Towards a Judaism Without Gender?

A few weeks ago, I gave a devar Torah at my Reconstructionist minyan, Dorshei Derekh, on what one website called the grossest parshah in the Torah: Tazria. It follows a previous parshah about unclean animals and creeping, crawling things that are temei’im — in other words, defiled. In Parshat Tazria, we move on to our own unclean bodies. This was Dorshei Derekh’s monthly Anti-Oppression Devar Torah, and with this in mind, I focused on the concept of “defilement” and its larger, social and political implications.

Parshat Tazria begins with proscriptions around childbirth:

When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean at the same time of her

menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch

any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is

completed. If she bears a female, she shall be unclean two weeks as during her

menstruation, and she shall remain in a state of blood purification for sixty-six days

Leviticus 12:2 (as translated in The Jewish Study Bible [italics mine]).

Of course, the first 21st-century question is this: Why twice the length of time for a girl? Given the context of the book of Leviticus, perhaps this is self-evident. Girls, after all, are doomed to a regular cycle of defilement and purification: tum’ah [Impurity] and taharah [Purity]. Rules around menstruation are coming up soon, in Chapter 15.

Then there’s the next set of verses: Once the required time is over, the woman must take a lamb and turtle-dove to the priest for a burnt offering and sin-offering before she can enter a state of taharah/purification.

Why a sin-offering? You give birth. What is the sin? In this case, the rabbis did discuss this point in detail. It’s all about the blood.

Or rather: the discharge. That was the word rabbis used regularly — a certain kind of blood that comes from a certain kind of place — not the veins of the body, not the urinary tract. It comes from the uterus. The Mishnah Niddah even includes an elaborate system of discharges and degrees of impurity with colors ranging from red to green to black that is far more clinical than the parshah’s passage about leprosy.

Interestingly, there is a male equivalent to the “impure” fluid women expel during menstruation and childbirth. It’s semen — more to the point, spilled seed. When a man expels seed, he can’t read Torah alone or otherwise engage in study or prayer-life until he is ritually cleansed of this “emission.” There’s even a name for a man who spills his seed: ba’al keri, which means, literally, someone who has endured a mishap or accident.

So why are these emissions and discharges impure? Here is some speculation. Perhaps it’s because they’re accidental. They are beyond our control. Along the same lines, the blood and tissue expelled during childbirth is beyond our control, and of course, there’s nothing deliberate about menstruation. It happens. In this sense, women, too, are ba’alot keri — ladies of the mishap.

Here’s another question: What about genitalia that expel these accidents? When we’re born, they are born with us. From that initial accident come accidents that follow. Women don’t spill seed, and men don’t menstruate. Are those penises and uteruses that we have when we are born also something that we don’t control — in fact — keri: accidental?

I came of age in the late 1970s, during a surge of radical feminism. We were all about our bodies, which were, of course, ourselves, our breasts, the hair under our arms and on our legs, and especially, the interior and exterior life of our uteruses and vaginas: how they make us feel, their changing cycles and what they expel. Menstruation was a superpower. PBS broadcast a play by Wendy Wasserstein called “Uncommon Women and Others,” and one of its characters announced: “I just tasted my own menstrual blood!” I never did, but I got the point.

Along those same lines, Jewish radical feminists re-framed the role of women in the do-it-yourself ethos of that era. Here, I don’t mean women taking on the traditionally male-exclusive roles of laying tefillin or reading from the Torah, but rather women grabbing the specificity of our Jewish women’s bodies with both hands: deep wells, holy vaginas, sacred wombs, Miriam the Prophetess shaking her tambourine and dancing through the open, throbbing slit of the parted waters (yes, I mean it!), new rituals that turn curses into blessings, Red Tents, a mikvah redefined as Women’s Space. In fact, we declared that tum’ah is the same as taharah. Our bodies and secretions are not accidents. We deliberately claimed them.

