Gender Diversity in Jewish Sacred Texts

Jewish sacred texts offer an opportunity to engage with a variety of Jewish voices that have been a central part of Jewish thought and practice over the past two thousand years. The texts themselves are talking to each other. At times they are arguing, at times they agree. It is our turn to enter the conversation and make these texts meaningful and relevant in our lives.

January 1, 2009

By Ari Lev Fornari, Rabbi Elliot Kukla, Rabbi Dev Noily

Time: 30-60 minutes depending on how many texts you choose to examine

Audience: Students from high school through college, Adults

Note: As facilitator, you can choose to have participants look at a variety of texts at once and then have one large discussion. Or you can give them 10 minutes with each text and reconvene as a large group in between each text.

Jewish sacred texts offer an opportunity to engage with a variety of Jewish voices that have been a central part of Jewish thought and practice over the past two thousand years. The texts themselves are talking to each other. At times they are arguing, at times they agree. It is our turn to enter the conversation and make these texts meaningful and relevant in our lives. It is our turn to generate new ways of understanding these ideas and simultaneously create the texts of our generation.

  1. Introduce the Texts: Begin by going over any new or unfamiliar terms that might appear in the Be sure to hand out the lists of contemporary and Jewish terms for people to refer back to.
    Note: It is important to notice the complexity of reading texts outside of the context in which they were written. The terms in the texts are the language of their time, just as we have our own language for describing gender and sexual diversity. In an effort to identify with the texts, we must always be careful not to erase the particularities that each of the terms carries in the context that created it. Just as they refer to tumtum and androgynos, we can talk about intersex, transgender, and genderqueer people.
  2. Chevruta: Break the group into pairs and explain that they should take turns reading the texts out loud and then discussing them.
  3. Shiur: Reconvene everyone for a large group Refer back to the guiding questions below as a way to ground the conversation.
  4. Guiding Questions:
    • What does Judaism have to say about gender diversity?
    • What are some of the challenges created by reading a text out of the context in which it was created?
    • How can we use these texts in our work for greater inclusion of LGBTQ people in our communities?


Contemporary Terms for Gender Diversity

Transgender or Trans: An umbrella term for anyone who knows themselves to be a gender that is different than the gender they were assigned at birth. Some trans people may have a gender identity that is neither man nor woman, and for some people their gender identity may vary at different points in their lives. Transgender has its origin in the Latin-derived prefix trans, meaning “across” or “beyond.”

Gender Identity: A person’s inner understanding of the gender(s) to which they belong or with which they identify. This is each person’s unique knowing or feeling, and is separate from a person’s physical body or appearance (although often related).

Intersex: A general term used to refer to people who have atypical sexual or reproductive anatomy and biology. Intersex is not a single category – many forms of intersex exist and within each form, there may be substantial variation as well. Variations may include the reproductive organs such as the testicles, penis, vulva, clitoris, and ovaries, chromosomes, and hormone levels, all of which can result in additional variations in secondary sexual characteristics such as muscle mass, hair distribution, breast development, hip to waist ratio and stature. The term intersex displaced “hermaphroditism”, which is now considered offensive, as knowledge and understanding of sex development has increased. Intersex continues to be widely accepted as an umbrella term referring to biological diversity affecting sexual and reproductive anatomy.

Gender Nonconforming: Used to describe people whose gender expression does not align with societal expectations based on their perceived gender. Just because someone is gender non-conforming does not mean that they are trans.

Queer: 1) An umbrella term used by some to describe lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. 2) A term used to describe a sexual orientation that is not straight, without indicating the genders of the queer person or the people they are attracted to. Some people prefer queer because it doesn’t reference the gender binary, and some people prefer queer because it can expansively include attraction to people of a range of genders (used similarly to “pansexual” and “bisexual”). 3) Historically and currently used by some as a slur targeting those perceived to transgress “norms” of sexual orientation and/or gender expression, but for others, a word that has been reclaimed as a positive and affirmative part of their identity.

