TransTexts: Queerly Created

TransTexts explores what traditional Jewish texts have to say about transgender and gender nonconforming experiences and gender in general. This guide explores Genesis 1:27.

June 3, 2008

By Rabbi Elliot Kukla, Rabbi Reuben Zellman

Created by Rabbis Reuben Zellman and Elliot Kukla, TransTexts explores what traditional Jewish texts have to say about transgender and gender nonconforming experiences and gender in general.

Over several years, we have heard the stories of hundreds of people—people from many different backgrounds, Jews and non-Jews, across the sex and gender spectrum. Many of us are in search of answers to some critical questions:

  • How can Jewish texts continue to shed light on contemporary lives and spiritual struggles?
  • As our understandings about sex and gender continue to develop and change in today’s world, how might ancient teachings guide us in our response?
  • If I want to explore Jewish understandings of gender and sexual identity where do I begin?

 

Our Goal

Our goal for this project is to create a portal to Jewish traditions. It is not our intention to provide a complete or “authoritative” interpretation of these multi-faceted texts. Rather, we want to offer a variety of ways of looking at these remarkable texts — which have been, and still are, largely inaccessible to the general public. Some of the content of this site may be familiar to you; some of it might be very surprising. We invite you to read on and engage with all of it, in the great Jewish tradition of study and discussion.

Inside this guide you will find translations of a number of Jewish texts dealing with sex and gender. You will also find commentaries on these texts, representing the work of Jewish scholars from ancient times to the present day. Jewish texts have their own particular logic and language. This means that a straightforward translation is often challenging. However, every primary source text in this site includes a translation — you do not need to know any Hebrew, or have any background in Judaism, to use this site! Every primary text also has a “Further Explanation” section that will provide more context of each passage.

 

God created the adam in God’s image;
in the image of God [God] created him—
male and female [God] created them.
—Genesis 1:27

וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים | אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם

BACKGROUND
What is the context of this passage?
Who wrote it? When was it written?
What problem were the rabbis trying to solve?
A note about gender in translating Hebrew
Glossary
A brief history of sex difference
Other references to people we might today call transgender and intersex in the Bible

FURTHER RESOURCES
How do these texts inform trans, intersex, and genderqueer issues today?
Questions for thought and discussion
Further resources

COMMENTARY
The first human being was created wholly female and wholly male at the same time – Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (c. 400 CE)
The first human being was half male and half female, and was then split into two separate beings – Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (c. 400 CE)
The first human being was an infinite, genderless mass. – Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (c. 400 CE)
A man was created on the sixth day, and later on a woman was created from his side. – Rashi on Genesis 1:27 (c. 11th century)
Men, women, and every possibility in between were created simltaneously. – Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig (21st century)
The first human beings described in this verse were two rigidly defined binary sexes – male and female. – Rabbi Rebecca Alpert (21st century)

 

BACKGROUND

 

What is the context of this passage?

The book of Bereishit (Genesis), the first book of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), begins with the story of God’s creation of the world. Chapter 1 of Bereishit tells that the heavens and the earth were made in six days, with different aspects of the universe created on different days. This verse appears in the description of the sixth day, when God created human beings.

In Genesis Chapter One male and female human beings are created at the same time by the divine word. Genesis Chapter Two offers a wholly different account of the creation of humanity. In the second version adam, the earth creature, is created out of, the adamah, the dust of the earth. In this second version God sees that the first human is lonely and creates a secondary, female bodied, creation out of the side or rib of the first adam. Many of the commentators on our verse are trying to reconcile the difference between the simultaneous creation account in Chapter One, and this second version.

 

Who wrote it? When was it written?

Origins of the Book of Genesis: The traditional Jewish understanding is that the five books of the Torah were given to Moses and the Israelite people on Mount Sinai (as described in the book of Exodus). Prior to the start of the eighteenth century, scholars began to take an a more academic approach to the Bible, and started to try to determine by whom it was written and edited, as well as when they wrote it. There is general consensus, although by no means complete agreement, amongst modern biblical scholars that the five books of the Torah were created from four distinct sources and then edited together. Genesis 1:27 is dated to approximately the eighth century BCE.

 

What problem were the rabbis trying to solve?

