Erin Phillips: Welcome to season 4 of “Adventures in Jewish Studies”, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history, and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m one of your hosts this season, Erin Phillips, and today, we’re going to delve into how gender is constructed in Judaism.
If you were to enter an Orthodox synagogue for Friday night services this week, you might, when you walk in, have to choose the appropriate side to sit on depending on your gender. The men’s side and the women’s side may even be separated by a mechitza, or a partition. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, each Jewish person’s experience of Judaism is deeply intertwined with how they experience their gender: from the milestone rituals they celebrate, to the Hebrew words used to call them up to the Torah, to the stereotypes put on them by the media. But what happens when you identify as a gender other than the one you were assigned at birth? Maybe, for example, you’re non-binary, meaning you don’t identify with any one particular gender. Maybe you’re transgendered, or trans, meaning you’ve moved from publicly identifying as one gender, say man, to another, say woman. Gender expressions like these change the ways certain Jewish people navigate everything from Jewish law, to modern ritual, to cultural inclusion. And in many cases, they can create significant challenges to feeling accepted and affirmed as a Jew. Today, we’re going to look at gender across Jewish history and into the present.
First, we'll define the seven genders of the Talmud, examine whether they even count as genders, and look at examples of how they impacted ancient Jewish life. Then, we'll connect these texts to our modern practices, learn about the experiences of trans and non-binary Jews today, and discover how they're re-imagining Judaism to be more accessible and equitable
In order to understand how gender is constructed and interpreted in modern Jewish communities, we have to go back to the beginning. No, not the First Temple or Second Temple periods, the very beginning – Adam and Chava, Adam and Eve… or so we’ve learned. As with many stories and passages in the Torah, there are multiple translations and interpretations of the creation story. Genesis 1:27, the verse that includes the famous line, “Male and female he created them,” is often cited today as proof that there are just two genders, and that they’re separate and unchangeable. But ironically, the Rabbis of old had a different reading.
Dr. Max Strassfeld: They have an idea of a two-headed person who's back to back, the dupartuf, mostly found in stories or exegesis on the Bible. Those listeners who've read Plato's Symposium will recognize that story – or watched the movie, Hedwig and the Angry Inch – will recognize that story, where the original human being is a bisexed person in one human figure that later is split up into different sexes.
Phillips: This is Dr. Max Strassfeld, Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona College of Humanities and Religious Studies, and author of the book Trans Talmud. What Dr. Strassfeld is referencing here is not some obscure reading of Genesis by a gender studies scholar. This idea that the first human was both male and female in one body prevailed among ancient Rabbis, 12th and 13th century Jewish mystics, and many other experts throughout history.
And it’s just the very first example of a wide array of alternative sex categories and corresponding ideas of gender that can be seen throughout the Torah. Here’s Dr. Strassfeld again.
Dr. Strassfeld: If you look online, you'll see that there are lists that say the six genders of Judaism, the eight genders of Judaism, the seven genders. So, when people are talking about the six or eight genders of Judaism, they're referring to categories that are in rabbinic literature and rabbinic literature, just broadly speaking, comes from the first six centuries of the Common Era. And it's the product of a movement of rabbis who debate various aspects of law, tell stories about rabbis, interpret the biblical text, and recorded in them are these categories of gender. So, when people talk about the six categories of gender, they're including male and female generally. They are also including an array of folks that fall under the heading of Eunuchs.
Phillips: Eunuchs, according to historical definitions, were individuals who were born male, and castrated, often to serve a specific social function. Many ancient societies created and employed eunuchs as advisers in royal courts, as spies, or as other types of servants or slaves. If you’re a fan of the TV show Game of Thrones, you’ll recall the eunuch character of Lord Varys, also known as Spider. Unlike Game of Thrones, the Rabbinic texts don’t cleave as closely to the classic, archetypal definition of a eunuch.
