Gender and Rabbinic Torah

Posted on April 1, 2022 by Cantor Risa Wallach

I have a colleague in Texas named Cantor Sheri Allen. Cantor Allen recently penned an op-ed in the Forward, entitled: “I’m a cantor in Texas and parent of a trans child. My state’s assault on trans youth is terrifying.” Cantor Allen’s son, Preston, is transgender.

In this op-ed, she illuminates the dangers of a recent governor’s mandate to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) that criminalizes the treatment of transgender youth who desire gender-affirming health care to support their identity in transitioning from their gender of birth. For Cantor Allen, this new ruling puts Preston’s identity and lived experience into a harmful and dangerous limbo. Across the US, states have recently begun to propose and pass laws which restrict and repress the freedoms of transgender youth, especially targeting transgender girls in sports.

What is even worse, almost 400 anti-LGBTQ bills have been passed in 2021, and 120 more have been proposed in 2022. Now, Florida’s governor has signed a law forbidding the mere mention of the existence of people like me, my spouse or our friends, our relationships and our community, in public schools.

In this week’s parashah, or Torah portion, called Tazria, we read about the woman who births a baby boy or baby girl in Biblical times. If she gives birth to a male child, she is ritually impure for 7 days and is in a state of ‘blood purification’ for 30 days, during which she is forbidden to touch anything in the holy sanctuary. If she births a girl, she is ritually impure, or ‘tamei’, for 14 days, and cannot touch any sacred objects for 66 days. Here, two distinct genders are clearly designated in the text.

In Breishit (Genesis) Chapter 1:27, the narrative of the creation of the first human reads:

And God created humankind in the divine image,
creating it in the image of God—
creating them male and female.

Midrash Breishit Rabbah, an early creative commentary on the text of Breishit reads:

Said R’ Yirmiyah ben Elazar In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him [as] an androgyne/androginos, as it is said, “male and female He created them”. The Midrash seems to understand the first human as one androgynous being.

In ancient times and even more recently, childbirth was dangerous for both the mother and baby. Ritual impurity is a concept that is not easy to define, and seems to devolve to human experiences of birth and death, of blood and other bodily discharges, making a person not yet ready to engage in public ritual. Birth and death require recovery time and space to heal before engaging in the encounter with Divinity.

For some commentators, the fact that a baby girl might be at risk could explain the danger- she is capable of generating life herself, therefore the birth of a girl comes with a higher level of ritual “unreadiness” for contact with the Holy, a prerequisite of which requires one to be made ritually “pure”’ or “tahor.”

Rabbi Elliot Kukla describes many references to a range of different genders in Mishnaic and Talmudic literature; 149 references to the Androgynos who has both male and female characteristics and 350 references in classical Midrash (1st to 8th centuries) and codes of law (2nd to 16th centuries). A Tumtum is a person who has indeterminate sexual characteristics, with 181 references in Mishna and Talmud, and 355 in classical Midrash and codes of law. The tradition also refers to other gender categories of the Ay’lonit and the Saris, who resemble those who we describe as transgender today.

Kukla writes:

“Jewish Sages often tried to sort the world into binaries however they also recognized that not all parts of God’s creation can be contained in orderly boxes. Distinctions between Jews and non-Jews; Shabbat and the days of the week; purity and impurity, are crucial to Jewish tradition. However, it was the parts of the universe that defied binaries that interested the rabbis of the Mishna and the Talmud the most. Pages and pages of sacred texts are occupied with the minute details of the moment between fruit and bud, wildness and domestication, innocence and maturity, the twilight hour between day and night.”

While our Biblical text often works to define gender in the binary, Jewish rabbinic literature is filled with exploration of the lines that dance between a number of gender identities, much like the spaces in our world where people are free to explore what that identity looks like, free to express that identity with supportive healthcare, to reflect how they feel most authentic in the world, and whom they choose to love.

Let us not forget that rates of suicide and attempted suicide among transgender and nonbinary youth are four times higher than those rates among heterosexual, cisgender youth. In 2021 a study showed that 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year, according to the Trevor Project. LGBT youth also experience higher rates of depression and thoughts of suicide, and are more likely to experience bullying and physical harm at the hands of others.

Spaces of relative safety for LGBTQ people are now under looming threat. As we engage in the study of our sacred text, we remember the rich variety of human identity and expression, made, as we so often say, in the image of God. Standing up for gender non-conforming people benefits all of us, and our right to express the truth of who we are, without fear of violence, bullying or social rejection. Let us remember that we humans are all family; each of us in fact is sacred, regardless of body shape, size, color, ability, dress, or social status. Let us honor that truth, one human being at a time.