For the second in our LGBT interview series, I’m joined by the inspirational Rabbi Mike Moskowitz: an orthodox rabbi who advocates for the transgender community within Jewish spaces and organisations.
Hayden Cohen 0:00
Hello and welcome to The Bagel Bite with me, Hayden Cohen. This is the second in our LGBT interview series. But before we get onto that, I wanted to share a couple of responses from the first LGBT episode. I received an email from one of the subscribers to the newsletter saying the following. ‘How low, sick, and disgusting to associate anything Jewish with these disturbed freaks. They should be ignored, not given any credence. Very shameful of you to entertain them’. I was sad to see that lack of empathy so I responded “And I’m not going to stop. The primary directive of Judaism is to be a Mensch (a good person). You’ve just committed a Chillul Hashem (a crime against G-d). Any G-d who would call anyone a disturbed freak, is a G-d I reject. Thank you for listening. Suffice to say they unsubscribed from the mailing list, as did one of their friends. If you would like to balance out their hatred and receive notifications of new episodes, a chance to give your input to the show, and begin with a shot at winning some prizes in the very near future, sign up at bagelpodcast.com. Does this mean I’m now exploiting the LGBT community like so many businesses? Well, at least The Bagel logo isn’t a rainbow. Best not to think too much about it. To balance out this hate, an Orthodox Rabbi got in touch with me to say that during Simchat Torah, the festival where we celebrate the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah, every male gets called up for an aaliyah. Let’s not get into the quagmire of why not women? That’s a broigus for another day, but there was an individual in attendance at their shul, their Orthodox shul, who was a transgender man. And this Rabbi gave them an aaliyah because it was the decent thing to do to make the service as inclusive as possible. Even better, our next guest helped to provide the Orthodox religious framework to make this happen. Even if the Chief Rabbi doesn’t allow it… yet. Times are achanging. Rabbi Mike Moskovitz is a true mensch. As an Orthodox rabbi, he advocates for the rights of the transgender Jewish community. And luckily for me, he is both earnest and has a great sense of humour. Hope you enjoy.
Hayden Cohen 2:30
I suppose what I’d like to know is your story. Right? So, how have you come to be sat here in the finest seat in the world here on The Bagel Podcast?
Mike Moskowitz 2:41
That’s such a wonderful question. I was just lucky, I suppose. Not everybody can sit in this chair at this moment. It’s been a journey. There’s a way in which for me, it feels very linear that at 17 I came out as Orthodox and was motivated —
Hayden Cohen 2:59
You love saying that. How many times a day do you do that line?
Mike Moskowitz 3:04
Because I think there are lessons to learn, that even academics don’t appreciate the Born This Way mentality, right? Because it minimises a lot. But, within the Jewish world, we recognise that there’s tremendous space for growth and evolution. A person can be assigned, not Jewish and say like, I feel Jewish, I really want to be Jewish. We say “Fantastic there’s some paperwork, you go to the mikvah, whatever, we’ll make it happen.” But nobody’s saying, “Well, no, no, you don’t understand, your fixed. You’re born this way. And so like, you have to die that way. It’s just not a Jewish value.” We find this throughout our tradition, that sometimes it could be in a perceived contradiction between the physical and the spiritual, especially here where the day is so short, right? In the winter, it’s like there’s like no daylight. It’s amazing, right? But in the reverse, where like Shabbos could start 10 o’clock at night, and you want to have, so you can take in Shabbos early, right, but the sun’s out, but it’s Shabbos, so how come we’re not saying that? I don’t understand. How he told me that it’s shabbos? I see the sun. We’re not bothered by that. So, I think by talking about You know, being assigned secular coming out as orthodox, right? There’s a way in which it elevates the speech, the language and also lets it be much more relatable that we’re all trying to figure out who we are in relationship with G-d and want to be present in the most authentic and genuine space. So for me, at 17 trying to find meaning and purpose and there’s so much pain and suffering in the world. There’s so much pain and suffering in the world. So why are we all here? And why is it worth it? None of us get out of it alive. And so trying to kind of see that darkness as an invitation to be the light and do something about it put me on the journey in the trajectory to go to yeshiva, I learned in Lake Wood, New Jersey and in Jerusalem for about a decade. And then 20 years later, 37 I was a rabbi at Columbia University. I was the Rabbi of The Old Broadway Synagogue in Harlem.
Hayden Cohen 4:41
I kind of want to go back a bit, but I feel like you’ve skipped. I’ve had the same conversations in my head, right? In terms of you know, when I was a teenager, and you have probably very similar conversations you had with yourself, right?
Mike Moskowitz 4:58
Hayden Cohen 4:59
But I am not here with a black beard and a black hat, right?
Mike Moskowitz 5:02
Hayden Cohen 5:03
Those thoughts could have manifested themselves in a million different ways.
Mike Moskowitz 5:06
Hayden Cohen 5:07
Why was becoming frum and orthodox frum, why was that the decision for you?
Hayden Cohen 5:15
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the open mindedness to explore it and the willingness to sacrifice the first 17 years. I was supposed to go to college and then go to law school. My father’s a doctor, there was like a very natural progression of what everybody else was doing from just being passive. And I think for me, being able to see that one second, maybe that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing just because everybody else is doing it. I wanted to align myself and affiliate and associate with those who are taking the thing that I thought was the most important the most seriously. And so for me, in that moment, it meant like I need to go to yeshiva and I need to learn it all. I know nothing. And so you know, when I finally got there to yeshiva, not really knowing even all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, I realised that if I was going to take this seriously, and for me at the moment, it felt like being alive in relationship with G-d and answering this question of what does G-d want from me right now, required access to information that I could not rely on somebody else to be able to provide. And so I decided like, okay, so I’m not gonna go to college, I’m going to go to Yeshiva. And so like I’m signing for four years, and I’m gonna sign it for four years and I need to make a profession out of it, because how can I justify investing so much time in that and so I went —
Hayden Cohen 6:20
Literally that quick?
