“Andy” sent a spiritual autobiography of four pages, a shimmeringly honest reflection on Andy’s emotional and spiritual life; birth family and chosen family, loves and losses, belief and disbelief, hope and yearning. Its treatment of gender identity spanned 10 pivotal words: “I’m trans of [gender] experience and completed transition some years ago.”
I sat in yir’ah (awe), partly that Andy gifted me the trust of coming out to me at all; an unknown cisgendered straight male becoming their new spiritual director. Mostly my awe was that Andy articulated their trans experience as one of many facets shining, sometimes brightly, sometimes darkly, on and through Andy’s spiritual life.
I said to myself, “Andy, show me your way because I have a lot to learn.”
Andy would be among my first spiritual directees of trans experience and, thankfully, far from the last. Every trans seeker who shared spiritual intimacy in our shared sacred journey has taught me about G-d, Judaism and especially allyship.
We agreed to ditch the title “spiritual direction,” which falsely implies that I’m a “director” who “directs” something, and that what I “direct” is “spiritual:” as if authentic spirituality were directable by human agency, much less mine. Rather than this term’s implied egotism and verticality, I prefer the Hebrew term hashpa’ah, which uplifts the allyship and sacred art of seeking, witnessing and priming shefa (sacred flow) through the whole of one’s life experience. Befitting that posture, hashpa’ah channels awe and open curiosity at the revelation unfolding in each unique soul’s encounter with each day.
My “directees” of trans experience illustrate how.
THE DE-ESSENTIALIZATION OF TRANS SPIRITUALITY
Dr. Rachel Mann, a theologian of trans experience, observed in her “Queering Spiritual Direction” that traditional spiritual direction notions (and many other faith-based structures and practices) alienate people of trans experience in ways glaringly visible to them, but often obscure if not invisible to would-be allies. Orthodoxies of thought, belief and language reflect and reinforce spiritual normativities based on seemingly immutable gendered constructs. In response, even without the coercion of divine “gender” and societal moralisms around “conforming” gender identity, generations of trans seekers have felt overwhelming pressure, sometimes with violent physical, psychic and moral force, to conform or rebel at profound cost to body, heart and soul.
It is little wonder that Dr. Laura Thor, who pioneered spiritual direction’s evolution toward wiser allyship for persons of trans experience, noted that in trans contexts, spiritual accompaniment asks heightened awareness of trans experiences of internal and external alienation. She urges that clergy and other spiritual accompanists cannot be true trans allies without appreciating prevalent spiritual, emotional and political facets of that experience, because trans experience is perhaps second to none in its collective history of invisibility, prejudice, repression and forced reformation. As Thor writes:
“Transgender spiritual directees are profoundly marginalized hidden seekers of G-d and their spiritual birthright to simply live as they are intended. Many who come out are ejected from their religious communities; others live in secrecy and are unable to locate themselves in Creation.”
These kinds of observations, earned by decades of hard-won experience inside and alongside the trans community, point cisgendered allies toward what we can know and, as importantly, what we can’t. While cisgendered allies might wish to believe that empathy can cultivate understanding of trans experience, we lack the intuition that only identification and experience can cultivate. Allyship means knowing just that: what we can’t fully know and, indeed, what isn’t ours to fully know.
Yet too often, well-intended “woke” allies peer into trans experience from outside and infer what we can’t intuit. They essentialize trans experience, imputing stereotypes and other characteristics they believe are inherent or “essential.” An essentializing eye often fails to see individuals fully for who they are and who they’re becoming. Who with a history of feeling unseen will welcome feeling unseen again, especially by would-be allies and so- called helpers? Thus, allies who hew to any transgender spiritual prototype, essentializing trans spirituality to be a given way, can cause harm no less dispiriting than ones who look past (or go blind to) prevalent trans experience.
Spiritual leaders especially risk these harms because of the higher stakes in spiritual contexts. And because hashpa’ah cultivates exquisite trust with open hearts and rightfully high expectations of safety, essentialization in a hashpa’ah context can trigger especially deep pain. Particularly in these tender places, spiritual allies must make every effort to banish essentialization from their hearts and minds.