Much of the commentary on this verse, Genesis 1:27, is an attempt to resolve two important discrepancies: 1) Both singular and plural grammatical forms are used in Genesis 1:27 to refer to the first human being(s). 2) There are at least two completely distinct creation accounts. In a straightforward reading of our verse (Gen 1:27) male and female beings are created simultaneously on the sixth day. However, just one chapter later in Genesis 2, the Torah teaches that first a male body is formed and then a female is created out of one of his “sides.”

The classical rabbinic commentators believed that the Torah came directly from God. According to this interpretation, every word in the Torah is both meaningful and intentional—not a single letter is wasted, and there are no mistakes. Therefore, anything that might appear to be a “contradiction” or an “error” is actually telling the reader something important about God’s creation — the insight that lies beneath must be discovered and explained. The commentaries of Rashi, Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar, and Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman all endeavor to address one or both of the following textual issues in Genesis 1:27.

The Singular-Plural Problem

An examination of the entire verse reveals that the first created human is referred to first in the singular, and then promptly in the plural. This leads to the questions: Was that first human a single or a multiple being? How can this discrepancy be explained, and what might it have to do with the “male and female” reference in the same verse?

The Two-Scenarios Problem

The Torah actually gives two accounts of the creation of humans and animals. Genesis 1:27 is from the account in Genesis Chapter 1. Genesis Chapter 2 offers another story. In this version, God formed a man from the earth and gave him life, and then created plants for food and animals for help and companionship. “But for the adam a helper was not found. So Adonai Elohim caused a deep sleep to fall on theadam, and he slept; and [God] took one of his [the man’s] sides, and closed the flesh underneath. And Adonai Elohim built, out of the rib which [God] had taken from the adam, a woman…” (Genesis 2:20-22). The discrepancies between this creation narrative and the story in Chapter 1 have given rise to much rabbinic discussion.

 

A note about gender in translating Hebrew

The Hebrew language has two grammatical genders, “masculine” and “feminine.” As in other languages with grammatical gender, Hebrew grammatical gender is completely unrelated to “real-life” gender. For example, in Hebrew, a book is masculine; a library is feminine. “Gender” in grammar is merely a convention.

Therefore, in Hebrew, the pronoun “he” is often correctly translated into English as “it.” Furthermore, God is almost always referred to with masculine language. All of this present problems for translation; the translator must decide what kind of “he” they are dealing with. If the author actually conceived of God as a male entity, then it is accurate to translate the Hebrew “he” as English “he.” This is the case, for example, when God is presented opposite a female “Israel.” But if the author is presenting a God that is not necessarily “male”—as in some of our present texts—then how do we know whether “he” is really “he,” or if it is gender-neutral, or something else? Furthermore, since it would be inappropriate to refer to God or to human beings as “it,” we are left in English with a lack of good solutions to this problem.

This situation is much more complicated when dealing with texts that explicitly call binary sex or gender into question. Some of our texts present a first human being who is bi-gendered or non-gendered. Neither Hebrew nor standard English has pronouns to account for such a person. Additionally, a multi-gendered person made in God’s image implies, in turn, a multi-gendered God; a translation should certainly not impose a gender on God unless the author clearly intended it to be so.

No translation can definitively sort out these questions. For the purposes of this website, the reader should be aware that when encountering an English “he,” there are a number of possibilities for what it refers to. The limits of language have resulted in Hebrew using “he” for all of these following situations, and the translator did not wish to conceal that fact by including more editorial decisions than necessary on these very important questions. The following are the possibilities for what “he” on this website can mean. How it is understood is left to each participant in this conversation.

  • A human man
  • God when clearly intended by the author as a specifically “male” entity
  • The first human being
  • Human beings who are intersex, transgender, or otherwise non-traditionally gendered or whose gender is in question
  • A gender-neutral pronoun, referring to people or things
  • God in whose image multi-gendered or non-gendered humans were created

 

Glossary

Adam
Adam literally means “earth creature” and refers to the human being who was created out of the “adamah” (earth). Although this word is sometimes translated as a proper name to refer to the first human being created in Genesis, in our verse it appears as a common noun with a definite article.

Androginos
The androginos is a figure that appears frequently in rabbinic literature. We learn in Mishna Bikkurim 4 that the androginos is in some ways male, in some ways seen as female, in some ways both male and female and in some ways neither male nor female. According Rabbi Yossi, a minority opinion in the Mishna, the androginos defies all these categories and “is a created being of its own.” (Mishna Bikkurim 4:5). In the Gemara the andrginos is seen as similar to Hellenistic notions of the bi-gendered “hermaphrodite.” In a contemporary context a comparison can be made between the androginos and intersex identity.

Genesis Rabbah
The work known as Bereishit (Genesis) Rabbah was written in roughly 400 CE. It is of a genre of Jewish literature called exegetical midrash—literature that seeks to explain and expand upon the Bible. This type of discourse generally does not demand “a solution” to the question at hand; rather, many different voices tell stories, offer ideas, and question one another. The focus of Genesis Rabbah is, logically, the explication of the Book of Genesis.

Gender Nonconforming
An umbrella term that can include anyone whose gender identity, expression or behavior, falls outside of social norms of women who are “feminine” and men who are “masculine.” In some communities this might include men who have long hair and women who wear pants. This term also includes a variety of gender nonconforming identities such as butch, femme, drag queens/kings, fairies, bois and others.

Genderqueer

  1. A broad political and cultural identity that includes many (but not all) transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people, as well as others who see their gender as falling outside of mainstream gender norms.
  2. This term is also sometimes used in a narrower sense by people who explicitly identify as neither male nor female.

Golem
Pertaining to something that is not clearly shaped, of inexact quantity, lump-like, or unfinished. Later Jewish tradition defined a golem more narrowly, as the magically-invoked creature of Jewish folklore that is known today.

Intersex
A physical status consisting of a combination of “male” and “female” sexual traits (chromosomes, anatomy, hormones)—for example, a person with XX chromosomes and a penis.

According to the Intersex Society of North America, approximately one in two thousand infants are born with “ambiguous genitalia.” Many more people develop intersex characteristics at puberty or later on.

Merism
A merism is a figure of speech, used frequently in the Bible, by which a large single concept is referred to by a phrase that enumerates only two of its many parts, to indicate the breadth of the whole. For example, in Genesis 1:1 we read that God “creates the heavens and the earth.” These two parts combine to indicate that God created the whole universe. Similarly, in Psalm 139, the psalmist declares that God knows “my down-sitting and mine uprising,” indicating that God knows all that he does.

Plato
The great philosopher of ancient Greece lived from approximately 427-347 BCE.

Plato’s Symposium
Plato’s Symposium offers important background to the ideas of Rabbi Jeremiah and of Rabbi Shmuel. In the course of a speech on the nature of Love, Plato describes his version of how human beings were created. He states that there were initially three kinds of human beings: female, male, and androgunes. Each person had two faces and the fronts of two bodies, each pointing in opposite directions. When they began to threaten the gods, Zeus split each kind of person into two halves.

Plato’s legend has often been used as a foundational myth for the normative nature of heterosexuality — because it describes the first human creature as a man and a woman bound together. They later become separated and can best be reunited by heterosexual love.

It is reasonable to assume that many of the rabbis of the first few centuries CE knew Plato’s work. It is clear that many Greek ideas influenced Jewish society; Greek words and concepts appear regularly in rabbinic literature.

Queer
A broad political and cultural identity that includes many (but not all) lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as others who see their sexuality as falling outside of mainstream heterosexual norms.

Rashi
“Rashi” is an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhak, a French Jewish scholar living from 1040-1105 CE. Universally known as one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, Rashi is one of the most widely-read commentators on Talmud as well as on the Bible.

Saris
A castrated male or intersex person. During ancient times, sarisim (plural) often served as officials or functionaries in royal courts. Thus, the term saris in the Tanakh most likely also refer to court functionaries who are not eunuchs or intersex.

Talmud
The Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud are multi-volume works that include, but are not limited to, Jewish law, narrative writing, parables, biography, ethics and legend. It is not certain when these two works were completed. Estimates for the Jerusaelm Talmud range from the fourth to the fifth centuries C.E.; estimates for the Babylonian Talmud’s completion range from the sixth to the seventh centuries CE. Both Talmudim contain the teachings of many Jewish sages across many generations. The Babylonian Talmud in particular has been a focus of traditional Jewish learning for centuries.

Transgender or trans
An umbrella term that can encompass anyone who doesn’t identify with the gender that they were assigned at birth. This includes people who take medical steps to modify their appearance and those who do not. Some transmen and transwomen identify completely with their preferred gender (for example, they may have been assigned male gender at birth and raised as a boy but now see themselves as entirely female), while other trans-people may identify with an alternate gender identity that is neither male nor female.

