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Clergy at the Courthouse

The following is a transcript of Episode 127 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and recording on Wednesday, February 8th, 2023. 

You know, religion and morality are complicated bedfellows. We’ve known that for a long time. You remember your Socrates right? In Euthyphro: is goodness loved by the gods because it’s good, or is goodness good because it’s loved by the gods? Or maybe closer to home: did Abraham’s obedience to God in his willingness to sacrifice his son, his only son, signal that faith supersedes morality, or is the moral of the story that God would never allow such a thing to actually take place, et cetera, et cetera. 

Religious convictions and moral beliefs, or maybe it’s religious beliefs and moral convictions, they’re not parallel and they’re not in conflict. I think they’re more orthogonal, like two systems that organize our worlds and that provide vocabulary for our choices that we make in trying to be good people. I think we all tend to think that our own choices bring the two into alignment and that the choices of our enemies or opponents render them askew.

The caricature of conservative religious leaders of liberals tends to be that they, all they have is a morality of liberalism masquerading in religious language, that it doesn’t take the demands of religion really seriously. And liberals in turn oftentimes see conservative religion as obeying religious dicta that are basically immoral. If all of that is already a mess, even before you get into politics, because if religion and morality are these two powerful systems that govern what we think is good and right in the world, well, politics is the mechanism by which we try to create order in our societies with far less of an ability to come even close to the aspirations of the really religious or the really moral.

It doesn’t stop people from trying though, especially in our hyperpartisan environment where it seems that right and left today are commonly in conflict, not just about the strategies that they separately hold in pursuit of some shared common good, but in perpetuating what feel more and more like existentially different worldviews that have to fight them one another to the death.

One of my favorite essays on religion and politics is in the philosopher Avishai Margalit’s book, On Compromise and Rotten Compromise. He says, quote, the idea of political compromise is caught between two pictures of politics: politics as economics, and politics as religion. Roughly speaking in the economic picture of politics, everything is subject to compromise. It’s not always desirable or prudent, but it’s always possible. 

But in the religious picture, there are things over which we must never compromise. My favorite line he says is, “the religious picture is in the grip of the idea of the holy. The holy is that which is not for negotiation, much less compromised.” Crudely put, one cannot compromise over the holy without compromising the holy.

 Meanwhile, in the economic picture of politics, compromise is at the heart of politics, and the ability to compromise is highly praised. It goes on to say, modern politics is seized by these two irreconcilable pictures. We are ambivalent in valuing compromise precisely because we’re in the grip of two imprecise powerful and irreconciable pictures, both of politics and morality.

I think Margalit is especially right in looking at American political life right now, which is fixated with the religious picture of politics, that our politics are in some ways about positions that are holy and therefore non-negotiable. It doesn’t mean that I think Americans are engaged in religion all the time, but rather that we’re importing the doctrinalism and dogma, the orthodoxy and heresy culture, into our politics, and that’s what makes our collective politics right now feel so profoundly dangerous. There’s very little, in general, that people won’t do when they’re fighting on behalf of God’s truth. 

And now let’s talk about what this means in real life. At stake in American politics right now are a number of issues that are in fact, life and death for many Americans, and even for those for whom these issues aren’t directly life or death, they carry the moral weight of capital issues. These include abortion rights, which have been eviscerated in large parts of the country following the repeal of Roe v. Wade, and the rights and identities of trans people, which have become astonishingly quickly, a deep referendum on social values with direct implications for the lives of many adults, children, and their families.

It’s virtually impossible right now to be an American immune to these conversations or incapable of forming a deeply held opinion one way or another, and therefore it’s its own referendum on the values, commitments of American Jews as a people who form our Jewish convictions in direct relationship to our political behavior in the society in which we’re members and stakeholders.

I’m excited to talk about all of this today, more about abortion and trans rights than about Avishai Margalit, but maybe we can too, to one of the people who I think sits at the epicenter of the American Jewish negotiation between the religious, the moral, and the political, Maharat Rori Picker Neisse, also a person who I happen to greatly like and admire.

Rori is the embodiment of the complexity of that introduction. She’s an orthodox ordained rabbi who is also the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in St. Louis, which my read is that it’s a bluish Jewish community in a red state, but we can unpack that a little bit more. She’s recently been in the news for a variety of reasons.

First, she joined together with several other clergy of different faiths in bringing a lawsuit against Missouri abortion law, claiming that a ban on abortion violates the sincerely held beliefs of many peoples of faith, which is a pretty significant turnabout in the attempt by conservative Christians to argue that faith dictates the prohibition on abortion.

More recently, this past week, she’s a lead advocate against Missouri’s growing regulation and restriction on LGBTQ rights, especially as it relates to trans people. She does all of this representing her own religious commitments, as well as on behalf of a pluralistic community relations council.

And her story is therefore not just about the news cycle, but also I think what it means politically to be an American Jew today. Rori, thanks for coming on the show. Tell us about your week.

