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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.