Dr. Strassfeld: And our word eunuch, in English, comes from the Greek Eunuch. But in late antiquity, when they talked about Eunuchs, they don't quite mean the same thing that we do. So, that Greek word eunuch originally meant – could refer to – people that were born eunuchs, or people that underwent changes to their bodies, their anatomy, their genitalia, and became eunuchs later in life. When we think of that word eunuch, we tend to think of people who become eunuchs later in life through changes to their anatomy. The Rabbis pick up on this Greek distinction of these different kinds of bodies that can fall under the umbrella term eunuch. And they also have the concept of someone who's born a eunuch, someone who's born without the capacity to reproduce, so their body is somehow different in a way that means they're not going to be able to have children, and somebody whose body undergoes changes and becomes a eunuch. So, notice already that their idea of sex and gender is already a little bit different than ours and also even this idea of what a eunuch is is different.
Phillips: Within this broader category of eunuchs, the Rabbis delineate several different labeled categories. Just a brief listener warning here: the chief way they make these distinctions is by discussing bodies and genitalia.
Dr. Strassfeld: So the saris, the male eunuch, is a biblical word that the rabbis bring in but they add to it, they expand on the biblical framework by talking about these two different types of eunuchs: people who are born eunuchs and people who become. They also have an idea of a woman who's born a eunuch, meaning she's also born without the capacity to reproduce. She's called an aylonit.
Phillips: If you’re keeping count of all the different categories, so far we have: male, female, dupartuf – our two-headed, bisexed person from the creation story – eunuchs who were born, or generally operate in society, as men – called saris – and eunuchs who were born, or generally operate in society, as women – called aylonit. There are two more categories, both of which Dr. Strassfeld identifies as androgynes.
Dr. Strassfeld: One is the androgynos which, for them, usually refers to someone with two sets of genitalia. And we know that because there's early texts that refer to their ability to menstruate and to have seminal emissions, indicating that they have multiple forms of anatomy that we would associate with different sexes today.
And then there's the tumtum, and we just really don't have any analogous category to the tumtum. The tumtum is someone whose gender is indeterminate. And there are some descriptions that say their sex is covered up, their genital areas covered up by a flap of skin, maybe that flap of skin is going to go away at some point and their sex will be revealed, maybe not. But the basic definition of a tumtum is someone whose gender is not totally determinable at this time.
Phillips: The idea of the tumtum may be the hardest to wrap our heads around today, but it was an important part of the landscape of sex and gender stretching way back. According to the Talmud, the primary Rabbinic text, Abraham and Sarah were both tumtumim. This is one explanation that’s offered for why they were unable to conceive children for so long.
For some listeners out there, though, you may be wondering what place these categories, with their focus on genitalia and reproduction, have in a discussion of gender. Are these genders? Here to explain is Dr. S.J. Crasnow, Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Rockhurst University.
Dr. S.J. Crasnow: I agree with arguments I've seen that, it seems like at least in some cases they're talking – the Rabbis are talking – about both about sex and gender, because it's not just that they will say something about the physical body, but they will also say something about what that “fact” quote unquote, of the physical body means for social roles. And to me that immediately, then kind of transitions – if you'll forgive the punch – into gender.
Phillips: Dr. Strassfeld agrees that the lines here are blurry. He notes that the Talmud’s entire system of categorization varies drastically from our understandings of sex and gender today.
Dr. Strassfeld: So the question is – that we have to ask, first of all – is do the rabbis make a distinction between sex and gender? Is gender a relevant term? And it seems to me that sometimes they do, sometimes they make a distinction between someone's body – morphology, genitals, aspects of their body – and what their legal role should be, in other words, how they should act. Sometimes they don't, it seems like it's all of one piece, which means that they don't totally organize the world of sex and gender in the way that we tend to in the U.S. – in mainstream U.S. culture – which makes it a little tricky to call them genders.
One of the things that I notice when I look at these different categories in rabbinic literature, are the ways that all sorts of things we wouldn't connect to gender at all, they think of as very relevant to the category of gender. So whether you're a priest or not, or the child, the daughter of a priest or not, has an impact on who you can marry, and in all sorts of ways is relevant to gender, social obligation, your kinship networks. When they think about markers of sex for the eunuchs, they talk about body temperature as one way to tell whether someone's a eunuch or not. So, they have very different ways of thinking about what makes bodies different from one another. And also, what's relevant information when we're thinking about someone's gendered social role or legal obligations.
