Sunday, December 4, 2016

Losing My Mother - Where Did My Pastoral Wisdom Go?

As I wrote about in September, my mother was, at the time, gravely ill.  She passed away on October 7.  I haven't written anything personal since then, and I wanted to address this a bit.

On Rosh HaShannah, the Jewish New Year, my sister messaged me that my mother was not oriented to time and place, which I knew was bad. So I made plans to travel down to San Jose.  I got there on the afternoon of the 6th.  In what was an amazing turn, mom was still conscious when I got to the nursing home, so we spent a few hours talking and reminiscing.

The morning of Friday the 7th, I got word that she was unconscious and unresponsive.  I got to the nursing home, and seeing what was happening, told my sister she needed to get here.  We were sitting a vigil until about 1pm, when we went to get lunch.  Shortly after we got back, mom went into respiratory arrest and died.

I had seen people die many times in hospitals as a chaplain, so the physical process wasn't startling to me, but my sister had never seen anyone die before, so it was very hard for her.  Nonetheless, it was an overwhelmingly difficult time, as we cried, hugged each other and made notifications.

The Jewish communities of San Jose and Sunnyvale immediately stepped up and provided us with lots of support. I spent that evening at the rabbi's house for Shabbat dinner, and it was a wonderful break.

The next morning at services, I started crying during the liturgy said during the Days of Awe, asking that we be written in the Book of Life.  The same thing happened on Yom Kippur morning, during the Avinu Malkeinu (traditionally translated as "Our Father, Our King") at the line "Healer of the sick of Your people."

On a rational plane I understood that everyone dies, and even had come up with a beautiful way to understand the prayer for healing, when dealing with dying patients.  This prayer asks for Refuat haNefesh u'Refuat HaGuf, Healing of Spirit AND healing of Body.  This line can easily be read as Refuat HaNefesh O'Refuat HaGuf, Healing of Spirit OR Healing of Body, making it a meaningful prayer over someone who is actively dying.

Yet, despite knowing this, I was absolutely amazed, in the moments, that my pastoral wisdom had escaped me, and that this liturgy was so difficult for me.  I couldn't figure it out!

Of course not; I was in intense grief.  All of our knowledge and wisdom is overwhelmed by the grief and we can't access it.  I was told by my teachers, that they would have been very concerned if I had responded in any other way.  But at the time, it seemed so bizarre.

The things that brought me comfort through all of this were that:

1) My mother somehow seemed to know I was coming and stayed awake until I got there.
2) My mother waited until we got back from lunch to die.  Again she somehow knew our presence even if she was completely unconscious.
3) The love and support of Congregation Sinai San Jose ( was amazing.  Many people whom I didn't know, knew who I was and came to express their words of comfort to me.  It was truly wonderful knowing that this home away from home truly had my back and enveloped me in love and comfort. 

Losing my last parent (my father died in 1999) was extremely hard, but having so many wonderful people around me made this a much easier experience, and I will always be grateful.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Federal Elections 2016

Al Eileh ani bokiyah, eini eini yordah mayim, ki rachak mimeni menachem, meishiv nafshi, hayu banai shomeimim, ki gavar oyeiv (Eikha 1:16) 

For these things I weep, for water streams from my eyes, because respite is out of reach to restore my soul, my children are desolate because the enemy overcame us. 

This text from Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, captures how many of us are feeling right now, after the Federal elections on Tuesday. So what are we to make of this horrid result? Do we give up hope and quit? 

Many have considered suicide since the results, and at the Trans Lifeline, we’ve been extremely busy with desperate people needing help. 

In Pirkei Avot, the Ethic of the Sages, the last section of the Talmud, we find that “We are not required to finish the work, but neither may we desist from it. Never before have we needed to do so much important work. So… what can we do? 

In the new government that will be installed in January, there is one glimmer of possibility. The GOP got 51 seats in the Senate. That is a majority. BUT… a cloture or filibuster requires 60 votes to end, and the GOP doesn’t have that. 

