JUDAISM’S SIX GENDERS
“Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be ritually impure seven days.” (Leviticus 12:2)
“If she bears a female, she shall be impure two weeks as during her menstruation.” (Leviticus 12:5)
With this double portion, Leviticus begins to speak about the laws of ritual impurity. Birth makes a woman ritually impure, seven days for a boy and fourteen days for a girl. Perhaps the seven days for a boy is so that she can prepare for the bris (ritual circumcision) on the eighth day. Perhaps the fourteen days for a girl is that giving birth to someone who in the future may give birth to someone, recognizes the importance of girls. There is a clear differentiation, which is reflected today in different naming ceremonies for baby boys and girls.
The Bible seems to have a binary view of gender. Genesis speaks about the creation of human beings, “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). Humanity is divided into two clear genders – male and female. Today life has become more complicated.
I have become familiar with the prefix “cis-.” I am cisgender, which means the gender I identify with is the gender I was born with. But I have met many people who are transgender. There are trans males, born female who have transitioned to male. There are trans females, born male who have transitioned to female. Then there are non-binary individuals, who prefer not to identify with any gender. These issues have created immense, often nasty controversies. Ask J.K. Rowling, best-selling author of the Harry Potter series of books. Her books have been burned and her life threatened for comments she made about the transgender issue. She has been called a transphobe and a T.E.R.F. (trans-exclusionary radical feminist.) I have heard her interviewed and I do not believe she is either.
How does Judaism view the issue of transgender? Like everything else in Judaism, there are nuances and nothing is black and white. The Talmud speaks of six different genders. There is zachar (masculine) and nikevah (feminine). There is the androgynous, both male and female. An ancient tradition syas that Adam, the first man, was originally androgynous, until God split him in half. There is the tumtum, unclear whether he/she is male or female. “Rabbi Yose says, an androgynous is a unique creature of its own. But a tumtum is sometimes a man and sometimes a woman.” (Bikkurim 4:5). There is the saris, who appears like a male but cannot reproduce. And there is the ilonit, who appears like a female but cannot reproduce.
The Rabbis were sometimes more radical. According to one well-known Midrash, Leah was originally pregnant with Joseph and Rachel was pregnant with Dinah. But Leah prayed, and the fetuses changed in their wombs. Leah became pregnant with Dinah and Rachel with Joseph. But there are numerous hints in both the Torah and Rabbinic traditions that Joseph was, if not transgender, at least quite effeminate. (For a full treatment of this, there is an essay by a classmate of mine, Robert Harris, a professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary, entitled, “Sexual Orientation in the Presentation of Joseph’s Character in Biblical and Rabbinic Literature.”) Let me quote one passage Harris brings from the Midrash: “Joseph was seventeen years old: Seventeen years old, and you say that he was a boy?! Rather, he would engage in deeds of girls, apply makeup to his eyes, fix his hair, dangle his heel.”
If Joseph was effeminate, what about Dinah? In that day and age, young women stayed in the tent until their father arranged a marriage. (It was a less egalitarian time.) Not so Dinah. Rashi comments that she was a yatzanit “girl who went out.” She did not obey the classic laws of modesty but was seen going out to public places. As the rather disturbing story describes her, she was seduced or perhaps raped by Shechem the son of Hamor. There is a long tradition that Dinah’s behavior was a reaction to her father’s refusal to arrange a marriage for her. None of this proves that she was masculine in her behavior, but she certainly appears strong-willed for that day and age. (For a fascinating modern interpretation of the Dinah story, I recommend Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel The Red Tent.)
Were either Joseph or Dinah transgender by today’s understanding of the words? Probably not. But they teach that humans are complex. All humans, cisgendered, transgendered, and non-binary are created in the image of God. All deserve to be treated with the highest level of human dignity and respect.