Mike Moskowitz 6:22
In that moment. I’ll tell you where I was. I was in West Virginia. The background is that I was dating a girl in high school who’s not Jewish, a wonderful woman of colour. Some people in my family weren’t thrilled and thought that I should meet some nice Jewish girls and so they set me up to go to USY, the conservative movement youth group, just as a way of dating somebody Jewish and it worked. I met a lovely Jewish girl who is now a woman and happily married. I think still somewhere in that area and at a Shabbaton in West Virginia and USY, she was part of this Abraham Joshua Heschel Honour Society. I wasn’t cool enough to be in it, so there was a moment where I was waiting outside of this thing, she was in there, there was nothing to do or read. There was no such thing as cell phones at the time. But there was a siddur and in the siddur, the Sim Shalom siddur, they had Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. And so I started reading it. And it was literally a moment. I was like, “Oh, right! This world’s really broken and we’re supposed to do something about it. And like, that’s why we’re here. We’re here to partner with G-d to make the world better.
Hayden Cohen 7:22
Why not work for a charity?
Hayden Cohen 7:24
Yeah. I guess at 17 I was really idealistic. And I was just like, yeah, of course, like “duh!”, like good. So I’m now going to go on a different path and ironically broke up with her because I really you know —
Hayden Cohen 7:36
She wasn’t frum enough?
Mike Moskowitz 7:37
She was frum enough? (BOTH LAUGH) That’s exactly right. That’s exactly what happened. She was not thrilled. She was not thrilled.
Hayden Cohen 7:45
“I found someone else. G-d.”
Mike Moskowitz 7:46
That’s right. I’m gonna be walking long walks with G-d in the park these days. Candlelight dinners, you know how it is. Friday night. So yeah, and so that was it. And I really like for 20 years when all in, in that world. Doing all the things that you’re supposed to do, had wonderful teachers. It was lonely because culturally, it wasn’t my world. I saw it very much as a means to an end. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life after. Did I want to become the head of a yeshiva? Did I want to have a synagogue? Did I want to go into Jewish outreach or to become a rabbi that does education? It wasn’t clear, at all. And I obsessed about it. What should I do? Because if I want to do this, then I should try to study this. And never could have imagined that this is where I was going to end up. But thank G-d, you know, studying the Talmud before I left yeshiva, and really having the privilege to be in the company of amazing people. And then at 37 I felt like the same sensation that I felt at 17 like what am I doing? Why am I here? What does G-d want for me? And I think that same open mindedness allowed me to then like, again, say, okay, so it’s gonna look really different. I don’t know what it’s gonna look like they’re gonna be consequences, but it ended well when I did it at 17. And this will end well because I feel like I’m on a path
Hayden Cohen 8:53
So what was that change?
Hayden Cohen 8:55
So I started getting involved in trans advocacy when someone in my own family transitioned. And I had no idea what or how to be supportive. I didn’t know what that meant. Somebody said to me, “I’m not a girl, I’m a boy.” And I said, “Well, I know how I’m a boy. How do you know that you’re a boy? It’s not the same way.” And the person said, “No, I just am.” And, I wanted to be supportive and had no idea how to do it. I reached out to my rabbis, really wonderful people who also were like, “Yeah, I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve never gotten this question before. But it doesn’t sound like you know, like it’s healthy” was basically the approach. I reached out to the Gender Studies Department at Columbia, met a wonderful group of academics and trans-folks and then trans-Jews and then my synagogue started to attract more trans-Jews that knew that it was a safe space and about a year into it I was writing for Keshet, which is in America out of Boston, an LGBT Jewish organization. I was writing under a pseudonym
Hayden Cohen 9:48
There’s Keshet in the UK as well.
Mike Moskowitz 9:49
Yeah. I don’t know if their connected or not. But the rainbow and Hebrew was was a popular right.
Hayden Cohen 9:55
What should I say? Just before you go on, I knew this was coming and that, you know, this is your topic. And just for the listeners basically, and I think there’s a, an acknowledgement that we kind of have to make here, that we are two straight white guys —
Mike Moskowitz 10:15
Hayden Cohen 10:16
Cisgender, talking about this topic. I, as the kind of host acknowledge that there could be a potential, you know, issue without acknowledging it. It is the elephant in the room. But at the same time, we can talk about these things, and anybody else if anybody’s listening to this, who wants to be represented and isn’t, I’m always up for having those interviews and those discussions and I’m open to that 100% and I just don’t want it to feel like it’s two blokes talking about this.
Hayden Cohen 10:48
Absolutely. It’s awkward.
Hayden Cohen 10:50
Mike Moskowitz 10:50
it’s absolutely awkward. And it’s something that I deal with every single day. I’m the Scholar in Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at the world’s largest LGBT synagogue in New York City, CBST, and I’m not trans nor am I queer. And for me, it feels less awkward to be silent. This is awkward, but it’s less awkward than the awkwardness of being silent because the world’s broken and allyship was predicated on the reality that the world is broken. If we could see each other as equals, then we wouldn’t need to stand up for each other. So, the goal of all of this advocacy work and allyship work, which is how identify, I identify as an ally, is to become as obsolete as quickly as possible. That because of my education and right wing Lithuanian yeshivas, there isn’t a trans-man that could have this position that I have because they’re not allowed in yeshivas. And also women don’t get the education in that world. And so the scholarship piece is the piece that allows me to do this work without that guilt. We’re hosting a conference, the first ever trans-Jewish convening of its type, and it’s all trans-led. And so part of the role of the ally is to amplify the voice so that first person narrative and to give more visibility and more exposure, so I’m so happy that you’re going to have hopefully trans folks on and would very much like to stay in my lane of allyship and the voice of a family member of somebody who’s trans and also the rabbinic voice. And so those are voices that feel very authentic to me. And bringing awareness to these issues with these topics within the Jewish world, I think is really important. And for the trans and gender non-conforming folks who are listening, know that we see you, we love you, we want to hear from you. There is space, G-d does not put extra people in this world, G-d does not make mistakes. And G-d willing, one of you will have my job soon.
Hayden Cohen 12:32
And I’d also like to say that The Bagel Podcast has no editorial oversight from anyone other than me. And my decision on that is, I just want to hear I want to hear your voice. I want to hear what you have to say. I want to ask what does the Torah say about trans?
