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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.

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.