Genderqueer: A gender identity used by a person that self-defines their gender as queer or non-normative. Someone whose gender identity is neither man nor woman, is between or beyond gender, rejects binary gender, is some combination of genders. Can sometimes be used interchangeably with nonbinary.


Some Background on Jewish Sacred Texts

Tanach (Hebrew Bible): fte Tanach or Hebrew Bible consists of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers), the Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the 12 minor prophets) and the Writings (Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs, Daniel, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Job, Esther, Lamentations, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles). We don’t know exactly the dates when these texts were compiled, but many scholars date the earlier parts of the Bible to around 1000 B.C.E., and the latest parts to the 2nd century B.C.E..

Mishna: Edited around the 2nd century of the common era, the Mishna is a compilation of what had been oral traditions establishing laws and practices which were based on rabbinic interpretation of the Torah.

Talmud: In the Talmud, rabbis and scholars recorded their conversations and disagreements about the laws of the Mishna. fte Talmud contains conversations within and across generations. In addition to legal issues, the rabbis of the Talmud tell stories about their teachers and their students, and present interpreta- tions of biblical stories and texts. fte Talmud includes contributions from about 200 C.E. to 600 C.E.

Midrash: Midrash is a genre of rabbinic literature. It was produced in the same circles as the Talmud, but not included in the Talmud. fte subject of this literature is non-legal—posing and answering questions that are suggested by the text of the Bible. ftis literature begins around the same time as the Talmud, but continues for another 2 – 3 centuries after the Talmud is closed.


Terms for Gender Diversity in Jewish Sacred Texts:

Zachar: This term is derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. It is usually translated as “male” in English.

Nekevah: This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English.

Androgynos: A person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics. In the Talmud, the androgynos is understood as someone who both has a penis as well as some female sex traits. 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st – 8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd – 16th Centuries CE).

Tumtum: A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. In the Talmud the tumtum has indeterminate genitals. 181 references in Mishna and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

Ay’lonit: A person who is identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile. 80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

Saris: A person who is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics at puberty or later. A saris is considered male, but has no penis or a very small penis. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam). ftis status is also known as a eunuch. 156 references in mishna and Talmud; 379 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

Text 1: Queerly Created


וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמֹ֔ו בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹתֹ֑ו זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם
בראשית א:כז

God created the adam [the first human being] in God’s own image; in the image of God He created him – male and female [God] created them.

– Genesis 1:27

אָמַר רַבִּי יִרְמְיָה בָּן אֶלְעָזָר: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן. אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס בָּרְאוּ – פָּרָשָׁה

Said Rabbi Jeremiah ben Elazar: “When the Holy One, blessed be the One, created the first adam [human being], [God] created him [an] “androgynos.”

– Midrash Rabbah 8:1


Text 2: Genders Beyond Male and Female

Mishna Bikkurim Chapter 4


פרק ד
א אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס יֶשׁ בּוֹ דְרָכִים שָׁוֶה לָאֲנָשִׁים, וְיֶשׁ בּוֹ דְרָכִים שָׁוֶה לַנָּשִׁים, וְיֶשׁ בּוֹ דְרָכִים
שָׁוֶה לָאֲנָשִׁים וְנָשִׁים וְיֵשׁ בּוֹ דְרָכִים אֵינוֹ שָׁוֶה לָאֲנָשִׁים וְנָשִׁים

Mishnah 1: Androgynos is in some ways like men, and in some ways like women, and some ways like both men and women and in some ways neither like men nor women.


משנה ביכורים ד׳
ַאַנְדּרוֹגִינוֹס, יֶשׁ בּוֹ דְּרָכִים שָׁוֶה לָאֲנָשִׁים; וְיֶשׁ בּוֹ דְּרָכִים שָׁוֶה לַנָּשִׁים; וְיֶשׁ בּוֹ דְּרָכִים שָׁוֶה לָאֲנָשִׁים וְנָּשִׁים, וְיֶשׁ בּוֹ דְּרָכִים אֵינוֹ שָׁוֶה לאַַ
לָאֲנָשִׁים וְלא לַנָּשִׁים

Mishnah 2: How is he (sic) like men? He becomes impure when he has a seminal discharge like men, and he dresses like men. He can take a wife, but he cannot be taken as a wife like men… He must not be alone in the company of women like men… And he must perform all the commands of the Torah like men.