So all of us need to be constantly in touch with our senators, from all parties, to ensure that they hear our message. Don’t confirm extremists on the Supreme Court or other Federal Benches, don’t pass Tea Party laws, or discriminatory policies that would undo years of progress in the US. 

So we need to keep hammering that message home. Leviticus 19:14 teaches that we cannot put a stumbling block before the blind. As is discussed in my workshop at Transkeit, this means to not give bad advice or prevent people from living. This text applies to Christians and Jews alike. So even if your Senator is Christian, they still need to hear this message from you, to remind them of their obligations. This is particularly true when they make a big deal about their Christianity. 

Further, do not lose sight of the fact that there will be another Congressional election in November 2018. So it’s not the four or eight year death sentence everyone is imagining. This means that over the next two years we all need to work very hard to get progressive, open, equality minded people elected to ALL political offices. We can’t do as many did this time, thinking “Oh Trump won’t get elected, so we can just coast…” That is part of what got us into this mess. 

Remember that the rabbis teach that we are not to desist from the work. In some of the darkest days of the Intifada between Palestine and Israel, Israeli pop artists performed a song entitled “Yesh Od Tivkah” - there is Still Hope. So please don’t give up, don’t crawl into a dark space never to be seen again. Many of us want to do that right now, but never before have we been needed as much as we are today. 

So rather than talking any more, lets listen to and sing/hum along with Reb Shlomo Carlebach as he sings the song that began this drash.

Friday, September 2, 2016

My Great Journey, Part 10 - To Life! - לחיים

As I sit by my mother's bed, while she is dying, I am contemplating the concurrence of my transition and hers. I am transitioning to flourish, she is transitioning to stop her bodily suffering. In a way, I am doing that too. I have shed the outer trappings of maleness, and its physicality, and in the process reduced my suffering. My mother is trying to shed the physicality of this life, also to reduce hers. 

In the Mishebeirakh, the Jewish prayer for healing, we ask for Refuat haNefesh u'Refuat haGuf. Healing of spirit and body. Yet how can we ask for this when we know the body will not heal? Isn't this a pointless prayer? I teach, regarding the Hebrew, that it can legitimately be read as healing of spirit OR body. Thus, when one is dying, we are saying that only the spirit will heal; the body will not. 

In both cases, we are in the path to spiritual healing, so I can, in a way, celebrate when she passes away, because she will not be suffering any more. Yet I am profoundly sad, as might be expected by many.

I know with certainty that I must keep living, despite my mother’s actively dying. For me, part of living is learning. I have found that I am voraciously reading books about gender, and their connections with psychology, religion, etc. As a rabbi the intersection of religion and being trans is vitally important. Rabbis are expected to be scholarly, and so I keep learning. Interestingly, I have found that I am really enjoying this type of learning now. Previously I did not like reading liberal arts texts; so that is definitely another transition for me. 

Regarding intersectionality, I share another commonality with my mother. We both suffer debilitating pain from degenerative spinal condition; mine is cervical while hers is lumbar, yet the process is similar. 

When we are dealing with the intersectionality of multiple issues, things tend to get very interesting. My mother was forced to retire from teaching because of disability, and I was forced to retire, far too young, from professional rabbinate, due to disability. My disability has had a number of negative impacts on my life, and it actually impacts on my transition as well. 

The intersection of multiple demographic categories is subject to large amounts of study these days. I am profoundly fortunate that I am white and financially stable with healthcare benefits. Further, none of my social or physical disabilities are obviously visible. So I “pass” in society as “normal” even if I am anything but. I don’t suffer most of the problems that other trans people suffer, due to economics, employment, family status, etc. 

So, do I have the right to be sad, given all of this, or should I be happy? If I take out the factors related to my physical disability and my mother’s status, I am happy. But of course I can’t ignore the realities of my life. 

In the morning blessings, according to the Conservative Jewish practice, we thank God for making us in God’s image. In the Orthodox rite, there are two forms of the blessing - for men and for women. The women’s blessing thanks God for making us according to God’s will. Both are very important to all people who are trans, however they define that. 

