gender in Judaism
THE STORY OF CREATION
This slide will describe the origins of the Torah from an archeological and linguistic perspective, not a spiritual one. If that will bother you, please skip this post.
The story of Creation — that is, the story of Adam and Eve — is generally associated with a very rigid binary interpretation of gender. Interestingly, this could actually be rooted in a mistranslation.
First, a brief background: historians widely agree that the Torah was composed by three or four authors: the Elohists, the Yahwists, the Deuteronomists, and the Kohanim (priests).
The Torah includes five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. However, each of the books was not written all at once, nor were the books necessarily written in chronological order. Instead, they were compiled together later, based on earlier writings. For this reason, some of the stories in the Torah are actually duplicates. In fact, the Torah has two stories of Creation: one focuses entirely on God as the protagonist (the Priestly source), while the second focuses on man (the Yahwist source). Though the stories are complementary, sometimes they are also contradictory. One of the contradictions is found in the account of the creation of man and woman, which will be addressed in the next slide.
One of the methods that archeologists and linguists are able to study the Torah is through language. For example: the Hebrew from 1047 BCE wouldn’t be the same as the Hebrew from 587 BCE, as language evolves over the centuries. However, early non-Jewish translators of the Torah were not aware of the variations in the Hebrew language over time.
God created human in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female God created them (Genesis 1:26-27).
The word “him” in the middle of this verse — “in the image of God He created him” — is, in the Hebrew of the period, gramatically but not anatomically male. Scholars have argued that “adam” — which comes from “adamah,” meaning “earth” in Hebrew and which also translates to “man” — had no differentiating gender until Eve was created, when he then became male.
As explained in the prior slide, there are two stories of Creation. In the first story — compiled by the Kohanim (priests) — the first human is genderless, made in the image of God, and it is only when Eve is created that Adam becomes male. In the second story of Creation — compiled by the Yahwists — God creates Adam as male first, and later makes Eve as female, because “it is not good for the Man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), which many have interpreted to mean that woman is subordinate to man.
The Jewish sages over the centuries were very much aware of this contradiction, and as such, they attempted to explain it with their rabbinic commentary. These ideas of gender were passed down orally for generations and were finally codified in writing in the third century in the Mishna, Talmud, and Midrash. The sages wrote about gender diversity through the context of Jewish law; since Jewish law is generally quite binary, the sages tried to work out where folks who are neither men nor women would fit in. Each gender was ascribed various protections, duties, and limitations, but perhaps most importantly, the sages emphasized that gender-diverse folks are to be treated with the same humanity as cisgender folks.
The sages established that there were at least eight genders: (1) Zachar (male), (2) Nekevah (female), (3) Androginus, (4) Tumtum, (5) Aylonit Hamah, (6) Aylonit Adam, (7) Saris Hamah, and (8) Saris Adam.
A disclaimer: first, I am neither a Talmud scholar nor trans. I am not an expert on gender diversity. Instead I am simply relaying this information from a historic lens. I will also add that these interpretations of gender are not perfect. For example, there is some conflation between sexual organs and gender; additionally, for example, infertile women are placed in the same category as intersex folks who were assigned female at birth. That said, it’s quite remarkable that our ancestors were so attuned to gender diversity some two to three millennia ago.
This gender describes people with both “male” and “female” characteristics. It is referenced 149 times in the Mishna and 350 times in the Mideast and in Jewish law. Androginus people are generally placed under the equivalent of a non-binary label.
This term describes a person with obscure or vague sexual characteristics, comparable to the term agender. It’s referenced 181 times in the Mishna and the Talmud, as well as 335 times in the Midrash and Jewish law.
This gender describes a person who is determined to be female at birth but later naturally develops male characteristics. This person is known to be infertile. This term is referenced 80 times in the Mishna and Talmud, as well as 40 times in the Midrash and Jewish law codes. This term is comparable to the term intersex.
This gender describes a person who is determined to be female at birth but later develops male characteristics through human intervention, comparable to the term transman.
This gender describes a person who is determined to be male at birth but later naturally develops female characteristics. This term is referenced 156 times in the Mishna and the Talmud, as well as 379 times in the Midrash and Jewish law codes. It’s comparable to the term intersex.
This gender describes a person who is determined to be male at birth but later develops female characteristics through human intervention, comparable to a transwoman.
THE WORK OF MAGNUS HIRSCHFELD
Magnus Hirschfeld was a gay Jewish sexologist and physician most known for his groundbreaking advocacy for gay and transgender rights.
