Feiler Faster

Happy New Year to Jews out there, who are probably not exactly celebrating the occasion by checking out a blog. But in case you’re not reading the NYT either, I couldn’t resist pointing out a sentence deep in my friend Peter Applebome’s column about the rabbi of Woodstock. First, a scene setter: Peter focuses on the challenges the folks of Woodstock have had trying to balance their dream for free-form Judaism with the practical needs of running an actual institution.

“I never want to abandon my idealism,” he [Rabbi Jonathan Kliger] says, near the beginning of the sermon. “I’m the rabbi of Woodstock, for God’s sake!”
Yes, Mr. Kligler is the rebbe of a distinctive congregation, where the High Holy Days ceremonies are always held outdoors in their beloved tent, and the first Rosh Hashana service begins with the singing of the ’60s anthem “Turn! Turn! Turn!” with the rabbi playing guitar, where there’s always plenty of singing, dancing and hugging along with the davening.
But still, two decades on, there’s a tale of modern Jewish life in the success of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation — Kehillat Lev Shalem (which means “the congregation of the full heart”). Like its members, like many Jews, it has tried to balance tradition and modernity, staying true to its core values and adapting to change, and has managed mostly to do it, even though no one began with a vision of a place that has an annual golf outing at the Rip Van Winkle Country Club.
“Our goal has always been to be truly welcoming, truly tolerant, true to the Woodstock ethos,” said Rabbi Kligler, who came to the congregation in 1988 as a student rabbi and never left. “At the beginning, no one wanted to have memberships, there was no accounting system. Our challenge was to grow without losing our vision and spirit.”

Peter points out that they had two crises — one over whether to affiliate with a branch of Judaism. They chose not to, anticipating or reflecting a trend that will end the tripartite division of Judaism in the next decade, I predict. The other over Israel in the wake of the second intifada– whether the institution was supporting the Jewish state under Sharon enough or not enough. Again, not surprising. But then he drops in this gem. In journalism, we call this burying the lede: “The congregation is still distinctive, proud to have sponsored the bat mitzvah of a transsexual member who had her bar mitzvah decades ago.”
What?! A second bar or bat mitzvah if you change genders?! The bat mitzvah itself is a very young institution, made popular in the last century as a way for girls to feel included in the traditionally male-centric Judaism. This seems like a perfectly welcome change and exactly the way that religion can maintain its tradition but still be relevant in the modern world. One of my favorite trends in Judaism in the last decade is octogenarian bat mitzvahs of women who didn’t have the chance when they were girls. I’ve met so many women who’ve done this and it’s a very thrilling thing to witness.
Given this trend, it seems perfectly reasonable for mature human beings who have chosen to change their genders to celebrate religoius rituals as their new selves. In other words, if an octogenarian has never had a bar or bat mitzvah and he or she chooses to do it for the first time, why not do it as the gender he or she has chosen to live as? But if someone does change genders, he or she shouldn’t get a mulligan bar or bat mitzvah, it seems to me. The point of the occasion is to celebrate reaching a certain maturity with an expression of knowledge and commitment to Jewish life. If anything, a sex change operation is an expression of that maturity and doesn’t symbolize a return to immaturity that later (what, thirteen years after the surgery?) need be recognized with a ceremony. I realize this is novel ground, but transsexuals can be embraced without making a mockery of a wonderful Jewish tradition.
By the way, while we’re on the topic. Are churches rebaptizing transsexuals?

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