Hayden Cohen 12:51
Beautiful. So what’s really interesting is that I think since the creation of people there hasn’t been a day that was free from the trans experience. The very first person to transition was Adam: was made in the image of G-d and then transitions from being Adam to being Ish V’isha – man and woman.
Hayden Cohen 13:08
Love it. Absolutely love it.
Mike Moskowitz 13:11
And that’s true, right?
Hayden Cohen 13:11
Mike Moskowitz 13:12
Rashi even says the medieval commentator that we see that G-d created this world through the Hebrew language because etymologically the word for men and women ish and isha are related, because physically they’re related that one came from the other. And for me, I understand that as Adam being in the image of G-d, and our tradition, G-d is very gendered in terms of attributes. Our father, our King, and also in the feminine, but G-d doesn’t have a body. So where does gender lie? That’s an important question. I don’t know that we have the answer to it. But if it exists on a soul level, which I think it does, it can give us new opportunities to have conversations about gender based spiritual practice. And also we can recognise that Adam and Eve were kind of the binaries of the poles of masculine and feminine. And we all have blending unique aspects of all the different souls and so for some of us, we feel tension in the way in which our body presents, the way in which we were assigned, and the way in which we’re able to kind of experience gender and for some of us don’t. And for some people, there’s no tension, we transition in all of the different manifestations. But for me, I think that what the Torah says more importantly than that meta question of where gender lies is how we as a community have a responsibility to support individuals to make sure that there’s a safe space.
Hayden Cohen 14:19
Do you find though that if you say, take the traditional Rabbinic line of things like say, “Go forth and multiply”, right. And that can be an issue and, you know, I would imagine, especially in say, the really Orthodox communities, that can be a serious issue, right? Because that’s kind of the driving force. How are issues like that dealt? How would you deal with those?
Mike Moskowitz 14:44
It’s a great question. So just to clarify, for the listeners, gender identity and sexual orientation obviously are different. Someone who’s asexual is not free from gender. So if you let’s say you have a trans man marrying a trans woman, right, that still supports a hetero normative space and people can still conceive and in fact, in America now there’s a shift around language away from language of like feminine hygiene products, because there’s some trans men that need them. And so the work that I do is trying to separate out the homophobia and transphobia, from within orthodoxy, because I don’t think that G-d is a misogynist, and I don’t think that G-d is homophobic or transphobic. And, we’re all in a relationship with G-d. And each one of us needs to ask, like, what does G-d want for me? And we each have access to all that information. So for the trans experience to be seen, there needs to be a recognition that men and women are different in some way, or else there’s no space to transition. That being said, there’s a lot in the world, that’s toxic masculinity. That’s patriarchy. That’s not part of our tradition. That’s misogyny. And so we need to separate out the things which are true to gender, and not just the social construction, and it’s tricky —
Hayden Cohen 15:50
But did you also bring in all the, what seems to be talked about more and more about non gendered and that kind of adds another layer of complexity to it.
Mike Moskowitz 15:59
Absolutely and you know every Shomnei Eessary every prayer that we offer starts with at least five Gods– My G-d, the G-d of my ancestors G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and Jacob and some at so there’s a recognition that there’s only one G-d and we’re each at different moments in a different type of relationship for some people their G-d is a gender neutral G-d Of course my G-d’s not gendered. For me personally, my my god is an old gender G-d. And so like that’s up to the individual and I think that there’s like,
Hayden Cohen 16:26
But is it? so if you open up a siddur, prayer book, anything? It’s He he he he he, talking about God it’s never she’s never it just never them, you know, the pronoun is He.
Hayden Cohen 16:37
Very often and it certainly speaks to certain aspects of G-d. There are other ones like the shekhinah, which are very feminine when we talk about G-d as the bal haracharyamim, the Merciful One, the word there is the root there’s rechem womb, the one who gave birth, hamakom, the omnipresent which is also the consoling one. macam is a euphemism for the female anatomy right? The Birth of a Nation right is a very feminine Part of the exodus of Egypt which is that you’d see all the going out of its tremendous language of narrowness like the birth canal. So i think that you know, the root of the word Muna faith comes from that word a mother so there again I think there are aspects which are part of our the vengeful wrathful G-d on some level exists so that we don’t have to be vengeful and wrathful because G-d’s gonna take care of it right G-d can be the judge so I don’t have to right and so in that way they’re masculine components but you know, and I think when I first got to you Shiva mine was a do this or burn type G-d and through you know, the last 20 some years mine is a much more compassionate nurturing, forgiving, you know, comforting you’re doing the very best you can type G-d
Hayden Cohen 16:40
So how, how do you reconcile that so I know Like for example, I’ve I’ve always, well, not always, but recently, I’ve come to this conclusion that if G-d is a homophobic G-d, that is not a god I want to believe in but then I have the freedom to do that. Because I’m not a rabbi. Right? Right. So, so I can I can effectively Say, say what I want, you know, and in fact, there is a session I do called the philosophy of cherry picking about, you know, how and why we choose what we do. But I have that freedom, whereas, you don’t to a certain extent, you know, because when, when you are an orthodox rabbi, there’s a certain list of things they have to seek often, and I’m sure you know, not to put words in, but I’m sure there’s certain things that you have massive difficulties with, but I don’t have to reconcile those in a way because I am a cherry picking Jew, I don’t have to. How do you reconcile those issues?
Hayden Cohen 17:49
That’s a great question. I think that there’s an objective and absolute truth about G-d, in that either G-d exists or G-d doesn’t exist and certainly not gonna be dependent on my belief, right? So either G-d is homophobic or G-d isn’t. And it doesn’t make a difference how many articles I write or how I reframe it, right how many speeches either G-d is G-d isn’t I don’t believe that G-d is. And I think that
Hayden Cohen 19:03
Mike Moskowitz 19:05
I guess what? We have to define terms there was just an incident in America with a an orthodox lesbian comedian that got thrown out of a.
Hayden Cohen 19:15
Hayden Cohen 19:16
So in response, I
Hayden Cohen 19:18
Can we just quickly just
Hayden Cohen 19:19
Yeah, so a wonderful woman, Leah Forster is a comedian and she had booked a venue that had a hasgacha, a rabbinic supervision over the Kashrus. And the allegedly, the Kashrus organisation told the venue that if you allow her to perform here, we’re going to take away your certification,
Hayden Cohen 19:38
Allegedly or is that been?