 

A brief history of sex difference

In the 21st Century it is widely believed that there are two (and only two) ways of being human. From before we are born people ask “is it a boy or a girl?” From the moment of birth onward, most facets of our life — the clothes we are told to wear, the activities we are supposed to like, the careers and hobbies we are encouraged to pursue, the loving relationships we are expected to have — are guided by the answer to this crucial question.

However the boundaries around sexes have shifted throughout history and across cultures. Until modernity sex difference was generally seen through the prism of a single normative sex. Galen, a 2nd century CE Greek physician, held that women were simply men who lacked an essential form of inner heat. This coolness led women to be less perfectly formed than males. Hence, organs that reached their full external development in the male remained “inverted” in the female. (See Galen, De semine, 2.1, in Opera omnia, ed. William Teffler, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955.)

This single-gendered view of human sexuality persisted throughout the medieval period.

Binary categories for the human experience grew in popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, as a way to regulate and control society. The Victorian science of difference discovered “evidence” of binary physiological differences between men and women; working and owning classes; white people and people of color. This evidence was used to justify and reinforce fundamental social and economic hierarchies at a time when these power structures were under siege by various emancipation movements. (For a fuller discussion of the 19th century science of difference and the enforcement of social power see Fausto-Sterling: 30-45.)

Due to the shifting nature of sex difference throughout history it is very difficult to talk about sexual identities in different time periods. Names for gender and sexual identities cannot be translated between languages and eras without also importing an entire set of preconceptions. In this website we have tried to show the connection between pre-modern gender diversity and contemporary trans and intersex identities, however we know that an exact equivalence cannot be made. And yet we think that it is important to note that identities beyond male and female have existed across millennia and discussions of pre-modern gender diversity can inform and enrich contemporary gender nonconforming lives.

 

Other references to people we might today call transgender and intersex in the Bible

We find in the Tanakh (Bible) numerous references to the saris, a castrated male or intersex person. During ancient times, sarisim (plural) often served as officials or functionaries in royal courts. Thus, the term saris in the Tanakh most likely also refer to court functionaries who are not eunuchs or intersex.

There are 42 specific references in the Tanakh to the saris:

Genesis 37:36, 39:1, 40:7, 40:2
I Samuel 8:15
I Kings 22:9
II Kings 8:6, 25:19, 23:11, 9:32, 20:18, 24:15, 24:12
Isaiah 56:3, 56:4, 39:7
Jeremiah 52:25, 38:7, 41: 38:7, 41:16, 34:19, 29:2
Esther 1:12, 1:15, 2:3, 2:15, 2:14, 1:10, 4:5, 7:9, 2:21, 6:2, 6:14, 4:4
Daniel 1:3, 1:7, 1:8, 1:9, 1:10, 1:11, 1:18
I Chronicles 28:1
II Chronicles 18:8

There are also many references that, like Genesis 1:27, do not refer to transgender or intersex questions specifically, but which reveal something about the Bible’s understanding(s) of gender. Several examples include:

Leviticus 21: 16-23
Leviticus 22:24
Deuteronomy 22:5
Deuteronomy 23:2
Isaiah 56: 3-5
Jeremiah 31: 22

 

FURTHER RESOURCES

 

How do these these texts inform trans, intersex, and genderqueer issues today?

These sources demonstrate that the Jewish discussion on what might be broadly termed as “trans, intersex, and genderqueer issues” has been going on for thousands of years; it is a discussion that is multi-sided and complex. The Jewish intellectual and spiritual tradition demands that each individual engage with the many different and conflicting texts and traditions. It also asks human beings to use their knowledge and experience and add their voice to the dialogue as it continues to unfold in each generation.

What are some of the understandings that can be drawn from these texts? What might this Jewish discussion mean—socially, religiously, spiritually, and politically—for trans, intersex, and genderqueer people today?