כֵּיצַד שָׁוֶה לָאֲנָשִׁים? מְטַמֵּא בְּלֹבֶן כָּאֲנָשִׁים, וְזוֹקֵק לִיְבּוּם כַּאֲנָשִׁים וּמִתְעַטֵּף וּמִסְתַּפֵּר כַּאֲנָשִׁים, וְנוֹשֵֹא אֲבָל לא נִשָֹּׂא כָּאֲנָשִׁים, בְּכָל מִּצְוֹת הָאֲמוּרוֹת בַּתּוֹרָה כָּאֲנָשִׁים

Mishnah 3: And how is he like women? He becomes impure when he has a menstrual flow like women, and he must not be alone in the company of men like women; and he does not share the inheritance with the sons like women… Like women, he is disqualified from acting as a witness.


כֵּיצַד שָׁוֶה לַנָּשִׁים? ממְטַמֵּא בְּאֹדֶם כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאֵינוֹ מִתְיַחֵד עִם הָאֲנָשִׁים כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאֵינוֹ זוֹקֵק לְיִבּוּם כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאֵינוֹ חוֹלֵק עִם הַבָּנִים כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאֵין
אוֹכֵל בְּקָדְשֵׁי הַמִּקְדָּשׁ כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאִמּוֹ יוֹשֶׁבֶת עָלָיו בְּדַם טָמֵא כַּנָּשִׁים, וּפָסוּל מִן הָעֵדוּת כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאִם נִבְעַלבַּעֲבֵרָה נִפְסַל מִן הַתְּרוּמָה כַּנָּשִׁים.

Mishnah 4: How is he like both men and women? Guilt is incurred for killing him or for cursing him, as in the case of men and women; one who unwittingly slays him must go into exile, and one who intentionally slays him receives the death penalty… He inherits in all cases of inheritance like both men and women.


ֵֵֵּּּכֵּיצַד שָׁוֶה לַאֲנָשִׁים וְלַנָּשִׁים: חַיָּבִים עַל מַכָּתוֹ וְעַל קִלְלָתוֹ כַּאֲנָשִׁים וְכַנָּשִׁים, וְהַהוֹרְגוֹ שׁוֹגֵג גּוֹלֶה וּמֵזִיד
נֶהֱרַג כַּאֲנָשִׁים וְנָשִׁים, וְיוֹשֶׁבֶת עָלָיו דָּם טָמֵא וְדָם
טָהוֹר כַּאֲנָשִׁים וְכַנָּשִׁים, וְחוֹלֵק בְּקָדְשֵׁי קֳדָשִׁים כַּאֲנָשִׁים וְכַנָּשִׁים, וְנוֹחֵל לְכָל הַנַחַלוֹת כַּאֲנָשִׁים וְכַנָּשִׁים, וְאִם אָמַר “הֲרֵינִי נָזִיר שֶׁזֶּה אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה” הֲרֵי זֶה נָזִיר

Mishnah 5: And how is like neither men nor women? … He cannot be assigned a value (for the biblical Temple tax, because one amount is specified for men and another amount for women) unlike men or women; and he cannot be sold as a Hebrew slave, unlike men or women. If someone says, “I will become a Nazirite (take vows of asceticism) if he is neither a man nor a woman,” then he becomes a Nazirite.


