Soul Gender, Transmigration, and Embodied Resurrection (Part 2)

Male, female, and "indeterminate"
option on German forms. [*]
Image from
Laura Leibman

Two months ago, I pointed out that recent legislation in Germany and the U.S. that allowed for flexibility of gender assignment had caused some concern among certain Protestant groups about gender, the soul, and the afterlife.[*]  At least one theologian (Joel Furches) argued that “a person’s gender as an essential quality of their very nature,” was inextricably tied to their soul, and hence could not be changed ("Gender Identity and the Resurrection from the Dead"). Soul gendering also appears in American Judaism, but traditional Jewish versions of the afterlife complicates the story of “mind/body unity” told by Furches.  Last time, I looked at a few early examples of the gendering of the soul and resurrection.

In this month's post, I address how the Jewish concept of transmigration differs from the picture of soul gender put forth by Furches by reviewing recent Jewish American writings about soul gender and souls that have moved across the gender divide.  Of the theologians, theorists, and activists I address in this post, all appear to agree that in the Jewish tradition, the gender of one's body and soul need not match, though the thinkers vary widely on what this disparity means and why it occurs.  While I address both print and digital formulations of soul gender in Judaism, I am particularly interested in how religious groups use the Internet either as a Utopian site of "ongoing transformation" or--alternatively--for setting limits to changes in our understanding of the intersection of gender and religion.

Several contemporary theologians and scholars of religious studies have taken up the issue of soul gender and transmigration in Judaism; some of the most vocal theologians have emerged out of transgender movement.  As the Reform Judaism Magazine notes, one of the great shifts in the past several years is the emergence of a new generation of transgender rabbis. In a series of profiles in the Forward, some of the leaders of this new generation explore the ways that they have created community and new rituals. The Internet can play a key role in religious change.  As Lisa Nakamura and others have argued, the Internet is a space where race and gender "happen" and are made (Cybertype xi-xii; Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet). While some scholars have proposed that online discourses are often divorced from the "real world," several transgender rabbis have reclaimed the Internet as a creative space to build community and awareness for how Judaism can nourish the transgender community.  Grassroots organizations such as Jewish Transitions (begun by Noach Dzmura and Jhos Singer) and Keshet have expressly embraced the Internet productive form of outreach education and community support. Transgender rabbis and communities have made excellent use of the new forms emerging out of the Internet to help create community and trace the progress of the soul. Rather than writing spiritual autobiographies in isolation, rabbis who use blogs and facebook connect to a culture of assent (thumbs up, thumbs down) in which transforming one's self becomes in part a communal endeavor.  Moreover by making spiritual autobiography an emergent story, rabbis also allow their own life stories to model transformation in real time and thus to connect virtual and actual communities. (Here I am thinking in part of the powerful blog, Planting Rainbows by Rabba Emily Aviva Kapor.) Digital spiritual autobiographies of becoming challenge the basic premise made by Furches and others that people are born with a “mind/body unity." Rather they reveal how by reinventing or reclaiming Jewish ritual, practitioners can make Judaism a powerful spiritual force for helping bring about self unification.

Transgender rabbis are not the only Jewish theologians who use the Internet as a thought space for creating Jewish readings of gender and the soul.  Dr. Michael Laitman of the Bnei Baruch Kabbalah Education and Research Institute provides direction on kabbalistic readings of soul gender.  "The soul does have a specific gender: male or female," he explains, and "men and women have different kinds of souls," though "the souls of men are neither better nor worse than those of women."  For Laitman like Furches (and unlike transgender theorists), embodied gender is stable: "In our [physical] world, the body is fixed and retains its gender – male or female."  Yet, Laitman disagrees that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the body's gender and soul gender.  Moreover, a person may have different genders of their soul within their lifetime: "A Kabbalist who climbs the spiritual ladder alternates between the masculine part of the vessel and the feminine part. Consequently, at one time the Kabbalist has a masculine soul and at another time, a feminine soul."  These claims interest me, as they suggest that for Laitman the gendered portion of the soul is not the essential self, a hypothesis that we will see comes under attack by other contemporary Jewish thinkers. has also reflected on the issue of “trans-gender soul travels." Like Laitman, the author of these posts notes that soul and body gender need not be unified since sometimes"the soul that is within the female body is not feminine, but male." Yet, whereas Laitman sees the soul's gender transmigrations as part of kabbalists' normal spiritual ascent, the writers at argue that such instances are "anomalous cases" and that the disconnects between physical and spiritual are "a result of sin" and have negative repercussions on the physical procreative potential of the body.  Despite their difference of options, both Laitman and make less use of the communal and innovative function of the Internet than some of the transgendered rabbis profiled by the Forward.  Laitman's drash, for example, appears as static pages and does not provide a space for comments, forwarding, posting to facebook, or "liking."  While's pages do allow for comments, sharing, and facebook-liking, comments that are posted go unanswered, thereby downplaying the notion of dialogue.  On November 27, 2011 for example, one anonymous commenter noted, "I don't understand how this [post? information?] would help me as a bisexual male to ''correct'' my situation?"  Not only can people not "like" or "dislike" the comment (or respond without's consent), there was no response by to this or any of the other comments. Even within the Internet's potentially dialogical format, dialogue and assent are limited.

Recent online formulation of gender and the transmigration of the soul are complemented by print formulations by scholars of religion, some of whom are also leaders of the transgendered Jewish community.  Elliott R. Wolfson's work has been particularly influential on the subject of gender and the kabbalah; for example, his book Language, Eros, Being: Kabbalistic Hermeneutics and Poetic Imagination
--> (NY: Fordham UP, 2005) and his article, “On Becoming Female: Crossing the Gender Boundaries in Kallabistic Ritual and Myth,” in Gender and Judaism: the Transformation of Tradition, edited by T.M. Rudavsky. (NY: NYUP, 1995): 209-28.  Although I highly recommend Wolfson's work, in the interest of space, I will focus here instead solely on writer-scholar Joy Ladin, David and Ruth Guttesman Chair in English at Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University. Ladin is one of the most compelling and sophisticated thinkers to take up the issue of soul gender.  Although Ladin also has a strong online presence, I’d like to look briefly at her discussion of soul gender and transmigration in two print works:  her recent memoir Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders, and one of her recent books of poetry, Transmigration.  Like online formulations, print formulations of Jewish soul gender tend to complicate the story of “mind/body unity” told by Furches.

One intriguing elements of Ladin’s memoir Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey Between Genders is that it consistently thinks about being transgendered through the lens of religion.  In some ways, Ladin appears to agree with Fuches in that she also claims that her soul has an inherent gender.  Throughout her memoir, Ladin explains that her true self is her soul, and that soul was born always already female (22).  In stark contrast to gender theorists like Judith Butler, Ladin explicitly rejects the idea that gender is solely performative and that there is no “self that otherwise cannot be seen” (47) As Ladin points out,
Though my female self is nothing if not a performance, for me, gender is more than performance.  If it weren’t, then someone like me, raised as a male, perceived as a male, and consciously performing as male, would simply be male; my lifelong sense that there was a true female self behind my make mask would be a delusion (47).
Yet, despite her insistence upon her soul’s inherent gender, Ladin does not see the body and the soul as inherently united. In insisting on the lack of mind-body unity, Ladin's account contradicts Furches' claims, but corresponds to kabbalist reading by Laitman and others. Indeed her experience tells her a body and soul need not share a gender:  her prior male body was a façade, disconnected from her true soul self.  As she explains, “A body is there, but it’s not yours” (42). The disconnect between soul gender and the body’s birthed gender causes a painful gender dysphoria; thus to change physical genders so that her soul and body genders match is to “become myself” (29).  That is, unlike Laitman and Furches she rejects the proposal that "body is fixed and retains its gender – male or female."  As a transsexual, Ladin finds, “When I look in the mirror, I see someone who has begun to resemble—me” (3).   That said, Ladin is extremely conscious that her choice to express her female inner self may not be received well by God. Indeed, her constant struggle with and for God runs throughout the book.  As much as she seeks acceptance by friends and family members and recognition of her true self, so too does she ultimately hope that God—unlike her earthly father—will not reject her.  The mirroring of here relationship with her earthly spouse and that with her heavenly spouse and between her earthly parents and her heavenly parents is one of the book's great richnesses.  While religion runs throughout the book, religious studies scholars may be particularly rewarded by chapter 13, “The God Thing,” which would make a great addition to syllabus on religion in American life.

Through the Door of Life expands on the mind-body disunity and reunification Ladin addressed in her 2009 collection of poems Transmigration (2009).  As in Through the Door of Life, Transmigration shows the disconnect between the body and the soul. "Somewhere between male and female," she explains, "The soul gets lost."  Unlike Through the Door of Life which often figures the soul as the true self and the body as the façade, here the soul is displaced.  "The soul is still alone," she tells us. "It is only dreaming / It's been discovered / In the space between male and female" (16; Listen to the Poem). This vision of the soul in limbo, between spaces is repeated in the poem "Wait" in which "The soul waits / On the porch of the world" (17).  The transitioning of the body--like death--leaves the soul homeless. (Indeed in Through the Door of Life Ladin explicitly connects the loss of her male body to  death.) Ladin's collection is a good example of the way a religious poet can invoke and transform a poetic tradition. Like in her collection Psalms (2010), in Transmigration Ladin is interested in creating dialogues not only between herself and God, but also between her verse and the Jewish canon.

I want to end on a personal note.  When I bought the copy of Transmigration, I ordered a used copy online, quite frankly because it was cheaper, and I was on a budget.  When it arrived I discovered the title page had been signed by the author (a boon!), perhaps at a poetry reading for the first owner? 
The inscription delighted me on several levels: first - it was to me, Laura!  (Sort of--it was to a Laura I didn't know.)  Second, despite what the inscription proclaimed, I already knew Joy by October 9, 2009: she had been my colleague at Reed College in 2002-2003. Yet, during that earlier year, I must admit, I hardly knew her.  She had not come out as a woman yet, and I was on sabbatical and hence out of town for much of the year.  Thus in some prophetic way, Joy the inscriber was right: through the book I had "finally" begun to meet Joy, the soul I had not seen previously or even known existed.  In this post, I have barely touched on some complex issues related to soul gender, but I hope that like prophetic inscription in Transmigration, the post will at least be the beginning of some greater understanding.

[*] Germany’s take on gender and sex became even more complicated this month when it announced that it will allow for a third sex category on birth certificates, as exemplified by the image at the top of my post. This move has not been without critics: for example, Swiss activist group Zwischengeschlecht (“Between Genders”) notes that the law actually reinforces gender norms since “if a child’s anatomy does not, in the view of physicians, conform to the category of male or the category of female, there is no option but to withhold the male or female labels given to all ‘normal’ children.” (


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