Judaism and modern gender science

“Ancient Judaism Recognized a Range of Genders. It’s Time We Did, Too.” (New York Times, March 18, 2023):

I’m transgender and nonbinary, and as a rabbi I’ve offered bereavement spiritual care for the past 17 years.

There are four genders beyond male or female that appear in ancient Jewish holy texts hundreds of times.

We were always hiding in plain sight, but recently the research of Jewish studies scholars like Max Strassfeld has demonstrated how nonbinary gender is central to understanding Jewish law and literature as a whole.

I have never forgotten this insight [that Judaism is the same as Rainbow Flagism]. Trans people, and especially trans young people, make human uniqueness more visible for everyone. … Trans liberation is a gift to everyone, because it expands the categories for what it means to be human.

The growing wave of anti-trans bills in the United States represents not just a trans crisis, but a humanitarian crisis. History has shown countless times that when a government limits one group’s legal rights, it will eventually do the same to other groups.

I might be accused of having a “trans agenda.” I do. And it’s the same as my religious and my human agenda. I want trans kids, and all young people, to survive.

Because the Science is Settled and no reasonable person could disagree with the above interpretation of Jewish texts, the New York Times has disabled comments on this scholarly work. What would an unreasonable Jew say if he/she/ze/they were allowed to comment? I submitted the NYT article to a friend who has read the Talmud a few times. His response is below (not in quote style for clarity).

Sex-change operations involving the surgical removal of sexual organs are clearly forbidden on the basis of the explicit biblical prohibition, “And that which is mauled or crushed or torn or cut you shall not offer unto the Lord; nor should you do this in your land” (Lev. 22:24). Sterilization of women is also prohibited, as recorded in Even ha-Ezer 5:11.

Rabbi Meir Amsel (Ha-Ma’or, Kislev-Tevet 5733) notes that yet another prohibition is also applicable to sex-change procedures, a consideration which may extend as well to hormone treatment for purposes of sex-change. The commandment “A woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment” (Deut. 22:5) is not limited to the wearing of apparel associated with the opposite sex but encompasses any action uniquely identified with the opposite sex, proscribing, for example, shaving of armpits or dyeing of hair by a male. A procedure designed to transform sexual characteristics violates the very essence of this prohibition.

For Besamim Rosh sexual identity, insofar as marriage is concerned, depends entirely upon the presence of genital organs. No mention is made of the presence or absence of secondary sexual characteristics and indeed it is not difficult to understand why they are deemed irrelevant. Hence, despite the comments of Rabbi Amsel, who asserts that secondary sexual characteristics play a role in sexual identification, there is no evidence that the transformation of secondary sexual characteristics affects sexual status in any way.

There is at least one early source which apparently declares that a male cannot acquire the status of a woman by means of surgery. Rabbi Abraham Hirsch (No’am 5733) cites the comments of Rabbenu Chananel, quoted by Ibn Ezra in his commentary on Leviticus 18:22. Rabbenu Chananel declares that intercourse between a normal male and a male in whom an artificial vagina has been fashioned by means of surgery constitutes sodomy. This would appear to be the case, according to Rabbenu Chananel, even if the male genitalia were removed.

[I find the last paragraph stunning. Wikipedia says that Chananel lived 1000 years ago. How did he anticipate that one day American surgeons would be banking $100,000+ per teenager for creating artificial body parts?]

9 thoughts on “Judaism and modern gender science

  1. In that NYTimes article:
    “When a child was born in the ancient Jewish world it could be designated as a boy, a girl, a “tumtum” (who is neither clearly male nor female), or an “androgynos” (who has both male and female characteristics) based on physical features. There are two more gender designations that form later in life. The “aylonit” is considered female at birth, but develops in an atypical direction. The “saris” is designated male at birth, but later becomes a eunuch.”

    Tumtum (Judaism) – Wikipedia
    Tumtum (Hebrew: טומטום, “hidden”) is a term that appears in Jewish Rabbinic literature. It usually refers to a person whose sex is unknown because their genitalia are hidden, undeveloped, or difficult to determine.[2][3][4] Although they are often grouped together, the tumtum has some halachic ramifications distinct from those of the androgynos (אנדרוגינוס), who has both male and female genitalia.[5] Although tumtum does not appear in the Scripture, it does in other literature.[3] Reform Rabbi Elliot Kukla writes, “The tumtum appears 17 times in the Mishna; 23 times in the Tosefta; 119 times in the Babylonian Talmud; 22 times in the Jerusalem Talmud and hundreds of times in midrash, commentaries, and halacha.”[6]

    Androgynos – Wikipedia
    In Jewish tradition, the term androgynos (אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס in Hebrew, translation “intersex”) refers to someone who possesses both male and female sexual characteristics. Due to the ambiguous nature of the individual’s sex, Rabbinic literature discusses the gender of the individual and the legal ramifications that result based on potential gender classifications. In traditionally observant Judaism, gender plays a central role in legal obligations.[1]

    How the ‘Aylonit Got Her Sex | AJS Review | Cambridge Core (2007)

    • These situation are distinguishable, as genetic or other accidents of life formation, though, from mentally induced and surgeon performed irreversible changes to the otherwise “standard” body .

      Some may argue that a mental image of yourself should override the physical reality, but I do not find such argument convincing.

    • @Patrick Jewish writings indeed go into detail of identification of sex of an adult, but this is only for legal status identification as some Jewish laws are separate for female and male. No same sex sex is permitted in any of the writings, and in the era when adulthood could start early all such identifications were limited from below by the earliest age when adulthood could begin, adulthood being dependent both on minimally old age attained and actual adult sexual traits developed.

  2. Why NYT article failed to cite the preamble from the Book of Genesis: “Them/zer/etc… I created them”
    “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” Orwell 1984

  3. Hebrew is about the most gendered language on the planet — with nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verb forms, even prepositions and numbers gendered. And unlike some other languages like German and Russian there are only two genders. So the argument that Hebrew scripture encompassed multiple genders seems patently absurd. Also, identifying someone as a “rabbi” is not particularly enlightening since it seems most anyone could identify him or herself as a rabbi. The unidentified person is not named so it is not possible to to understand the basis on which that person identifies as a rabbi. The “Max” Strassfeld identified as the ultimate source of this wisdom seems like an unusual person shall we say who may have an ax to grind on the subject.

  4. In what sense are hair-dyeing and armpit-shaving gender-linked? Muslim men were armpit shaving way before western women started doing it. Orthodox women aren’t even supposed to let anyone see their hair. High heels started as men’s footwear and were adopted by women. If the yardstick is “don’t dress as a woman in your culture” then the proscription is more about deception than specific items of clothing. (In which case Prince was ok, but drag queens might not be) Still, this doesn’t seem very well thought through.

    • NYT article is obvious BS but Philip’s friend too got something wrong. Regarding clothes, neither man nor woman allowed to wear opposite sex clothes in everyday life in order to deceive about their biological sex, that is correct. So it is OK for modern males to wear pants even if in old Eastern cultures only women were allowed to wear them. But other staff Philip’s friend said is bunk. There is universal prohibition of males shaving (some say using razor, cutting with scissors is OK) their facial hair over specific parts of the face. Of course secondary sexual characteristics are important (not their size though) and it is explicitly stated in major Talmud books that whose goal was to write down oral law with group review process.

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