We can’t know why we are made to suffer in our lives, whether it be physical or emotional health, unemployment, war, etc. What we do know, however, is that we are commanded to live, and live we must. We find ways to transcend the suffering, or we stop living. 

God has a huge spectrum of characteristics. We are told in Genesis 1:27, twice, that we are created in God’s image, so we also have a large spectrum of characteristics. Some of our spectrum of identity surrounds our pain and suffering. When reading Bible and theological writing, we see, through Anthropomorphisms, that God suffers as well. This is one of the myriad Divine characteristics, and of the human state. 

Regarding being made according to God’s will; many will say we are perverting God’s will in our creation, by being trans. To the contrary, we are actually fulfilling God’s will. So, for anyone who identifies as trans, the blessing of making us according to God’s will and/or God’s image is hugely powerful and relevant. 

Circling back to the process of my mother’s dying, that is also God’s will. I can’t say when she will die, nor can any of my family, her medical team, etc. We know that we all will die, just not when. But this is a transition, regardless. 

I have come to realize, recently, that I want to try and transcend my physical suffering as well. There are far too many amazing things in life to do. So I am taking steps to deal with some of my pain syndromes. Hopefully, I can find some relief. 

Living isn’t just breathing and having a heartbeat. Living means to fully engage with life in every way we can. I am looking forward to experiencing many new things in my life, as Rona; many of which I never would have even considered prior to transitioning. So; whatever your life’s situation, find ways to enjoy, to explore, to learn, to experience… TO LIVE!
 לחיים - TO LIFE!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

My Great Journey Part 9

My Great Journey Part 9

It Was Supposed to be This Way

As I wind down from my first time at Gender Odyssey I have been doing a lot of reflection, and I wanted to share some thoughts.

I was out taking a walk this morning, and as I was jamming to rock from the 1970s and 1980s I was doing a lot of reflection, as I have been the last few days.  My head has been spinning, due to the absolutely amazing wonderful experience that was Gender Odyssey 2016, (GO) coupled with the knowledge that I would be coming to San Jose CA on conclusion, to say goodbye to my dying mother.  This couplet has created some intense emotions for me, so this walk was very therapeutic.
I had a huge “aha moment” during my walk - my life was supposed to turn out this way!  I am now around one year into gender transition, and it has been the most amazing year of my life. It has been made even better, by having my wonderful wife of almost 33 years by my side.  Yet, I’ve had some “woulda coulda thoughts” too…
In Olympia, as well as at GO, I have seen younger transpeople from as young as 3 years old, to young adults. I have been so happy for them that they can be their true selves at such young ages.  I have also felt a lot of envy for them. This isn’t fair to them - it’s my bag and I have to deal with it.
But I also realize that for me, transitioning at that age would probably not have been possible.  As I’ve written before, I wasn’t really conscious of being trans, even though the signs were there, when I was younger. But - what if I had been?
My family had no money, and healthcare insurance didn’t exist back then - gender transitioning is very expensive, and there wouldn’t have been a way to pay for  it.  
Also, my father was a very difficult man, and I doubt he would have been able to support me emotionally, let alone physically or financially.  So I would have been a trans-statistic. Either a street person or dead.  Thank God I’m not!
As an adult, the first time I really had a plan was when I went to Grad School and Seminary after I retired from the Navy.  I was already in my 40’s when I started, and then my disability kicked in, so I ended up not being able to work as a rabbi and chaplain; the work I loved so much.  So, I reinvented myself as as counselor volunteering for non-profit agencies when I could.
Then Rona popped up her head, and I started figuring her out, ultimately leading to July 15, 2015, when I started some private transitioning work.  While I came out on my birthday, I was already Rona in various ways.  I count July 15 as my “tranniversary”.  
But, why do I say it had to be this way?  Because I am extremely blessed and fortunate.  Despite my physical issues, and despite my sadness right now, I am extremely privileged as a Transwoman. I am white, so I don’t have the danger and issues that Trans People of Color face just surviving.  I am financially secure, so I can have anything I want in my transition. I have a loving wife, a house, and food. I want for essentially nothing.
So I give in ways that I can, being a counselor for veterans having coping issues, and being a Trans Lifeline ( lead operator and counselor for operators.  I do support work for people in my communities, locally and online. At GO, in addition to being a participant, I presented a workshop, whose video is found at
and I did lots of counseling and other work with people at GO.  
I am so excited about my life.  Are there trans things I wish I could do? Sure - but then I’m a 56 year old married, monogamous rabbi, so lots of them are just not appropriate for my life.  But, it had to be this way, and I wouldn’t change it for the world...