Rori: First of all, thanks for having me. Um, where do I even begin? It has been a whirlwind of a time, as you summed up. It was really just a matter of days. There was, a couple of weeks ago on Thursday was when we filed the lawsuit in Missouri, and then the following Monday was when we got word that eight anti-LGBTQ bills were coming up in the house the next day, one in the Senate, also, the next morning.  And we were suddenly dropping everything to rearrange our schedule, drive the two hours to the state capitol. 

And it’s just been running nonstop since then. Between all of these conversations, back and forth to the state capitol, both to testify and to lobby and trying to get the wider community to understand everything that you just summed up so well of what actually is at stake in all of these conversations.

Yehuda: I have a lot that I wanna ask you about, in particular about the lawsuit, which I think is really interesting. It’s groundbreaking for a whole bunch of reasons, but I wanted to start with you. This is a rabbinate, and that’s really interesting to me. I think it’s probably gonna be interesting to a lot of our listeners.

I don’t think there are a lot of rabbis of any denomination who are working on behalf of Jewish community relations councils. And certainly it’s unusual to have an orthodox ordained rabbi in a role like this. I’m curious whether this was what you knew your rabbinate was gonna be about of, of this kind of Jewish community organizing and political activism.

And now that you’ve been in it for a number of years, how it correlates to that kind of imagined sensibility that many of us have about the rabbinate as a kind of calling, a religious calling. So I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that and then we can get into the substance of the issues.

Rori: It’s funny when I think back, because growing up in the Orthodox community, on the one hand, it didn’t feel like there was a lot of political engagement in the community in particular that I was from in Brooklyn, and yet so much of my life was intertwined between religion and the public sphere. 

To be fully immersed in your religious tradition is to live out your religious life in every other aspect of the world. And so it always felt to me like this natural segue that, that all of these pieces were going to, in some ways come together within me. 

It’s not what I thought I was gonna start off when I first went to Yeshiva Mahara and when I first graduated, I moved to St. Louis because I had a pulpit here. I worked with Rabbi Hyim Shafner at Bais Abraham Congregation. And what I found was that when I was giving a sermon every other week, because we would switch off,  I was always a really big believer that you don’t do politics from the pulpit. 

And yet somehow I would get up in front of this community, and there would be these huge world events happening, and I just felt like, how do I talk about what’s in this week’s arsha and ignore going on in the world? Because the Torah has to be speaking about what’s happening in the world. 

I moved to St. Louis in 2013, and in the two years that I was in the pulpit, there was a war between Israel and Gaza. Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. A shooter went into a black church and shot a number of people during Bible study. And, and I named every one of those things when I got up. I just felt like, like this is the world. And so when my predecessor at the Jewish Community Relations Council announced that she was retiring, somebody called and said, have you ever thought about this? 

It felt like a really natural segue, even as it’s not something that I had ever thought about, but it just felt to me like I didn’t know how to separate these parts of my life.

Yehuda: Mm-hmm. I mean, I, I get it when it comes to giving a sermon, right? Nobody really believes that you don’t speak politics from the pulpit. What they usually mean is you speak palatable politics from the pulpit for your audience, right? Nobody really means that. And also, you know, as we know, the Torah is a highly political book.

So I get what it might feel like when it’s about, okay, how do I be a human being in the world, watch what’s taking place in my neighborhood, and then teach Torah in synagogue on Shabbat to the people who are standing in front of me. 

How does it work in reverse? Like when do you feel that, whether it’s testifying in the Missouri State House or trying to build coalitions, when do you feel that that work is also teaching Torah?

Rori: You know, I think the first time I was ever really exposed to the power of faith leaders, and, and maybe this isn’t quite teaching Torah, but I think that there’s Torah in this also, was actually in Ferguson. It was as activists were sitting in the streets day in and day out and marching and chanting and were being faced with huge amounts of police presence and response, and often escalating violence as protestors and law enforcement clashed with each other, there was a call for faith leaders to come and be deescalators, to be mediators between protestors and police. 

And I think that was the first time that I realized the power of in this space. Most of the clergy had really tried to be behind the scenes. We weren’t the front lines, we weren’t the people who were leading, and I don’t wanna pretend like in any ways we were, but we realized that there was a specific role that we had. And I have a number of colleagues who have stories to tell of escorting people across police lines, making sure that people were able to go into various spaces, safely calming down tensions, preventing people from getting arrested, all because of the role of being a really visible clergy presence.

When the Missouri State Legislature was one of the abortion bans a number of years ago, one of my colleagues, Rabbi Jonah Zinn, who has moved away from Missouri since then, testified before one of the hearings, and I had heard for weeks afterward about the impact of his testimony because so many of the people on the committee were talking this faith language.And when he sat down as a rabbi and said, actually, we understand that Torah a little differently than that, they were questioning him and engaging with him for a significant amount of time, fascinated by what he had to offer. 

