For the past two years, the Conservative movement has focused much of its energy and efforts on addressing the COVID pandemic. Our Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) has addressed questions like how to conduct services on Zoom and whether there is a religious obligation to get vaccinated. While COVID is still very much on people’s minds, and we are seeing a surge in cases recently, the religious questions raised by the pandemic have mostly been resolved.
As a result, the community can return to important questions that are constantly being raised by Judaism in a contemporary world. As modern life evolves, so does Jewish practice. Recently, the CJLS passed a teshuvah, a rabbinic legal responsa, on the question of “Calling non-binary people to Torah honors”. During the Torah service, many synagogues have the tradition to call people up for aliyot, honors, by their Hebrew names. The challenge is that Hebrew is a gendered language so how can we continue this practice for people who do not identify with either the male or female gender?
The teshuvah notes that the practice of calling people to the Torah by their names is widespread, but not universal. It began in the Middle Ages in Ashkenaz (Western and Eastern Europe), but then spread to other communities as well. At Adath Israel, we happen to not call people by their Hebrew names for aliyot, which is somewhat unusual in the Conservative movement. When I came to the synagogue I asked about this practice and remember being told that it was instituted because not everyone knows their Hebrew name and might feel embarrassed to take an honor as a result.
One option for synagogues, then, would be to adopt the Adath custom and not call people by name unless they request it, but this was not the route that the teshuvah authors chose for two reasons. One, calling aliyot by name is a beloved custom in many communities, and two, even when names are omitted, people are still referred to by gendered language. Instead, the teshuvah offers ways to avoid referring to people as either men or women.
While Hebrew speakers are working on making the language more inclusive for all through creative solutions, including designing new fonts, the rabbis who wrote the latest tehsuvah decided to find non-gendered language within the current framework of Hebrew grammar, for example by using the infinitive of the verb “rise”, which is neutral, and substituting the phrase “from the house of” for “son/daughter of”. These solutions allow for a maximum preservation of tradition and continuity while embracing all people in the community.
The teshuvah notes that the origin of calling people up to the Torah by name was to prevent arguments and embarrassment. Without the practice, people might not know it is their turn or two people might think they have the same aliyah. In today’s world of fluid language, the longstanding custom has the power, ironically, to increase confusion and embarrassment for those who identify as non-binary. With this new teshuvah we have the tools to make sure that one of the most beloved of our services, the reading of the Torah, is open and accessible to all.