Rabbah Rona Matlow, MAJEd, MAJS, MEM © 2016

My Great Journey, Part 8 - Author's note

I know that many have been reading my work on Bible and Gender over the last few months. I am taking a break from this series, to work on other reflective writing. I will return to this work again over the next year, building up to my next Gender Odyssey Workshop. With much love, Rona

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

My Great Journey Part 8G

My Great Journey Part 8G

In previous sections we have explored specific Biblical verses that impact on Transgender life.  In several of these we saw the word תועבהto’eivah - abomination. These are things that are described as abominable to God in Bible.   But – what does this mean?

We previously explored one of the hermeneutical principles of R’ Ishmael.  To explore this word adequately we must first explore another principle – גזירה שווהGezeirah Shavah – (lit. a similar decree) – this is context derived from the identical word or phrase found in different situations.

I was reminded by a mentor, colleague and friend of mine, Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum, that it is often helpful to review a word in Brown Driver Briggs (B-D-B) the quintessential Biblical dictionary, for help in understanding.  Such is the case here.  In addition, it is important to remember that we read the Bible with the lens of the time in which it occurs.
We previously explored two verses with this word, 

ה   לֹא-יִהְיֶה כְלִי-גֶבֶר עַל-אִשָּׁה וְלֹא-יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִֹמְלַת אִשָּׁה
 כִּי תוֹעֲבַת ה' אֱלקיךָ כָּל-עֹשֵֹה אֵלֶּה 
Lo yih’yeh khli gever al isha, v’lo yilbash gever simlat isha;
Ki to’avat H Elokekha kol oseih eileh.

Deut 22:5: Women shall not wear men’s clothing (lit. men’s instruments – i.e. weapons) and men shall not wear women’s clothing – because all who do this are (carrying out) an abomination to H’ Your God.

Note that in this verse, the word exists in the construct form to’avat which means abomination of/to...

ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תועבה הוא:

V’et zakhar lo tishkav, mish’k’vei ishah, toeivah hee.

Lev. 18:22 And (you, male) do not have (penetrating) sex (lit. lie down) with (another) man, in the WAYS of having penetrating sex with a woman; it is an abomination.

In the discussion of cross dressing, we found that the rabbis were concerned with sexual immorality regarding this verse.  In the Biblical world, women could only be with one man. We can infer reasons for this, and of course many today, who are polyamorous, are not comfortable with these restrictions. Further complicating this is that men can be with more than one woman.  So the concern with men was that they would come to have relations with someone else’s wife.

But what does this say about Leviticus 18:22?  It’s not talking about women who go outside their marriage, yet B-D-B[1] links this verse to ethical lapses and sexual immorality, and cites related verses, including:

כִּי תוֹעֲבַת ה' אֱלֹקיךָ כָּל-עֹשֵֹה אֵלֶּה כֹּל עֹשֵֹה עָוֶל :

Kee to’avat H’ El-kekha kol oseih eileh, kol oseih avel.

Deut: 25:16 It is an abomination to H’ your God, all who do these,
all who do this injustice.

This verse is the conclusion of a section that discusses corrupt business practices.

יא   וְאִישׁ | אֶת-אֵשֶׁת רֵעֵהוּ עָשָֹה תּוֹעֵבָה וְאִישׁ אֶת-כַּלָּתוֹ טִמֵּא בְזִמָּה וְאִישׁ אֶת-אֲחֹתוֹ בַת-אָבִיו עִנָּה-בָךְ

V’ish et eishet rei’eihu asah to’eivah, v’ish et kalato timei v’zimah, v’ish et ahoto bat-aviv ‘inah vakh.