So it’s one of the things that we actually think about a lot at the JCRC as we think about the issues that we work on. I often say, where does a Jewish voice actually move an issue? Where is it interesting? Where does us sitting down and saying, we have texts and tradition and history and teaching to offer in this, when does it get people to sit up a little bit straighter, to be a little bit more curious, to open themselves up a little bit more? And so it’s a little bit circuitous of which one comes first, but there’s this like power of us bringing our Torah into spacesm there’s ways in which I see that we move issues differently because of the voice that we bring in. 

And to me that’s the power of what it is to be a faith voice existing in the world.

Yehuda: There’s obviously a bad version of what you’re talking about. It’s easy to satire. My hypothesis is that we tend to see the bad version of it on, more on the other side of the aisle. But a lot, you know, a lot of left-leaning, more secular Jews resent the way in which the appeal to religion is used to shift public conversation and public culture.

And there’s something, a lot of those folks, let’s say, will say, don’t make this about faith, right? Make it about what’s good for America. You know, the notion of separation of church and state. What you’re talking about is very different and more subtle, which is acknowledging that faith is already the terrain in which these people hold their commitments into which all of us hold our commitments and engaging through faith.

And I’m curious, like, what’s the line between when that’s done well and when it’s done poorly? And I don’t mean just in your own work, but when you see religion being claimed as part of the vehicle to advance various political objectives for a community.

Rori: I started off by saying that I don’t really know how to separate all of these pieces of myself. I don’t step into a space and today I’m a faith leader, and in this other space I’m a mother and in another space, I’m a woman, and in another space,

I think we all enter spaces as our full selves, and I would never want anyone to feel like they had to leave a part of themselves at the door. I love that people want to enter into the communal space with all of the things that inform them, and I don’t think it’s bad that faith is one of those things. To me, the line is when does that faith start to impose on other people’s individual rights? And when does it start doing harm to people?

Yehuda: And that’s it. Those are the rules.

Rori: I don’t know if they’re rules, they’re questions. They’re questions that I grapple with.

You know, for me it’s been interesting seeing some of the debate that’s come up around abortion and around trans rights. Listening to some of it, seeing some of it on social media. But what I see is, is oftentimes there are these two sides that are both saying the same thing.

One person says, you’re infringing on my religious practice if you do this. And then somebody responds and says, well, my religious belief doesn’t allow for it. And then usually there’s a point where somebody says, yeah, but my religious belief doesn’t require you to do what I want you to do. And so that’s part of what I find really interesting.

One of the reasons I wanted to get involved in the court case that we’re doing in Missouri and what makes it different than other court cases in some other states, is that where other states, the challenge to the abortion ban is saying, this violates my ability to practice my religion, in Missouri, what we’re saying is, is that the law itself establishes a religion and that establishing a religion is itself unconstitutional.

Yehuda: Okay, so let’s stay on that for a second. It feels to me like there are two pretty significant risks when people of faith make the argument that abortion violates their own religious freedom, right? Which is essentially what’s being argued in these cases with a variety of different manifestations.

One of them is, I was talking to actually one of the lawyers involved with one of these cases today, is that one of the things that may happen is that the courts will say, great, as long as you demonstrate that you sincerely hold to your religious beliefs, especially in places where there are already exemptions, right?

Once I have an exemption, then yes, I trust that you, Rori, an Orthodox Jew, actually believe what you hold to be true, and then what’s gonna wind up, a profound division among the Jewish people between those who are thought of as being sincerely religious, as opposed to those who are not actually religious. And I think this has already started to happen in the court system. 

So how do we prevent, when we engage on the terms of sincere religion, we’re opening ourselves up to scrutiny about whether we hold our serious convictions as opposed to the alternative, which is to say, this isn’t about faith at all, it’s just about rights that are being trampled by faith. How do we account for that risk? I’m sure you’ve thought about it.

Rori: Well, I think you summed it up in many ways really well. I think that anytime that we’re asking government or the court system to evaluate religious practice, we start to get to really messy territory. Who gets to decide? Who’s the consultant on it? I mean, even after we filed our lawsuit, there was a group of orthodox rabbis who up a statement on their website saying we absolutely don’t think that this at all is a violation of our freedom of religion or separation of church and state to ban abortion. 

You know this better than anyone. I mean, give me a room of rabbis and I’ll find you a whole bunch of opinions, and tell me what you want someone to say, I’ll find you a rabbi who says it. And that’s the beauty of the diversity of our Jewish community. I don’t say that as a bad thing, but religion in and of itself, as much as it is a communal endeavor, it’s also incredibly personal. 

I think that’s been part of the beauty of, of what America has provided is that we have people practice Shabbat in one way and Kashrut in a different way and don’t fit neatly into boxes. And that’s all fine and beautiful and something that we can embrace. And so we don’t wanna be throwing around these ideas of violation of freedom of religion lightly as something where then we have to prove what our religion is. Or somebody gets to decide, here’s what Judaism does say.

