Gender and sexuality in Jewish texts addressed

November 17, 2015

By Morgan Brill

The Justice

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion in society is ethically mandated by Jewish textual tradition that exists in “a constant state of dialogue of  reflection, of interpretation and reinterpretation,” argued Idit Klein, who serves  as the executive director of Keshet, an organization that works toward LGBT inclusion in all aspects of Jewish life.

Last night, Klein spoke to the Jewish community’s interpretation of biblical textsregarding the LGBT community alongside Prof. Jonathan Krasner (NEJS) ’88, Ph.D ’02, who cofounded Keshet in 2001. The discussion was organized by Prof. Bernadette Brooten (NEJS) in conjunction with her class “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Jews and Christians: Sources and Interpretations.” Klein and Krasner both credited their upbringings in Orthodox Jewish day schools for allowing them the opportunity to engage with Jewish texts and hold the belief that their interpretations mattered. They both agreed that their upbringings in religious communities helped them create a vibrant and  accepting place in which the LGBT community can feel comfortable engaging with Judaism.

Klein acknowledged that opinions and viewpoints that contradict this interpretation of inclusion can and do exist, which she said instilled in her a “sense of security and strength” in her identity as a “Jew and in Jewish tradition.” She noted that she grew up understanding that these texts were hers to study and interpret, and that she could find her own place inthem.

In her studies, Klein identified six different categories or terms used to identify different genders in Jewish sacred texts. The terms “Zachar” and “Nekevah” are used to identify traditional male and female genders, respectively. “Androgynous” is the term used to identify an individual with both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics, while “Tumtum” is the term used to describe someone whose sexual identification is indeterminate. Additionally, Klein explained that the “Ay’lonit” is someone who is identified as female but   develops male characteristics during puberty, while the “Saris” is someone who is identified as male but develops female characteristics throughout life. Klein also emphasized that these terms are referenced in both the “Mishna,” the first redaction of Jewish oral tradition, as well as the “Talmud,” Rabbinical conversations and disagreements about the Mishna in the first centuryC.E.

Klein explained that these texts are rarely treated as part of the discussion and that the prohibition on crossdressing expressed in Deuteronomy is treated as the counterargument to acceptance of those who are different than what is deemed to be the sexual norm. This argument, however, was denounced by Rashi, a Medieval Jewish commentator, who, according to Klein, “Understood the prohibition to be about sexual betrayal and infidelity and not about cross dressing per se. A modern reading allows us to see this text as prohibiting hurtful treatment of one another, not as prohibiting gender nonconforming behavior.”

Krasner then elaborated on Keshet’s role in more adequately representing the transgender community in the greater context of the Jewish community. He and his cofounder “set about trying to create an organization that wasn’t a religious organization. … We wanted to be unapologetic about who we were and we felt like we had a role to play in terms of educating ourselves and in educating the community at large.” Since its founding, Keshet has spent time approaching synagogues and other institutions in the Jewish community, highlighting a rhetoric of continuity and inclusion.

The event was sponsored by the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department, the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project and the Religious Studies Program.