Six Distinct Genders in Judaism?

This blog post has strange origins.

A few days back, I posted a story on Facebook called Germany becomes first country in Europe to recognise “third gender” officially. I did so mainly to illustrate how I see Europe becoming increasingly “inclusive” (progressive, leftist) and how, once Trump leaves office and the Democratic backlash occurs, the future political and social administration will attempt to push America in the same direction.

pink
Found at Pink News

I got one response from a progressive perspective, which wasn’t unexpected, and then someone else posted:

Well, the sages of the Mishnah recognized four a very long time ago.

What?

The source, who I won’t name, is someone who probably should know, so I looked it up.

According to Sojourn Blog which seems to be a liberal non-profit focused on LGBTQ inclusiveness, their article More Than Just Male and Female: The Six Genders in Classical Judaism describes these six distinct genders, a list I reproduce below:

  1. Zachar/זָכָר: This term is derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. It is usually translated as “male” in English.
  2. Nekeivah/נְקֵבָה: This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English.
  3. Androgynos/אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס: A person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics. 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st-8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd -16th Centuries CE).
  4. Tumtum/ טֻומְטוּם A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. 181 references in Mishna and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.
  5. Ay’lonit/איילונית: A person who is identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile. 80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.
  6. Saris/סריס: A person who is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking a penis. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam). 156 references in mishna and Talmud; 379 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

I looked for other sources and the next one I found was The Jewniverse which seems just as specialized, and their article The 6 Genders of the Talmud was quite brief.

It was pretty much the same for Sefaria.org and ReformJudaism.org. The progressive leftist side of Judaism was very vocal about this, which I absolutely had never heard about before. I guess it was not something that came up much when I had a more active involvement in Messianic Judaism or Hebrew Roots. I did manage to find something called Mystical Aspects of Femininity at Chabad.org and I know that I saw another article somewhat referencing four genders, but that doesn’t particularly map to my (admittedly limited) understanding of Chabadniks. I hadn’t planned to write on this but then, also on Facebook, I saw a story from the Jerusalem Post called Transgender Woman Who Left Hasidic Community to Speak at Yale.

In this case, 26-year-old Abby Stein, who had been born a boy in the Williamsburg section of Broooklyn, New York and who was ordained as a Rabbi at age 19, ultimately left her community and made the transition from male to female.

Her story however, does not mention how it is typical for Hasidics to accept multiple gender identities and in fact, she lost most of her family and friends when she left and then came out.

According to that article:

But, although she was born with a boy’s body, Stein can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel that she was a girl, living in a sect where boys and girls weren’t even allowed to play together and where “it’s almost impossible to be accepting, to be tolerant of gay or trans people.”

I know if I were to present this to a traditional Christian audience, they’d simply discount the Mishnah and the Sages as authoritative, state that there is no support for more than two genders in the Bible, and that would be that.

Abby Stein
Abby Stein (photo credit: OVRIM (OWN WORK)/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

However, in at least some circles of Messianic Judaism, the authority of the Mishnahic Sages is well accepted.

So where do we go from here?

From other quotes found in the Jerusalem Post story:

In her section of Williamsburg, “there was no access to TV, music, magazines … Broadway shows” and only Orthodox Jewish newspapers, Stein said. She spoke Yiddish and Hebrew, but didn’t learn English until she was 20. “It’s all you know. Everything you know is in that community. … They are the most gender-segregated society in the U.S. … First cousins, boys and girls, don’t socialize with each other.”

Her father, Rabbi Mendel Stein, told her he would no longer be able to speak to her. Just two of her eight sisters and four brothers do now.

Seemingly, as far as the Hasidic community goes, there is no room for more than two genders and both are, as much as possible separated from one another.

I’m posting this to gather opinions. I really don’t know what to think. My own understanding of the Bible tends toward defining two and only two sexes and genders and, quite frankly, I don’t think that the Jewish Sages always have all the answers.

It’s also possible that Judaism’s understanding of “gender fluidity” is based on physical characteristics rather than “identifying as,” but I can’t say that with any degree of certainty.

I realize this is a highly controvertial topic, but then again, on our anti-religion, anti-faith, pro-atheist, pro-secular morality, a blog such as mine is controvertial by definition.

Comments?

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11 thoughts on “Six Distinct Genders in Judaism?”

  1. You didn’t elaborate on the distinctions between gender and sexuality, here. The taxonomy you listed also includes one term that is obviously a direct transliteration of a Greek term, clearly placing it in a post-biblical conceptual framework. Another term, though biblical, the “saris”, could be argued as not a “gender” but a physical condition. This is the classical “eunuch”, in both its natural and surgically-imposed forms. Rav Yeshua referred to these cases in Mt.19:12, and added a third category based on metaphor and choice rather than physical condition.

    Nonetheless, the six classes you cited all represent physical distinctions. Most might be characterized as deformities. Since I’ve not investigated any references in Jewish literature to these categories, I don’t know if any of them address any corresponding “spiritual” deformities of emotional state or self-image or “sexual orientation”. I suspect that Rav Yeshua would not have accepted these deformities as what we would nowadays call genders, because of his observation in Mt.19:4 that HaShem created humanity by generating (from which our word gender is derived) only male and female.