Mike Moskowitz 19:40
I think it’s under investigation.
Hayden Cohen 19:41
Okay, fine, fine, fine, allegedly. Thank you. I appreciate it.
Hayden Cohen 19:45
You don’t need
Hayden Cohen 19:46
Hayden Cohen 19:47
And so in response, I pointed out in a speech, that if anything, the Torah is heterophobic, right? The prohibitions that the Torah has, for single, for men and women not to be alone together, lest something happens or even non sexual platonic touch lest something happens, right? We don’t find that. So I think if there are lines that the Torah has drawn to help guide us in a path to be in a healthy relationship with G-d. There’s a different set of lines that humans have drawn to make us feel more comfortable about who we are. Right? And so I think one of the questions that we need to ask and I’m happy to send you the speech, I give examples, right? And there was for example, you know, if you’re willing to say Good Shabbosi s to somebody as they get out of their car Saturday morning, but you’re not willing to, even though their shabbos is is a different shabbos than yours, but you’re not willing to say, Mazel Tov to two men, even though that their marriage is a different marriage. Like why can you say Good Shabbos and not Mazel Tov, there’s a person I must have, even if it’s, it’s, it’s a heteronormative couple, and they’re living together, right? So you have no problem saying Mazel to them, even though maybe she’s not going to the mikvah, or like she’s not doing they’re not doing the things that you would expect in an orthodox space. And that’s our own homophobia. There’s nothing to do with G-d.
Hayden Cohen 20:50
Mike Moskowitz 20:51
So I think
Hayden Cohen 20:52
Because, Is it like, Is there a priority list? Is there an order of mitzvot of good deeds? Is there a hierarchy? a Top Trumps?
Hayden Cohen 21:01
So, what’s interesting is that, you know, the Talmud often asks, you know, so if you have to distill it down to like one mitzvah, what’s the mitzvah? Right? And there’s all these different conversations, allowing people like not being a jerk is essentially what it all boils down to it right? Don’t be a jerk. So whether it’s in the positive, it’s in the negative, you know, we all do the very best we can and everybody struggles in different ways. For some people, who are gay, what they think that that verse says to them, and the space that they exist in, is one of the struggle for celibacy that for them feels like the holiest place. And they wouldn’t want someone to come along and say, You know what, no, it’s all good. You can do whatever you want. Because for them, their identity is walking with G-d as in that space of tension for other people with the exact same verse, right interpreted sin, you know, that’s it’s framed in a heteronormative space that if a guy is normally with men, he should also be with women, right? Because it’s not cool to misrepresent himself. And there are others that do other things to the verses and other people have different traditions of what it means
Hayden Cohen 21:56
Because as a rabbi is a part of you that kind Have wishes that more people would obsess about other phrases as much as they obsess about that one?
Hayden Cohen 22:08
Yes. And I think that one of the great examples is about speaking lashon hara, not speaking bad, you know? So right there 36 different….
Hayden Cohen 22:16
However fun It might be. (Laughs)
Mike Moskowitz 22:19
(Laughs )So in America and might have even made it here there was an organisation was called the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation and they had this initiative, to take one hour a day and not speak badly. And I remember growing up people be like, Oh, no, you gotta save it. This is my hour and it’s just so strange. So we used to joke you know, that better
Hayden Cohen 22:20
That’s a serious thing.
Mike Moskowitz 22:34
that’s a serious thing
Hayden Cohen 22:36
So, everyone was that horrible about everybody else. They even one hour (Laughs)
Mike Moskowitz 22:38
was a struggle. and then people would take an hour, you know, my hours gonna be like three to four in the morning, right? So we used to joke better to take one hour, Right? My, my initiatives gonna be 23 times better. I’m gonna take one hour I’m gonna speak all the lashon hara and then for the other 23, I’m going to be a Tzaddik, right? So we can joke about it right? Because we all do it. Right? So what feel embarrassed about speaking badly because we all speak lashon hara. But could you imagine if a person had a sweatshirt that said no, this is my hour not to have gay sex, right? Like you couldn’t do that. But what I don’t understand this is one this is 36 Okay, but this is what I do and I don’t like to feel bad and we can’t say that you can do it for one hour because you’re not supposed to. So there are a lot of examples where we have you know, it’s not new Abraham he
Hayden Cohen 23:21
reminded me of one. I was in in shul on Rosh Hashanah, the synagogue for Rosh Hashanah. And and the rabbi did this sermon, about when you’re one step family member dies that you’re not bound by the laws of Halacha. So, and I know, it’s all about positive comments, all the negative, but I did I did joke to my mum on the way out I went in the 50 and 100 years when you pass and I will be beyond sad. I’ve heard pork crackling is rather nice. She wasn’t impressed. I
Hayden Cohen 23:50
Wasn’t impressed. Yeah, yeah, I get that. So, yes, you know, we all look for opportunities to fulfill things that we feel constricted. Because in our relationship with G-d, there’s an ask G-d has expectations. And sometimes they’re difficult. But if we really want people to be in an authentic and genuine relationship with G-d, we need to give people the space to make those those choices. But this struggle of like justif, justifying the lines that we draw, and we all draw lines is not new. Abraham tells Sarah, when he’s going to go to the king. Tell them that you’re my sister, because if we tell them that you’re my wife, they’re gonna kill you. They’ll kill me. So it’s very strange that they were particular about adultery, but they weren’t particular about murder. Right? So those are like some squiggly lines. And they also just said it in the name of G-d that no, how could you not tell us? We’re holy people, right there holy people who are going to kill right and we’re not to commit adultery. So that’s part of the human experience. We all draw lines?Right? And so I think naming the fact that we’ve made homophobia and not G-d, that’s a social construction. Are you afraid I work in the world’s largest LGBT synagogue, it’s a queer space, there’s a glitter in my beard periodically doesn’t come out very easily. It’s an amazing group of people and it’s a mixture between queer and straight folks. But I’m surrounded by queer people all day. I am as straight now as I was in high school, and it’s just not something that we need to be afraid of people are who they are. And they get to choose what they want to do with that. And that’s something that we need to respect.