Phillips: Because the rabbis interpret sex and gender so differently, it might not be surprising that many of the gender identities and categories we have today don’t neatly map onto the seven we mentioned from the Talmud. In this episode, the modern identities and categories we’ll be focusing on are non-binary, again, people who don’t identify as a man or a woman; transgendered, or trans, people who move from one gender identity to another; and finally cisgendered, or cis, people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth – this is what many modern societies often consider the default. You’ll also hear our experts refer to people who are intersex – this describes people who are born with both male and female sex characteristics that can sometimes influence how they express their gender. There are, of course, more categories, but those are the umbrella terms we’ll be using, and you’ll notice they differ wildly from the ones listed in the Talmud.
Dr. Strassfeld: The distinction, for example, between intersex and trans doesn't work for how they're thinking about eunuchs. Some of the people they're designating as eunuchs might be more analogous to intersex people today, some of the people they're designating as eunuchs might be more analogous to trans folks today. So, it doesn't neatly map on.
Phillips: One of the reasons it’s so hard to parse these categories – what they meant, how they were experienced, and whether they were more like sexes or genders – is because their voices are not explicitly present in the stories of the Talmud. Besides a few well-known characters from the Torah who may be speculated to have some of these characteristics at certain points, like the previously mentioned example of Abraham and Sarah, we don’t hear from the saris or the aylonit much. So, if we want to understand how these sex and gender categories impacted daily Jewish life, we have very little source material.
Dr. Strassfeld: I don't have a lot of evidence for daily life of androgynes and eunuchs and how these different sources would have impacted and shaped their experience moving through the world; what social pressures they might have faced. We have some evidence from Greco Roman texts, contemporaneous texts, but we don't have evidence from the rabbis themselves.
Phillips: The rabbinic texts that do address sex and gender, hardly offer a clear picture for how these categories were experienced. And what’s more, they often combine material that seems revolutionary and open-minded with material that is problematic and sometimes directly harmful. They acknowledge gender and sex differences, but reinforce assumptions that cisgendered men and women are the norm. They’re also, as Dr. Crasnow notes, intensely graphic and hyper-focused on genitals.
Dr. Crasnow: It seems to me, at least one possible reason why there could have been this fixation is because there's a fixation on reproduction, and that there's a fixation on opposite sex relationships.
Phillips: This fixation on reproduction can help explain both the obsession with reproductive organs, and some of the restrictions we see in the Talmud, like the prohibition against sexual relations with an adrogyne.
Dr. Crasnow: And so, some of these regulations seem to make sense in a context where you're anxious about that, that you're doing what you can to basically make it a part of the culture, essentially, make it – normative almost isn't even strong enough – that opposite sex relationships are what's required and appropriate.
Phillips: Dr. Crasnow notes that despite centuries of cultural change, this obsession with heterosexuality and reproduction is something we continue to see today.
Dr. Crasnow: It isn't a huge leap to sort of recognize that we're just kind of upholding the same thing. We're continuing to uphold this idea that we have to make clear lines between who is man and who is woman and it's really hard for me not to see that in ways that, again, connect directly to genitals, which I think is problematic. And it just looks to me like the same stuff over and over again, like the raising up of patriarchy and the continued regulation, and sort of prioritizing of heterosexual relationships and regulating of bodies.
Phillips: Now that we’ve defined the labels of the Talmud, their status as both sex and gender categories, and how they impacted Jewish life historically, we’re ready to connect these texts to Jewish practice today. In order to do that, we have to talk about the experiences of modern trans and non-binary Jews, and their ongoing struggle to make Judaism more accessible and equitable.
Chana Rothman (song): Gender, gender, gender, gender, gender – put it in a blender.
Gender, gender, gender, gender, gender – put it in a blender.
Gender, gender, gender, gender, gender – put it in a blender.
Phillips: First, we have to ask: how did we get from there to here? Shouldn’t Jewish leaders have used these texts to think up a stronger, more cohesive approach to gender in the intervening centuries? In reality, up until very recently, rabbis have made decisions about trans, non-binary, and intersex issues on a case by case basis, with little coordination and social pressure. But that’s changing.