He was born in 1868 in Kolberg, Germany (then a part of Poland). After earning his medical degree in 1892, Hirschfeld traveled to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition. It was there that he first developed his understanding of the universality of homosexuality around the world, noting that gay subcultures existed in Brazil, Morocco, and Tokyo, in addition to Germany and the United States.
After many of his gay patients took their lives, Hirschfeld began advocating for gay and transgender rights. Specifically, Hirschfeld started his activism after one of his gay patients, a young army officer, took his life in 1896, leaving a suicide note behind that stated that no matter how hard he tried, he simply could not end his sexual desire for other men.
In 1897, Hirschfeld, along with Max Spohr, Eduard Oberg, and Joseph von Bülow, founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The goal of the committee was “justice through science”; in other words, they used scientific research to advocate for LGBTQ human rights. A main focus was the repeal of the German law that had criminalized homosexuality since 1871.
Hirschfeld gathered 6000 signatures from prominent Germans to overturn the law. In order to succeed, he considered outing prominent German lawmakers that remained silent on the bill; however, in the end, he didn’t do so. In the 1920s, Hirschfeld almost got the law repealed. However, this all changed when the Nazis came into power.
In 1914, Hirschfeld published the book “The Homosexuality of Men and Women,” in which he argued that homosexuality was universal and occurred in every culture. Hirschfeld also compiled other research, including questionnaires that LGBTQ folks could answer anonymously. He then estimated that 3 out of every 100 LGBTQ folks took their lives every year, 1/4 attempted to take their lives over their lifetimes, and 2/3s suffered from suicidal ideation. His conclusion was that life in Germany for LGBTQ folks was simply unbearable.
When World War I broke in 1914, Hirschfeld became aware that, because he was Jewish and gay, other Germans did not consider him a “proper” German — or even German at all. As such, he overcompensated by taking a loud pro-Germany position. However, he later changed his mind, and by 1916, he was writing pro-peace pamphlets.
In 1920, Hirschfeld was badly beaten on the street; he was initially declared dead, but he survived. In 1921, he organized the First Congress for Sexual Reform, which was held again in 1928, 1929, 1930, and 1932.
Hirschfeld was mocked worldwide. The Hearst newspaper chain in the United States called him “the Einstein of sex.” In 1910 and 1923, he coined the terms “transvestite” and “transexual,” respectively. He issued doctor’s notes known as “transvestite passes” for transgender folks to prevent them from being stopped and arrested by the police.
In 1919, Hirschfeld wrote one of the first films to feature a gay character. The character was played by Conrad Veidt, who was likely bisexual.
Hirschfeld’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee provided a plethora of medical services for LGBTQ folks, including contraceptive treatment, gynaecological examinations, treatment for STDs, marital and sexual therapy, and other treatments, such as treatment for alcoholism. Additionally, the organization provided educational resources.
Most significantly, the organization pioneered gender-affirming surgeries, including one of the earliest sex-reassignment surgeries in 1931. Other surgical and medical services included facial feminization and masculinization surgery and early forms of body hair removal.
Hirschfeld also pioneered intersex research. He was the first to advocate for the right of intersex individuals to choose their own gender upon turning eighteen. However, in some cases, he supported sex assignment at birth on a “scientific basis.”
Hirschfeld went out of his way to hire transgender folks, who otherwise experienced severe employment discrimination in Germany. The Scientific Humanitarian Committee had an enormous library with works on homosexuality, gender, and eroticism.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Hirschfeld happened to be on a world book tour and was therefore outside the country. Four months after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, the Nazis sacked the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, burning Hirschfeld’s enormous library of archives to the ground.
Hirschfeld knew that he couldn’t return to Germany, though he remained close in Europe, hoping that the political situation would improve. As a gay Jew, he was doubly at risk, as the Nazis believed that homosexuality was a Jewish perversion. In 1935, Hirschfeld died of a heart attack in Germany. His sister, who had remained in Germany, died in Terezín concentration camp in 1942.
Hirschfeld believed that the causes of LGBTQ rights and women’s rights were closely tied. In addition to advocating for gay and transgender folks, he advocated against the criminalization of abortion and argued that the commonly held idea that African women had “enlarged labia” was utter nonsense. Hirschfeld also was one of the first to point out that the Nazis’ ideas of race were pseudoscientific and not rooted in actual science.
However, Hirschfeld did hold some problematic views. For example, he believed gay men were inherently naturally effeminate.
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