Translating R. Tendler On Transgenders

I’ve been getting some requests to respond to some comments made by my teacher, R. Moshe Tendler as reported in today’s NYPost. For this latest YU controversy, the Post reports that one of YU’s faculty members recently underwent a sex-change operation:

A Yeshiva University professor left two years ago as a man – and returned last week as a woman.
Literature Professor Joy Ladin, formerly known as Jay Ladin, 47, showed up for her first day of school sporting pink lipstick, a tight purple shirt and a flirty black skirt.1

Naturally some of YU’s religious faculty are none too pleased with this arrangement. Hence the quote from R. Tendler:

“He’s not a woman. He’s a male with enlarged breasts,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a senior dean at Yeshiva’s rabbinical school and a professor of biology and medical ethics. “He’s a person who represents a kind of amorality which runs counter to everything Yeshiva University stands for. There is just no leeway in Jewish law for a transsexual.
“There is no niche where he can hide out as a female without being in massive violation of Torah law, Torah ethics and Torah morality.”

Let me state for the record that although I am his student, I am in no way R. Tendler’s spokesperson – he is quite capable of expressing himself without my help and the following explanation does not necessarily represent his views.

That said, in the past R. Tendler has often provided quotes, which when taken as soundbites may seem fanatical. However, his quotes are usually the summation of a logical and coherent (although occasional controversial) argument which does not often get reported.

In this case, I believe that R. Tendler is making two arguments. The first is that Jewish law does not recognize sex changes as a legitimate change in one’s halakhic status; if someone was born male, then Jewish law considers him to be a male regardless of any subsequent medical procedures. That being the case, R. Tendler’s second point is that independent of any potential halakhic problems with the sex-change operation itself, a man who lives and acts as a woman would wind up violating multiple prohibitions as well as the moral spirit of Jewish law.

While certainly not politically correct, R. Tendler’s position is defensible. Gender, according to Torah Law, is not (only) a social construct but a biological designation and thus not subject to change. Furthermore, as we have discussed elsewhere, the dual Torah is particularly sensitive and restrictive regarding matters of sexual impropriety such that by living as a woman Prof. Ladin would no doubt be violating some part of the Torah. As a prominent figure within a religious institution, R. Tendler is certainly within his rights to express this pesak.

The next question is why R. Tendler would give such a quote in the first place, given the expected backlash. Politically speaking, even if one were to agree with R. Tendler’s statements, it would probably be wiser not to voice them in such a tone in a public forum. As the article notes, it is unlikely that YU will risk yet another sex discrimination related lawsuit by firing Prof. Ladin, and I doubt R. Tendler thinks he’s going to change anyone’s mind.

My sense is that R. Tendler felt the need to set the record straight regarding what he saw as YU condoning something which he sees as halakhically unacceptable. Furthermore, I am guessing R. Tendler is reacting adversely to society’s increasing acceptance and tolerance of GLBT lifestyles, not so much as a matter of an illegitimate identity, but of being violations of Jewish law as he sees it.

I have no doubt that R. Tendler’s comments will generate much discussion and likely criticism and ridicule.

I can also predict that R. Tendler will not care one bit.


1. Though from the looks of the Post’s picture, the skirt does appear to cover the knees.

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