Dr. Crasnow: It seems like a new problem, because we have new terminology and also new technology. So having access to hormones and surgeries for people who want hormones and surgeries is a relatively newer thing.
Phillips: Thanks to increased media attention, the ability to connect and share experiences online, and advancements in language and technology, more trans and non-binary people today are able to find the right terms to describe themselves, and to live openly.
Rothman (song): Gender, gender, gender, gender, gender – put it in a blender.
Mix it, match it, throw it up and catch it. Stack it, shape it, recreate it. Send it, bend it, pretend it, end it. Imagine the space you need, then take it. Share it, tear it, wear it, dare it. Stretch it, sketch it, throw it up and catch it. It’s a big world of imagination. You are the artist of your own creation. Gender, gender, gender, gender, gender…
Phillips: But despite cultural shifts, they don’t always find a warm welcome. In 2007, Joy Ladin, who had just become a tenured professor at Yeshiva University, an Orthodox institution in New York, was put on an 18-month administrative leave after announcing her transition to publicly identifying as a woman. Here she is in a 2012 interview with Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, discussing what happened when she finally returned to teaching.
Joy Ladin: I am the only openly transgendered employee at Yeshiva University, and – I think – the only one at any modern Orthodox institution in the world. So, I think that what brought me to a lot of the work that I’ve been doing now is the fact that the New York Post thought that this was really funny. And, you know, Orthodox Jews are always good for a laugh, transgender people are always good for a laugh. And when you put the two together, this is really fabulous. So, when I returned to work as myself after years of teaching as a man, they put it on page three. And that’s resulted in a lot of really wonderful opportunities to talk about Judaism from a trans perspective, and to enter into some of the important conversations that Jewish communities are having about what it means to recognize and welcome people who don’t fit within normative gender definitions.
Phillips: Here’s Dr. Strassfeld with more on Joy Ladin’s experience.
Dr. Strassfeld: And she's written about this in her memoir, which is a gorgeous book, Through the Door of Life. She talks about how when she came out as trans, there was a debate about whether she could continue teaching at Yeshiva University, which is an Orthodox Jewish institution. And she talks specifically about this story that was in the New York Post. And anyone who – I grew up in New York City, anyone who knows the New York Post, it's not precisely the most reputable newspaper out there. But they quote one of her colleagues who's not an expert in Jewish law, who says, basically, Jewish law forbids this. And it's not clear if he's referring to – from what I remember of the story – it's not clear whether he's referring to the prohibition on castration. There is a prohibition biblically, when it gets applied to humans. There's a whole complicated reception of this law from the Bible. But that is one of the places where you do see people turning to that verse, in particular, to say that trans people shouldn't be allowed to transition. Of course, that's very specifically talking about certain kinds of surgical procedures and medical treatments that wouldn't apply to all different types of transition. But it's often used as a kind of blanket objection to trans people and transition, specifically.
Phillips: These kinds of responses were unfortunately common as trans and non-binary Jews at the time began breaking glass ceilings. Alongside Joy Laden, in 2006, Elliot Kukla became the first transgender rabbi ordained by the Reform movement. And as more trans and non-binary teachers, rabbis, and leaders emerged, the major branches of American Judaism recognized a need to formally embrace gender diversity.
Dr. Crasnow: The Reform Movement, in 2015, came out with a statement and then later, the Reconstructionist movement, the Conservative movement, but all of them came out with statements – or resolutions, I guess they call them – supporting and welcoming trans people.
So in the Reform movement's resolution, they also make recommendations for what Jewish communities need to do to honor trans equality, and they are specific. I mean, I was encouraged to see that because, again, you don't want just a claim of welcome, being welcoming, you want, you know, some points that people have to live up to, and to demonstrate how they're affirming or inclusive. So, they make recommendations like creating gender neutral bathrooms, asserting the right to be referred to by one's chosen name, or the pronoun that matches their gender identity, adopting policies that prevent discrimination based on gender identity, and so on. But again, as one might imagine, the fact that they put that in their statement doesn't necessarily mean it's implemented. Or, it can be implemented in highly variable ways, and at least that’s what I have seen in my experience, is that there’s not necessarily a consistency.