Several key aspects of the rabbinic discussion on creation can help to inform the ongoing discussion:

  1. According to our verse (Genesis 1:27) and all of the commentators on this verse, all human beings are essentially created in the image of God whether we are female, male, intersex or something else. Jewish sages also believed that God does not make mistakes. Consequently, if an individual was born intersex, they were believed to have been created exactly as God intended. Notably, this is quite distinct from the approach of modern Western medicine, which deems intersex people to be errors of nature that need to be corrected.
  2. Commentators, from ancient times to the present day, have interpreted the creation story in vastly different ways. They consider the possibility that God’s first human creation was male, bi-gender, intersex, or non-gendered. Classical Jewish texts are aware of a number of sexual possibilities for humanity, and these ideas were discussed openly.
  3. Our verse teaches that all human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim—in the divine image. If the many sexes and genders of humanity all equally reflect the divine image, what does that say about God? Some believe that God is multi-gendered, or all-gendered. Others would argue that any attempt to characterize God in terms of gender is inappropriate, because gender and sex are categories that human beings invented.
  4. There are two creation narratives in the book of Genesis (see verses 1:27: 2:18-22). Genesis Chapter One, which describes the simultaneous creation of all genders, has been de-emphasized in mainstream Western culture. Genesis Chapter Two, both historically and in the present day, has been used to justify the subjugation of women. Today, some people continue to insist that women were created out of a man’s rib, and therefore, men are inherently superior. However, the complex rabbinic discussions about creation and gender in both parts of the Torah shed a very different light on these verses. If the authorities of Jewish Biblical interpretation believed that the first human being was intersex or non-gendered—rather than male—it brings an alternative religious voice to the ongoing discussion about women’s equality and empowerment—both in society in general, and in Biblically-based religious traditions in particular.
  5. On the one hand, the classical Jewish stance on the binary gender system, and its requirements for gender conformity, were more rigid and more oppressive to women than today’s standards. However, the rabbis often acknowledged that not everyone fit into their system. Modern societies often have less stringent rules for gender conformity (e.g., how women and men must dress) but they have little or no tolerance for those who cannot be easily categorized through binary sex and gender itself. The idea that the first human was intersex is much more difficult for many people today than it was to the rabbis of the fourth century.

Today we are just beginning to reclaim these texts, and appreciate their contribution to the story of genderqueer, intersex, and trans lives. Further discussion about these traditions will no doubt reveal greater insights into their spiritual, theological, and intellectual significance for people of all genders.

 

Questions for thought and discussion

The Torah offers a number of different accounts of the creation of humanity in terms of sex and gender. Commentators, from ancient times to the present day, have also interpreted the creation story in vastly different ways. They consider the possibility that God’s first human creation was male, bi-gender, intersex, or non-gendered. In the classical Midrash (Genesis Rabbah) the Rabbis envisioned at least three distinctly different possibilities, all of which are supported by the Torah text. Read over the Midrash which can be found in the “What the Rabbis say. . .” section of this website; then discuss the following questions:

  • Why do you think that the rabbis in 400 CE envisioned all these different possibilities when one account would have been much more straightforward? Why do you think they are all a part of Jewish sacred tradition?
  • Which version(s) of the creation of human sex and gender seem(s) most reflective of our current reality? Of an ideal world? Which one(s) do you identify with the most?
  • These classical versions of the creation of sex and gender were discussed for at least a thousand years, why do you think that we rarely hear about these interpretations today?
  • What Jewish understanding(s) of gender and sex might come out of these texts and traditions?
  • Based on this text how do you think the rabbis of the Midrash might respond to or understand trans/gender-queer identities, movements, and politics today?
  • The creation of human beings as told in Genesis two has been used through-out history to support the subordination of woman (because she was created as a secondary being out of man’s rib). How do these commentaries shift this understanding of the text?
  • How do the goals of transgender and women’s liberation theology relate to each other? Can we try to read interpret the Torah to support deconstructing a rigid gender binary between men and women at the same time as working to lift the historically and currently subjugated voice of women within the tradition?
  • What are the spiritual and theological implications of these texts? What do these texts and traditions tell us about God and God’s creation?
  • Do these texts shed any light on your own or your loved ones gender identities? Do you feel like your gender was created in the image of God? Were you raised to believe that your gender was created in the image of God?

 

Further resources

Alpert, Rebecca. Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook: How to become a real man, a real woman, the real you or something else entirely. New York and London: Routledge, 1998.

Boyarin, Daniel. Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture. Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press, 1993.

Dreger, Alice Domurat. Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. 1998.

Halberstam, Judith “Jack” and del LaGrace Volcano. The Drag King Book. New York, NY: Serpent’s Tail: 1999.

Holtz, Barry W. editor. Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts. “The first complete modern guide to the great books of the Jewish tradition: What they are and how to read them.” Summit Books. NY. 1992.

