Ask The Rabbis // Gender Identity
What guidance, if any, does Judaism offer to transgender people?
In ancient times, our rabbis acknowledged that male and female were not the only genders. The possibility of a boy turning into a girl, for example, is mentioned in the Talmud quite nonchalantly: “For perhaps his maleness transformed into femaleness” (Talmud Bav’li, Bechorot 42b). They also spoke of the androgynos, who was both male and female, and the tumtum, a person who lacked male genitalia but was not female or lacked female genitalia but was not male (Talmud Bav’li, Nazir 12b). The tumtum was permitted both to initiate a marriage, like a groom, and to become married, like a bride (Talmud Bav’li, Tosefta Yevamot 11:1; Yevamot 72a). The tumtum also inherited from her/his father’s estate in all the ways in which a son would, and was supported from the father’s estate in all the ways in which a daughter would be (Talmud Bav’li, Baba Batra 140b).
As for those who have been castrated, whether forcibly by their Babylonian captors some 2,700 years ago (Second Kings, 20:16-18) or surgically due to emotional suffering in the 21st century, God says: “I will give unto them in my house and within my walls hand [strength] and name [prestige] far more than for sons and daughters, an eternal name that will never be cut off, ever!” (Isaiah 56:4-5).
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Cedar Glen, CA
I distinctly remember being surprised and impressed when I first encountered the Talmudic term tumtum, which refers to an individual whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured and whose gender is in a state of doubt. Surprised, because I’m not even sure I was aware of this biological possibility, and impressed that the rabbis were not only aware but talked about it so easily, as another category they had to take into account.
The rabbis were equally aware that someone could display both male and female characteristics. They called that person androgynos. Today we might use the term intersex. The rabbis also understood that a transition could take place as one aged. They used the term aylonit for a person who is identified as female at birth but develops male characteristics at puberty. On the other hand, a saris was a person who is identified as male at birth and develops female characteristics at puberty and/or is lacking a penis, either naturally or by human intervention.
The rabbis, in other words, were remarkably far ahead of their times. They recognized and accepted a world of possibilities. It is up to us, in our generation, to further the acknowledgement and unconditional acceptance of all transgender and nonconforming people and to reaffirm yet another age-old teaching: the infinite and equal worth in every human being.
Rabbi Peter H. Schweitzer
The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism
New York, NY
“God created the human in God’s image, in the image of God, God created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Already in the first chapter of the Torah we learn two important things. First, gender does not fit neatly into two boxes of male and female. And second, whatever our gender identities, we are created in the image of God.
While many of us may have been taught to understand gender and sex as either male or female, Jewish texts such as midrash, Mishnah and Talmud name the non-binary reality of our bodies and gender identities, thereby affirming the reality of human diversity. Rabbi David Teutsch writes that the “Talmud contains hundreds of references to other categories [besides male and female].” The term “gender-nonconforming” may seem like a new idea to some, but it is actually an ancient reality of what it means to be human.
I think the guidance Judaism offers all people—including those who are transgender and gender-noncomforming—is to embrace the person we know ourselves truly to be, in all our differences (and similarities). Jewish texts do not always communicate that. But it is up to us to identify core Jewish principles in the face of inner contradictions, and for me, the principle that we are created in the image of God is primary. That principle can also offer guidance to congregations and Jewish communities as we take concrete steps to become inclusive and welcoming to all.
Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center
Vineyard Haven, MA
Judaism teaches us that everyone is made in the image of God and should be treated accordingly. That’s not a transgender issue; it applies to everybody. But saying it in the abstract and actually acting as if it’s true are two very different things. In the case of transgender and gender-nonconforming people, it requires that we really challenge ourselves. Everyone who is an adult today has grown up with extremely negative, restrictive and punitive messages about what it means to be male and female, what kinds of behaviors or presentations are considered OK. We are not going to accomplish being respectful of transgender people just by saying, “Hey, we welcome everyone, and everyone’s equal.” We need to ask ourselves, “Where was I taught to be judgmental about gender?” Just as with issues of race, of disability and many other things, the great mistake we tend to make—especially in progressive Jewish communities—is that we want to welcome everyone, but we don’t realize how much work and introspection is required.
I really believe Judaism teaches us, wants us, asks us to be healthy, ethical, happy people. And sometimes that requires going beyond the fairly narrow strictures of what society tells us we should do. And that requires some courage, and I believe our tradition supports us in having that courage. Yes, we can look at Jewish texts and find all kinds of interesting and often moving examples of the ways in which our older forms of Judaism were actually much more welcoming toward gender variety than we are today. But fundamentally I believe that Judaism and God have asked us to be co-creators of who we are and what this world is. And that takes a lot of courage.
Rabbi Reuben Zellman
Congregation Beth El
A bright, capable young woman became a bat mitzvah at our shul some time ago. It was clear she loved studying for her big day, but at the same time I felt something about the experience was off-putting for her. Eventually, her mother made it clear her daughter would not be wearing a dress to her bat mitzvah. Of course, I didn’t care; I just wanted the young girl to be comfortable on our bima.