Phillips: In addition to recognizing trans identity, the Conservative movement went on to acknowledge non-binary expressions in a 2017 statement:
Dr. Crasnow: So the CJLS, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, sets the conservative halakhic policy, and also in 2017 acknowledged that the rabbis’ discussions of halakha were only relevant in that one, they recognized that there were people who did not fit the halakhic binary; and two, that halakhic gender categories were not applied to them in a consistent across-the-board manner. So that is – I don't know revolutionary, may be too strong a word – but it's meaningful, I think, those kinds of conclusions. Because essentially they're saying the rabbis acknowledged that there were people who were not simply male or female, or man or woman again, depending on if you want to use sex categories or gender categories. And they also acknowledged that the decisions about how people should be understood as a result of those sex or gender characteristics were not consistent. And so, there can be individual circumstances and maybe there often are individual circumstances, depending on people's views of their gender identity, their bodies, what feels affirming and comfortable to them, and so on.
Phillips: It’s hard to assess just how far these statements have actually gone towards promoting trans and non-binary affirmation in community spaces. While Orthodox Judaism is the only branch that has not issued a statement about trans and/or non-binary affirmation, Dr. Crasnow sees some shifting sentiments among Orthodox rabbis. Here, they share data from a 2019 study conducted by Eshel, an organization that supports LGBTQ+ inclusion within Orthodox communities.
Dr. Crasnow: 100 percent of the rabbis that they interviewed – and they interviewed rabbis from denominations or different ordinations across orthodoxy – 100 percent of the rabbis that they interviewed said LGBT people deserve to be valued and treated with respect. Again, seems really encouraging. 99 percent said they were aware of at least one member of their congregations or children of members who are LGBT. At least from what I've seen in histories, there's often been a denial – that doesn't exist. There's no one in my congregation who's like that, but I would be welcoming, or those kinds of statements. And you're just like, I mean, I have a hard time not rolling my eyes when people say things like, “Well, we would be welcoming. We just don't, it hasn't come up. We don't have any gay people.” You do. They're just not out in a lot of situations, so. But 99 percent said that they were aware, and that seems relevant.
Phillips: The study also looked at specific practices that affirm trans people. For example, when a rabbi has studied particular Jewish laws, or halakha, that they can use to counsel transgendered congregants. Or, when leaders have flexibility related to the mikvah, the ritual bath which usually separates and assigns you an attendant based on gender.
Dr. Crasnow: 55 percent said that they had begun to think about trans halakha. 64 percent would allow a trans person on the side of the Mikvah that they chose, though, again, it's not clear how non-binary folks would be viewed in that context. So, you know, I guess you could see this as either positive or negative, depending on how you look at it, right? Slightly over half of these rabbis are thinking about trans halakha. You can see that as encouraging, or you could see that as it should be more than that. That shows you a little bit more about where we’re at versus the stat about being welcoming.
Phillips: As rabbis in every denomination of American Judaism seek to make their spaces more accepting, Dr. Crasnow urges that the best way to do this is to listen to trans and non-binary people. And, to let them lead the way on what they need to feel affirmed.
Dr. Crasnow: It looks really different to empower trans people to be part of the leadership process, and to create what needs to be created to make sure people are compensated for their work, to show that identities and experiences are valued and part of the fabric of what happens on a routine basis in your space, versus just like putting up a sign, or a flag, or whatever it is. So, I think people, you know, and this is not just true, of course of LGBTQ people, right? This is like any marginalized community of Jews within Judaism. There's work to be done in terms of not just having, I guess sort of like, nominal acceptance or welcoming without the real genuine efforts and empowerment of people from those marginalized communities.
Phillips: This kind of elevation of trans and non-binary voices is still, unfortunately, rare in mainstream Jewish spaces. While many communities may look accepting on the surface, they can often forget about, or even intentionally neglect the needs of trans and non-binary people. And, as Dr. Strassfeld notes, this has deep impacts.
Dr. Strassfeld: So, all of the ways in which we make our Jewish institutions less accessible for trans people and intersex people, those affect the pipeline. And it impacts the ability of people to participate, to access space, and to enter into leadership positions in the way that they may desire to but may be prevented from in subtle ways and less subtle ways.
Phillips: But when these voices are lifted up, the results can be transformative.
