The Bible And Trans Persons Make The Pages Of The New York Times

I'm going to tackle something a little different now, because it tickles me and touches on some of the topics that have given me pleasure over my lifetime. A few weeks ago Rabbi Mark Sameth wrote a New York Times op-ed entitled, "Is God Transgender?"

The title, as is often the case since it is written by someone other than the essay's author, is not the question. The question is, does the Tanach, or Jewish Bible, present a more gender-expansive view of life 2-3 millennia ago than currently imagined? I believe the answer is yes, though not given the evidence Sameth provides. That evidence is pretty thin, or, in some cases, requires such acrobatic skill that it would make the Talmud-era rabbis look like the current Romanian gymnastic team compared to Sameth's Simone Biles routine.

Most importantly, since Hebrew is written without vowels, it's often hard to ascertain a word's meaning. The classic example is the third person pronouns, הוא, he and she, which are spelled the same but with different vowel sounds. Tradition ascribes particular vowel sounds, but there's no way to know what they originally were. Another example is inferring that the word for "to nurse" (לאמן) means to breastfeed, even when the same sentence actually contains another word (להניק) that actually means to breastfeed. Then he foes on with a curious statement about how the name of Yahweh was pronounced by the ancient priests, an interpretation with no historical basis at all. I love the acrobatics, but this analysis is a huge stretch by most standards.

And he left out the most potent story of all, the midrashic tradition, with sources going back to Sumer and Akkad, of Lilith, Adam's first female partner, or even the analysis of the Biblical text which posits the first human as an intersex person, what used to be called a hermaphrodite.

It's obvious that trans visibility has progressed sufficiently that The Times would publish such an op-ed. That's a very good show of progress. The story, however, doesn't end there.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, writing in Haaretz, makes the common mistake of reducing all of human biology to genitals. I appreciate his concern for the extra burden I had in my earlier life, but the fact of being born "male" encompasses much more than one's genitals. And indeterminate sex, commonly known today as intersex, is not rare, with a 2.2% prevalence being far from rare.

I agree with the Rabbi's response to Rabbi Sameth's acrobatic contortions as I mentioned above, because the Biblical grammar doesn't support them. But trans women were well known in Biblical and Talmudic times, and the saris was a well-respected human being, considered by God as described in Isaiah 56:4-5 as a higher form of human than either man or woman. So Rabbi Shafran should open his heart a little a get over his failure to grow to 7'4" so he could have been a center for the Knicks. Though, to be fair, I can relate a little. As a child, while I knew from age seven that I was a girl, I also went through a phase of wanting to be Jerry West, the Hall of Fame guard of the Lakers. I got over the latter; the former is who I have been, since six weeks post-conception, and no amount of Talmudic reasoning can change that.

Rabbi Shafran then took a left hook from Beth Orens, whom I've known from the site orthodykes. She goes after Rabbi Shafran from his right while also taking on Rabbi Sameth. A proud transsexual orthodox woman, as she self-describes, she repeats what I've been saying for over a decade - that the brain is as much a part of the body as genitals or gonads, and that there is precedence in traditional orthodoxy of the modern era in the writings of Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg. The Tzitz Eliezer, as he was known, did not hesitate to embrace trans women after the fact, even though he, too, was fixated on genitals. I guess, when you get down to it, you can expect little else from men.

Beth's primary issue is with Rabbi Sameth's construct of a spectrum of sexuality. She's a strong adherent to the gender binary, and I don't disagree with that as a scientific construct. But I'm also aware of a host of intersex individuals who are far more mixed than the norm so I can't categorically say that the sexual binary boundaries are fixed. I agree that the non-binary movement, at least until science proves otherwise, is more easily conceived as a radical social movement with little obvious basis in biology. That makes it more vulnerable to religious and biological fundamentalists. But I've seen too much biological variation to bet the store on that, either.

When I was growing up The New York Times rarely featured such writing based on Jewish scholarship of Jewish texts. At best there were references to "Judeo-Christian civilization," a sop to the city's large Jewish plurality. In 1986, when a translation was published of Glas, by the famed French Jewish deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, The Times book reviewer was perplexed by the layout of the book. This was long before the era of hyperlinks, so the concept was alien to the general public, though what surprised me is that no scholar appeared to recognize that the page layout was over 1500 years old and could be easily read in New York Jewish bookstores in multi-volume sets. Those sets comprise the Talmud.

While it's entertaining reading so many critics, including Jewish ones, twisting themselves up trying to describe the "architecture" of Glas, I find it touching that thirty years since the publication of the English translation The Times is comfortable publishing rabbinic analyses, however flawed, of gender, and sparking debate across multiple platforms.

May we see more of this in the New Year which begins in two weeks.