Lessons on gender acceptance from the Talmud and Torah

Parashat Naso

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Recently, a local Catholic church welcomed a medical doctor, Michelle Cretella, to speak about the health of transgender children. On the surface, this is wonderful. Religious conviction demands that we take the well-being of marginalized individuals seriously.

The problem is that Cretella came as a member of an organization called the American College of Pediatricians, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has condemned as a hate group, and which the National Institutes of Health has accused of misrepresenting its research to push its agenda. Cretella describes being transgender as a mental illness and views any medical intervention to support transgender kids as child abuse. Cretella and her organization advocate for a binary view of gender – male and female – and argue that people cannot blur or move across these categories. Jewish tradition, however, has another view.

According to our ancient rabbis, there are six distinct genders. The two we are most familiar with are n’kevah/female, and zachar/male. These are the only two Cretella and her organization recognize, but we know there are more. Two others our traditions recognizes are the tumtum and the androgynous. The tumtum is a person with indeterminate or obscured sex characteristics while the androgynous is a person with both “male” and “female” sex characteristics. Despite these terms showing up in hundreds of Jewish texts, most of us never learn about them. If we did, we would know that we are all descended from people outside the gender binary. 

In a Talmudic discussion about why it was so hard for our ancestors to have children, Rabbi Ami states that the parents of the Jewish people, Avraham and Sarah were tumtumin (Yevamot 64a). He brings his evidence from two verses in the book of Isaiah, “Look to the rock from where you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from where you were dug. Look to Avraham your father and to Sarah who bore you” (Isaiah 51:1-2). Seeing a parallelism in the two verses, Rabbi Ami argues that Avraham and Sarah’s genitals were “hewn” and “dug,” i.e., that their bodies were changed as they changed genders and were only then able to conceive. This is not the usual story we learn about Sarah and Avraham, but it is in our Talmud.

We see similar conversations elsewhere involving our ancestors, including Adam, the first human, who is described as an androgynous (Breishit Rabbah 18:1). Our rabbis imagined the first human and our first Jews as living outside the gender binary. If we can be as bold as the ancient rabbis, what would happen if we saw them this way? What would change within us? How might we see transgender and gender non-conforming people in our midst? How might we see ourselves differently?

In parashat Naso, we get an additional lesson on gender, though it is not as immediately obvious as the one the ancient rabbis offer us. This week’s parashah begins with God giving Moshe instructions on taking a census among different Levites. Seven times, the Torah describes the ages of the Levite men fit to serve in the mishkan – from/mi 30 years of age until/ad 50 years of age. We see this formulation of “from/mi...until/ad” repeated in each description of the Levites’ ages.

At the beginning of the next chapter, Numbers 5, God instructs Moshe regarding individuals who need to spend time outside of the Israelite camp in accordance with ritual purity laws. Numbers 5:3 begins, “Mi’zachar ad n’kevah, t’shaleychu.” English translations of this text read something like, “both men and women, you shall send them out.” That is to say, most readings see the text as describing two distinct genders, male and female. These translations oddly ignore the meaning of the words that we have been reading in all of Numbers 4, “mi...ad” used to describe the range of ages. “Mi...ad,” does not mean, “both...and.” The text does not refer to Levites who are “30 and 50,” but rather that they should serve if they are 30, 31, 32, etc., all the way up to 50.

To read Numbers 5:3 in light of this understanding of “mi...ad” from Numbers 4, we have no choice but to understand “zachar/male” and “n’kevah/female” as being descriptions of two points on a line, as we could imagine age to be, on a spectrum. Gender, like age, is something with a wide range of expression and experience – a range recognized by Torah and by our ancient rabbis.

As Jews, we must refuse all narratives that people do not exist outside the gender binary. This very idea is anti-Jewish. When we deny or denigrate transgender lives, we deny and denigrate Torah. If we recognize and respect our ancestors Adam, Sarah and Avraham, then we must recognize and respect transgender lives. Our tradition demands nothing less.

Rabbi Alex Weissman serves at the senior Jewish educator at Brown RISD Hillel.