כֵּיצַד אֵינוֹ שָׁוֶה לֹא לַאֲנָשִׁים וְלֹא לַנָּשִׁים: אֵין חַיָּבִים לֹא עַל מַכָּתוֹ וְלֹא עַל קִלְלָתוֹ לֹא כַּאֲנָשִׁים וְלֹא כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאֵינוֹ נֶעֱרָךְ לֹא
כַּאֲנָשִׁים וְלֹא כַּנָּשִׁים, וְאִם אָמַר “הֲרֵינִי נָזִיר שֶׁזֶּה לֹא אִישׁ וְלֹא אִשָּׁה” אֵינוֹ נָזִיר. רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס בְּרִיָּה בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָהּ
הוּא וְלֹא יָכְלוּ חֲכָמִים לְהַכְרִיעַ עָלָיו אִם הוּא אִישׁ אוֹ אִשָּׁה. אֲבָל טֻמְטוּם אֵינוֹ כֵּן, פְּעָמִים שֶׁהוּא אִישׁ פְּעָמִים שֶׁהוּא אִשָּׁה

Rabbi Yose says: Androgynos is a creation of its own kind, and the sages could not decide if he was a man or a woman. But this is not the case for the tumtum sometimes a tumtum is a man, and sometimes a tumtum is a woman.


Text 3: What Color Booties for the Baby – Blue, Pink, Purple, or Green?


הֲרֵינִי נָזִיר לִכְשֶׁיִּהְיֶה לִי בֵן, וְנוֹלַד לוֹ בֵן, הֲרֵי זֶה נָזִיר. נוֹלַד לוֹ בַת, טֻמְטוּם, וְאַנְדְרוֹגִינוֹס
אֵינוֹ נָזִיר. אִם אָמַר כְּשֶׁאֶרְאֶה כְּשֶׁיִּהְיֶה לִי וָלָד, אֲפִלּוּ נוֹלַד לוֹ בַת, טֻמְטוּם, וְאַנְדְרוֹגִינוֹס
הֲרֵי זֶה נָזִיר

If someone said, “I will become a nazir when a son is born to me” and a son was born to him, behold, this one is a nazir!

If a daughter, a tumtum or an androgynos is born to him, he is not a nazir.

But if he said, “When I see that a child is born to me [I shall be a nazir],” even if a daughter, a tumtum or an androgynos is born to him, behold, he is a nazir!

– Mishna Nazir 2:7


Text 4: Our Genderqueer Ancestors: Abraham & Sarah

דף סד:א דף סד:ב
א”ר יצחק: מפני מה היו אבותינו עקורים? מפני שהקב”ה מתאוה לתפלתן של צדיקים
א”ר יצחק: למה נמשלה תפלתן של צדיקים כעתר? מה עתר זה מהפך התבואה ממקום למקום, כך תפלתן של צדיקים מהפכת מדותיו של הקב”ה ממדת רגזנות למדת רחמנות
אמר רבי אמי: אברהם ושרה טומטמין היו, שנאמר: +ישעיהו נ”א+ הביטו אל צור חוצבתם ואל מקבת בור נוקרתם, וכתיב: +ישעיהו נא+ הביטו אל אברהם אביכם
ואל שרה תחוללכם
אמר רב נחמן אמר רבה בר אבוה: שרה אמנו אילונית היתה,שנאמר: +בראשית י”א+ ותהי שרי עקרה אין לה ולד, אפי’ בית ולד אין לה


Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 64a-b

R. Isaac said: Why were our ancestors (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca) infertile? Because the Holy One, blessed be, longs to hear the prayer of the righteous.

R. Isaac further stated: Why is the prayer of the righteous compared to a pitchfork? As a pitchfork turns the sheaves of grain from one position to another, so does the prayer of the righteous turn the heart of the Holy One, blessed be, from the attribute of strict judgment to the attribute of compassion.

R. Ammi said: Abraham and Sarah were originally tumtums, for it is said, “Look to the rock you were hewn from, and the hollow of the pit from which you were dug.” (Isaiah 51:1), and this is followed by the text, “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you.”

R. Nachman said in the name of Rabbah b. Abbuha: Our mother Sarah was an aylonit, for it is said, “And Sarai was barren, she had no child” (Genesis 11:30). [the verse says both ‘was barren’ and ‘had no child’ to tell us that] she didn’t even have a womb.