Hayden Cohen 25:14
So are you are you part of any sect or part of you? And it’s kind of follow on from that? How do your rabbinic colleagues react to your chosen focus at the moment?
Mike Moskowitz 25:31
It’s a great question. So I identify as Yeshivish, meaning that I feel that that group of people most naturally aligned in the way in which I see the world in terms of the the devotion to learning into spiritual practice. I think it’s a little too inwardly focused, and is it a little more focused in spreading that light to the universe. There’s a mixture of people who are really in opposition, particularly. There are some who are very much not in opposition. I like (Laughs)
Hayden Cohen 26:03
(Laughs) Chicken, I’m calling you out.
Hayden Cohen 26:05
Okay, So, it’s interesting how like, who feels so motivated? There’s a term in America the alt-right. So the alt-ight is not a big fan of me. They call me, you know, fake orthodox and fake Rabbi and these things. Within Mainstream Centrist Orthodoxy,
Hayden Cohen 26:24
I think you should get t shirts. Get a badge. That’s a badge of honour.
Hayden Cohen 26:27
No, it’s true. You know, somebody from the Orthodox Union wrote, I don’t know that he was representing the Orthodox Union when He did this but somebody who’s affiliated with it, wrote an article against me and some other fine Jews, Seth Farber, and Dasi Fruchter and some wonderful people, and said that I advocate for cross dressing in sames in illicit relationships. Now, anyone who’s familiar with any of us knows that like wearing misgendered clothing exists independent of any sort of relationship, illicit or others and gender identities. So, it becomes a way to have a national So I gave a speech after and it got out there on the Facebook world and the internet but naming that you can’t answer a question. So you know the reality and so like if you’ve never met a trans person, right, you don’t understand how these things are two separate tracks. Right? So then you’re just showing your ignorance in the opposition. Within Mainstream Centrist Orthodoxy, I think everybody acknowledges that the rabbis have been horrifically negligent. Like on a malpractice level, the standard response to a guy who comes to his rebbe says, Rebbe, you don’t understand like I’m attracted to men I’m not attracted to women. So their standard response is ‘Okay, so you marry a really pretty woman and then like, you’ll see it’ll be okay’. It doesn’t work that way.
Hayden Cohen 27:36
Isn’t it beyond that though? So i’m not i’m not i’m not sure whether it’s kind of an anti trans thing. It’s more of, this is what we see an idyllic family to be.
Mike Moskowitz 27:48
Hayden Cohen 27:49
And I think even beyond thatanother even beyond, it’s issues with couples have struggled to have kids it’s it’s it’s issues with it, then it was decided to have kids it’s it’s issues with She’s of colour and if you
Hayden Cohen 28:01
look right, right, able bodied people, right, right.
Hayden Cohen 28:04
Yeah. Anything beyond that and have rant about intersexuality that are that is also problematic. So intersexuality, just in one sentence is the idea that if you support one thing, you support all the rest. There are issues with that, but it kind of does.
Hayden Cohen 28:20
Yeah, there’s a way in which yeshivas really cater to like that top 1%. Like the goal, is really to try to produce the best Rabbi and rabbinic leader. And so that looks like in that world, like something very, very, very, very specific.
Hayden Cohen 28:35
I’m still fasc…. I know. We covered it, but I’m still fascinated by this idea that, yeshiva is designed to make people think in a certain way. So it is, I think, I think yeshivas will be quite open about that. And you’ve accepted that to a degree, because you know, you’re here now with a beard and a hat and ya know. But then you’ve also, rejected part of that idea as well, in terms of you’ve gone Well, the logic that you’ve espoused here doesn’t prevent me from advocating for trans rights.
Hayden Cohen 29:04
That’s correct. In fact, for me, motivates me. Right other words, that same mentality. So
Hayden Cohen 29:09
how many others are there like you?
Mike Moskowitz 29:11
I think they’re all in the closet. (Laughs)
Hayden Cohen 29:15
Mike Moskowitz 29:16
Yes, but it’s true. So I guess this is what, I’ll try to give this better language. (sighs). When we talk about systems of oppression, there’s a way in which Judaism sees equality as liberation, especially for those who are accustomed to discrimination. To Say this differently. Yeah, for those who are accustomed to discrimination, equality feels like liberation. There is a huge space. And it really is a power dynamic, that the yeshiva world hoards, all sorts of assets in terms of knowledge, in terms of access, in terms of power, right, it’s a theocracy. It’s a top down model. And so, there’s a way in which especially after World War II, from those ashes, there was a fear, how are we ever going to rebuild? And so we’re not going to be a light unto the nations, we’re not even going to be light unto the neighbourhood, right? That’s next to us. We’re going to like hoard it, and we’re going to focus and we’re going to hermetically seal it, and we’re going to prevent– It’s like we push pause, like 1880 was a good year. And we push pause. And we want to get back to that space. It’s reactionary, as so much of religion is. It’s why we don’t study prophets or Hebrew grammar because of the enlightenment. And so, at the intersection of tradition and innovation, is a lot of tension. If you change the rules too much, it’s a different game. If you don’t adapt, no one’s gonna show up to play. And so, and this is the struggle that most movements have to varying degrees. Right? If you’re on the far left. So the far right, drew these lines with Sharpies. Big thick, Sharpies, and you can’t move them. The far left doesn’t have them. Right? So like today, there’s a new thing. Okay. So good. Fantastic. It’s all good. And it floats and it goes out and there’s no tension.
Hayden Cohen 30:53
Oh, I’m not sure. I agree. I think I think that the far left can be quite intolerant actually.
Hayden Cohen 30:59
It can be very intolerant, but I don’t think it struggles with the intersection of tradition and innovation.
Hayden Cohen 31:04
Hey, is that is that true?
Hayden Cohen 31:04
Mike Moskowitz 31:04
We innovate all the we want. I mean because, we don’t feel bound for them. Meaning if you think of like the Reform Movement, the way it was originally about taking off, like you weren’t allowed to wear tallit or tefillin, like you needed to eat pork, right. There was no tension there. There was a like a jettison, you know, so because
Mike Moskowitz 31:11
I mean (Laughs)
Hayden Cohen 31:16
(Laughs) I feel like that’s the Orthodox Rabbi coming out.