In the few years since, I have watched as that young girl was transformed into a young man. First it was short hair, then changes in clothing. Finally, the mother came to see me and explained their child now identified as a male, had taken a boy’s name and preferred that male pronouns be used when referring to him.
Stories like these have surfaced only recently. Of course, there were individuals struggling with their gender before now—just not in public. What guidance can Judaism offer them and their families? First, Judaism teaches me to honor the individual. When the mother came to see me, I obviously agreed to start referring to her child using male pronouns. I also met with synagogue staff to anticipate issues and discuss how to enact the value of kavod habriyot, the honor due to God’s creations.
Finally, I told the mother about the work of Rabbi Mark Sameth, author of Is God Transgender? Rabbi Sameth’s writing validates that being transgender is not alien to Judaism. I wanted this mother to feel she had an anchor in Judaism. I don’t want the transgender individual to feel tolerated. I want them to feel honored, connected and supported by Judaism and by their community.
Rabbi Amy W. Katz
Temple Beth El
In the past, Judaism’s general attitude was negative toward human efforts to override species’ boundaries—grafting, planting with mixed species, mixing wool and linen in textiles (shatnez). The reservations reflect the concept that humans should respect nature’s boundaries. Similarly, gender differentiation was taken to be the natural order of things, not to be tampered with. Castration was separately and additionally prohibited, perhaps because of the association of such practices with various pagan religions and rites.
But there is a second theme in the tradition: that the human is a partner with God in the work of creation. Agriculture increases yields over untouched natural growth; industrial productivity upgrades natural resources for the benefit of humanity. Thus humans can improve on nature—if they do not excessively exploit or degrade it. This approach led halachists to approve of organ transplantation, in vitro fertilization and some birth control.
Only recently have we come to see transgender and gender-nonconforming people as a natural phenomenon, arising from inborn tendencies. Some halachists have responded negatively, seeing these developments as more interference with God’s natural order. But they could also be treated as a case of the human partner acting to “repair” a misplacement on the spectrum of gender. In that case, supporting transgender and gender-nonconforming people would be seen as improving their quality of life and allowing full realization of the distinctive image of God in them. Therefore, they should be treated sympathetically, and their dignity and rights should be honored and upheld.
Rabbi Yitzhak Greenberg
Gender-nonconforming and transgender people are individuals who are phenotypically one sex but morphologically the other, or ambiguous. The classical Jewish law tradition of the Talmud never thought gender was binary for everyone. The Mishnah spends a whole chapter and many other individual passages discussing the special rules relating to individuals whose gender is ambivalent.
Modern Jewish law recognizes two realities. First, there are people who have complex genetic or biochemical realities that create tension between their genetic makeup and their apparent gender. Sometimes this is resolved in favor of their genotype and sometimes in favor of their outward gender, and sometimes this resolution changes at puberty. These are hard cases that need nuance, balance and medical expertise. Jewish principles would guide one to the best medical solution in such a case and to a genetic counselor.
Another group of cases are infants born with gender anomalies that parents wish to correct surgically. The Jewish tradition also treats this as essentially a medical issue, although it sees no firm reason to resolve all gender ambiguity. Intersex is sometimes normal in infants, and parents should not be pushed to surgically “correct” intersex without considering the long-term consequences for the child.
Of course, every person needs to be dealt with in kindness as they seek answers to the many ritual questions a gender-ambiguous person has—where to sit in a synagogue and much more—but these are less important questions than they appear to be, once one realizes that gender ambiguity is a category in Jewish law.
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde
Emory University School of Law
Traditional Judaism, which tends to confine itself to the four cubits of halacha, currently has either criticism or very little guidance to offer to those of nonconforming gender. The problem is lack of precedents, since the halachic discourse in the Mishnah, and all the literature based on it, is conceptually rooted in the binary perception of male/female. Even when the sources discuss anomalous cases such as the tumtum, they approach them in terms of this binary division, characterizing them, for instance, as “neither male nor female” or “both male and female.” We are just starting to understand that there is a wide spectrum of gender identity and that society must not force people into narrow categories.
This process will be slow and arduous at the social level and even more torturous at the religious level, which by nature tends to be divisive and classifying. Just as we strive to achieve equality between men and women, we should aspire to provide full equality to people of nonconforming gender without demanding that they identify as either male or female.
This approach should be based on two crucial concepts of Judaism. First, the Book of Genesis states that all humans were created in the image of God. We believe that God has no physicality and no gender, and therefore all humans are equal. Furthermore, the Torah refers to the first human in both the plural and the singular (Genesis 1:27), indicating that we must accept the inherent plurality of the human being.
The second is the famous golden rule: Love the other as you love yourself. (Leviticus 19:18) Just as we do not want to be rejected, alienated, judged or labeled, we should not do so to others, and definitely not in the name of religion. Religious leaders should rise to the task and find ways to welcome transgender or nonconforming people, and perhaps the first step will be to let them define themselves.
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Magen David Sephardic Congregation