Peskowitz, Miriam B. Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender and History. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1997.

Robinson, George. Essential Judaism. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.

The Intersex Society of North America, www.isna.org

 

COMMENTARY

 

The first human being was created wholly female and wholly male at the same time. —Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (c. 400 CE)

Said Rabbi Yirmiyah ben Elazar: “When the The Holy Blessed One, created the first adam, [God] created him [an] androginos. That is [what it means] when [the following] is written: ‘male and female [God] created them’…”

Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (c. 400 CE)

Further explanation on Rabbi Yirmiyah ben Elazar’s comments.

Here Rabbi Yirmiyah supports his interpretation by citing Genesis 5:2. The full verse reads: “Male and female [God] created them; and [He] blessed them, and called their name adam, on the day they were created.”

Chapter 8 of Genesis Rabbah presents a discussion about the nature of the first human being. Rabbi Yeremiyah ben Elazar offers the opening opinion: that God created the first human as an androginos. He interprets the verse “male and female [God] created them” to mean that this being must have been both female and male at the same time.

Rabbi Yiremiyah’s explanation offers an interpretation of what the phrase “male and female” in our verse means — a single bi-gendered being known as the androginos. His interepertation can also be understood to address the singular-plural problem. He understands the angroginos as the singular, bi-gendered, being referred to in the first half of the verse, and men and women as the multiple beings referred to in the second half of the verse.

His commentary is also discussed in the Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 61a.

Where did Rabbi Yirmiyah get this idea?

Plato’s Symposium offers important background to the ideas of Rabbi Jeremiah and of Rabbi Shmuel. In the course of a speech on the nature of Love, Plato describes his version of how human beings were created. He states that there were initially three kinds of human beings: female, male, and androgunes. Each person had two faces and the fronts of two bodies, each pointing in opposite directions. When they began to threaten the gods, Zeus split each kind of person into two halves.

Plato’s legend has often been used as a foundational myth for the normative nature of heterosexuality — because it describes the first human creature as a man and a woman bound together. They later become separated and can best be reunited by heterosexual love.

It is reasonable to assume that many of the rabbis of the first few centuries CE knew Plato’s work. It is clear that many Greek ideas influenced Jewish society; Greek words and concepts appear regularly in rabbinic literature.

The first human being was half male and half female, and was then split into two separate beings. —Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (c. 400 CE)

Said Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachman: “When the Holy Blessed One, created the first adam, [God] created him double-faced; and split him, and [God] made him [into] two backs—a back [facing] one direction, and a back [facing] the other direction.” They asked him: “But isn’t it written: “and He took one of his ribs’?” He said to them: “one of his two sides [tzalotav]. . . as it says [in the Torah] ‘and one of the sides [tzelah] of the tabernacle,’ etc.” (Exodus 26:20)

Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (c. 400 CE)

Further explanation on Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman’s comments.

Chapter 8 of Genesis Rabbah presents a discussion about the nature of the first human being. Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman presents the second opinion: that God created the first human as one being with two front sides and no back. Then God split these two front sides apart, and added a back side to each, creating two separate humans, one male and one female.

This is Rabbi Shmuel’s solution to the singular-plural problem. He argues that the first human being is a singular entity in the first half of the verse, however by the second half of the verse it has been split into two bodies.

The most straightforward reading of this text indicates that Rabbi Shmuel is speaking about a male “half” and a female “half”; however, note that Rabbi Shmuel does not actually say anything about sex or gender in his statement. Other rabbinic commentators in the text, who are unnamed, challenge Rabbi Shmuel’s interpretation. Based upon the second creation story (Genesis 2), they argue against Rabbi Shmuel. They ask how a double-faced creature could hold the answer, when the Torah later says [Genesis 2:21-22] that God took a rib out of the adam in order to make a woman? Rabbi Shmuel responds to this critique by pointing out that the word for “rib” can also mean “side”—in this case, referring to one of the “sides” of the double-faced human being.

