On Wednesday, Nov. 14, Rabbi Mike Moskowitz shared stories ranging from debates between first-century Jewish leaders to communities rebuilding in post-World War II Europe and modern struggles for social justice. These stories, along with his study of religious texts, informed how Moskowitz became an ally to the trans community while remaining a firm believer in Ultra-Orthodox Judaism.
Moskowitz’s lecture in Taylor Hall Auditorium, titled “Allyship as Spiritual Practice,” was part of the Dr. Maurice Sitomer Lecture series. Dr. Sitomer, a late Poughkeepsie resident and civic leader, endowed the series, which invites to campus speakers who encourage understanding of Jewish culture. When not speaking at colleges, Moskowitz, a Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Manhattan, is engaged in interfaith events across the country.
To begin, he said, “I find it helpful to borrow language from the queer community to talk about my own religious identity. So, I was assigned secular and came out as Orthodox in high school.” However, Moskowitz said that the question of how trans and queer people fit into an Orthodox community did not occur to him until three years ago when a family member told him that they did not identify with their assigned gender.
The next two years marked several changes in Moskowitz’s life. He explained that while he was studying issues of gender in religion, he felt compelled to publicly announce that he would commit himself as an ally to trans people after one of his former students from Columbia University also came out to him. He was then fired from his job for these statements, began to volunteer for Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social-justice organization and was even arrested at a protest in Washington, D.C., along with other religious leaders.
Liv Zane ’19, who attended the lecture, said, “A big issue on campus is people thinking that there’s no way to be socially liberal and religious, which is so not true.” As a member of the board of the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU), Zane said, “[I have been engaged with] questions of what it means to be a pluralistic Jewish community, and how to provide that to students—how to create progressive, egalitarian spaces that also are religiously and spiritually rich.”
Zane said that Rabbi Moskowitz is an example of socially progressive and religious worlds that are not opposed, as students sometimes perceive them to be. For Moskowitz, being religious and being a support for trans people and communities who need resources are not just compatible—they are intertwined.
To explore these ideas, Moskowitz delved into the grammatical nuances of Jewish texts, examining how a call to action can be embodied in Judaism. He looked at the words for soul, ally, commandment, woman and man within their contexts, showing what it means to support trans people today while also being motivated by a religious tradition. Moskowitz said that a mitzvah, a “good deed” which he defined as a “divine expectation” or commandment, can be a call to support others and help them better reach the fulfillment of their own mitzvot.
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Religion Ágnes Vető, who introduced Moskowitz at the lecture, said that speaking on the texts he used is a difficult task, not only because they are complex and extensive, but also because of their distance from our own time. “[The texts date to] the period of classical and formative Jewish history,” Vető explained, “and one might conclude that the attempt to bridge the distance between our time and the time of the creation of these texts is doomed to failure.”
However, Vető noted that the lengthy question-and-answer session and the vibrant discussion at the dinner reception after the talk proved that Moskowitz succeeded in making the material accessible. She explained, “Ultra-Orthodoxy is defined by gender binary. Advocacy for trans rights in these circles is a highly counterintuitive activity, to say the least.” This rare position sparked a lot of students’ interest. “How often at Vassar—or elsewhere—can we hear a speaker identifying as a Jewish Fundamentalist [and an] advocate for trans rights?”
Moskowitz reflected, “Having found a space to make a contribution that I feel really nobody else is makes me feel really privileged.” He told students that he is grateful to be of use on a pragmatic level, such as being a key advocate when it comes to speaking to legislators, or on a personal level, such as when people come to him struggling with their identities.
He said, however, that there are people who need extra convincing that the Talmud and the Torah support trans people and those who help them. He explained that, on a basic level, “We are humanity, and if we care about God, we need to care about humanity. If we care about Judaism, we need to care about Jews.”
Zane said they felt it was important that Moskowitz also emphasized what he could not do as an ally, as much of the talk was focused on the tensions between what a community and what an individual can accomplish. “It’s important often to just be there and amplify the voices rather than speaking for the people,” they said.
These conversations continued with the VJU’s queer movie night on Sunday, Nov. 11, screening the movie “Indecent.” Zane said that discussions around gender and sexuality have garnered positive responses and have moved ongoing efforts for inclusion forward on campus: “I feel so lucky that Vassar has made such a commitment to hold religious spaces for LGBT people, so I think [the lecture] is part of a continuing effort to make us feel comfortable.”