Tag Archives: Hasidic

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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Reviewing the Meaning of Midrash: Part 5

We’ve explained why midrash and aggadah are so vital to our Torah diet. We’ve explained that these stories speak to us from a higher plane of reality. And we’ve also demonstrated that even if you don’t get it, you still do get it—meaning that you’ve still got truth even if you’re clueless to the meaning inside.

We’ve also provided some guidelines to determine whether a story is an anecdote or a parable. Now, let’s take a test case. Let’s look at a story of the Talmud and see what’s meant literally, what’s meant to point to something deeper, and how it could be true for everyone on their level.

-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
Death by Secrets
Part 5 of “Is Midrash For Real?”
Chabad.org

That’s a really nice summary of the past four articles compressed into just a couple of paragraphs. Now’s the test. Run an actual story through the matrix and see if it makes sense. This last commentary by R. Freeman and R. Shurpin is quite a bit shorter than their previous missives. I could probably copy and paste the whole thing here and then comment on it, but I don’t think I’ll do that. You have the link above to see all of the contents.

So what’s the story they want to test?

Rabbah taught, “A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’”

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira held their Purim feast together. They became drunk. Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, Rabbah pleaded for divine mercy, and brought Rabbi Zeira back to life. A year passed, and Rabbah said to Rabbi Zeira, “Come, let us hold the Purim feast together!” Rabbi Zeira replied, “Miracles don’t happen every day.”

I’ve heard this one before. This story circulates every Purim (and as I write this, it is still before Purim). The commentary from Chabad tells us something useful right away.

In this case, I guarantee this is not meant to be taken at face value.

In other words, even if these two esteemed Ravs got drunk on Purim, it wasn’t to the degree that Rabbah murdered and then resurrected Rabbi Zeira. But then what does it mean and more importantly, how does this story ”speak to us from a higher plane of reality?”

Here’s where the title “Death by Secrets” comes in.

What we appear to be dealing with in this case is a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms. Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were drunk, but not from the wine; and Rabbah slaughtered Rabbi Zeira, but not with a slaughtering knife. Everything was good, very good—to the point that Rabbah was ready to go it again. Just not something that us amateurs should attempt without clinical supervision.

Leon ZernitzkyWhat? OK, I was fine with ”a real-life anecdote told in figurative terms,” but what does it mean that Rabbi Zeira was “slaughtered but not with a knife” and “everything was very good and Rabbah was ready to go again?” Go at what?

”When wine enters,” the Talmud tells us, “secrets come out.” Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, in his classic Shnei Luchot ha-Brit, describes how great sages and holy men would consume much wine and celebrate—and the channels of their mind would open so that the deepest secrets of the Torah would flow out of their mouths.

Interrupting the narrative for a moment. Sounds like something Carlos Castaneda was trying to do; apprehend Yaqui Indian sorcery through the use of mind-altering drugs. But to continue…

He cites stories of the Talmud to this effect. Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, in his commentary to the Torah, Ohr ha-Chaim, describes how it was these secrets that emerged through the drinking of wine that carried Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron, to death as their souls departed from their bodies in ecstatic divine love.

Now, Rabbah was able to imbibe these secrets and remain alive, as his name implies: rab means “great.” But Rabbi Zeira could not contain such intense light: ze’ir means “small.” So Rabbah’s sharing of mystical secrets created such a great thirst for divine union in Rabbi Zeira’s soul that it departed, and his body was left dead.  The next day is no longer Purim—no longer a day for escaping all bounds and limitations, but a day for fulfilling your purpose down here on earth inside a physical body—so Rabbah dutifully resurrects his colleague.

The next year, Rabbah had no regrets, and was ready to perform the same clinical procedure on Rabbi Zeira once again—take him for a ride up to heaven and back again the next morning. Or perhaps he figured Rabbi Zeira had enough time to also attain a higher level, and would be able to hang in there.

So we aren’t to believe that Rabbah literally murdered Rabbi Zeira but we are expected to believe that under the influence of alcohol, Rabbah’s “secrets” were spilled out, and he took Rabbi Zeira on an unexpected ride to heaven and then back to earth the next day.

Uh-huh.

Rabbi Zeira decided he didn’t want a second trip to heaven the following year, not because it would drive him to the point of insanity and even kill him, but because of his great humility.

Uh-huh.

But then Freeman and Shurpin give a more down-to-earth answer:

Whatever the case, the lesson remains the same: Don’t get carried away with your wine, no matter its substance. Keep your feet on the ground. If you know you’re the type to be easily carried away when drinking, avoid it altogether.

Purim in JerusalemSo it all depends on what kind of person you become when you get drunk. That’s the moral of the story and it seems to be the most useful lesson being taught, especially when imbibing at a celebration where others are present.

To be honest, I’m a little disappointed. That’s quite a build up to a conclusion that seems so pedestrian. I mentioned in last week’s review that based on Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, it’s not the more believable story that’s “real” but the most interesting tale.

Here we have three selections:

  1. The literal meaning: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got drunk on Purim to the degree that Rabbah murdered Rabbi Zeira and, when he sobered up the next day, begged for divine mercy and resurrected Rabbi Zeira. The next year, Rabbi Zeira turned down Rabbah’s invitation to celebrate again because he couldn’t count on a second miracle should he die again.
  2. The higher or mystic meaning: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got drunk on Purim, and Rabbah’s mystic secrets poured forth to the degree that he escorted Rabbi Zeira on an “unscheduled” trip to the heavenly realms (which rendered such ecstatic joy it killed him) and returned him to earth the next day (bringing him back to life). The following year, Rabbi Zeira turned down Rabbah’s invitation to a second trip because of his great humility.
  3. The underlying truth: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira probably did get drunk together on one Purim but because of his host’s behavior or perhaps his own (some people are less pleasant or controlled when drunk), Rabbi Zeira declined a subsequent invitation, being concerned about a repeat of previous events.

The moral of all three stories is, if you know you get too excited or carried away while drunk, avoid social situations that require alcohol consumption.

As far as which story you want to apply to the moral, I guess it depends on which one you find the most interesting or, if “interesting” isn’t what you want from your morality tales, which one seems the most plausible.

What Did I Learn?

I learned what I already knew, to take mystic and midrashic tales with a grain of salt. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good metaphor and a fantastic saga. I believe they can contain great truths about the reality of our lives. I just don’t think that contained within these stories are a higher mystic reality and must be objectively real. I don’t believe Rabbi killed Rabbi Zeirg with a knife because they were exceedingly drunk and then resurrected him the next day. Nor do I believe that under the influence of wine, the two of them took a trip to heaven in massive, mind-blowing joy and then returns the next day, anymore than I believe that any of Carlos Castenada’s adventures under the influence of hallucinogens were anymore than what a person experiences in a chemically induced, mind-altering state.

Hasidic New WaveI’m sorry, I just don’t. I believe that, however these tales came about, they result in lessons of ethical and moral behavior that are designed to illuminate the communities in which the revered Talmudic sages resided. I wish I could say they were more than that. I really do like reading them and I do learn from each one. I guess I make a pretty lousy Jewish mystic. However, if you’re interested in reading more examples of Chasidic Tales, go to the Chabad webpage Stories from the Midrash.