Yet what does it mean when we say that the body we’re born with to be “ourselves”? If we think about it (and I think we’ve all begun to think about it), why should the sex assigned at birth define us? Certainly, why should that body define Jewish practice? Returning to the first few verses of Parshat Tazria, if the sexual assignment of a boy or girl at birth is accidental, why should it shape everything that follows? Why is it cause for pride and celebration? Such celebration sees that body as a kind of “essence” of self-hood that is magical because it is inescapable. Essentialism is a word with troubling connotations: exclusive, chauvinistic, Romantic “blood and soil” ideology. It’s seductive, and it’s a trap.

What if Parshat Tazria did not begin with the birth of a girl or a boy? Suppose those categories were missing. What would determine the length of time that the woman remains impure?

Who was the first person I met who rejected gender labels? Around 10 years ago, my nibling — a cool word for my sister’s non-binary kid — took on the name Ze, and the pronoun They. More recently, my friend D began to identify as non-binary and altered their name.

It took a while for me to get my mind around all this. I would forget to use the right pronoun. I urged these people to be patient with me. Sometimes, they were. Yet the more I thought about it, the more that non-binary gender identity felt like a step forward. Why not let go of the rules? Refuse to let gender be a power? Make it a plaything! Frankly, when I put on a dress, lipstick and high heels, I’m playing a role that isn’t who I am. I might as well be in drag. I call myself a cis-woman — in other words, I feel at home in the sex and gender I was assigned at birth — but what does that even mean? Why not reject those categories altogether? As time goes on, more and more I think of non-binary people as emissaries from the future.

In my little tour of the marvelous website Sefaria, I found that rabbinic commentaries have plenty to say about non-binary Jews, though the word is never used. The 12th-century Mishneh Torah of Maimonides contains lengthy instructions for women who give birth to a child of indeterminate sex, and contradictory readings that call for androgynes to fulfill the commandments of both men and women. It declares that they cannot marry or bear witness. Then, there’s another category, a tumtum, whose external sex organs aren’t clearly developed.

Yet those commentaries also have space for affirmation. A Midrash states that the first human God created was both male and female (as in “male and female, [God] created them”). Of course, in readings from this century, we find inclusive prayers, and a thorough reconsideration of laws of family purity that keep LBGTQAI+ people in mind. I am sure that people in my minyan write such liturgy. A few years ago, a trans Jew, Brin Saloman, released an open-source siddur that was expanded from an earlier version created by the Nonbinary Hebrew Project that includes a prayer for transitioning from one gender to another.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about gender lately. Apparently, I’m not alone. In her book Gender Trouble, the philosopher Judith Butler argued that the conventions of male and female identity are constructs. Most recently, her new book Who’s Afraid of Gender acknowledges that many people are afraid to talk about this stuff, or simply can’t do so in a rational, honest way

In that spirit, here’s a related question: What about people who transition from female to male, or male to female? A year or two ago, my non-binary friend Dtransitioned. She had said she’d come to hear my devar Torah that day, and frankly, I was both disappointed and relieved that she couldn’t be there because I was nervous about asking her these questions: If we decide that gender is a construct, that gender is a set of rules that are meant for bending, then what does it mean to “transition”? Why take on a new gender and stay there? As I say this, I fear being called a TERF — in other words, a trans-exclusionary radical feminist. I also want space to raise these questions, and that space is hard to find.

The morning that I gave my devar Torah, I asked the minyan: How many women here wear tallit? I didn’t even have to ask: almost all of us did, myself included. I knew a lot of the women there lay tefillin. How many men in the room recited the traditionally female blessing over the Shabbat candles? Quite a few present raised their hands. Then: How would a woman’s mikvah respond if a trans woman appeared? Would she be asked if she menstruates? These rituals are powerful, and yes, they are tied to the cycle of women’s bodies. Should they be?

Then, as is the custom in our minyan, I posed a question for discussion. I struggled with the wording: What would a Judaism with meaningful rituals, but without gender look like?

