Holidays | The Jewish Conversation with Ari-Lev Fornari

Ari-Lev Fornari is in his fifth year of post-denominational rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Massachusetts and is a member and contributor to Trans Torah.  Fornari is leading the High Holiday services for the Mile End Chavurah in Montreal this year.  

ShtetlWhat does it mean to be a post-denominational rabbi?

ALF:  Sometimes I call myself a generic Jew.   But I think that being post-denominational recognizes that the way we relate to Judaism changes over time based on our life experiences and what we’re looking for and our personalities.  So for myself, I was raised in the Reform movement and most of my upbringing in Judaism was about community and social justice work.  And part of what drew me to Hebrew College and in some ways to post-denominational Judaism, is a real love of studying Jewish text and Talmud and wanting a deeper relationship to Jewish sources and Jewish law.

And the approach to prayer and services is more flexible in a post-denominational setting because you’re not bound to a particular prayer book, or set of liturgy.

Shtetl:  So you can really play with the text and the prayers and make them your own.

ALF:   It sounds to me like the Mile End Chavurah is a post-denominational place which is to say there’s all different kinds of Jews who want to pray in all different kinds of ways and we need to figure out how to connect through those differences.  I think that’s probably true of most congregations even when the congregation itself is identified with a movement- that there’s all different kinds of Jews who want to pray in all different ways-   which is why I think post-denominational Judaism has a level of honesty to it.

ShtetlWhat do we have to do to get into the “Book of Life”? 

ALF:   I think in some ways part of getting into the “book of life” is also accepting death.  Letting part of ourselves die, letting ways of being die.  Allowing for forgiveness and letting go of grudges and anger.

ShtetlHow strict is God about us forgiving our friends and family?  What if you’re not ready to forgive someone who asks for it?  What do you do?

ALF:  I think as human beings we open our hearts as wide as we can at any given moment, and try and be as honest as we can with ourselves and with other people.  I think in circumstances where we aren’t prepared to forgive, we need to think about what we are prepared to do.

Maybe someone is not prepared to forgive, but they are prepared to have coffee once, or to try and listen to each other more carefully.  Maybe they’re prepared to write a letter.  There are a lot of ways to work towards having more connection, and forgiveness is only one of the steps.

Shtetl:   Can you tell us about the Trans Torah community  that you’re involved with?

ALF:  Trans Torah is largely an online resource and we’re a collective of indiviaduals that are pooling resources that we’ve created-  be it ritual, educational, sermons, text studies.  So when someone’s looking for something related to trans issues in Judaism, they can check there first.

Mostly people email us -you can email us at – with any number of questions. A lot of them pertaining to conversion questions around trans issues, or what does Judaism say about being trans.  We get emails from all over the world.

Shtetl:  What does the Torah have to say about gender identity and trans issues?

ALF:  The biggest part of that question is, what is Torah.  When we talk about Torah we could be talking about the Five Books of Moses or the Tanakh- Torah and the Prophets and the scriptures, or we could be talking about all of Rabbinic literature: all the Jewish sources compiled by men over thousand of years. Or we could be talking about some sort of primordial truth that precedes anything that’s been written down.

There’s a midrash –a story- that says “God looked into Torah to create the world.”  So did God look at a parchment scroll with vegetable or squid ink on it?  What was that Torah that God looked into?  And I think we’re constantly searching for that bigger, larger, primordial Torah which is a reflection of that which we long for and that which we know to be true and is an integration of our own life experiences with deep ancient wisdom.  And there’s a transcendence that happens when we mesh our own life experience with the wisdom of thousands of years.

So in terms of what does Torah say…Torah is only as big as we make it. Torah is not static.  On a very plain reading of the text, I don’t think Torah has anything particularly positive to say [about gender]. It clearly can be read as a patriarchal text that privileges the male and seems to segregate based on gender.   But, I think there are moments when we can read into that text blurriness and fuzziness and gradations that have a lot of power to speak to trans people and the trans experience.

An example of that is when God creates humans in Genesis 1:27 it says, “God created them male and female, God created them.”  One of the ways I like to read that text instead is “male through female”.   There’s a slight playing with language where all of a sudden God is saying there’s a gender spectrum, or there’s a universe of genders.

ShtetlCan you give us an example of a blessing from the Trans Torah website that might be helpful to somebody who is trans?

ALF (pictured above):  Some of the blessings are for chest binding which a lot of people on the gender-queer and masculine spectrum do.  There’s also blessings for actual transition.  There’s a mikveh ritual for transition.  And that transition could be anything from surgery or a name change or change of pronoun.

There’s blessing for partners of trans people and for people before and after injecting testosterone.  I think that’s on the site too.

You know, my blessing for everyone at this time of year, which includes for trans people,  is that we figure out how to accept ourselves, and be ourselves and be our best selves.  That applies to my experience as a trans person and as a human being.

Shtetl:  Why did you choose a spiritual life path?

ALF:   I’ve wanted to be a rabbi since I was around 11 or 12 or 13.  The way my parents engaged in Judaism and the role it played in my life was very loving and beautiful and community oriented, and, the only lesbian that I knew my entire childhood was the rabbi at my synagogue.

Another thing that feels true about my relationship to being trans and my desire to be a rabbi is that so much of queer community and political community feel very new.  There’s a lot of cutting edge-ness, trying things out, creating new vocabulary.  And in some ways, it felt ungrounded to me.  And Judaism is like the opposite.  It’s deeply, deeply rooted in a way that almost is too heavy to carry.  And the synthesis or the combination or the conversation between being queer and being Jewish, is putting something so fresh and sprightly,  and something so old and wise, and also outdated- and putting them in conversation has been really meaningful in my life.

(Note- the young man pictured in the Torah scroll for this story’s main image, is not Ari-Lev Fornari.)