For me, the reason why I felt compelled to challenge this abortion ban, and I said this at the press conference when we first announced it, is not because I want the law to incorporate a Jewish definition of abortion rights. It’s because I think the law shouldn’t incorporate any religious definition of abortion rights. And as soon as any of our religions start to be legislated, it becomes dangerous for all citizens and for democracy itself.

Yehuda: I understand that the end goal would be getting all of these laws off the books and effectively permitting abortion because it doesn’t become, you’re not using religious argumentation to that end. I guess I’m asking a more narrow question, which is, a strategy like this may ultimately open the way for exemptions for Jews, and maybe ideally it’s not just for Jews who are thought of as having sincere religion, but it might actually essentially say, okay, fine, you know, I have an, I have an exemption now for rape and incest, and I have also an exemption for someone who steps forward and say, my faith allows me, permits me, maybe even obligates me to get an abortion. And therefore the state doesn’t wanna trample on that. 

But by the way, we then, those of us who are advocating to get these laws off the books, will have a, a bit of a perk victory. We’ll have one for quote unquote ourselves, but not necessarily for someone else who doesn’t have a sincere claim on faith.

Rori: Right, so part of where I think the Missouri lawsuit is different from some other states is that we’re not, we’re not creating space for religious exemption. Religious exemption comes from suing the state and saying, this violates my freedom of religion, and so then I have to carve out a space for freedom of religion. Missouri’s case is different because it’s based on the establishment clause. 

So what I’m saying in, in my small piece of this is actually it could very well be that this is a situation where I don’t think that Jewish law, as I interpret and understand it and would counsel somebody through it, allows for an abortion. And I still think that the government doesn’t have the right to regulate it specifically because the government in establishing this, established it based on Christian religious belief. 

And that’s something that was explicitly stated by legislators as they were debating these laws and was written into the laws when they said sentences or wrote sentences, such as, life is the purview of the Almighty God, and life begins at conception, which I think is also a fundamentally theological statement.

Yehuda: How do you engage with the, I don’t know what the statistics are now, this, I had a statistic going back to 2007, a majority of Americans, at least in 2007, believe that their morality is dictated by their faith.

Going back to how I opened this, that when the Missouri legislators say something like that, let’s grant them for at least the next sentence, the legitimacy of sincerity. They genuinely believe that what anchors the, not only what is good and right in the world, but what is good and politically necessary for the state of Missouri, is a moral position that is dictated by faith.

What is gained and what’s lost by granting people that, right? Because what you ultimately want is that it doesn’t have probative legal value. It doesn’t wind up dictating policy, but it almost feels kind of impossible to imagine that your political opponents will be willing to yield the bigger story, which is that their faith commitments shouldn’t actually shape what they consider to be the responsibilities of public leadership.

Rori: So I, I really do grapple with this question because like I said, I don’t think anyone should leave any part of themselves at the door. I do think that a number of the people who are pushing forward these bills and these laws believe, I will say it about abortion, we can have a different conversation about the trans rights.

Yehuda: Yeah.

Rori: I think when it comes to abortion, many of the proponents do believe really strongly in the morality that they’re espousing. What feels particularly dangerous to me is if the only language of that morality comes in religious language, then there’s multiple things at stake, and abortion’s not the only thing at stake in this discussion.

But what it means to be a person of a different religion or a person of no religion, or a person who is any kind of minority that does not see themselves easily reflected in their elected body. Last year there was a debate within the Missouri Senate because they had refused to confirm the governor’s health department nominee. It might not be health, but whatever, the office of the kind of, chief health director of the state. 

Particularly they were challenging him on abortion, on his stance on mask mandates and things like that. This was coming from a conservative Christian caucus of senators. And the governor in responding after they had not confirmed and, and the clock ran out, and so the governor needed to appoint a new person to the position, the governor tweeted out and said, his anger to these senators who were in his party and had otherwise aligned with him politically, that they didn’t think that his nominee fit their bill and said, I would never nominate, something to the effect of like, who didn’t have good Christian values. 

Well, that’s a huge statement for the governor of the state to say, and he’s saying it as saying it like, you know, this guy was with us, right. He shares the moral values. But this is a state that has a population far beyond a Christian population and for whom even the Christian population doesn’t define its Christianity by any one Christianity. And so when that becomes the sole language that we use to talk about morality, we start to violate the very principles that I think this country was founded on, specifically of maintaining the separation of church and state and ensuring that every person feels that they have the ability to participate fully in the democratic process.

Yehuda: Have you ever found a way to use the sincerity of your own faith commitments, your own belief and practice as a means of actually breaking down the barriers between yourself and the people who you think are politically wrong? I’m, that’s a genuine question, I’m curious, I think it would have to happen, whether or not it actually succeeds as a political strategy is another story. But I’m wondering whether it happens as part of your work?

