American Civic Life

How To Break the Cycle of Fear and Misunderstanding

By Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Senior Columnist

"It's time we break this cycle, open our minds and hearts to those who differ from us, and learn from the experiences of transgender individuals." (Maskot/Getty Images)

“Because humans are the image of God, they are endowed by their Creator with three intrinsic dignities: infinite value, equality, and uniqueness.” —Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way 


The discrimination and fear society directs toward various groups can be like a never-ending carousel, spinning perpetually in a cycle of fear and misunderstanding. This carousel symbolizes the cyclical nature of bigotry, which merely regurgitates the same baseless anxieties, replacing the targeted group with a new threat.  

Not so long ago, Black people were the subject of misplaced dread over sharing bathrooms with white people — actually sharing any space with white people. Society, driven more by bigotry and hate than by empathy and compassion, crafted an atmosphere of neither justifiable nor reasonable fear. This fear was encoded into law, legitimizing segregation, dehumanizing Black people, and used to maintain white dominance.   

The baton of bigotry was subsequently passed onto gay individuals, sparking undue fears about shared locker rooms. Today, it is our transgender brothers, sisters, and siblings who bear the brunt of these recycled anxieties.  

Isn’t it time to break this cycle? Everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, deserves respect, dignity, and the right to live freely— the Jewish value of Kavod HaBriyot, human dignity, or the dignity of creation, stresses this. The Talmud says, “Great is human dignity as it overrides a prohibition in the Torah” (Berakhot 19b:9-11). Kavod HaBriyot is a fundamental principle in Jewish ethics. It underscores the inherent worth and respect of every human being simply because they are part of God’s creation.  

This principle fosters empathy, equality, and justice and promotes a sense of responsibility for each other. It insists that everyone, regardless of race, religion, gender, or social status, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Kavod HaBriyot teaches us about the sacredness of human life and the importance of treating each other with kindness and understanding. It is vital because it forms the basis of a compassionate and equitable society.  

Fear of transgender individuals using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity is rooted in ignorance and prejudice. Trans people are not predators; they merely try to live their lives peacefully and safely.  

No evidence suggests that transgender people are more likely to commit sexual assault than cisgender people. The opposite is true. A study by the Williams Institute found that transgender individuals are more often the victims rather than the perpetrators of sexual assault.  

It’s time we break this cycle, open our minds and hearts to those who differ from us, and learn from the experiences of transgender individuals.

Fear surrounding transgender individuals using bathrooms is often based on the false assumption that trans women are “men in disguise.” This is simply untrue. Trans women, like all individuals, deserve the same respect and dignity.  

The cycle of fear and misunderstanding surrounding transgender people harms everyone. Not only does it prevent transgender individuals from living freely and openly, but it also fosters a climate of fear and anxiety in others, hindering others from appreciating exceptional individuals.  

It’s time we break this cycle, open our minds and hearts to those who differ from us, and learn from the experiences of transgender individuals. This knowledge will enable us to challenge our biases and stand up for the rights of transgender people. Doing so aligns with our obligation to uphold every individual’s infinite value, equality, and uniqueness.   

We all have a role to play in breaking the cycle of fear and misunderstanding. Let’s start by educating ourselves about the experiences of transgender people and challenging our own biases. Together, we can create a more just and compassionate world for all.  

Rabbi Sandra Lawson

Rabbi Sandra Lawson is the Inaugural Director of Racial Diversity Equity and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism. The 2018 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College is known for tackling hard questions surrounding Jews and race. In 2020, the Forward named Lawson to its “Forward 50,” proclaiming her a “truth-teller,” and the Center for American Progress named Lawson to its list of Faith Leaders to Watch in 2022. Lawson also holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees in sociology. She lives in North Carolina with her wife Susan and three “fur babies”: Izzy, Bridget, and Simon.