Conservative movement introduces non-binary liturgy for Torah honors

In unanimous vote, rabbinical panel signs off on lightly tweaked liturgy to accommodate people who do not identify as male or female to avoid ’embarrassment and disrespect’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

In this July 16, 2010 photo, members of the religious group Minyan Tehillah look at a Torah scroll as they prepare for Shabbat services at Harvard Radcliffe Hillel, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole)
Illustrative: In this July 16, 2010 photo, members of the religious group Minyan Tehillah look at a Torah scroll as they prepare for Shabbat services at Harvard Radcliffe Hillel, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole)

The Conservative movement on Wednesday announced that it had agreed to adjust its liturgy for Torah services to accommodate people who do not identify as male or female, a somewhat complicated matter given the gender-specific nature of Hebrew.

This change, which was written in the form of a responsum, or opinion, was passed by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on May 25 but only announced this week. It will minorly affect the language used for rites surrounding calling a person to the Torah during services.

Guy Austrian, who serves as the rabbi of the Fort Tryon Jewish Center in Manhattan, largely initiated the change after he formalized the liturgical practices in his congregation a few years ago.

In a 12-page responsum, Austrian and rabbis Robert Scheinberg and Deborah Silver explained that the change was necessary in order to avoid “embarrassment and disrespect” for transgender and gender non-binary Jews.

The responsum was passed with 24 votes in favor, none opposed and one abstention. Rabbi Rachel Isaacs, the first openly lesbian Conservative rabbi, said her abstention was due to a scheduling issue.

During the reading of the Torah, it is customary to call up a member of the congregation to say a blessing before and after each section is recited, an honor known as an aliyah. However, the word used to call a person to the Torah for an aliyah takes a gendered Hebrew verb; the person is then traditionally identified as the son or daughter of their parents; and finally, the person overseeing the Torah service announces what number aliyah the person is — seven people are summoned to the Torah on Saturday mornings, three at other times — which also takes a gendered form in Hebrew.

In order to address the first issue, the rabbis advocate doing away with the conjugated, gendered version of the Hebrew verb arise — ya’amod for men, ta’amod for women — in favor of the gender-neutral infinitive — na la’amod, effectively meaning “please arise.”

“While perhaps a bit unusual idiomatically, na la’amod is grammatically correct, appropriately brief, adds just one syllable, and sounds almost indistinguishable from the familiar gendered ya’amod and ta’amod,” the rabbis wrote.

Addressing the second issue of a person’s name and their relationship to their parents — ben, or “son of,” for men, and bat, or “daughter of,” for women — required a bit more creativity as there is no gender-neutral form of the word “child” in Hebrew. Instead, the rabbis took inspiration from another place in Judaism — marriage contracts — where people are instead written as being m’beit or l’beit, meaning “from the house of” or “of the house of.”

The third issue is relatively simple to address, having the person running the service refer to the number of the aliyah — the third aliyah, fourth aliyah, etc. — instead of referring to the person being third or fourth.

The rabbis also offer additional recommendations for navigating related issues, such as how to phrase the blessing traditionally recited for people who get an aliyah.

They stressed that the alternatives presented are meant to complement, not replace, the traditional gendered liturgy. They recommended keeping the gendered text for congregants who prefer it.

“[This responsum] does not seek to create a single universal version for all honorees, because the aim is not to eliminate or flatten gender differences, but rather to lift up the diversity of human gender identities, using a manageable set of options,” the rabbis wrote.

They encouraged synagogue leaders to learn the gender preferences of regularly attending congregants and to make it clear to guests that these options exist.

According to the rabbis, the practice of calling people up to the Torah by name dates back several hundred years at least and has always included workarounds to avoid uncomfortable situations, such as when the name of the honoree’s father is not known or if the father is a heretic.

“The entire rationale that underlies calling people up to the Torah by name is that of derekh eretz, civility in interpersonal relations. This time-honored [tradition] requires that people be called in the way that they prefer to be called, as a basic gesture of respect,” they wrote.

The Conservative movement’s recommendation matches similar liturgy already used by the Union of Reform Judaism and by a number of synagogues that cater specifically to LGBT Jews, notably Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City and Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco.

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