Rori: It does happen. You know, I remember a few years ago sitting down with, with an evangelical pastor who, we’ve built a relationship and I think it was the first time, you know, we had gotten together after lockdown, so it was like this big deal that we went out for coffee. And at one point in the conversation he looked at me and he said, you know, look, I follow you on Twitter. I know what you say and you know what I say. And don’t know that I agree with you on just about anything, but I love you. 

And that was actually like a really profound statement for me to hear. Because when you start with this place of, we’re in deep relationship and connection, a lot can come out of that. Right, now we have a foundation from which we can build. And so I’ve had numerous individuals who religiously and politically are in very different places who have sat down and said, I really don’t get it, but I respect you, so can you talk me through this? Why do you tweet about trans rights? What do you think that this means when you talk about abortion? Like, help me understand where you are on this. 

Because the caricature that you described in your opening, that’s the danger. I mean, I, I’ve gone down that rabbit hole. We had a few people who opposed a program a couple of years ago that we were doing about immigration. We had partnered with the Catholic church to talk about immigration, and there were people who didn’t want them to work with us on it because of our stance on abortion. And so they kind of took over the Facebook feed and they were posting things, so I was clicking on some of their pages and seeing who they were. 

And I mean, the images were just astounding of, I mean, literally like people who support abortion rights want desperately to murder babies, like rejoice in dancing in the blood of babies, can’t wait for babies to be fully formed so that they can be born to just wring their neck. I mean, I’m not even exaggerating the imagery, but that also gave me pause to say, Hey, if that’s that level of ridiculous, then what are the people that I’m sitting around who are telling me things about people that I don’t sit with often? How much are those caricatures?

 And that really gave me a platform to start to sit down with some of the folks and, and both be able to tell a little bit more of my own story, but keep myself open to say, you know, maybe when everyone talks about all of these other people who just like can’t wait to take away individual rights, who wanna create a Christo-fascist state, right? Like, maybe that’s not the vast majority of people either. Maybe there’s a lot of people who, as we’ve talked about, really firmly believe in the morality of what they think their faith calls them to, and don’t realize the harm that it might be doing along the way or the ways in which others are hearing that language in really hurtful manners.

Yehuda: I remember a conversation with Stephanie a few years ago. I don’t remember the context. It kind of sounds like it’s an icebreaker, like a, not a fun icebreaker, but, where the question was something to the effect of what’s the belief that you hold, that you’re most passionate about, that you can best understand and even empathize with the opposing view? 

So it has to be both something you are really passionate about, but that you can best understand the other. And Stephanie said, without pausing, she just said abortion. It didn’t sway at all her own commitments or like mine too, to be adamantly pro-choice, but I can understand why somebody who comes out of a totally different worldview, especially of a different faith, would see this as like a threshold issue in terms of how they understand the valuing of human life. 

It kind of sounds like you, you’ve used that, some of that language now, right. But you said earlier in this conversation there’s a difference between this and, and where you see the trans rights conversation. So I’m curious by the way for you to answer that question also, and whether you come out the same place, but also why you feel that there’s a real difference between the kind of good faith, if sincerely fought debate on abortion and the one that you’re also in the middle of right now around trans rights in Missouri.

Rori: I do agree with Stephanie. I think that abortion is something that, for as much as I am proud to be part of this lawsuit, I hear the argument. It’s not something that I do take lightly. 

For me, and I wanna keep reemphasizing this, my opposition to the law is, the ways in which the law has come about and the ways in which it infringes upon individual rights, which is different from what I might choose for my own life or where I might counsel somebody depending on the myriad of circumstances that would have to come together, at the court, you know, we talk a lot in the Jewish community about we define life, what the status of a fetus is, all of those kinds of things, but it resonates with me that if somebody comes from a faith community where they fundamentally believe that life begins at the very first conception, at this moment of conception, abortion seems like a ridiculous thing that we then talk about, right? 

I mean, we, we don’t have this conversation about other areas of life of, of, you know, where we get to make life and death decisions flippantly. And so I hear that. I don’t share that understanding of life, but I do respect the questioning or the grappling that comes, or even the moral quandary, the moral horror, let’s even say, of seeing what’s happening in the abortion debate. 

Not everybody shares those definitions, and I don’t know that science shares those definitions. And so if we can’t give a scientific proof for all of that, then I think the state needs to have a much broader conversation. But to transition from that to trans rights, my experience talking to people one-on-one is that I have found very few people to be arguing about trans rights in good faith effort.

The abortion debate, I’ve had some real, profound, and beautiful conversations and difficult conversations. Trans rights has, for whatever reason right now, it seems been chosen as the political wedge issue of the day. This isn’t something that just happened now. It’s been going on for a number of years, but it seems to have exploded just in the past few weeks, and it takes maybe the most marginalized group of people, not just in the LGBTQ community, specifically the trans community, and specifically trans children, and makes them the subject of political debate in some of the highest offices of their state. 

