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Pronouns: Our Communal Responsibility

Gwen Costa Jacobsohn

Have you noticed people including a line about pronouns at the bottom of their email messages and wondered to yourself, “Why on earth are they telling us that?”

Maybe you have been to a meeting where someone has included their pronouns when making introductions, or you’ve filled out a registration form that asks what pronoun you use.

You may have wondered why people feel the need to make bold announcements about something as small and simple as a pronoun.

If you have ever asked yourself these questions, it is likely that the language people use to describe you matches the gender that you perceive yourself to be (i.e., your gender identity).

Not everyone, however, has the privilege of taking pronouns for granted.

For some, including people in our own Jewish community, being referred to by the correct pronouns is a daily struggle.

It may be because the gender others believe they are, or what it says on their birth certificate, does not match who they know they are inside. It may be because we live in a society that divides people into binary male and female categories, while they see themselves as being something other than one of those mutually exclusive options.

Perhaps they are questioning what words best describe them, only knowing that “he” or “she” doesn’t quite seem right.

When we use pronouns to describe someone, we rely on a whole host of assumptions about their gender identity.

It may not be something you are conscious of, but using a pronoun that does not match a person’s authentic gender identity (whether you are talking to that person or about that person) chips away at their sense of self and communicates that you do not recognize them for who they are.

In 2015, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) passed the “Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People,” which in part “affirms the right of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to be referred to by their name, gender, and pronoun of preference in our congregations, camps, schools, and other Reform affiliated organizations.”

Jewish organizations like Keshet have worked closely with congregations, camps, and social service agencies to create programs and policies that help move us to full LGBTQ+ inclusion. The URJ, through its Audacious Hospitality initiatives, has created guidelines for congregations to follow in this effort—including the need to use and honor the pronouns with which each person identifies.

The Jewish value of kavod (honor) is instrumental here: By using the correct pronouns, we honor individuals and what they bring to our communities.

If we truly believe that b’tzelem Elohim (we are all made in the image of God), then we have a moral and spiritual obligation to actively affirm all individuals by using their pronouns. Otherwise, we are neither honoring God nor upholding other Jewish values, like g’milut chasadim (doing acts of loving-kindness) and kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (taking communal responsibility).

Now you might be asking yourself, “What about all these pronouns I see on registration forms and online that aren’t ‘he’ or ‘she’? Why do we need to be concerned with those?”

Judaism has long embraced nonbinary or shifting gender identities. With over 1,600 references to nonbinary identities across Jewish texts (e.g., Talmud, Mishnah, Midrash, Kabbalah), Judaic scholars have demonstrated there are at minimum six different genders (including what we refer to as androgynous and intersex), all of which could not possibly be described using only male and female pronouns. With such a strong tradition of using different words to refer to different types of gender identities, how could we possibly restrict modern-day Jews (or anyone else) to using only two?

Even if you recognize the strong Jewish foundation for honoring people by using correct pronouns, you may be still be thinking that plural or gender-neutral pronouns are just a fad or are not “grammatically correct.” In fact, using pronouns other than the binary he/him/his or she/her/hers is not a new idea!

In English writing, use of the singular “they” (referring to one person) can be traced back to the late 1300s and only fell out of favor in the early 1900s. Grammarians have been actively suggesting and debating the adoption of alternative or nonbinary pronouns since at least the late 18th century.

In real life, we use the singular “they” all the time without even realizing it, particularly when speaking about a hypothetical individual whose gender designation is unknown or irrelevant. Don’t believe me? Reread this post from the beginning. I bet you didn’t even notice my choice of pronouns the first time around, even in an article about pronouns!

This usage is both common and accepted in practice today. Most major English dictionaries and style guides now formally endorse the use of singular they/them/their pronouns. (For more historical information, I encourage you to read this recent NPR story.)

Your next question might be, “So how am I supposed to know what pronouns to use?”

The short answer is, you don’t—not unless you ask or someone tells you what their pronouns are. Right now, these exchanges are not a regular part of our culture and could lead to awkward or uncomfortable moments (especially if someone isn’t quite ready to share, or is currently questioning, their gender identity).

To start making pronoun use a normal part of our community at TBE, we are going to follow the URJ’s (and the Reform youth movement’s) lead by offering pronoun stickers that individuals can add to their name badges. These stickers will say things like “My pronouns are he/him/his,” or “she/her/hers,” or “they/them/theirs.” Some will have space to write other pronouns (see examples and grammar usage here), and some will say, “Ask me about my pronouns.”

These stickers will be made available for everyone, not just people who identify as transgender or a nonbinary gender. The more people who add stickers to their badges, the more normal the practice will become, and the more inclusive our synagogue will be.

These stickers will be available starting at this Friday’s Pride Shabbat, and they will be located by the nametag holders in the coatroom.

I hope that many of you will join me in creating a welcoming and supportive environment by adding a sticker to your name badge before High Holy Day services this fall.

I am very happy to answer any questions you have or provide additional resources, either in person or via email (gcjacobsohn@gmail.com). You may also call the TBE office to talk with one of our clergy or staff members.

B’shalom,

Gwen Costa Jacobsohn

1st Vice President, Temple Beth El Board of Trustees

December 14, 2019 16 Kislev 5780