Ez. 22:11 A man (who has relations with) the wife of his fellow committed an abomination, and a man (who has relations with) his daughter-in-law defiles her with depravity, and a man (who has relations with) his sister, daughter of his father, has humiliated you.

This section explores idolatry and sexual depravity that occurred in the Land of Israel, for which Ezekiel is bringing rebuke. Those who have studied Lev. Chapter 18 know that it discusses a whole host of sexual acts that most find troubling.  These surround rape and incest. By that context, Lev. 18:21 (child sacrifice) and Lev. 18:22 (gay sex) which don’t really fit overtly, must still fit.  So those verses are talking about very depraved acts, likely surrounding cultic practices, as discussed.

We see that acts of incest are also called To’eivah – abomination, as are unethical business dealings.  B-D-B also cite other verses surrounding sexual immorality using this word. We have heard unethical business dealings called “worshipping Mammon”, a form of idolatry as well.

I doubt there are very many around today who would say that cheating at business deals, rape, incest and child sacrifice are good things.  Most would agree they are reprehensible acts.  But we still have Lev. 18:22, regarding gay sex in this mix.  Using these contexts, one might also infer that Lev. 18:22 is discussing some kind of family violation, or that it involves some kind of corrupt business dealing, such as selling a man into sexual slavery.
But what would seem very clear, from all the possibilities I’ve provided in the past sections and this one, is that for something to rise to the level of abomination means it must be truly horrible.  Gay sex just isn’t at that level.

The difficulty with Hebrew Bible is that we cannot KNOW with certainty why anything is prohibited. We can make inferences.  So, for instance, there are those who will say that pork is prohibited because of trichinosis, but that isn’t the reason. It’s a spiritual reason, and one that we don’t know.

Likewise, we really can’t KNOW why Bible prohibits any of the verses I’ve explored over the last several sections.  However, what the rabbinic explorations of these verses have in common, is that we are talking about huge levels of depravity, to the point of selling your child for sexual slavery or burning them alive.  

Clearly, aside from the reality that we, as transgender people are commanded to LIVE (as are all people) and so we are told that some things can be superseded, the verses we’ve explored discuss really awful things, things one might do in the heat of idolatrous fervor, for example.  Carrying out certain acts so that we can live are not only allowed by the commandment to live, but as I’ve shown, for the reasons we do them, they aren’t really prohibited anyway, and are really required.


Rabbah Rona Matlow, MAJEd, MAJS, MEM © 2016

[1] Brown et al, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 2000. P. 1073a.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My Great Journey Part 8F

My Great Journey Part 8F

In the previous section, we explored the specific Biblical commandments that impact on transgender living, and how we can see, through classical interpretation, that they really do allow for being a transgender person.  In this section, I’d like to explore what is likely the most unpopular verse in all of Torah (and it’s repeated in the Christian Bible and the Qur’an as well).

ואת זכר לא תשכב משכבי אשה תועבה הוא:

V’et zakhar lo tishkav, mish’k’vei ishah, to'eivah hee.

And (you, male) do not have (penetrating) sex (lit. lie down) with (another) man, in the WAYS of having penetrating sex with a woman; it is an abomination.

On the surface, this seems to be saying that men should never have sex with men. But this really requires exploration.

To do that first requires exploring a rabbinic tool of Biblical Exegesis. 

רבי ישמעאל אומר בשלש עשרה מדות התורה נדרשת...

 דבר הלמד מעניהו ודבר הלמד מסופו

Sifra – Leviticus, 1:1: Rabbi Yishmael omer b'sh'losh esreih midot haTorah nidreshet...

Davar halameid mei’inyano v’davar halameid misofo

Rabbi Ishamael states that Torah can be interpreted in 13 ways (including)...An item that is explained by its context or the passage that follows.