And most of the people when asked about the bills that they’re sponsoring, cannot answer basic questions about it. When challenged on some of it, have no real argument, can cite no actual harm that’s been done, or give any examples of any victims, and don’t even stay to engage with families or listen to any testimony. And oftentimes behind closed doors, we will have conversations with people in the legislature who will admit that they think that these bills are horrible, bad bills, but politically they can’t go to the mat to oppose them. 

And that has just been infuriating to me, that people are willing to say that they will a vulnerable population because it scores them political points, and it’s not something that they wanna expend political capital to fight.

Yehuda: So, I mean, help me understand it. Like political capital derives from somewhere? What is the cash? What is the payload that people are protecting? I mean, I could understand conceptually, much as like abortion can be construed as like a deep understanding of human life, anything that touches on gender winds up being a kind of third rail for boundary conversations. 

That’s true whether it’s about trans rights, it’s true about whether it’s a mechitza in Orthodox synaoguges. Anything that touches on gender awakens a sense, a deeply and old human sensibility about patrolling and protecting boundaries and gender has been like the OG boundary that needs to be preserved and protected at all costs.

Is that what we’re talking about? I, it’s cause it’s a weird story to say, I don’t think, I don’t think I should be supporting this legislation, but it’s political suicide. Well, what do the people want out of their legislators who are holding to these positions? There’s something really important that they think that they’re upholding. I just don’t get what it is.

Rori: So I, I’m not sure that most people know either. I mean, I think though that there’s been a lot of energy expended to get people scared of trans individuals. This is part of what makes this legislation to me so insidious is that it gets couched in these generally, what might be perceived of as you know, kind of fair discourse. So the version of this that existed a few years ago that we’ve mostly moved past now, were the bathroom bills, right? The bathroom bills that tried to say, a person can only use the restroom according to gender that was assigned to them at birth.

And for many people, and by the way, I’ll include myself in this, before I fully understood what was going on, for many people that seemed like a totally reasonable thing, like okay, right, because the language that people who were supporters of the bill kept saying was, well, wouldn’t you feel unsafe? As a woman, wouldn’t you feel unsafe if you went to a rest stop and some big burly trucker with a beard you know, came in, wouldn’t that make you unsafe? Or wouldn’t you be unsafe if somebody was dressing up like a woman just to go into the women’s restroom, just to assault women? 

And so what that ultimately does is it says that trans individuals are people who make a choice to change their gender, not because it’s something that they feel inside or not because this is who they are, but this is a conscious choice that they make for specifically nefarious purposes, that somebody is going to change their gender only in order to then be a person who assaults somebody else. Now we’re also setting aside that,

Yehuda: Or who tries to win a swim meet.

Rori: Well exactly, that becomes the nefarious school. We call it the bathroom bill 2.0. These athlete bans. The athlete bans say, oh, you are a male athlete and you rank 15th in your sport, so you’re gonna decide to transition to be a woman, and now you’re gonna rank first or second, because that’s just, you know, inherently how it’s gonna go. 

It completely sets aside any of the biology and science in terms of ways in which bodies do change when trans women go on estrogen and muscle does change, and so there’s not necessarily the same difference in strength, but even setting all of that aside, what it’s doing is it’s completely dismissing trans identity. And it’s saying this is something that people can choose and that people are choosing to do only because they’re trying to undermine our systems. And that there’s no other reason that a person would transition unless they were trying to do something that was inherently wrong within the structures that we’ve built as a society. 

And so, it’s hard because we find ourselves debating things like athlete statistics. Well, you know, I’ve sat down with a number of people who then wanna say to me, well, the fastest male runner is still faster than the fastest female runner. And all of these things that are actually irrelevant to the central point, which is that the central point is trying to create a fear around a population. And the political capital is coming from saying, if I can create a fear around this population, then me doing something to combat this fear means that I have now served my population. 

It, we’ve often said that it’s a solution in search of a problem, and so it actually excuses people from doing real legislative work, but it’s doing it at the cost of real humans who are the ones who are trying to just live their lives, but are now being spoken about as if they are these conniving, conspiratorial individuals.

Yehuda: It’s really interesting that it has taken on such currency in America, in a society that, in which kind of the right of self-determination, not in the political sense, but, is so deeply American, like we should be the place on earth, in theory, I don’t mean, actually it’s not actually the case cause we’re actually an incredibly religious country as well, but in the narrative that Americans tell about themselves is like, you could do whatever the hell you want in this country. 

And it’s so interesting that this is like the axis of, except around gender, right? Like that’s the place where nope, we have to actually create social barriers and social control, lest like all of us lose the ability to, I guess, determine what we are gender-wise, and it’s just so strange.

Rori: So the, one of the bill sponsors last year in the house who was the sponsor of what we call the healthcare bans. So that is a bill that says that a person cannot provide gender-affirming care to an individual under the age of 18. And when I say a person can’t provide that care, it was aiming to criminalize. It still is. It’s, it’s back in Missouri and in a number of states. It actually just passed in Utah. But it seeks to criminalize doctors who provide care and parents who allow for this care. 

