility for the safety of strangers visiting our cities. So I took all of those elements together as a kind of meta-message that I as rabbi should personally take the rules of this portion, create a space where the student would feel safe from judgment, and ensure the young person’s safe transition during this life cycle event from one state of childhood to acknowledgment of Jewish age of responsibility, like traversing from one “city” to another.
In studying the Torah portion together, we discussed the topic of how people judge each other and what was considered fair… by students, teachers, coaches, referees in a game (Gali, using the Hebrew name during study, really got excited when we spoke in sports metaphors and examples). I also connected the student with a congregant who is a retired judge so they could discuss how one can make decisions, judgments, rulings, and avoid personal biases or preconceived ideas. They had a very honest and personal communication.
I realized that since I had very little experience in leading a service without relying on the standard liturgical blessings I should follow the direction in this portion: “If the case is too baffling, go to those in charge at that time… (Deut. 17:9-10)” so I looked up contemporary resources to guide me in handling the very gendered Hebrew formulas usually used to call up a bar or bat mitzvah student — Yaa’mod ploni ben ploni v’plonit ha-bar mitzvah l’aliyah, or Ta’amod plonit bat ploni b’ plonit ha-bat mitzvah la’aliyah, among many other instances.
I found rich resources with thoughtul guidance and suggestions. Among the books and sites I searched are the following:
-Siddur Davar Hadash by brin solomon.
-The Nonbinary Hebrew Project in the The Jewish Educator Portal
And Mishkan Ga’avah, Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Jewish Life and Ritual, edited by Rabbi Denise Eger
I found one way of calling the B-mitzvah up to the Torah:
“Na l’amod Gali mi-beit Shapiro la’aliyah – We call Gali from the family of Shapiro for the aliyah.”
This coming Shabbat I will stretch my usual way of leading some of the blessings, as I encourage this young student to stand proudly in the identity that is comfortable for Gali. I have learned something about seeking justice, and watching my own judgments, and I look forward to the moment this Shabbat morning when we all will listen proudly to Gali’s D’var Torah about judgments in the world of a young Jewish person’s identity.