Hayden Cohen 31:26
Well, some of my best friends are reform rabbis.
Hayden Cohen 31:28
Mike Moskowitz 31:28
Right. So but then the conservative movement, I think, struggles with this actually, because of that space of wanting it both ways. There’s some squiggly lines, right? They’ve redrawn lines around marriage–between people the same gender, but they haven’t redrawn those lines around the intermarriage. Right? And if you if you want to have a posture of egalitarianism, so then how are you still holding by patrilineal, you know, matrilineal descent, if men or women are exactly the same with it. So like it’s all I’m saying is it’s not a judgment, it’s just a squiggly. In that space, in particular, they’re squiggly. So the far right drew the really permanent ones, the far left, maybe they’re in pencil, whatever that is, and in the middle there squigglies They’re actually like, in tremendous tension often.
Hayden Cohen 31:53
Oh, Tell me about it.
Mike Moskowitz 32:04
Right. And that’s, it’s a tricky place to be, you know, and because the world is changing so quickly, those bigger ships cannot steer fast enough to keep up until you have all of this kind of autonomous pop up things, you know, lab shoul, and other things that are. The other thing is that we’re acknowledging and observing a lot of blending of things that never went together. There’s queer Talmud, there’s queer mix of other things that never met. And so for me, I think, pressing the pause button, so it says, so it’s play is really just applying that tradition and that rabbinic methodology and sources to a typography that hasn’t yet been acknowledged. So I think we’re meant to live in present tense, I think that if we want the term to be alive, we need to allow it to have language to speak to the questions of today. So if you don’t acknowledge the trans experience, so then you don’t need to ask a new question because of course, we don’t have gay people here. Of course not. And if they are, then they’ll pray it away. Where those the reincarnation, and they’re meant to suffer whatever that is. But if you live in the world outside of the shuttle there, and you see what what the second, you know, a third of the people who have left ultra orthodox identifies LGBT. So really? Yeah, in America. Wow. Yeah. And so like, do we want a LGBT free space or not? We really want to purge orthodoxy from all those people who aren’t straight and cisgender. So if the answer is no, of course not. We want all the Jews to feel welcome. So then how do you make all the Jews feel welcome when you say that you’re actually not as right, in an equal way? So I think for me to answer the question. It’s not about changing the tirat in any level, but it’s really giving it voice to answer the question in present tense.
Hayden Cohen 33:44
Wow. I feel very considered. Yeah,
Hayden Cohen 33:48
Sorry for the pause before.
Hayden Cohen 33:49
No, no, no. It’s just it’s I suppose it was on a kind of logistical level. Do you conduct marriage ceremonies?
Hayden Cohen 34:01
Some of the practical logistical questions– Right, a lot of the work for me is in minimizing whatever is at stake in answering the trans experience. So let’s say for example, you have a trans man getting into Leo. So the person presents as masculine they sit on the men’s side of the mechitza, they were assigned female. So, without having to answer the meta question of this halacha, see this person and at what point in the transition, because I don’t think that’s the right question to ask because when they were just substituting the social construction of gender with the construction and the gender non conforming spaces growing and fewer people are having surgeries, and for some people, that transition is just a haircut or just a name change, or just a wardrobe change, or some you know, and some for people’s hormones and some people surgery, some surgeries, not others. And so one of the things that I learned really early on in this is that there’s no trans community, like there’s no Jewish community, we have a bunch of different Jews and everybody does their own thing. And I think that there are a lot of lessons that we the cisgender community can learn from the trans community that doesn’t really exist. In that if we would take our religious identity as seriously as constantly checking in as folks to with their gender identity, we wouldn’t have a simulation, we wouldn’t have the apathy. And we’d all know exactly who we are in the moment. Whether we’re cherry picking or not, we’d be really conscious and deliberate about it. The role of the rabbi, I think, is to help facilitate a healthy relationship with G-d. And when the rabbi takes up too much space, it’s just crowded, right? Any space, really, the role that I have is to really empower individuals and give them the access to the information so that they in the moment can answer the question. So if a person says rabbi, understand, I can’t live like this. G-d forbid, we should tell them that they have to die for it. And those questions are real. I mean, Now in Lakewood I’m sure we were popular for all the wrong reasons in the news, right? Measles and vaccines, the number that’s being thrown out is that if there’s a one in 1000 chance that something is fatal, that’s called Co Op. nefesh. G-d forbid, within the trans community among those who are not supported, it’s almost one in two, it’s around 41% attempt suicide. So that’s another example of like a social construction of well for measles, we care if it’s one in the thousand, but if the A person who’s trans even wanting to like it’s not my problem,
Hayden Cohen 36:03
I suppose that like, I’ve had this conversation with our In fact, I won’t give any more information as to who it was. But But that was a line that you hear a lot, which is ‘You don’t believe that people choose’. And why would you choose to be trans? And I just wondered ? I don’t see it as a choice? It’s just they are. I just didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know how to kind of. Because for, for me, it’s like, well, it’s weird. It’s not something that I think about in terms of what right do I have to tell somebody? They’re not who they think they are? Well, who the hell am I, Right? I suppose I feel like I’m not asking a question, but then I’m going to go on with a question that is what should someone like me do? Who I’m not not an ally, but I’m passive,
Hayden Cohen 36:52
Right? It’s a wonderful question. I So appreciate being invited to share thoughts on it. It’s always easier to align with the one who’s being oppressed, than it is to be opposition to the presser. So for example, on a subway, you hear somebody getting up and preaching about the things, at least in New York City get preached about often. And the really inclusive, people who think about this all the time, have a very clear kind of set of guidelines that it’s rarely successful to go up against the person because you don’t know who they are in a lot of things but to go into make eye contact with a person who you feel might be suffering, right if it’s a person of colour, and that’s what the rants about or somebody who’s Muslim to say like I’m not okay with this Are you okay with this? And really to try to provide a safe space that you’re not alone in this and I want to also help validate your truth here because like, this is not okay. I’m not okay with this. This guy’s a nutball. Let’s see that in a synagogue context. Right so the rabbi just gives us you know, speech about earthquakes and tsunamis because of you know, what happens at the Pride Parade Right, which is what people talk about sometimes. So to say like, that was super stupid, Right? We’ve got scientists and nobody’s done studies to figure out how many gay people walked holding hands visa v the number of earthquakes This is just stupid made up stuff right because that fear factor you know, sells tickets. And the other thing is that, creating strength in numbers, that you might be by yourself a voice where you don’t feel strong enough, Right? to go in there, like in that context. But my guess is that in your synagogues, there’s probably a decent percentage of people who are in the same space of like, they wouldn’t be the one, but maybe with nine other friends, they might be willing to create a space.
