CJL: Ancient approaches to intersex individuals

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Close study of ancient texts – mishnaic, talmudic and midrashic – often shows that there was no one monolithic way of thinking about almost anything in rabbinic Judaism. That includes opinions on sexuality and gender, as shown in “And the Sages Did Not Know: Early Rabbinic Approaches to Intersex” by Sarra Lev (University of Pennsylvania Press). Lev, a professor of rabbinics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, admits that her studies contained surprises since the text offered more options and greater flexibility than expected.

Lev’s work speaks to two audiences: those who are interested in rabbinic writings (whatever the topic) and those interested in works about identity politics. The two interests do not always overlap. What the author does note is that her work is “not a book about intersex people. This project does not seek to discern anything about intersex people living in the rabbinic period. It is, rather, a book about people who talk about intersex people.” However, she does not see the rabbinic discussions as purely theoretical. Although Lev does not focus on how these thoughts affected real-life people, she does believe that intersex people existed during rabbinic times, just as they do today.

Lev focuses on two types of intersex individuals: the androginos and the tumtum. The ancient rabbis realized these individuals did not fit into traditional binary gender categories, the androginos because their bodies contained features of both sexes and the tumtum because the person’s sexual features were hidden. The rabbis generally subscribed to a binary system – male and female categories – and were focused on what laws, responsibilities and behaviors were required by individuals in each category. Their main concern with intersex individuals seems to be how they fit into the legalistic, rabbinic system. Lev notes that “all the early rabbinic material that include references to an androginos or a tumtum consider her/him a regular member of society. Rabbinic sources discuss issues such as an intersex person’s marriage, inheritance, and basic conduct... rabbinic texts do not assign individual androginoi exclusively to the category of either male or female. Rather than consider each individual intersex person either male or female... the rabbis of Seder Androginoso determine what every intersex person should do on a halakhah-by-halakhah basis.” 

The author notes that the texts viewed do not offer only one approach to the subject. There are times when the text does not support a binary approach, as when Rabbi Yose sees the androginos as being nether male or female, but in a category of their own. At other times, the binary is reinforced as when the rabbis declare that in one specific instance, they should be treated as male, while in other cases, they should be treated as female. To make matters even more complex, there are times when the rabbis treated them as both men and women. Lev offers a chart comparing some of these approaches, which looks at the laws of impurity, inheritance, the consumption of sacrifices and more. The author also explores these in more detail in her writing, noting the difficulty of offering one specific approach.

Lev does not believe that the rabbis were trying to remove all doubt about the appropriate place of intersex individuals in rabbinic culture, writing that “the rabbis often lay down principles that enable us to live with cases of uncertainty, but only so far as those cases serve to reify the normative categories. The rabbis’ concern with the gray areas is neither eradication nor inclusion. It was a simultaneous foray into the margins and the affirmation of a center from which they can build a culture and into which they may take refuge.” That allows Lev leeway to explore the different ideas without having one mindset, something that fits into the rabbinical discussion as various rabbis offered differing opinions on not only what legal ruling connected to intersex individuals, but the nature of intersex beings.

The author discuss several different models as a way to understand rabbinic approaches, including: 

  • The uncertainty model: Since the rabbis were uncertain to which sex the individual belonged, these individuals were required to follow the prohibitions placed on both sexes. This severely limited their place in society and the actions they could perform in order to make certain they did not break any biblical or rabbinic laws.
  • The “non”-model: This model places the androginos and tumtum outside of the system, making them what Lev calls “essentially category-less.” They are neither male or female, and therefore are invisible in reality, even though they are written about in the text.
  • The maleness model: These texts place the androginos in the male binary category. Lev sees this approach as concealing physical and other differences. However, the author notes that the rabbis also saw the androginos as a different variation of male, meaning their actions could still be problematic. 
  • Part /part model: This model sees the intersex person as part male and part female. This usually means that in some circumstances the intersex person is told to act as a male (following the laws for men), while at other times, their actions are based on the laws for women.
  • In her conclusion, the author notes how difficult it is to pinpoint rabbinic opinion. At times, the androginos and tumtum are lower on the rabbinic social ladder than women. But at other times, they are treated as men and have male privilege, which places them higher on the social ladder. There is, therefore, no one simple explanation of rabbinic thought on the topic and that may be the point. Lev writes, “Rather than aiming for resolution, the rabbis leave uncertainty in place. They do not mitigate it (as in the uncertainty model), ignore it (as in the maleness model, or contend with it (as in the part/part model). Rather, this text exposed uncertainty before us to wrestle with, in all its complexity.” 

This review cannot do justice to the amount of material covered in “And the Sages Did Not Know” with its almost 260 pages of text. The writing is very scholarly and contains not only examples of quotes from, and discussions of, rabbinic sources, but a great deal of philosophical writing on the topic. This means that readers focused on one or the other will have to wade through a great deal of material that may not be of interest to them. Lev’s work, however, does offer challenging and intriguing thoughts that should open scholarly discussions. The range and depth of her book is impressive and is sure to be of interest to anyone in the field of intersex studies.