“If he is female…”

There is more gender-bending in the Torah than we might have thought. 

Our daughter is downstairs entertaining some high school friends, some of whom I haven’t seen in quite some time. In the intervening years, there have been some changes in name and gender. Someone I knew as “she” is now “he.” Someone else I knew as “she” is now “they.” But not everyone has changed. The young man in eye makeup, lipstick and dress is (as he always was) “he.”   

For many years as a congregational rabbi, I struggled at times to find something to point to in the Torah to which the evolved Jewish teens in my just-north-of-New-York-City synagogue might connect, find meaningful, see as relevant and embrace as useful.

Not anymore.

“And if he is female … ” There it is. In Leviticus. The central book of the Torah. In a section delineating different gender- and age-based donation amounts paid to the priests upon the making of a neder (vow). “And if he is female … ” (Leviticus 27:4).

No good common-sense explanation holds up. Meaning: a) It’s not a “typo”; b) it’s not an “archaic” spelling—in other words, not a leftover textual relic from a time when “he” and “she” might in ancient Hebrew have been spelled the same way; c) it’s not a “regionalism”—that is to say, it’s not that in this or that region of Israel “he” and “she” were spelled the same way.

How do we know?

We know it’s not a “typo” because if it were a “typo,” we’d expect to find it only once or, alternatively, randomly throughout the entire Hebrew Bible. In fact, it appears numerous times, but only in the Pentateuch (aka the Torah or Five Books of Moses), a relatively small section of the Hebrew Bible.

We know it’s not that in ancient Hebrew, “he” and “she” were spelled the same way, because when we look at the very oldest sections of the Hebrew Bible, “he” is always spelled heh-vav-alef and “she” is always spelled heh-yud-alef, except in the Pentateuch.

We know it’s not that in this or that region of Israel, “he” and “she” were spelled the same way, because when we look in sections of the Hebrew Bible that scholars believe to have been written in the north or written in the south, “he” is always spelled heh-vav-alef, and “she” is always spelled heh-yud-alef, except in the Pentateuch.

Only in the Pentateuch does “she” ever appear as “he.” And it happens a lot. Eve, we are told, was named Eve (from the Hebrew for “life’) “because he was the mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20). When Sarai went down to Egypt, the Egyptians saw “how very beautiful he was” (Genesis 12:14). Abraham’s servant was told to look for a woman who would offer to water his camels because that would be the sign that “he is the woman” for my son (Genesis 24:44). Isaac said of his beloved Rebekah “he is my wife” (Genesis 26:7).

The pronoun “she” spelled the same as the pronoun “he” is utterly, uniquely Pentateuchal, and singularly strange. As strange as if we came across an Olde English text in which “she” appears where “he” would have been expected, but found this nowhere else in all of English literature. Would we accept the suggestion that the “s” in “she” must have been a “silent s”?

I don’t think so.

Why has no one noticed this? The answer, first of all, is that Jewish tradition has long called on those who read Torah in public to sometimes ignore what is written in the text and to say something else instead. This tradition is called “reading and writing” (kri and ketiv), and it comes to us from the so-called “Tradition Keepers” (Masoretes). So, for example, in the verses above, Torah readers will pronounce the pronouns referring to Eve, Sarai and the woman who waters camels, Rebekah, as “she,” in spite of the fact that “he” is written in the Torah. In the ancient world, before there were printed texts, anyone who heard the Torah chanted out loud in public would have been none the wiser that they were hearing something other than what was written.

And then, of course, most people who read the Hebrew Bible today read it in a language other than Hebrew. Because translators translate the Hebrew Bible according to the public reading tradition as described above, those who read it in any other language totally miss what’s going on. The Bible’s gender-bending language literally gets lost in translation.   

And these are not the only examples of gender-bending in the Hebrew Bible. There are many more. Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as “them.” After the flood, Noah is said to repair to “her tent.” (Genesis 9:21). The large fish that swallows Jonah is described at first as a male fish (dag, Jonah 2:1) and in the next line as a female fish (dagah, Jonah 2:2). In the Judah and Tamar story, as David E. S. Stein has pointed out, the name of the male (Judah) is grammatically feminine, while the name of the female (Tamar) is “unmarked” or grammatically male. The book of Isaiah foretells a gender-fluid future, in which the future kings of Israel are prophesied to be “nursing kings” (melakhim omnayich, Isaiah 49:23). Lest there be any confusion about what this means, Isaiah 60:16 makes it clear: “Kings’ breasts shall you suck” (tinaki).

All of this, as I have argued elsewhere (CCAR Journal, Reform Judaism Magazine, New York Times, The Forward) supports a hidden tradition that the four-letter Name of the God of Ancient Israel, YHWH, was pronounced not Jehovah or Yahweh, but Hu Hi (He She). This ancient tradition apparently colored the Torah’s view of the gender-fluidity of humans as well.

A few years ago, “And if he is female … ” would have been dismissed as a scribal error, or assumed to be some lost archaic or regional variant, and we’d have all moved on. But today we are giving gender-bending in the Hebrew Bible a second look because the zeitgeist supports it. We are all of us living through the collapse of the gender-binary; the advent of “preferred” pronouns (or, if you like, the demise of “presumptuous” pronouns); the seemingly overnight acceptance of “they” as the gender-neutral alternative to “he” or “she”; and in the Jewish community, the inauguration, in place of Bar or Bat Mitzvah, of the gender-neutral “Ba’ Mitzvah,” even the combined Mitzvah Journey/Transition celebration.

No question. We’re in the midst of a “gender revolution.” But the gender revolution did not create the text. Rather, it’s the zeitgeist that is allowing us to see the text as it is—and, I might add, allowing the text to support us in seeing ourselves as we are. Some male, some female, some both, some neither. All of a sudden, the ancient text is relevant in ways we never before imagined.  

“And if he is female … ” is a window into “deep Torah”—a worm-hole through which we enter another Toraitic dimension. Not midrash, which bends and twists the text in order to say what the midrashist wants it to say. Not sod, a cryptic bit of esoterica meant for the mayvin and only the mayvin. No. This is omek peshat, the text as it is, but now, at last, deeply understood. An ancient understanding speaking to us as if written today. The Torah’s window into a dimension in which gender can be seen to bend in every direction: where “he” can be “she,” and “she” can be “he,” and women can be men, and men can nurse the young. A textual tradition that has been misread, misspoken, misinterpreted, misunderstood for millennia. All of this time simply waiting to be noticed and revealed of its truth.  

Like gender.

3 Responses

  1. Bleary-eyed as the hours winded into the night, I found your article! The promised land! lol! Thank you so much Mark! So “there it is” but, what can we tell from it? I’ve read that in the Jewish law and traditions, there are hundreds of references of several types of gender variation but, Deuteronomy 23:1 reads “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD” (NIV). Meanwhile, Isaiah 56:4-5 reads “For this is what the Lord says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever'”. (NIV). Does Leviticus 27:4, et. al., indicate acceptance or only recognize the existence of gender variations?

  2. This is admirable. And when you add it to the several genders described in the Talmud, doors open and teens are helped. Thank you, Rabbi Sameth.

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