I am a Jewish, modern orthodox, homeschooling mother of five who recently had the opportunity to take my kids on a tour of an American military base. Our tour guide was my cousin – a biological male who started hormone therapy in his late twenties and is now living as a woman. This was the first time I’ve seen this cousin since the transition and the first time my kids had ever met him. I introduced my kids to this cousin using his new legal, female name, but I struggle with how to utilize pronouns. I was able to avoid them by and large during our time together (as I wanted to be gracious without explicitly affirming a lifestyle that I see as an expression of a psychiatric disorder). But I was surprised at how much the sensory input that suggested female made me naturally want to refer to this cousin as “she.”
What is the correct way to guide my kids through this experience? They were presented with someone of a female appearance; as we are talking about this experience retrospectively, should I correct their “she/her” references and say, “No, contrary to all indications, that was actually a “him.” Is the correct thing to do when reviewing this situation together with my kids (or my husband, for that matter) to revert back to the name his parents gave him and to utilize the male pronouns that belonged to that person, or refer to this cousin with the female name my kids were introduced with and utilize the female pronouns that feel natural when you’re speaking of someone who looks and sounds female?
Apart from issues of political policy (which seem so much more clear cut) what guidance can I give my kids in the rules of engagement with transgender individuals that they will inevitably have to interact with in life?
Wouldn’t you rather ask us how many candles to light to welcome in the Shabbat? That would be a simple and easy-to-answer question. We’re joking, of course. Your question is a real-life one that is arising with increasing frequency for people of all faiths.
We are struggling with this situation as you are. We regularly welcome Jews who are not Torah observant to our Shabbat table, but we would not welcome one who wore a t-shirt proclaiming, “Pork-eating Jew.” The equivalent of that t-shirt is happening today. The government, popular culture, the legal system, and society at large are all demanding that we accept and approve of their profoundly anti-family positions. Specifically, under attack is “…male and female He created them…” (Gen 1:27). Meanwhile, as you note, drugs and surgery are tricking our eyes into not seeing accurately.
You don’t mention the ages of your children. Naturally, a three-year-old and a thirteen-year-old need different approaches. A starting point might be proactively not putting your family in that type of situation again. This might require unpleasant actions like leaving children home from family gatherings (maybe yourselves as well) or not signing a child up for a sports league because of who else is involved. We are in times when we may need to barricade ourselves as much as we can. As an example, in a group of our friends who were not Torah-observant Jews, one family was unique in having all three of their children marry Jews. Every other family in their circle of friends had at least one child who married someone out of the faith. Over decades beginning from their own marriage, this outlier couple decided that marrying within the faith was so important to them that they refused to attend any wedding of family or friends that was an intermarriage. They were subject to pleading, threats, and insults by their wounded loved ones whose celebrations they missed, but they wanted their children to know how strongly they felt. In their case, this worked just as they intended.
But proactively avoiding certain situations will not be sufficient. The current issues of homosexuality and transgender (and there will be more coming) are being promoted everywhere. Other than quarantining your children, you won’t be able to avoid them. For this reason, parents need to strategize and plan when, how, and what to say to children at different developmental stages.
Step one is making sure that you have a close and loving relationship with your children so that your words will matter. Step two is being very aware of what they are encountering. Step three is seeding the ground before you tackle the tough issues. Make sure your children see a relationship with God and faith as a joyous privilege. Share with your children stories of heroism detailing how previous generations stayed faithful to God during tough times and despite persecution, whether we are talking of Jews during the Hellenist period, Christians who hid Jews in Nazi Europe, or religious Jews and Christians in atheistic Soviet Russia.
For this situation, in age-appropriate terms, discuss your cousin with those children who are old enough using compassionate but firm language. It is an opportunity to explain how we can harm our bodies with drugs. It is an opportunity to talk about how each person must choose a path and while we should be kind and polite to all, we also need to be strong, brave, and full of integrity.
Build a foundation where your children see a faithfulness to God’s word as essential. Talk about how societies go crazy sometimes – for example, the Salem witch trials and blood libels. Help an older child understand that sometimes there are spiritual viruses that sweep through a society and some people, like your cousin, are more vulnerable than others. Be clear that this is not random, like an infectious disease, but that certain actions make one more easily swayed by outside forces. Discuss how technology and social media are causing great harm today. We recommend getting on this mailing list: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let your children become aware of ways in which you and your husband subordinate your own desires and wishes in favor of Divine direction. After all, our children do what we do more than they do what we say.
We don’t have a brilliant and effective solution to this very tragic and difficult quandary. But it is cropping up more than it did a generation ago and there is no alternative to each of us doing the best we can.
May you raise your children to Torah, chuppah (the marriage canopy), and good deeds,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin
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