MUTUALITY, AWESOME ENCOUNTER AND SKILLFUL MEANS
How can cisgendered allies spiritually companion people of trans experience? I preface first responses by underscoring that answers are not mainly for would-be allies like me to offer. Much as each heart knows its own landscape and especially its own bitterness (Proverbs 14:10), each soul knows its own yearning, joys and oys. Especially for anyone who has felt unseen or worse, the parameters of principled discernment for spiritual encounter must be empowering and mutual. Wise allies will explicitly narrate this first principle from the start and completely honor it.
To be sure, this first principle applies to all spiritual accompaniment: for the cisgendered straight, the lesbian, the gay, the bisexual, the asexual, the gender nonconforming, the queer, the questioning and the one who does not yet know to ask. Thus, the trans seeker exemplifies a general principle that always finds a particular expression for each seeker with their unique history and context.
This first principle implies a second in which a trans seeker offers a microcosmic reminder of spiritual experience generally. The de-essentialization of trans spirituality demands that allies approach and support spiritual encounters in a radical posture of awe: not “as if” in the sacred presence of transcendent revelation but precisely “in” the sacred presence of transcendent revelation. As Jewish queer theory scholars Dr. Caryn Aviv and Dr. Karen Erlichman observed, the lech lecha of G-d’s first deployment for Avram (Genesis 12:1) is best translated not as “Go out” but “Go to yourself,” so each of us inhabits a landscape of spiritual, gender and sexual revelation asher ar’eka (“that [G-d] will show [us]”). As the Psalmist put it, we ourselves are spiritual revelations unfolding each at our own sacred pace: “Here I am, coming with sacred writing on me … Your guidance [revealed as] my innermost part” (Psalm 40:8-9). It follows that most everything in our lives, including pathways of trans life, can be paths by which we might seek and experience divinity: “Know G-d in all your ways” (Proverbs 3:6).
This unfolding reflects divine becoming itself. In Rabbi Mike Moskowitz’s words, Torah records the sacred “I am,” the first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2, Deuteronomy 5:6), as G-d’s self-revelation, a “coming out” that continuously models liberating authenticity. If so, then essentialization has no rightful place, especially in the presence of HaMakom, the omni-Presence we feebly call G-d. Here again, trans seekers can teach allies a key lesson applicable to all.
At the same time, the de-essentialization of trans spirituality challenges allies not to lose the forest for the proverbial trees. Even as we honor spiritual individuality, the trans community’s collective experience can suggest much about any one individual’s personal experience, whether one’s own experience literally or in association with the community. How many times has Biblical moralism impressed on trans seekers a G-d assigned a gender? Or recorded to create each person with an immutable gender? Or heard to ban cross- dressing, much less same-sex intimacy? How many times have religious and other societal forces wielded spiritual authority by telling people of trans experience that they and their lives are deluded, defective or immoral? How many were left feeling that G-d betrayed them? How many turned away from G-d? How many risked or lost families, livelihoods and lives by coming out? How could these personal and collective experiences not shape spiritual belief, identity and intimacy?
And more affirmatively, how many people of trans experience found courage, resilience, empowerment, truth, liberation, community, love, grace, meaning and whole new ways of spirit in their gender identity journeys? How many learned to seek and find the sacred in lives they once felt were anything but sacred? How many redeemed their suffering to learn, in Dr. Victor Frankl’s words, that what gives light must endure burning? How many became beacons for others because their own light shined bright?
An ally unaware of these communal dynamics cannot be most effective, but neither can an ally who essentializes spirituality by
imposing these prevalent dynamics as stereotypes, however well intentioned. If it sounds like a brain-teasing koan, like the sound of one hand clapping, maybe it is.
To me, this koan asks allies to cultivate the same open curiosity and radical awe at each soul’s sacred revelation unfolding in each moment. At the same time, it asks allies to cultivate peripheral awareness of the collective wisdom gleaned by decades of experience inside and alongside the trans community, and to hold that peripheral awareness without putting any of it on anyone.
