Most of the rituals I found took on a tone of mourning the life that the transperson wasn’t able to have. But I wanted to create a ritual that was fully positive and celebratory.
On November 27, 2015, I came out to the world as a transgender woman. I had begun my transition on July 15, 2015, at the age of 55, after months of self-exploration and learning.
In December 2015, I had a name change ceremony conducted by a Beit DinRabbinic court consisting of three rabbis or learned members of the Jewish community. (Rabbinic Court) at the Washington (state) Coalition of Rabbis in Seattle.
Gender transition often includes name changes. For transgender Jews, like me, this may mean both English and Hebrew names.
In Judaism, normally, the only time a name is changed is when one is gravely ill. The patient or family may elect to convene a minyanThe group of ten adult Jews needed to read from the Torah and to recite some of the most important communal prayers. In Orthodox communities, a quorum of ten men is traditionally required. Today, most liberal Jewish communities count all Jewish adults as part of a minyan. (ten Jewish adults) to witness the change. The tradition is based on fooling the Malakh HaMavet (angel of death). This angel has your “dead name” on their list, so if your name is changed, the angel won’t be able to find you.
For a transgender person, transitioning is life affirming if not life saving. The National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) documents that over 40% of transgender people attempt suicide at least once in their lives. This is largely due to hurdles placed in the way of their ability to live as their true selves.
When I began investigating the possibility of a ritual, I looked for what currently existed. Most of the rituals I found, took on a tone of mourning the life that the transperson wasn’t able to have because of being assigned the wrong gender. But I wanted to create a ritual that was fully positive and celebratory. I took inspiration from those who came before me, including Professor Joy Ladin, but created a new work, that reflected my feelings, needs and experiences. As I often do, I collaborated with a colleague, Rabbi Jason Levine, in the process, and the end result was a very beautiful ritual for my naming.
Part of the reason I chose to focus on the positive is because I recognize how lucky I am. My transition went extremely smoothly because of where I am in life: I am financially secure, and not employed due to my military injuries. As a resuly I didn’t have the stressors in transitioning that most do, surrounding employment, healthcare, and finances. Further, my wife of 33 years has fully supported me in my transition, and my family are very supportive as well. Had I tried to transition when I was younger it would have been much more difficult.
So, for me, transitioning gender has been quite easy, and fairly low stress. I do wish that some things in my life could have been different, but who doesn’t? If I were healthy, I would be working as a chaplain. I might have even returned to the Navy as a chaplain during the wars of the last 17 years. I do wish I could experience some of the things that younger trans folk experience, but… I’m a 57 year old married rabbi. There are rules I choose to follow that don’t allow for all of the freedom that young, single people have. But I have an amazing life with my wife who is my support, my love. I lack very little because of her, so life is really great.
Thus I chose a positive ritual for my naming ceremony. It was very powerful and meaningful, and I invite others to use it freely.