A quick search for “Judaism genders” will reveal countless articles, source-sheets, and Reddit threads highlighting the multiple genders that were allegedly recognized by the rabbis of the Talmud. But what has been missing until now is a comprehensive study of what exactly these categories mean and don’t mean, how we might understand them in relation to our contemporary understandings of sexuality and gender, and what wisdom the ancient rabbis might have to teach the modern world.
Dr. Max Strassfeld, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Arizona, now offers us a welcome guide to Talmudic gender(s) in this meticulous, far-reaching, and lyrical book. It welcomes a wide variety of readers with patient explanations of central concepts in the fields of gender and queer studies and the world of the Talmud and rabbinic literature of late antiquity. For example, “transing,” as in the title Trans Talmud, applies trans and intersex perspectives to think through the very idea of gender itself and how it functions as a set of practices and meanings. Strassfeld also explains the imperfect solution of the English words “eunuch” and “androgyne” to refer to a number of Hebrew terms used in the Talmud: the former encompassing the saris adam, the saris hama (which Strassfeld renders, respectively, as “born saris” and “acquired saris”) and the aylonit; the latter referring to the androginos and the tumtum. As Strassfeld emphasizes, none of these terms can really be “translated” to contemporary understandings of gender.
While some readers might want a straightforward account of how the Talmud celebrates queer and trans identities, and others might look for a takedown of contemporary distortions of classical texts, Strassfeld satisfies neither impulse. Instead, he returns again and again to the tension of reading rabbinic texts: on the one hand, encountering their differing approaches can bring a sense of relief “to those of us who suffer under the current regimes of sex and gender. The alterity of the past is fodder that we can use to imagine our current world differently.” At the same time, as he writes, “these sources are not intuitively liberating.”
Strassfeld deftly illustrates that while these rabbinic discussions largely serve to solidify rabbinic authority over gender, and masculinity in particular, within Jewish law, they also preserve a space for those who defy expectations of how gender is lived and experienced. Perhaps the most striking innovation of Strassfeld’s work is the weaving together of his discussion of rabbinic literature with contemporary voices. In the second chapter, contemporary Evangelical concerns about trans bodies are contrasted with the rabbis’ approach to hybridity in Mishnah Bikkurim. The third and fourth chapters use disability theory and intersex activism to challenge the definitions of “fitness,” “failure,” and “damage” in regards to sex and reproduction. The fifth chapter considers trans temporality, and the parallel ways in which the saris and aylonit both help and thwart the rabbis’ attempts to imagine how a body should change over time.
Strassfeld concludes that while the rabbis are invested in a system of binary sex, it is not an inherently stable one, but one that has “the mutability of sex” embedded in its core; thus, “contemporary transphobic appeals to a Judeo-Christian gender binary are not simply inadequate, but, in some cases, deliberately efface Jewish texts and their long history of engaging nonbinary bodies.” Looking ahead to the work of trans and intersex Jewish scholars, activists, and artists, from Micah Bazant’s 1990s zine Timtum to the contemporary artistry of Nicki Green and Tobaron Waxman, and the trans Jewish rabbis, poets, and writers who grow more numerous every year, Strassfeld invokes Elliot Kukla’s declaration that these texts “are a resource not just for destabilizing modern dichotomous sexes, but also for stabilizing wholly new and surprising constructions” of identity.
Noam Sienna is a historian of Jewish culture in the medieval and early modern periods, with a particular interest in Jewish communities in the Islamic world. His first book, A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969 (Philadelphia: Print-o-Craft Press, 2019), was awarded the 2020 Reference Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries.