“Genderqueer” and “nonbinary” are contemporary terms for people who do not fit into male or female categories. But recognizing that not everyone fits into either group has a longer history than you might suspect.
As a scholar of Judaism and gender, I find that people across the political spectrum often believe that religion should be inherently conservative and unchanging when it comes to sex and gender. They think that religions always adopt a world where there are only men and women.
But for Judaism—and many other religious traditions, too—history has shown that not to be true.
More than two terms
Traditional Jewish sources mention the categories “male” and “female,” but these are not the only names used in rabbinic texts for gender and sexuality.
Rabbinic literature, the body of texts written by ancient Jewish leaders, includes many other categories. In these texts, a person with two sets of external genitalia is called “androgynos,” a term borrowed from Greek. A man without one is called a “tumtum,” and a man who has lost his male sexual organs is called a “saris.” There is also a term for a person whose sex was assigned at birth as female but did not develop into female sexual maturity—in some cases, because they had “male” characteristics: a “Aylonit.”
For example, the Genesis Rabbah, a collection of creative interpretations of the Bible from late antiquity, records an interpretation of a creation story in the biblical book of Genesis in which God formed the first humans. Genesis 1 includes the phrase, “Male and female He created them,” which many readers interpret to mean that God created a male and a female.
But some of the rabbis quoted in Genesis Rabbah believe that God created an androgynos.
A rabbi explained: “At the moment when the Holy Blessed One created the first man, He created an androgynos, as it is written, ‘male and female He created them.’
Genesis Rabbah continues the argument of another rabbi that God created the first man with two fronts: a female face and body facing one way, and a male face and body facing in the opposite direction. Only later did God split the two, in this rabbi’s reading.
Although the details of their interpretations differ, both place androgynos at the center of God’s creation.
Application of the law
Jewish law, or halakhah, is based on a gender binary. For example, some commandments, such as Torah study or not shaving sidelocks, apply only to men; others, such as lighting candles on the Sabbath, apply only to women.
However, some halakhic traditions also recognize that not all human bodies fit the binary.
The Mishnah, a text compiled in the third century CE that includes halakhic material, roots its interpretations in the categories of male and female, but also affirms the idea that sex and gender are more than terms. .
For example, a section called the Mishnah Bikkurim explains: “There are some ways the androgynos is like men, and some ways he is like women, and some ways he is like both men and women.” , and some ways he is not like men or women. ” Another section of the Mishnah explains that, like women, neither tumtum nor androgynos are obliged to go to the Temple in Jerusalem as part of certain religious festivals. Meanwhile, an androgynos must dress as a man, and a priest cannot marry an Aylonite unless she has children.
As these examples suggest, gender diversity is woven throughout rabbinic traditions. But there is still a hierarchy, with men holding positions of highest religious obligation.
It is also important to note how these categories differ from the ways people understand gender today. A nonbinary person in the 21st century does not have the same experience as a tumtum in late antiquity. The idea of ”aylonit” does not clearly map to any common gender identity today. Even the term “androgynos” is not the same as intersex. And none of the rabbinic categories match current ideas about trans identity.
Forge a future
Despite this textual tradition, many observant Jewish communities today focus on a gender binary. In most Orthodox synagogues, for example, a physical partition divides the worship space into two sections: one for men and one for women. Halakhic rulings regarding whether and how parents support medical interventions in intersex children suggest that they should be raised as male or female, not as an androgynos or tumtum.
In other Jewish communal areas, however, traditional texts have become a resource for contemporary LGBTQ+ Jews. Some look to these texts to prove their beliefs that Judaism has always seen gender diversity as a spectrum. Others use these texts to locate themselves within the Jewish tradition. Others use these examples to call for change in current, anti-LGBTQ+ positions.
Many of these Jews recognize that gender and sexuality in these ancient texts are different from today’s gender identity, but they believe that the past can still serve as an important tool in the present.
Rabbinic texts illustrate that there was no magical time in the past when every person easily and naturally fit into gender categories.
Provided by The Conversation
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Citation: Opinion: Nonbinary genders beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’ are no surprise to ancient rabbis (2023, July 10) retrieved 11 July 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-07-opinion- nonbinary-genders-male-female.html
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