We All Belong Here: Judaism and Intersexuality
BY AMY JOSEFA ARIEL
BRESHEET 1:1 - 6:8
14 OCTOBER 2017 / 24 TISHREI 5778
About how often do you see someone with red hair?
Take a minute and think about the redheads you know or see as you move about your life. According to Cosmo, admittedly a source I never thought I’d quote in a d’var Torah, about 1 out of every 2,000 people has red hair.
Cool, right? Sure. But what can that possibly have to do with Bresheet, this week’s parsha?
Stay with me.
“And God created the human being b’tzalmo . . . in [God’s own] image. Male and female [God] created them.” (Genesis 1:27)
In Judaism, when we name a baby, call someone to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah, or write a ketubah – a Jewish wedding contract, we want to know how the individual before us fits in the male/female binary. It’s the same for our broader society - birth certificates, driver’s licenses, bathrooms - and nothing could be more obvious, right?
As told in an article in The Guardian, when Juliet Swire gave birth in February 2014, doctors told her not to tell anyone – not even close family and friends. You see, Jack was born with XY genes and both male and female anatomy, with ovarian and testicular tissue, and genitals that could belong to either a boy or a girl - one of at least 40 congenital variations known collectively as intersex traits. Variations mean bodies don’t fall into the binary categories that make up conventional sex definitions. Even though being born with intersex traits is as common as being born a redhead – 1 in every 2,000 births – Jack’s doctors, basically, freaked out.
During the interview, Juliet watched Jack as he vaulted across the sofa. Jack, who like most intersex babies was born healthy, was assigned male by his doctors who performed at least four surgeries to remove his uterus and fallopian tubes and stitch together his labia to build something akin to a penis. “There is no option to be genderless in this society,” she said. Would it have made a difference if there were? she was asked. “It might have,” she replied.
If you want to learn more about contemporary experience and intersexuality, I recommend a great video, the article that includes Jack’s story, and a solid post on the differences between intersex and transgender experience.
Surgery to make very young intersex children look more typically male or female has been standard practice for decades. Our Jewish tradition is much older than our technical ability to perform these surgeries. That makes me wonder how Judaism has understood non-binary sexuality.
Before we get to humans in verse 27, we read, “God called the light Day, and the darkness [God] called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” Genesis 1:3-5.
Let’s think about what makes up a day. Sure, we have evening and morning, but what else? Me, I love that moment just before dawn. I love it especially when I’m camping. The sounds of night shift - just so. Something rustles in leaves somewhere. An early riser sends out a call. It’s still dark, there are still stars, but it’s not quite night anymore. What about three o’clock in the afternoon? Or midnight? The poet who wrote, “And there was evening and there was morning” . . . didn’t mean that a day is only evening and morning. The Author, capital “A”, meant all of it. Evening, morning, before dawn, 3pm, midnight . . . a . . . day.
Male and female, though. Hebrew is a gendered language and we come from a binary, tradition, right? Just look in the Talmud and we find zachar/זָכָר, derived from the word for a pointy sword – can’t mistake that image – and usually translated as “male.” We have nekeivah/נְקֵבָה, usually translated as “female” and derived from the word for a crevice, probably referring to a vulva or vaginal opening. The functional binary normatized sexed bodies and gendered identities and focused on reproducing the Jewish community. We see it in the biblical prohibition of cross-dressing (Deut. 22:5) presuming self-evident categories of a man’s apparel or weapons (Nazir 59a) and women’s clothing (Nazir 59a, Shabbat 94b, Makkot 20b; Satlow, 12) or jewelry. We see it in the obligations of many mitzvot. We see it everywhere.
But it’s also not that simple. All those years ago, an infant born intersex would have grown up with the anatomy with which they came into the world. There was no assignment surgery, and rabbis obsessed with categories created categories for these human experiences. In halakhic discourse, Androgynos/אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס , informed by the Greek term, was applied for a person who has both typically “male” and typically “female” sexual characteristics. Tumtum/ טֻומְטוּם described a person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. Ay’lonit/איילונית appears when a person is identified as “female” at birth but develops typically “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile. Saris/סריס is the term for a person who is identified as “male” at birth but develops typically “female” characteristics at puberty and/or does not have a penis.
Together, there are almost 1,700 non-binary references in classical rabbinic texts.
There are so many conversations we need to have in our Jewish communities about non-binary experience and about gender identity. There are so many ways we could do better when we welcome our children with Hebrew names, invite them to the Torah as a Child of the Commandment, and join each other as we journey through our lives. Hebrew is a gendered language, it’s true, and our tradition has known from the beginning that human experience is as rich and varied as each hour of a day.
Today, though, what I pray is that this year as we read the Torah together each of us knows that, however we are made, however we identify, and however we express our identity, we all belong here.