Talmud

Gender Diversity in Jewish Tradition



Back in high school, when I first began to embrace my queer identity rather than reject it, I remember grappling with the idea of someone being transgender—let alone genderqueer or other non-binary identities. Despite being a self-identified member of the LGBT community, the concept of gender identity and sexes outside of male and female did not come naturally to me. Having been raised and socialized in a world where the gender binary—the idea that people can only be male or female—is generally an accepted norm, it was at first difficult for me to reject this idea. Yet, over time, I looked to modern resources to educate myself about the various genders that exist outside the gender binary. Little did I know, however, that Jewish tradition has recognized a wide range of gender identities and sexes.

In the Mishnah, there are a number of different genders and sexes that are discussed. In addition to zachar, male, and nekevah, female, there are four other genders/sexes that the Rabbis recognize:

  • An androgynos is “a person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics”
  • A tumtum is “a person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured.”
  • An ay’lonit is “a person who is identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile.”
  • A saris is “a person who is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking male genitalia.”

In today’s world, when it is not uncommon for people to reject trans and non-binary gender identities, it is encouraging to know that the idea of multiple genders and sexes isn’t new—it’s an idea rooted in our rabbinic texts. Not only were these gender identities and sexes mentioned hundreds of times in the Talmud, but they were also attributed to some of the most important Biblical characters.

Genesis Rabbah proposes that when Genesis 1:27 states that “God created man in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created him; male and female, God created them,” it means that the first human being, Adam, was in fact an androgynos (8:1). The Babylonian Talmud goes on to claim that both Abraham and Sarah were tumtums (Yevamot 64a). These ideas—that some of the most important Biblical figures did not conform to our standard ideas of sex and gender—further strengthen the core Jewish value that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image (Genesis 1:27), and are therefore deserving of equality as respect.

As Jewish advocates, we must raise a moral voice in support of trans rights. As Jews, we are in a unique position to counter arguments that non-binary identities don’t truly exist by pointing to our rich Jewish tradition that discussed these concepts millennia ago. As allies, we must continuously educate ourselves on how to be strong trans allies. Let us all not just hope for a world where society accepts the existence of multiple genders and sexes as our rabbinic ancestors did; let us strive to create that world and ensure that all people—regardless of sex or gender identity—are treated equally both in society and under the law.

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Jordan Dashow

About Jordan Dashow

Jordan Dashow is a 2014-2015 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the RAC. He graduated in 2014 from Tufts University and is originally from Plainview, NY where he is a member of Manetto Hill Jewish Center.

5 Responses to “Gender Diversity in Jewish Tradition”

  1. Can you provide a source or preferably 3, please?

    The link to the statement “In addition to zachar, male, and nekevah, female, there are four other genders/sexes that the Rabbis recognize” was backed up by a PDF list of the same list that immediately followed the link in the article.

    The other links are also not sources that back up your statement.

    As an ally, I want to have good sources to reference, and right now this article lacks that, disappointingly. I can’t share it with anyone, as is.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. From the Equality Act of 1974 to the Equality Act of 2015: Protecting LGBT People from Discrimination | Fresh Updates from RACFresh Updates from RAC - August 7, 2015

    […] deserve to live their lives free of discrimination.  Furthermore, our rabbinic tradition’s emphasis on gender diversity teaches us that all people, regardless of their gender identity, deserve to be treated with respect. […]

  2. Trans Visibility: Caitlyn Jenner and Transgender Rights | Fresh Updates from RAC - June 4, 2015

    […] The Reform Movement is committed to ending discrimination against LGBT people, and the CCAR’s recent resolution on transgender rights calls on Reform Movement institutions to not only be more inclusive and welcoming to trans people but to also advocate for trans rights in our larger communities. However, we need your help to spread knowledge about what it means to be transgender and combat transphobia. Check out PFLAG’s  guide to being a trans ally and GLAAD’s tip sheet for talking about transgender people and specifically Caitlyn Jenner.  And then check out the history of gender diversity in Jewish tradition. […]

  3. Short-Term Shelter, Long-Term Respect | Fresh Updates from RAC - March 13, 2015

    […] regardless of their gender identity, should be treated equally and with respect. Furthermore, Judaism has recognized multiple sexes and genders since Rabbinic times. Rabbi Reuben Zelman, the first openly transgender person accepted to Hebrew Union College-Jewish […]

  4. For Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Individuals, Gender Expression isn’t a Purim Costume | Fresh Updates from RAC - February 25, 2015

    […] Judaism has recognized multiple sexes and genders since rabbinic times. Rabbi Reuben Zelman, the first openly transgender person accepted to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion explains that Mishnah Bikurim 4 teaches that “people of intermediate sex and gender were not to be harmed; their lives were of equal value to any other person’s…This Jewish approach allows for genders between male and female. It opens space in society. And it protects those who live in the places in between.” […]

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