Hayden Cohen 38:16
So basically what you’re saying is ‘Gang up on the rabbi?
Mike Moskowitz 38:18
Hayden Cohen 38:19
Look, I mean,
Hayden Cohen 38:20
Mike Moskowitz 38:20
You know, I’ve gotten fired like, it happens to me not because I’m a majority of people, already people. So I think there’s strength in that way, but Gay Straight alliances, I think a really important one way that I think about this, and I wrote about this, I read often and published, I have a website, rabbimikemoskowitz.com. There is a resource section. So I wrote an article there, why I’m marching as an orthodox Rabbi with pride. So I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, which is the capital that was the capital the Confederacy. And so, there’s another Pride March where I come from and now, it’s not just in the south. And, when people who have more power than average and want more…
Hayden Cohen 38:55
This might be an American thing that I don’t know of. What is it like white pride?
Hayden Cohen 38:58
White pride, white power.
Hayden Cohen 38:59
Mike Moskowitz 38:59
And Growing up in the South, so we had racists and the KKK, but you couldn’t be out, as that. Because society was like not okay with you, you had to wear a hood. And now you don’t need to wear a hood anymore You can leave your kkk hood at home, and go with a tiki torch in your khakis and looking all American and like in a new hipster type way minus the beard. So, there’s been a massive shift. When we think about segregated spaces. I think the determining factor is whether or not we’re we’re segregating for equality, or for inequality. So if you want to have you know, let’s say a black caucus, Right? But the goal is for equality if you want to have a straight only space, but there is it an alliance to create equality. So I think those things are really good. When people who have more power, and they want more. So I think that’s what we find the orthodoxy I mean, I think that’s where, you know, there’s this fear of, you know, this makes us uncomfortable. So the people who have access to everywhere are saying, ‘Hey, you know, we don’t really want to have to build a ramp for a wheelchair, like it makes us uncomfortable’. Like we don’t want to see this. And when we talk about and I mean, this has happened to me where the rabbi has said to me Listen, having a transperson here. makes people uncomfortable. So people are the people who don’t have to worry about having spaces where they’re not allowed access.
Hayden Cohen 40:06
Do you know what I do when they say that? I go, Who? How many? Oh, Loads of people. How many? Two? Three? Four?
Hayden Cohen 40:12
Yeah, absolutely. And so I think that, when we talk about systems of oppression, that we need to recognise that, that Judaism and religion in general has so much power, that not using it for good, I think, is itself a sin. I mean, in America, in particular, during the Civil Rights Movement, churches, black churches, in particular, were massive instruments of social change. And so, if you have a rabbi who is willing to be political, but he’s on the wrong side of it, right, so I think that like, it’s really fair to name that, and to perhaps to critical actively listen. I was at a meal today and the discussion was whether or not the rabbi would be allowed to come to Limmud, right? And so the woman said, if we ask incoming rabbis would you go, if they say no, they’re not going to be a rabbi. So I think that, there’s power for people where that doesn’t ask of them to be The Voice.
Hayden Cohen 40:57
Right. Interesting. I like that. I did notice that you a little bit skirted around the reaction of other rabbis.
Hayden Cohen 41:06
I think I can I can redress it. Um, there are people who absolutely think that I’ve been possessed. Like there’s a there’s a relatively famous Rabbi in America who says that I’ve been possessed. That’s the answer to this.
Hayden Cohen 41:20
Has that been published?
Mike Moskowitz 41:21
Hayden Cohen 41:22
Oh Fine, fine.
Mike Moskowitz 41:29
He told a good friend of mine that I’ve been possessed, like, that’s the answer. Like, how do you explain this? And he’s possessed.
Hayden Cohen 41:33
I’ve got such a good idea who it is. I’m probably right.
Mike Moskowitz 41:37
(Laughs) I’ll tell you after.
Hayden Cohen 41:38
I look forward to it.
Hayden Cohen 41:39
There are those, who have said to me things like, Look, I’m not happy with what you’re doing. But for the people that you’re doing it for him really, I feel that, they’re lucky to have you doing this
Hayden Cohen 41:47
That’s a really interesting way around.
Hayden Cohen 41:49
And I think that that’s a space that a lot of people are in because they recognise that there aren’t people publicly doing this.