Rothman (song): Deep as the sea, wide as the sky above. Each part of me is a gift of love, bigger than words like boy or girl. I am a blessing to the world, holy. Holy.
Phillips: As more trans and non-binary Jewish people have entered the clergy, founded organizations or institutions, or felt empowered to become community leaders, they’ve also begun reimagining Jewish traditions. Let’s go back to the example of the mikveh, the ritual bath. Here's Dr. Crasnow.
Dr. Crasnow: Increasingly, there are egalitarian mikvahs that specifically serve LGBTQ folks and trans folks in particular, because one of the issues can be that mikvahs are often gender divided. And so, also, if you're non binary, how does that work? Which are you supposed to sort of identify with and having to make that choice. So it helps that that is changing. There are some spaces. There's Mayim Chayim in Boston area is one where they worked with trans Jews and trans rabbis to create rituals for gender transition, where they've worked to make sure that there are mikvah attendants, right, who – traditionally would have someone watch, you immerse, or have someone guide you around the mikveh. But if you want to have someone who's of the same gender, that they let that be of your gender identity, right, not, again, not saying anything about your sex, and the person having to match that.
Phillips: The mikvah is just one example of how spaces and rituals can be reimagined to serve a wider range of diverse Jewish people. The Non-Binary Hebrew Project is opening up gender-expansiveness in traditional Jewish texts, including the prayers used to call people up to the Torah. Here’s Dr. Strassfeld again.
Dr. Strassfeld: We just had a recent responsa that talked about how you call someone who's non-binary up to the Torah. So normally, your Jewish name is your name and then you are the son or daughter of someone. So if you're non binary, how do you navigate that language? And there was a suggestion to use mi beit, “from the house of,” as a way to circumvent some of the gender norms of Hebrew. So, in a variety of ways we're seeing the Jewish community grappling with all sorts of questions and oftentimes turning to the text to try and answer how to address these issues today.
Phillips: Even with something as simple as Talmud study, carving out an alternative, gender-inclusive space in which to study can drastically alter the experience. It can make it more accessible, and it can promote the kind of innovation around ritual we’re seeing from trans and non-binary rabbis and thinkers.
Dr. Strassfeld: So, there's different queer and trans contexts where there's a real attempt to teach people who have don't have a lot of background already the Talmud and the Talmud, famously, is difficult to access. Most spaces where you learn the Talmud traditionally have been for men, there are now more spaces that accept women, although not nearly as many as there are for men. But that still doesn't leave a lot of options for non-binary folks. So there are more of these institutions, groups that are working specifically with queer and trans and intersex Jews to try and make these texts available, and give people the skills that they need to access them. I'm thinking, in particular, of SVARA, the queer yeshiva, but there's other groups as well.
Phillips: We’re even seeing new, inventive ideas around the mechitza, the partition between gendered sections I mentioned at the top of the episode. Usually, there’s a men’s side and a women’s side.
Dr. Crasnow: And one of the things that has happened in recent years is – although I guess there's a longer history of this, but certainly coming out of like a queer and trans movement – there's a more recent history of a tri-chitza, so a third space in those prayer spaces. And that actually serves another function. I mean, as you often find, when you meet the needs of marginalized people, you also meet the needs of other people, right? This is something that seems like we learn it over and over again. It's not just necessarily to serve queer and trans people, although it would be enough if it just served queer and trans people. But oftentimes these tri-chitza spaces also function to serve people who want an egalitarian prayer space in that same setting.
Phillips: All of these ritual reimaginings are not only reshaping Judaism for trans and non-binary people, they’re creating space for all types of differences and needs. In 2016, after years of advocacy from progressive Jewish leaders, the Israeli government designated a protected egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites in Judaism. While part of the wall continues to be separated by gender, this third section is a space for everyone. The campaign for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall may have been led by feminist groups, but it shows how prioritizing gender inclusion and accessibility can benefit many different types of Jews. And that idea applies to more than just the tri-chitza.