    Now, his comments were offered in the context of considering marriage and divorce, which might be generalized to the matter of emotional and physical relationships in general. Consequently it seems to me that the articles you cited were a bit disingenuous about using the modern English term “gender” to refer to all these physical categories. It would be a mistake, also, to presume that all six categories are equally valued or “accepted”, or that none of them are deemed societally disadvantaged and rightfully so (particularly in a Torah-respectful Jewish society).

    Hence I would discourage strongly the use of the term “gender fluidity” to describe “Judaism’s understanding” of the matter. The notion of fluidity suggests flow or transition between these physical states, which is factually impossible. The transgender notion that depends on sophisticated surgical intervention and reconstruction to resolve a perceived tension between physical and emotional states is anything but “fluid”. Judaism particularly values the very first commandment given by HaShem to his human creatures, which was to “be fruitful and multiply”, in order to “fill” and replenish the earth. This is the very essence of what it means to be physically human, which requires dedication to the preservation of the species. Hence any infertile physical category is obviously incapable of fulfilling that primary mission and mitzvah. Even surgical corrections of birth defects to give the appearance of an appropriate gender are not always successful in restoring the functional capability that will lead to future fertility. While the essential qualities of humanity are much more than mere physical reproduction, this mitzvah must not be undervalued or discounted. Consequently any human who deliberately does so calls into question his or her fundamental identity as a human being and participation in the human enterprise — perhaps not even deserving of the pity due to those who find themselves deformed and unable to participate through no fault of their own. Thankfully, spiritual or psychological deformities may be easier to correct, thus bringing redemption to damaged souls even where physical damage may be irreparable until a future resurrection.

  2. Thanks for the replies Noah and PL.

    I posted a link to this blog on Facebook and the conversation there was more lively but tends to agree with you PL, that the Mishnah is describing physical conditions and not psychological states. Thus the Mishnah’s understanding in this area does not map to the modern concepts of “transgenderism” or “gender fluidity”. The sources I quoted using them to support such concepts are either grossly misinterpreting the Mishnah or deliberately misusing it for their own purposes.

  3. Jewish law does indeed categorize people with mixed physical, sexual traits. A missing penis, or both male and female organs. It doesn’t recognize a distinction between gender and sex as the transgender movement does.

    The transgender movement is not defined by missing or ambiguous genitalia like those described Mishna and Talmud. Rather, a transgender person is one whose biological sex organs don’t align with what the person feels they are. A man with a penis who feels he is a woman, or a woman with a vagina who feels she is a man. These are examples of transgenderism.

    The Sojourn article fails to make this distinction, probably deliberately for political reasons.

    As a lifelong student of the Bible, I’m not aware of Bible texts making a distinction between biological sex and mental gender. That distinction is the crux of the transgender argument, a distinction the Bible and Jewish law appear to be silent on.

  4. I think it’s fine [with or without regard to religion] for there to be a third gender or category for practical or legal reasons (such as what you put on a birth certificate or driver’s license). It is observable that there are people who aren’t clearly one or the other of male and female (and some who seem clear enough but turn out not to be). When I was reading the list (of six), I was thinking it had (at least mostly) to do with physicality. [Nevertheless, I don’t doubt there are other aspects.] We have found more to observe, now that we have surgical as well as non-invasive ways to not be limited by determining only exterior physical traits. The possible combinations with interior traits — such as ovaries, internal testicles, hormones, a womb, and so on — mean there could be more than six. The penis and the vagina aren’t the only determinants in all reality. Yet, trying to make even six (to say nothing of more) part of everyday language and documentation seems unwieldy for the general population… although clarification would be a must in the doctor’s office and the potential bedroom. (Whatever Jews, whether in Williamsburg or not, would do about the bedroom isn’t what everyone has to decide… or else be called the [pejorative] left. Also, I recommend reading more on Williamsburg.) Further, while there have been impositions physically/surgically on young people or babies, or others overall, I tend toward saying we should all rethink that.

    To be very specific, I don’t know what Germany is doing.
    Since I don’t know, I’m not saying I fully agree there.

    Yes, I am aware there are people “trasitioning” based totally on feelings or wishes or something. Mostly, I guess I’m sad for them. I can also find myself annoyed if they don’t think (and this varies from person to person) they should have to be honest* about their personal history… especially when it comes to something like dating.

    But, in general, if I’m walking through a grocery or doing various things, I don’t need to know a chemical, genital (and other organ) inventory. And I don’t feel compelled to hide from the fact not everyone is born definitionally male or female and not everyone was respected at birth with regard to the way they presented.

    * That standard of being honest goes for everyone.

  5. I should add a correction to an implication easily derived from what I just said. Thus: If parents aren’t honest with their offspring, and said offspring has “feelings” that in fact correlate with a hidden physicality of the child, said parents should be honest. Additionally, medical tests can be done for that which may not have been known.

    I didn’t mean to imply feelings don’t matter.

  6. As for the “traditional Christian audience” that would “discount” the sage observation of reality [however spot on the writings might or might not be], to be brief: I’m over it.

    To be not brief: Why wouldn’t they or anyone want there to be another designation for licences, certificates, and so forth? Do they want people who aren’t clearly male or female to be unclear in interaction with the world around them? They are people.

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