Text 5: God Treasures the Genderqueer


פרק נו

א כֹּה אָמַר יְהֹוָה שִׁמְרוּ מִשְׁפָּט וַעֲשׂוּ צְדָקָה כִּי־קְרוֹבָה יְשׁוּעָתִי לָבוֹא וְצִדְקָתִי לְהִגָּ לוֹת
ב אַשְׁרֵי אֱנוֹשׁ יַעֲשֶׂה־זֹּאת וּבֶן־אָדָם יַחֲזִיק בָּהּ שֹׁמֵר שַׁבָּת מֵחַלְּלוֹ וְשֹׁמֵר יָדוֹ מֵעֲשׂוֹת
כָּל־רָע: ג וְאַל־יֹאמַר בֶּן־הַנֵּכָר הַנִּלְוָה אֶל־יְהֹוָה לֵאמֹר הַבְדֵּל יַבְדִּילַנִי יְהֹוָה מֵעַל עַמּו
וְאַל־יֹאמַר הַסָּרִיס הֵן אֲנִי עֵץ יָבֵשׁ: ד כִּי־כֹה | אָמַר יְהֹוָה לַסָּרִיסִים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְרו
אֶת־שַׁבְּתוֹתַי וּבָחֲרוּ בַּאֲשֶׁר חָפָצְתִּי וּמַחֲזִיקִים בִּבְרִיתִי: ה וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם בְּבֵיתִי וּבְחוֹמֹתַי יָד
וָשֵׁם טוֹב מִבָּנִים וּמִבָּנוֹת שֵׁם עוֹלָם אֶתֶּן־לוֹ אֲשֶׁר ÷א יִ כָּרֵת: ו וּבְנֵי הַנֵּכָר הַנִּלְוִים עַל־יְהֹוָה
לְשָׁרְתוֹ וּלְאַהֲבָה אֶת־שֵׁם יְהֹוָה לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לַעֲבָדִים כָּל־שֹׁמֵר שַׁבָּת מֵחַלְּלוֹ וּמַחֲזִיקִים
בִּבְרִיתִי: זוַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל־הַר קָדְשִׁי וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי עוֹ÷תֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן
עַל־מִזְבְּחִי כִּי בֵיתִיבֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַמִּים: ח ֻנְאם אֲדֹנָי יְהֶוִֹה מְקַבֵּץ נִדְחֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
עוֹד אֲקַבֵּץ עָלָיו לְנִקְבָּצָיו


Thus said God:
Observe what is right, and do what is just;
For soon my salvation will come,
And my deliverance will be revealed
Happy is the one who does this,
the one who holds fast to it:
Who keeps the sabbath and does not profane it,
Who stays his hand from doing any evil.
Let not the foreigner, who has joined himself to God, say:
“God will keep me apart from God’s people.”
And let not the saris say: “I am a withered tree”
For thus says God:
As for the sarises who keep My sabbaths,
Who have chosen what I desire
And who hold fast to My covenant—
I will give them, in My house, and within My walls
A monument and a name, better than sons or daughters.
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not perish.
As for the foreigners who join themselves to God,
to minister to God, and to love the name of God,
to be God’s servants—
All who keep the sabbath and do not profane it,
And who hold fast to my covenant—
I will bring them to my sacred mount
And let them rejoice in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome
on My altar;
For My house shall be called a house of prayer for
all peoples.”
Thus declares God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel:
“I will gather still more to those already gathered.”

– Isaiah 56:1-8


Contemporary Voices

“Who would you be, if you had never been punished for gender inappropriate behavior? What would it be like to walk down the street, go to work or attend a party and take it for granted that the gender of the people you met would not be the first thing you ascertained about them? What if we all helped each other to manifest our most beautiful, sexy, intelligent, creative, and adventurous inner selves, instead of cooperating to suppress them?”

– Patrick Califia

“In order to understand transgender expression and see and respect people as they really are, we have to break down our gender conditioning. We have to get used to (and excited about) bearded ladies… short boys with ‘dessert hands’ and big-boned gals with deep voices. We have to trash the lists. ftis is exciting because when we validate other people and create space for their own unique gender, we do the same for ourselves.”

– Micah Bazant