Dr. Crasnow: So, I think what this opens space for – and what LGBTQ folks, religious folks, I think, have always opened space for as they've engaged with religions – is for more personalized engagement. Right? I mean, this is the thing. You have to create new ways of engaging and feeling affirmed if that identity wasn't understood as an identity at the time. Right? So I mean, we need rituals for trans Jews. Those rituals didn't, in any obvious way, previously exist, so we have to create them. But, you know, why don't we do that for all kinds of other experiences and identities?
Phillips: Dr. Strassfeld builds on this point by emphasizing how trans and non-binary Jews help enrich Judaism – not only by creating more affirming spaces, but also by challenging popular understandings of Jewish law. There’s not a lot of Rabbinic consensus on… well, most topics, but gender roles pose a particular messy set of questions. Ones with few definitive answers that can be found in the Talmud. Trans and non-binary Jews bring those questions to the forefront, and Dr. Strassfeld argues that this can shake up our understanding of what exactly Jewish law is meant to do.
Dr. Strassfeld: Part of what you see when you start to look at how the Rabbis are discussing eunuchs and androgynes is the way that it's almost a futile enterprise to try and regulate bodies. They're not totally within our control. Think of all the ways we try and shape our bodies today. It's not just trans people who can't always grow a beard when they would want to. Lots of people can't grow a full beard when they want to, with all kinds of bodily configurations. Right? We're often frustrated, ourselves, about our inability, the stubbornness of our bodies, their inability to refuse to cooperate with our dreams, and hopes and designs. So, there is a part of trying to regulate all bodies, not just trans bodies, that seems in itself a contradiction given the way that bodies are changing. They're a moving target. And they're not totally something that we can control.
Phillips: From the very beginning, the earliest Jewish texts recognized that sex, gender, and social roles were more complicated than just man and woman. And, regulating bodies is an impossible task. Nevertheless, they sparked spirited, if often problematic and frustrating, debates in an attempt to understand and categorize what Jewish people experienced. While their arguments, story fragments, and opinions on tumtum and aylonit remain unresolved, today’s gender-creative individuals continue to challenge and reinterpret those ideas. With a bit of halakhic imagination, transgender and non-binary Jews are carving out space for themselves in a tradition that can often treat them as other. To a point that even those who identify as cisgendered are beginning to find the value in the accessibility these trans and non-binary thinkers are bringing – and have always brought – to Jewish spaces.
Dr. Crasnow: I think, sometimes we don't realize how limited our Jewish perspective is, particularly as our identities align with the dominant identities. And we need to be reminded by folks who are marginalized Jews, about the many other ways that Jewish tradition has been interpreted, can be interpreted. And that, at least in my view, those are valuable – at least equally valuable, if not, sometimes more so for the fact that they can show us things that we aren't already aware of. For anyone to have the opportunity to feel more affirmed, more understood, they're having a more personalized and meaningful experience? To me that seems like a positive for anybody, regardless of what their identities are.
Rothman (song): I know, I know we can find a better way.
“Adventures in Jewish Studies” is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. I’m the lead producer for this episode. Special thanks to Chana Rothman for letting us use her songs, “Gender Blender,” “Holy,” and “A Better Way,” from her 2015 album “Rainbow Train.”
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See you next time on “Adventures in Jewish Studies!”
Rothman (song): We can find a better way.
Laura S. Lieber
Laura S. Lieber is Professor of Religious Studies and Classics at Duke University, where she directs the Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for Late Ancient Studies. Her primary area of research is in the area of synagogue poetry ("piyyut") from Late Antiquity and the Byzantine Period.
Judah Cohen is Professor of Music in Musicology at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, the Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture at the Indiana University Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology, and director of the Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences. His research interests include music in Jewish life, American music, musical theater, popular culture, Caribbean Jewish history, diaspora, and medical ethnomusicology.
Avishay Artsy is an audio and print journalist based in Los Angeles and a senior producer of Vox's daily news explainer podcast Today, Explained. He also hosted and produced the podcast Works In Progress at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, and produced Design and Architecture at KCRW. His writing has appeared in the Jewish Journal, The Forward, Tablet, JTA, and other publications and news outlets. His audio stories have appeared on NPR's Marketplace, KQED's The California Report, WHYY's The Pulse, PRI's The World, Studio 360 and other outlets. He is also an adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD
Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips