intersexuality in the mishnah

“In the Mishnah, Rabbi Yosi makes the radical statement: “androgynos bria bifnei atzma hu / the androgynos he is a created being of her own.” This Hebrew phrase blends male and female pronouns to poetically express the complexity of the androgynos’ identity. The term bri’a b’ifnei atzmah is a classical Jewish legal term for exceptionality. This term is an acknowledgement that not all of creation can be understood within binary categories. It recognizes the possibility that uniqueness can burst through the walls that demarcate our society. The Hebrew word bria (created being) explicitly refers to divine formation; hence this term also reminds us that all bodies are created in the image of God. People can’t always be easily defined; they can only be seen and respected, and their lives made holy. This Jewish approach allows for genders beyond male and female. It opens up space in society for every body. And it protects those who live in the places in between.”

– “Created by the Hand of Heaven: A Jewish Approach to Intersexuality” by Rabbi Elliot Rose Kukla and Reuben Zellman


Rav Arnold Jacob Wolf quote

I try to walk the road of Judaism. Embedded in that road there are many jewels. One is marked ‘Sabbath’ and one ‘Civil Rights’ and one ‘Kashruth’ and one ‘Honor Your Parents’ and one ‘You Shall Be Holy.’ There are at least 613 of them and they are different shapes and sizes and weights. Some are light and easy for me to pick up, and I pick them up. Some are too deeply embedded for me, so far at least, though I get a little stronger by trying to extricate the jewels as I walk the street. Some, perhaps, I shall never be able to pick up. I believe that God expects me to keep on walking Judaism Street and to carry away whatever I can of its commandments. I do not believe that God expects me to lift what I cannot, nor may I condemn my fellow Jew who may not be able to pick up even as much as I can.

  • Rav Arnold Jacob Wolf

“Six recognized genders in Old Israel”

Zachar: Usually translated as “male” in English.
Nekevah: Usually translated as “female” in English.
Androgynos: A person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics. [Source: 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st-8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd -16th Centuries CE).]
Tumtum: A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. [Source: 181 references in Mishna and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.]
Ay’lonit: A person who is identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile. [Source: 80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.]
Saris: A person who is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking a penis. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam).  [Source: 156 references in mishna and Talmud; 379 in
classical midrash and Jewish law codes.]

Source:  Classical Jewish Terms for Gender Diversity by Rabbi Elliot Kukla, 2006

Our Sages non-judgmentally explore the role of intersex people in regards to many facets of ritual and civil law such as circumcision, redemption, oath-taking and menstruation.

The midrash, in Bereshit Rabah, posits that Adam, the first human being, was actually an androgynos. While in the Babylonian Talmud (Yevamot 64a-64b) the radical claim is made that Abraham and Sarah were tumtumim, gender non-conforming people. According to our tradition the first human being and the first Jews were gender outlaws. This teaches us that it is those that transgress the apparently rigid lines of Judaism that have caused the tradition to grow.

Rabbi Elliot Kukla, Parashat Vayechi: Beyond Stick Figures “Like look, the first man was intersex. The first Jews were intersex. Fuck people who say religions are transphobic and intersexist when they really mean that western christianity is transphobic and intersexist.”

“The Talmudic Revolution”

“The Talmudic Revolution”

The year I first cracked open a book of Talmud was 2006, and life was pretty good. I was a moderate liberal filled with the righteous indignation of the Bush years, I was a 19-year-old Birthright-style Zionist in Israel (The Land Flowing With Beer and Single Jews My Age), and I was a loyal and proud son of the Conservative Jewish movement. Sure, life wasn’t perfect. I had an undiagnosed panic disorder, no girlfriend, and my friends back in the states missed me, and I missed them. But surely the Democrats were about to sweep the midterms, and with Israel withdrawing from Gaza, peace couldn’t be many years away, right? Talmud was an exciting intellectual adventure, and a necessary step on my way to the Rabbinate. As the foundation of Jewish religious thought, Talmud would clarify the complicated Halakhic discussions that I had been told were the heart of Jewish life. At that time, my religious life and my political beliefs were distinct.

Now it’s 2015, and I’m angry. I’m angry about the corrupt and violent “justice” system in America. I’m angry about the millions of deportations. I’m angry that women’s reproductive rights are being eroded almost daily. I’m angry that Israel, a state that claims to represent my values as a Jew, maintains military rule over millions of people. And I’m angry that the majority of Jewish leadership is silent on these issues. In short, I’m your average outraged radical leftist, looking to tear down the structures of our world and put up new ones.

So what changed me? Simple, really: Talmud.

Oh, there were lots of betrayals of trust by governments and politicians, lots of shocking revelations, lots of long, hard conversations. But the reason I’m a radical leftist, the reason I believe in taking to the streets and demanding a better world, is Talmud.

Talmud is a deeply conservative book, true. It was written by the rabbis of Roman Palestine and Sassanid Babylon, an elite class of religious leaders with ties to imperial power who trace their lineage and their right to rule to a divine revelation. But that’s just the history. In content and methodology, the Talmud is deeply subversive. There is not a single law that isn’t reexamined, reversed, and re-reversed. The rabbis regularly overthrow one another’s viewpoints. There is no power, including the Divine Power, that is not  challenged and questioned. Talmud is a revolution, printed on the page.

I am fascinated by the Talmud and the hold it has over me and Judaism. That’s why I started the podcast “Radio Free Babylonia,” which is produced by Jewish Public Media (@JPMediaCo) and debuted this past week.  I am excited that the project will be appearing alongside the other great shows Jewish Public Media is producing, but mostly I’m excited to share the Talmud I’ve come to know and love, that powers my belief in a more just and beautiful world. Radio Free Babylonia examines class, race, sex and privilege as matters of Talmudic inquiry. We will be calling out the Talmud for its sins and using the Talmud to call out our own ignorance and bias. We are pulling a heist, an emergency rescue mission. We will find Talmud where it has been wasting away, in all its academic pomposity and yeshivish insularity. We will smash and grab all of that ideology, and argumentation, and brilliance, get it out of the ivory tower and onto the streets.

Talmud radicalized me. I’m sure as hell gonna try and return the favor.

Jesus meant absolutely nothing to the Jewish people

he is completely and utterly irrelevant to Judaism and Jewish culture

Christians: please stop appropriating our culture for the sake of your faith

you have your own beautiful and interesting practices and traditions

it is unnecessary and harmful to steal what little culture we have left, after centuries and centuries of subjugation, torture, isolation, murder, rape, and forced conversion to your faith simply because we are not what you are.

there are more posts about christianity than Judaism in the Jewish tags, please do not have such a completely overinflated sense of self-importance, please leave the Jewish people, and our culture and practices, alone.