In the house last year, Missouri, the bill sponsor of the healthcare, also was the sponsor of a bill that said that parents could make the decision not to vaccinate their children. And the framing of that bill was something like, parents having sole medical discretion about their kids. And it was fascinating because we were sort of like, okay, so parents could make sole decision about medical care for their children unless the parent thinks that it’s okay to support their child transitioning gender, at which point parents lose the ability and could be criminalized and arrested for providing for gender-affirming care for that child.

Yehuda: I mean, I think you’re right that that’s hypocritical. Unfortunately, that does also swing in the other direction, right? Like the, the language of bodily autonomy did not serve liberals particularly well when it came to vaccine mandates, who then had to say, well, because I’m protecting the larger population, I have a non, it’s not actually about individual bodily autonomy, it’s about collective autonomy. And then you get into the question of like, can the society at large litigate or legislate what people do with their own bodies. Like we’re not great on both ends of that issue, I think.

Rori: Absolutely. Well, you’re calling out, there’s a basic hypocrisy that all of us can fall into and the dangers is that when we fall into buzzwords and political rhetoric and we’re not actually being intellectually curious about each of these issues, then it becomes very easy, right? 

So masks was a deeply partisan political issue and right, gender and transgender rights is a deeply partisan political issue. And I remember in 2021 of the hearings with others and and my son was watching with me some of the hearings, and as people were asking questions of the witnesses, sometimes the questions were sort of innocuous questions and he was like, do we think that they’re supportive or against? 

And there was a point where I said, listen it’s really not fair but the fact that they’re wearing a mask right now probably means this. And the fact that they’re not wearing a mask right now probably means that, right? And those are completely separate issues, and yet so much of this are the ways in which we are politically signaling our bases, in whatever form that is. We all do it. We all need to be challenged on it. 

The danger is is that there are real lives at stake and when we feel really good about our political posturing, we’re missing the impact that each of these bills are having on people who are trying to live their lives right now.

Yehuda: You know what’s so interesting is in the nineties, the pendulum swung on gay politics, basically based on proximity. I got a gay kid, I have a gay coworker, turns out it’s not like, big deal, a person wants to have a wedding registry. Like it’s good for the economy. It didn’t change officially until really last year. But once you had basically bipartisan consensus to essentially preserve gay marriage, that was a witness to the fact that like, that story is over by and large in America. 

It doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot of remaining anti-gay bigotry, but that politically changed. What seems to be happening in reverse here, around a higher percentage of the population finally, being able to publicly identify as trans, is actually creating greater backlash as opposed to the kind of proximity that pushes even conservative lawmakers to say, well, now that it’s my children and it’s people I know, I need to be able to figure out any legislative solution to this. 

Any theory as to why that is, or maybe it’s just gonna wait till one more generation?

Rori: Yeah, I mean this is totally on gut, I don’t have any research on it, but I do think we saw some of that happening prior to that, right? I mean, there’s different waves of the proximity. So also as you had people who are more visibly talking about being gay, there was major pushback, right, it was like, the, that’s fine, but you don’t have to put it in front of my face. Right? That was not an uncommon rhetoric also. 

And then you started hearing from people who were saying, oh, well now it’s my nephew and now it’s my cousin and now it’s my best friend and all of those things. And we started to see that shift. The trans population is still incredibly small percentage of the population. There are a lot of people in this country who have never met a person who’s trans. Not everybody who’s trans also wants to be open about their transition or visible. And so that’s also created a lot of really painful moments in this fight where people who are coming to testify, for some of them, that’s the only space where they talk openly about what it is to be trans. 

But trying to create more of these relationships. What’s the impact of showing up in the legislature and telling stories and having more people feel a sense of relationship with kids, their parents, families? In a way, it is, it’s trying to build proximity. There’s a fight that’s happening in the legislatures right now, but there’s a culture war that’s happening. And I think a lot of what we saw with gay marriage was that at some point, the culture war won out, and so the legislation kind of died out with it. 

It’s something I’m grappling with right now. I have publicly shared in some news articles and things like that that I do have a trans child. It’s something I only talked about for the first time last year. It’s not my story to tell. And for a very long time, he didn’t want that story shared. He still doesn’t want his story shared. He’s more comfortable with the fact that I talk about it. He doesn’t really talk about it publicly, but he’s been coming with me for four years to the legislature and every year, he’s very good at testifying, every year he gets quoted in a newspaper and every year I have to fight with the editor of the paper to say, take his name out. He didn’t give you permission to publish.