So, let’s take a look at Leviticus 18:21:

כא   וּמִזַּרְעֲךָ לֹא-תִתֵּן לְהַעֲבִיר לַמֹּלֶךְ וְלֹא תְחַלֵּל אֶת-שֵׁם אֱלֹקיךָ אֲנִי ה':

U’mi’zar’akha lo titein l’ha’a’vir l’molekh, v’lo t’haleil et Sheim El-kekha, ani H’.

Do not cause (lit. give) your children to pass (through fire) to Molekh, and do not disgrace the name of your God, I am H’.

It is not clear what or who Molekh was, but what is clear is that this is a cultic ritual, that Torah believes was committed in the Land of Canaan.  Multiple times in this section of Torah, we are commanded not to follow the cultic rituals of Egypt and Canaan.

By the law of context, one must infer, then, that 18:22, which immediately follows this obvious cultic practice, must be referring to a cultic practice as well.  Many rabbis in modern times have addressed this interpretation of our verse.  If it is about cultic practices it is certainly not about private sex between two partners. 

Further, in the following verses, the Torah states that the inhabitants of the Land are expelled for performing To’eivot, the plural of To’eivah in our verse.  The context is clear that this is about cultic practices.

But there is another textual issue with our verse as well, which leaves it open to exploration.  If you were to ask any Orthodox rabbi they would tell you that this verse is clear and unambiguous, and that it means private penetrating sex between two men.  However, I respectfully disagree.  Had the verse simply said: 

ואת זכר לא תשכב, תועבה הוא:

V’et zakar lo tishkav; to’eivah hee.

You (man) are not to have penetrating sex with another man, it is an abomination.

This then would be clear and unambiguous. But our verse has a strange phrase in it:

משכבי אשה

Mis’k’vei Isha

The Ways of having sex with a woman...

What does this mean?!  A woman has three organs that can be penetrated by a phallus: The mouth, the anus (in common with men) AND the vagina.  Men do not have a vagina.  So, how can they have sex in the (all the) WAYS of having sex with a woman?  So let’s explore a commentary:

Rabbeinu Hananeil[1] states regarding our verse:

יש מי שיחדש בגופו לצורת אשה.

Yeish mee sh’y’hadeish b’gufo l’tzurat ishah.

There (could be) a man who changes his body to the form of a woman.

This is extraordinary! Rabbeinu Hananeil is proposing, in the Tenth Century, that someone might have Gender Confirming Surgery...  

And let’s dig a little deeper. Ibn Ezra[2] goes further with this comment:

יש מי שיחדש בגופו לצורת אשה, וזה לא יתכן בתולדה.

...V’zeh lo yitakhein b’toldah

...This cannot happen in Nature.

Ibn Ezra ultimately goes on to reject this idea for other reasons as well, however there is a super-commentary to this comment:

והתורה לא תאסור מה שאיננו בטבע.[3]

V’haTorah lo te’esor mah she’eineinu b’teva.

And the Torah DOES NOT prohibit what cannot be in nature.

This is absolutely extraordinary.  This super-commentary is saying that the Torah does not prohibit things that can’t happen in nature.  To be fair, we can’t possibly know what any of these great rabbis would say about Gender Confirming Surgery if they lived in the 21st Century with us.

What is clear, however, is that there are problems with our verse. Classical and modern rabbis have worked hard to find what this verse really means, because of the odd phrase “In the ways of having sex with a woman”. 

The bottom line is, however, that I think we can safely say that neither gay sex, nor gender confirming surgery, in order to live in the way God created us (c.f Part 8A of this series), is a sin or an abomination.  We are commanded to live, so live we must.  To not transition is NOT to live.  It is merely to exist, and it is hell...[4]

Rabbah Rona Matlow, MAJEd, MAJS, MEM © 2016

[1] Chananel ben Chushiel, 10th Century Tunisia
[2] Abrahan son of Ezra, 11th Century Spain
[3] Chumash Torat Chaim. Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook. 1990. P.168
[4] C.F. Through the Door of Life. Professor Joy Ladin. Madison WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2012 for more on the idea of living rather than merely existing. I think Prof. Ladin’s book truly exemplifies the hell that transgender and transsexual people go through before being able to be themselves.