Imagine if I stood up here on a shabbat and I told you I could fix you.
Imagine if I said there was something fundamentally wrong with you. That some property intrinsic to you, about your soul, was fundamentally wrong. Sinful.
Imagine if, when we read out the names of people in need of healing, your name was on there. You hadn’t asked to be placed there and you felt fine. But somebody in the community had decided that who you were, as a person, was contrary to their religious beliefs, and that made you sick.
Imagine if your child or grandchild came to see me at the synagogue and ask for rabbinic advice about their personality. Instead of offering them love and support to be happy with who they were, I told them that they needed to repent. I told them that God thought they should feel guilty. I told them they should pray and fast until the wickedness in them was gone.
Imagine it. Imagine any preacher in any religious building doing such a thing.
You don’t have to imagine. It happens today, here in Britain.
It is called conversion therapy.
Conversion therapy is when queer people are told, often by a religious leader, that prayer, exorcism or counselling can change their gender or sexuality. It is when somebody tells a gay person that they can be made straight, or a trans person they can be made cis.
It happens in the British Jewish community. One survivor of this practice, Joe Hyman, spoke out about how a religious Jewish group tried to counsel him out of homosexuality. At first, it involved telephone appointments where he was told he could be healed. He sat round in a room and was forced to examine every homosexual thought he experienced through a lens of judgement and shame.
Another British-Jewish woman, Maya, went through conversion therapy classes that told her that her parents hadn’t nurtured her enough and that she must have been abused as a child.
There are Jewish retreats in New York and Israel, where participants are made to do psychologically damaging activities including stripping naked and berating themselves while staring at a mirror.
You might well wonder why such an abhorrent practice has not yet been banned. For that, you would have to ask Boris Johnson.
This week, his government leaked reports that they have abandoned plans to stop conversion therapy. They have bowed to pressure from conservatives and fundamentalists.
When the various LGBT charities expressed their outrage, and the public followed suit, the government back-pedalled, but only slightly. They said they would ban conversion therapy for sexuality, but not for gender identity. They have decided that lesbian, gay, and bi people should not be subjected to this psychological torture, but that they will keep it up for trans people.
Not content to only permit the practice, the government has decided to get in on bullying trans people. Boris Johnson used a recent speech to mock trans people. A public discourse has emerged that pathologises and humiliates people who do not conform to gendered expectations.
Trans women, in particular, are the subject of a horrible narrative of hate. I don’t think it would be helpful or responsible to repeat the things I’ve heard, even from respectable platforms like the BBC. You have probably heard it too, and speaking it from the pulpit would only lend this hate speech legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.
The pathologisation of sex and bodies is as old as the Bible. In ancient Israel, when a person’s genitals seemed emitted an unusual discharge, or found they could not ejaculate, a priest would declare them a zav. This meant they were ritually impure, prohibited from entering holy places and forbidden from engaging in acts of worship.
This was not just recognising the existence of genital problems or sexual diseases. It was making them into signs of defilement. It was saying that the people who had them were in some way sinful. It turned the body into something shameful.
By the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis were conscious of how problematic this system of stigmatising people was. They announced mitigating circumstances for when somebody might not be considered a zav: if they had jumped; lifted something heavy; been unwell; seen something arousing; thought about something sexual; had eaten or drunk something unusual. If they had done any of these things, even if they had symptoms of a zav, they were not considered a zav. They were exempt from being treated as sick.
To this already expansive list, Rabbi Akiva added two more categories: if somebody had eaten or drunk anything at all, they were not a zav. His students were astonished. They said: “if that’s the case, there will be no more zavim anywhere any more!” Rabbi Akiva responded: “it is not your job to make sure people are considered impure.”
Rabbi Akiva understood something profound. Nobody should be considered sick. Nobody should be stigmatised for who they are. So, to combat the stigma, he found a way to make sure everyone was exempted.
That is what is needed today to combat this senseless hatred against trans people. That is why we so desperately need to ban conversion therapy and stop treating people as if there is something wrong with them.
All we are asking is that people can access non-judgemental support to talk about their gender. We are asking that people can be free to explore it, open to the possibility that their gender might not be the one they have always been told it was. We are asking for people to have the freedom to go on a journey with their gender, open to the possibility that this might mean changing their name, or their pronouns, or the way they dress, or the way their body looks.
I understand that perhaps that might sound frightening to some. But what truly terrifies me is that people can’t. Young people exploring their gender currently cannot feel safe turning to authority figures to talk about their gender when there is so much vitriol emanating from the country’s highest offices of power. And they are even less safe when leaders continue to have the power to tell trans kids that they are sick and can be cured.
From this pulpit, there is only one message you will get. You are not sick. You are loved. You are supported by this community. You are safe to be whoever you want to be.
In this synagogue, we believe in a loving God. In this religious movement, we affirm that you have a unique journey to find your own way with your Creator. And we will never try to change you.
With massive thanks to Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner for helping me think through how to talk about this when the issue makes me so emotional