And I’ve had some who have pushed back and said, well, he went on public record and I say he’s on public record cause he’s fighting for his life, not because he wanted to announce it from the newspapers. When we testified a few weeks ago, his testimony went slightly viral and got shared by a number of websites and publications. And we’ve been getting asked more and more by the New York Times, other news agencies to be sharing more and telling more of our story. And that’s a really hard thing that we’re trying to balance of, on the one hand, we have this platform, can we be part of this culture shift? If we tell more of our story, does that help build some of the proximity? 

And also, he’s 11. Is this what we want him to be immortalized on the internet for, for the rest of his life? we don’t know which way this country’s gonna go. Is that something that we need to be easily tracked on this? And so I name all of that to say that I do believe that proximity becomes part of how we win this fight. Asking people to be in proximity is asking them to out themselves and to potentially put themselves into a dangerous situation in a country that is openly hostile against trans people, who have made clear that they would do violence to trans people and at a political time where we don’t know if being trans or some of the things that go along with that, the medical care that goes along with it, the school participation that goes along with it could become criminalized in just a year. And then what does that mean for all of these individuals? 

So that’s the part of the story that I think has become really hard for a lot of our kids, is that they are on the front lines of this fight. And inherently, just by proposing these bills and asking these kids to come and testify, that has already put them into potentially dangerous and incredibly challenging.

Yehuda: Let me ask you one last question. It goes back to something we were talking about a little earlier, but I want to connect it back to your work. You know, it strikes me that community relations work for the Jewish community, which is kind of still a holdover from the middle of the 20th century when Jewish communities had less political power and had more kind of implicit integration. It was one Jewish community that needed a kind of political arm to speak on its behalf. 

It feels to me like the agenda for a lot of the second half of the 20th century was a certain set of issues that were one kind of politics for the Jewish community, and very secular in nature, Essentially fighting anti-Semitism and politically supporting the state of Israel.

It feels a little bit like what you’re doing is two turnabouts. One is that you’ve moved from, what are the kind of macroeconomic Jewish political issues like fighting anti-Semitism to American political issues that Jews are implicated in, abortion, trans rights, et cetera. I’m not saying that you’re not fighting anti-Semitism, I’m sure you’re doing that too. 

Rori: You’re gonna get me in trouble now, if you say that publicly. 

Yehuda: No, no. You’re also fighting anti-Semitism. But the second thing is that you’re also entering through a non-secular lens. You’re entering as a, and through an explicitly religious lens, which I’m sure most of the time you are a director of a CRC, so you’re doing your job, but you’re also showing up as a rabbi.

So I, I just would love for you to kind of tell a little bit of that story of what this means for what might be an evolving story for Jewish community relations in our country that you might be at the vanguard of.

Rori: There’s one person who every once in a while will send me an email and he’ll say, I think you forgot that the J of JCRC stands for Jewish. And I will respond every time and say, absolutely the J for JCRC stands for Jewish. I think you and I are defining what it means to be Jewish in America today differently.

Because what he’s saying to me, I want you to be spending more time defending Israel and less time on this other work that you’re doing. And what I’m saying is that yes, absolutely we fight anti-Semitism. Absolutely we talk about Israel. All of those things are part of the components. But that, for me, I feel like we’re asking this question of what it means to be Jewish in America today. And maybe it’s similar to what I said earlier, that getting up on the pulpit and talking about that week’s Torah portion and feeling like, if I’m gonna address this Torah portion and ignore the elephant in the room of this racist attack that had just taken place, or whatever else it was that was happening in the world, then I’m not doing justice to Torah. 

That’s what I feel in, in the work that I do every day, right? What does it mean for our Jewish community to stand up as Jews? And I really believe that the Jews in our community are looking to us and saying, if Judaism has something to say about the world today, then you have to be saying something about the biggest issues that I see impacting the world. And right now in this country, I, I think some of the biggest debates, some of the biggest issues that we’re seeing debated in the public sphere have to do with the ways in which religious language is being used to defend limitations of rights on individuals, these wedge issues of individuals are being marginalized. 

I mean, we’re talking about abortion and trans rights right now, but we are also at the JCRC talking a lot about voting rights and the implications of every element of that. We’re talking about the separation of church and state. We’re talking about racial equity and criminal justice reform, and all of the systems that are in place that seek to marginalize any group of people. 

And to me, if we have spent decades learning how to navigate the political sphere and accruing political capital for the Jewish community to then say that we leave every other group behind, that’s not a Jewish community that I’m proud to be a part of. And I think that’s true of a lot of people in our Jewish community.

Yehuda: Well, thank you all for listening to our show, and special thanks to my guest this week, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss.

Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kaman and was edited by Gareth Hobbs at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M. Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Luke Allen, Miri Miller, and Shalhevet Schwartz, with music provided by so-called. Maital Friedman is our vice president of communications and creative.

Transcripts of our show are now available on our website, typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you want to hear about, if you have comments on this episode, or if you have a question you’d like us to answer on air, please write to us at [email protected]. You can rate and review our show on iTunes to how more people find it. You can subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, and thanks for listening.

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