Dorshei Derekh Minyan is packed with rabbis, some of whom were editors or authors of the Reconstructionist prayerbook Kol Haneshamah, and unsurprisingly, the discussion that followed was extensive and often erudite: gender-free translations of the Torah; experiences with Jewish mysticism and the female manifestations of God; the man and woman present in each person; and so on. Yet none of this got to the heart of what I’d hoped we’d discuss, and after a while, I realized that I’d asked the wrong question.

What I really wanted answered was this: Can ritual be powerful if it’s not tied to our bodies — male or female? Judaism, as I understand it, is rooted in the Earth, and in our flesh and blood:  harvest, rain, cycles of birth, fertility and death. Therefore, Judaism is embedded in those mishaps, things we cannot control — the rhythms of the natural world. Consider the word “trans” and its connection to “transcendence.” Is “transcendence” a Jewish concept? I’m not a rabbi, yet rising above the body and crossing over physical reality is difficult to reconcile with my own conception of Jewish life. “Transcendence” implies a kind of arrogance, rising “above” the physical, correcting accidents, draining swamps to make the desert bloom. The last phrase was chosen deliberately. Zionism, too, is a kind of “transcendence” — rising above what European Jews became and transforming ourselves into something new. What, exactly, do you rise above when you cross over?

However, at this point, I step back again and ask: Who the hell am I? I’m not my friend D, who feels at home in her life now, maybe for the first time. I have other friends who have transitioned across gender-lines from one pronoun to the other, for whom gender is not a plaything but under threat and serious business. I can’t share their “lived experience.” The phrase “lived experience” is often used to describe the stories of people under threat, the source of life choices that can’t fit into so-called “reasonable” categories. As someone who has not faced what these friends have faced, perhaps the most ethical response to my questions about gender and transcendence is probably to postpone this interrogation for a while, and begin, instead, by asking them to tell their stories.

Who’s afraid of gender? I must have the courage to ask the right questions and the openheartedness not to interrogate trans-people about gender categories but to ask them about their own lives and their own transitions. As for my earlier question about Jewish rituals, a new generation of Jews is already shaping rituals that come out of lives I have not lived and choices that are their own. At Dorshei Derekh, I ended my devar with a Blessing for the Community from the Inclusive Siddur Project. I reproduce it below:

May our Authority in Heaven be your help

at every time and moment.

And let us respond: Amen!

May the One Who blessed our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzḥaq and Ya’aqov;

and our matriarchs Sarah, Rivqah, Raḥeil, Lei’ah, Bilhah and Zilpah

bless all this Holy congregation

together with all Holy congregations,

them and all that is theirs,

and those who bring together houses of assembly for prayer

and those who bring together minyans

for those who cannot leave their homes

and those who come into their midst to pray

and those who provide candles for lighting

and drink for qidush and havdalah

and food for guests and justice for the meek

and all who occupy themselves with the need of the community faithfully.

May the Holy Blessed One pay their wage

and turn every illness away from them and heal all their bodies

and pardon all their sins and send blessing and success

to all the works of their lives

together with all Yisra’eil, their kin.

And let us respond: Amen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Resources

June 1, 2024
By telling and re-telling difficult, even ethically repugnant, stories in the Torah, we may move from silence to healing and from narrowness to expanse.
November 11, 2023
Posted in Gender, Justice
Transgender people, in expressing their true gender identity, do so to be more authentic to themselves and, in many ways, to be closer to the image of the Creator in which they were made.
November 11, 2023
What matters most is being who you feel yourself to be.
August 7, 2023
Posted in Gender
When we approach texts and traditions with assumptions that are fundamental to trans liberation, such as respect of bodily autonomy and self-definition, we end up with readings that never would have been possible before.
July 9, 2023
Posted in Gender
Euphoric halakhah is the process by which we uncover legal principles and applications that enable us to find the authentic, affirming, joyful and liberatory expressions of who we are.
April 10, 2023
Hope somehow emerges from trauma. Love is possible and in a variety of forms.

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

Get the latest from Evolve delivered to your inbox.

The Reconstructionist Network