Celebrating Jewish Literature: Gender and the Talmud

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Nonbinary gendered individuals found in the Talmud: Max. K. Strassfeld (who uses the pronouns they/their) was fascinated by the discussions they discovered about them in the rabbinic text. Strassfeld wanted to know more, to not just understand what the rabbis thought, but how that knowledge could contribute to contemporary understanding of trans and intersex (someone with mixed male and female biological traits) individuals. In “Trans Talmud: Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature” (University of California Press), the author notes that their interest is not the same as the rabbis; in fact, they deliberately use a “bad/trans” (their words) reading of the text that may influence contemporary readers’ ideas about gender. 

While the Talmud uses several terms to denote eight different terms to describe gender, Strassfeld subsumes several of them into two main types: androgynes and eunuchs. In the book’s glossary, eunuchs are defined as “one understood to be male who lacks testicles, a penis, or both, whether congenitally or due to removal.” Androgynes are called “a person whose body includes both genitalia traditionally regarded as female and genitalia traditionally regarded as male.” The rabbis’ interest in these different genders was often connected to an individual’s legal responsibilities. For example, are these individuals like females, meaning they are only responsible to for the mitzvot women must perform? If not and they are considered male, then they must perform all the mitzvot for which men are responsible. Strassfeld is particularly interested in the times when the rabbis consider these individuals as neither male nor female, but rather a third gender.

While it’s difficult to find a central thesis to discuss, the individual sections of “Trans Talmud” offer interesting and intriguing ideas, usually by taking something that was of minor interest to the rabbis and making it the focus for rethinking the meaning of gender. For example, Strassfeld notes the rabbinic idea of deciding a person’s status by whether they are fertile (in this case as to whether they can father children, but also for women) and asks readers to think about what that means for those too young or too old to be fertile. How do you define someone who has not yet gone through puberty who may or not may fit these categories, particularly when they may already have physical signs to show they belong to one of the nonbinary gender categories? 

Another interesting idea is the comparison of Jewish and Christian ideas about eunuchs. For example, while rabbinic Judaism considered only two categories of eunuchs (born eunuchs and those who become eunuchs after birth), the New Testament considered another type; “those who become eunuchs for the sake of heaven.” This difference may be because the rabbis could not contemplate the idea that men would deliberately choose to become eunuchs since marriage and procreation play such a large role in Judaism. In addition, it’s considered a mitzvah for men to be fertile and multiply. Rabbinic texts even debate the number of children necessary to fulfil this requirement with the standard answer being a minimum of two children (although whether that is two male children, or one male and one female is debated). 

Strassfeld also looks at contemporary U.S. laws and how they can be understood as transphobic. For example, they discuss “bathroom laws,” laws that forbid transgendered individuals from using the bathroom that is not that of their birth sex. They also quote from a Mississippi marriage law that says marriage can only be the union of one man and one woman, which not only forbids intersex and trans marriages, but gay and lesbian ones. The law also declares that a person’s sex is the one determined at their birth. However, Strassfeld notes the law ignores those born with mixed sexual characteristics, something the ancient rabbis did acknowledge. 

Strassfeld’s book contains information that could be of interest to two separate audiences, although what they hope to gain from it may not overlap. For example, those interested in rabbinic literature may be looking for the legal ramifications of the rabbinic discussions. For those working in gender studies, it will be the aspects of trans and intersex history that stand out. Strassfeld does recognizes each audience is familiar with different terminology and tries to note the terms with which they may not familiar. 

“Trans Talmud” offers as many questions as it answers, but that seems to be the point of the work: it forces readers to explore how we understand gender. What would be of interest is a discussion between the work’s two potential audiences so they can learn from each other. Until that happens, Strassfeld’s book will be of most interest to those seeking to challenge their ideas about the meaning of rabbinical literature and how it can be used to inform contemporary times.