As part of the recent spike of anti-LGTBQ hate speech in the American public sphere, on April 20, 2022, The Jewish Press, a New York-based weekly newspaper, released an editorial piece titled “The Culture Wars: Indoctrinating Gender Indifference.” The article covered the recent nationwide debate “over whether public schools can instruct young children that gender is purely a matter of one’s self-identification and not one’s biological makeup.”
The editors of The Jewish Press argue that supporters of an alleged gender ideology were “planting the seeds of uncritical acceptance of gender self-identity at the expense of traditional normative notions of gender.” They assert that “the targeting of the young” is not limited to schools and bring up “top Disney officials” who “have vowed to inject their LGBTQ agenda into their programming for children.”
The myth of a conspiracy or hidden agenda against traditional gender roles has gained many followers in the past years. While there is no centrally organized “anti-gender” movement and the various representatives make a variety of claims, they often argue like the above-mentioned Jewish Press article that there is a secret elite infusing their “globalist,” “modernist” views on gender roles.
Although most of those who reproduce this conspiracy myth belong to conservative, right-wing Christian sects, The Jewish Press has shown that one can find adherents to this myth also in the Jewish community. Another article on its website, published under the title “The New Biden Transgender Policy,” claims that empowering trans and nonbinary youth would ignore “time-honored values.” In the 2021 article “Chanukah and Gender Energy,” their authors go so far as to state that gender fluidity and similar concepts “go against what we learn from the sages of Judaism.” But is that really the case?
The Torah teaches us that God created human “male and female” (Genesis 5:2). Very often, this verse is used as a justification for the male-female binary and the framework where there is no space for trans or nonbinary gender expressions. Jewish Press columnist Dennis Prager, too, uses this verse to prove that “the male-female distinction is a fundamental part of the divine order.” Based on this biblical text, Prager’s 2020 article “The Torah Versus the Left” argues that the “distinction among human beings between male and female is built into creation.” However, if we take a closer look at this verse and how our ancestors understood it, the picture gets more complicated. The interpretation of this verse in Bereshit Rabbah is especially interesting for our purpose.
Bereshit Rabbah is a collection of rabbinical homiletical interpretations of the book of Genesis, probably written in Eretz Israel between 300 and 500 C.E. The collection contains many simple, and often playful, explanations of words and sentences in Genesis. Scholars believe that these teachings were originally public lectures in the synagogues. The editors of the midrash brought together explanations of the successive passages and connected them in some way with the verse in question, or with one of the explanations of it. Commenting on Bereshit 1:26 (“God said: ‘Let’s create the human’ ”), the rabbis relate the following teaching:
Rabbi Yirmiyahu ben Le’azar said: “In the hour (i.e. moment) when the Blessed Holy One created the first human, God created them as androgynous, as it is written: “male and female he created them” (Bereshit 5:2). Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman: “In the hour (i.e. moment) when the Blessed Holy One created the first human, he created them two-faced and sawed them and made them into a back here and a back there (i.e. into two parts). They (i.e. other rabbis) questioned him: “But it’s written that ‘He took one of his ribs.” (Bereshit 2:21) He [Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman] said to them: “[It means] ‘one of his sides,’ just as you would say: ‘And for the side of the Tabernacle, etc.’ which they translate [into Aramaic as] ‘for the side.” (Bereshit Rabbah 8:1)
While at first sight this conversion mostly deals with the traditional notion of the creation of humans, it also tells us a lot about how our ancestors viewed gender and its fluidity. Bereshit Rabbah describes the first human as being male and female at the same time and makes use of the Greek loan-word androgunos, which is constructed from the words andro (“male”) and gyné (“female”). Thus, the midrash tells us that the first human being formed in the Eternal’s likeness was an androgynous, intersex person.
When other rabbis question this interpretation of the Torah verse, they refer to Bereshit 2:21 (“He took one of his ribs”), implying that man was created first and woman was created out of man, eliminating any whisper of androgyny. But Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman sticks with the first explanation and brings another verse from the Bible where the word for “side” is translated into Aramaic, the common language of his time, with the same word as the word for “rib.” Even though there is hardly any connection between the two biblical verses, in this way, he can justify his nonbinary interpretation of the verse.
As this midrash demonstrates, our tradition teaches that all bodies and genders are created in the Divine image. This teaching from Bereshit Rabbah is just one of the numerous examples of a traditional Jewish perception of gender that is more modern than that of some contemporary conservative Jewish groups. The Zohar, a collection of mystical teachings, tells us that “every person needs to be male and female at all time” (1:49b:8). Another mystical compilation, the Sha’ar Hagilgulim, relates in chapter 9 on gilgul, the Jewish concept of reincarnation, that men at times are reborn in women’s bodies and vice versa. Even halachic literature knows of more than two genders: androgunos and tumtum are recognized by the Mishnah (Bikkurim 4:1-5) as genders beyond male and female.
Judaism has traditionally maintained a far more diverse approach to gender expressions than Christo-normative “Western” societies do. This article did not intend to provide an extensive description of gender in Judaism. Our literary tradition is so rich that the list of sources challenging the male-female binary is virtually endless. But whenever a transphobic Jew refers to our common Jewish tradition in order to justify their transphobia, we should make it clear that there are plenty of traditional sources questioning the binary. Learning about these sources can help us deconstruct the male-female binary and understand that Judaism belongs to trans and nonbinary Jews as much as to those who conform to this binary.