Hayden Cohen 41:54
Mike Moskowitz 41:54
And because the rabbinate has taken such a wrong, such the wrong approach to this. The Rabbinical Council of America right now doesn’t have policies about conversions for trans folks– which is really it’s legitimately complicated. Let’s say you have a trans woman who did not have bottom surgery and isn’t circumcised. So and that wants to convert to Judaism. Right. So is that body part specific? Is that gender specific? How do we hold gender based spiritual practice, like the real consequences of Jewish identity, the stakes there are really high obviously. The RCA, the Rabbinical Council of America, which is a mainstreamish, two largest group of Orthodox rabbis. I’ve been told by the head of it, that about half of them are in some ways supportive and the other half are not position. They don’t make public statements, because if they’re quiet, nobody’s going to leave but if they make a statement and support, but I think that for the most part, they’re good people, and they want to do the right thing, and they’re not necessarily there yet. There’s a huge age gap, in terms of the way in which excuse for being supportive in opposition, obviously, the younger rabbis, for the most part, all know people. Because there are trans people everywhere, whether you know about it or not. And the older ones, I think just the way in which this always works is that way. So, there are rabbis who won’t return my calls, who I am no longer consider them to be like in relationship. There are some that are fascinated by all of this and like want to hear. So what did you hear this week? And there’s a way in which it’s kind of a cerebral curiosity that almost borders on voyeurism in a way that’s not healthy. Just to say this, you know, nobody’s life is ever hypothetical. And very often, rabbis, by the very nature of the conversation, speak about things like well be if there was a person who and there is that person, right. And so part of I think my contribution to these conversations with other rabbis is to reiterate that like nobody’s life is hypothetical. So you’re talking about these people, but this isn’t these people. It’s Yanky, it’s Ruchel. Like these are human beings, children of G-d. And if you want to have a relationship with G-d, as a parent, like we need to see all of G-d’s children as our siblings. And I think we’re having to be reminded about that, like often, you know, and I mean, I wrote a different article about abortion. As a rule, Judaism is definitely pro-life, but sometimes, it obligates an abortion. And if we want women to have access, than we need to be pro-choice. I’ll be on the other pieces. And so, I was at a conference at Berkeley and I was presenting on how to kind of advance these type of ideas in very conservative spaces. And I think the most important thing, is to make it personal, right? If Ruchel needs an abortion, that’s different than what happens if a woman right. And so I think that the more trans folks that rabbis can meet, the more the rabbis are going to be in a better position. And it’s hard and it’s awkward to ask those who are already oppressed and marginalised to like, dig deeper and to stand up. But I think that’s the role that the rest of us have is to be creating a safe space for those voices in the stories to be told.
Hayden Cohen 44:36
All I could do is listen to the bagel podcast. We’ll have more people on there. That’s right. So actually, yeah, I’m being a bit flippant, but at the same time being serious, right? This is an opportunity where if you aren’t open to those voices, here’s a place to hear them in one place.
Hayden Cohen 44:49
Yes. No, it’s not a small thing. So you’re trans or gender non conforming, what’s the best way for them to reach out to you
Hayden Cohen 44:55
Oi@bagel podcast.com. The door is always open.
Mike Moskowitz 44:59
Hayden Cohen 45:00
One last question. And you might not want (trails off). Yeah, we’ll see. What do your family think?
Mike Moskowitz 45:06
It’s complicated is the short of it. There are those that are supportive. There are those that
Hayden Cohen 45:13
Most of them are conservative Masorti.
Mike Moskowitz 45:16
It’s a mixture. My family’s mixed. Some are observant, some aren’t. The ones that are observant, get hassled relatively frequently. ‘What is he doing?’ and ‘Can’t you tell him’. Like, I’ve been called a total molester. All sorts of weird things.
Hayden Cohen 45:30
Again, again, badges, badges,
Mike Moskowitz 45:32
Badges, right. And the response that This is really important holy work. And also, I think that there’s like there’s a relatively short window that has an expiration date that five years from now, this is not going to be novel. Five years from now, like, I’m not going to be on the fringe. This I think will be part of mainstream and dominant culture,
Hayden Cohen 45:48
Even within Orthodox Judaism?
Mike Moskowitz 45:50
Yeah. I mean, I think that like, the further you get, but the systems of deterrence even like in the Haredi, in the Hasidic world, right, like their smartphones now, right? You have 13 kids. It’s rare that all 13 stay in the fold because getting married really young, not learning English, not going to college, you know, having babies really quickly– like those things kept people in. But now everybody’s got a sister or a brother or sibling, that’s on the outside. To try to keep people in, as opposed to try to create a environment that wants to attract people to be there. It’s just not working in the same way. And people have access to information. And so these things are really complicated. And, like my family, has people that are ultra, ultra, ultra orthodox and completely secular and we’re gay and straight and all the things and trans. One person, you know, is able to really influence many, and I think it’s just a matter of time. I mean, I can tell you from my own experiences as a Rabbi. The baseline, certainly within the LGB community of Orthodox, Mainstream Orthodoxy has shifted and even in the yeshivish circles it’s shifted. The baseline was like you had to move out. And now, more and more people are even open to having their children and their partners come for Shabbos. Probably the most common question I get, from parents about you know, lesbian daughters is, ‘You know, my daughter went off to seminary going off to college and now she’s gay and has a girlfriend so the follow up questions are really interesting like, ‘Is she gonna get a haircut?’, ‘Do I have to buy flannel?’. Like what is all like all the stereotypical stuff mean? But the question is like– She now wants to bring her girlfriend for Shabbos. So, what’s going to be? Can I do this? Am I allowed to? Do we have to sleep in different rooms? Where I can tell the siblings? What about other things? So the response I have is really consistent, like you know, ‘Is she still Shomer Shabbos?’. I will say Yeah, of course. So it’s not a given. So I said Listen, you have a choice you know, either you can have a lesbian daughter that’s Shomer Shabbos or you can have a lesbian daughter that’s not Shomer Shabbos. Right so like the question is always now what? Like what is the win look like? And if you want to have a relationship with your kid then like you need to recognise who your kid is. And I think more and more ,even in the Haredi spaces, parents are just– They already had one that like intermarried, or they had one that’s no longer Shomer Shabbos, and like another one wants to Shomer Shabbos and is like you know, raise a family and all the things that just happens to be they like this person, and not that this person. Like I think more and more and then we’ll see what happens over time, if they start going to the ceremonies and all the things. But you know, I think this moves in one direction. I think it’s moving really quickly and you know, without having to change anything that’s part of our tradition of what the theory says or how we understand that I think what we need to change is how we how we treat people.
Hayden Cohen 48:07
What a perfect way to finish. Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, Thank you so much for your time.
Mike Moskowitz 48:13
Thank you so much for having me.
Hayden Cohen 48:14
It has been a pleasure.
Mike Moskowitz 48:17
It’s a distinct pleasure. And I so appreciate the invitation. And for folks in the LGBT community– Reach out, have your voice heard.
Hayden Cohen 48:23
Thank you very much. Thank you.
Mike Moskowitz 48:24
Thank you. Good times, man.
Hayden Cohen 48:27
And that’s that, thanks again to Rabbi Moskovitz. Tune in next week for the final LGBT Bagel Bite with Alfie Ferguson. They’re not an advocate or someone with something to sell– Just a person from the Jewish community living their life. Until next time, have a great week.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai with additional editing by Ronni Bloch