Andy showed how a spiritual journey can be both individually unique and also reflective of prevalent community experience. Andy experienced patterns of distrust, anger, self- doubt and spiritual guarding that came to weigh on their heart. Andy hadn’t considered that the sacred might manifest in that awareness and what it might teach when Andy decided they were ready. Self doubt and self-loathing revealed patterns Andy took on and believed they’d outgrown after they transitioned. Spiritual guarding opened into courage to express their sense of betrayal by G-d and their parents, who assigned them a certain gender at birth. By inhabiting their full truth, Andy opened into forgiveness, with new trust in the “G-d who fashioned [Andy] in the mother’s womb,” with “praise for [Andy’s own] wondrous creation,” whose blueprint G-d “shaped in a hidden place” (Psalms 139:13-15). Andy’s shifting relationship with G-d powered their evolution with wonder and gratitude. And with that redemptive turn, Andy found themselves supporting others: Andy endured burning, and now their light shined bright.
Just as Andy’s trans experience was a fulcrum for their personal spiritual journey, the trans community’s collective wisdom offered depth and richness to nourish Andy’s spiritual becoming. Andy was comforted to find that others of trans experience also felt alienated by religion and G-d, that others who forged chasms of trans identity learned adaptive emotional and spiritual patterns ready to be reconsidered in light of who they were becoming. Andy drew strength from discovering that their path was both uniquely their own and also part of an exquisite community tapestry. And thanks to Andy, I could sense a bit of what a Biblical Moses yearned to know in saying to G-d atop Sinai, “Show me Your way” (Exodus 33:13).
THE TRANS ANGELS AT EDEN’S DOORSTEP
The first chapters of Genesis record the divinity of Creation and the divine forms, male and female, fashioned in G-d’s image. When the first humans left Eden, G-d “caused the kruvim (cherubs) to dwell east of the Garden of Eden and the flaming sword ha-mithapekhet (turning itself), to guard the path of the Tree of Life” (Genesis 3:24). Over 2,000 years ago, our spiritual ancestors imagined that the “turning” described not the angelic sword but the angels themselves, “sometimes appearing as men, sometimes as women, sometimes spirits, sometimes angels” (Genesis Rabbah 21:9). For anyone who transitioned from assigned gender to gender of identity, this mystical perspective offers that their capacity to transition is sourced
in the sacred.
This angelic midrash also offers that society’s path to full communion with the sacred, which Jewish mystical tradition calls the Garden of Eden, the garden of eternal and complete spiritual connection, leads society precisely toward trans life. Far from off the path, trans life is an essential part of that journey for everyone. It might even be, contrary to centuries of traditional exegesis, that Eden’s “trans angels” do not block humanity’s way back to Eden, but rather help show the way.
Our trans siblings have much to teach, and we cisgendered allies have much to learn. Show us your ways.
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RABBI DAVID EVAN MARKUS is North America’s only pulpit rabbi simultaneously in full-time government service. In spiritual life, he is rabbi of Temple Beth El of City Island (New York, NY); Board chair and senior builder for Bayit: Building Jewish (innovation incubator); faculty in rabbinics and theology for the Academy for Jewish Religion (accredited pluralist seminary); and spiritual direction faculty for ALEPH (which he also served as Board co-chair). In secular life, David presides as judicial referee in New York Supreme Court (9th Judicial Dist.), as part of a parallel career in public service that spanned all branches and levels of government. David serves on numerous nonprofit boards, including the Center of Theological Inquiry (fueling academic theology and global public policy, adjacent to Princeton Theological Seminary). David earned double ordination as rabbi and mashpia from ALEPH, a Graduate Certificate in Spiritual Innovation from Columbia University’s Executive MBA Program, a Juris Doctor magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and a Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude from Williams College.
This work appears in the new book Chaver Up! 49 Rabbis Explore What It Means To Be an Ally Through a Modern Jewish Lens, edited by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, OUT NOW in eBook and paperback.
About the book “Chaver Up!“: Allyship is a deeply Jewish value. In this book, 49 Jewish spiritual leaders grapple with the complexity, messiness, and human fallibility of allyship, as well its beauty, holiness, and power to restore good. Wise, searing, and emotional, this book invites you to create new paths of human kindness and action. It challenges us to Chaver Up! and see allyship as a powerful way to repair our humanity and activate our empathy.