This text offers some interesting considerations:

  1. One argument is that in this interpretation, Rabbi Shmuel reinforces the idea that God created binary gender in his du-partzufim (double-faced creature) theory. One might ask, if God made a being that could then be split in half, does that mean that God made two genders/sexes, and intended such a state for humanity? Or one could take an alternative approach, and argue that this text indicates that human beings originally existed in a bi-gender state, which represents primordial perfection. However, if this is the case, the question becomes: Why would God split the adam in half?
  2. It is important to note that Rabbi Shmuel is only directly dealing with the singular-plural problem in this verse and never explicitly addresses the gender of the first being. Most readers have read this text in the context of Plato’s symposium which describes primordial humanity as a double-faced, bi-gendered being. Plato’s legend has often been used as a foundational myth for the normative nature of heterosexuality – because it describes the first human creatures as a man and a woman bound together. They later become separated and can best be reunited by heterosexual love. However, it is important to note that Rabbi Shmuel’s Jewish version of this story never explicitly deals with gender. It is possible that his version has nothing at all to do with gender, but rather, describes a first being with two distinct parts or qualities, but not necessarily “male and female.” Instead, these qualities might be a being who is both good and bad; human and divine; free and not free; or a multitude of other dualities of the human condition. Rabbi Shmuel’s interpretation might teach that a human being’s gender is less important than the other choices an individual makes or the identities they might inhabit.
  3. R. Shmuel’s commentary is also cited and discussed in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Eruvin, 18a; TractateBrachot, 61a).

Where did Rabbi Shmuel get this idea?

Plato’s Symposium offers important background to the ideas of Rabbi Jeremiah and of Rabbi Shmuel. In the course of a speech on the nature of Love, Plato describes his version of how human beings were created. He states that there were initially three kinds of human beings: female, male, and androgunes. Each person had two faces and the fronts of two bodies, each pointing in opposite directions. When they began to threaten the gods, Zeus split each kind of person into two halves.

Plato’s legend has often been used as a foundational myth for the normative nature of heterosexuality — because it describes the first human creature as a man and a woman bound together. They later become separated and can best be reunited by heterosexual love.

It is reasonable to assume that many of the rabbis of the first few centuries CE knew Plato’s work. It is clear that many Greek ideas influenced Jewish society; Greek words and concepts appear regularly in rabbinic literature.

The first human being was an infinite, genderless mass. —Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (c. 400 CE)

Rabbi Tanchuma in the name of Rabbi Benayah and Rabbi Berechya in the name of Rabbi Elazar [said]: “When the Blessed Holy One, created the first adam, [God] created him as a golem; and it was extended from one end of the world to its other end. That is [what it means] when [the following] is written: “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance…” (Psalm 139:16)

Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (c. 400 CE)

Further explanation on Rabbi Tanchuma’s comments.

Chapter 8 of Genesis Rabbah presents a discussion about the nature of the first human being. The third opinion, offered by Rabbi Tanchuma, is that the first human was created as a “golem”, a formless and infinite mass. Such a creature would have neither a discernable sex, nor even a defined physical form. Some commentators on this midrash have connected it to the creation story in Genesis Chapter 2, thus attempting to use the “golem” idea to resolve the two scenarios problem in their own way.

This approach continues to use Psalm 139 to demonstrate that the first woman was created from the “side” of this golem, rather than from the side, or rib, of the first man.

Two points are worth noting in regards to R. Tanchuma’s understanding of the creation narrative:

  • The first human creation is entirely genderless, and moreover, it is without any real physical form at all. This scenario holds potentially significant implications for ideas about human sexuality and gender. For example, what would it mean if the first human had no gender, no body, or infinite genders and sexes?
  • Rabbi Tanchuma’s description of the first human as golem, bears striking linguistic and philosophical resemblance to some enduring Jewish ideas about God: limitless, omnipresent, and beyond human description in many respects. What would it mean if God indeed created the first human with some of these qualities? What might this idea contribute to the discussion of sex, gender, and creation?

 

A man was created on the sixth day, and later on a woman was created from his side. —Rashi on Genesis 1:27 (c. 11th century)

Rashi on Genesis 1:27

“Male and female [God] created them” And later on, it says [in Genesis Chapter 2] “and God took one of his ribs” etc. Midrash [says] that [God] created him, in the first creation, double-faced, and after that split them. But the plain meaning of the verse is: that [God] created both of them on the sixth [day]—but [the verse in Genesis Chapter One] doesn’t explain to you how their creation happened. [The Torah] explains that to you in another place [Genesis Chapter Two].”

Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 1:27 (c. 11th century)

Further explanation of Rashi’s comments

In this commentary Rashi, in his typical style, is explaining the apparent inconsistencies in the Torah with the help of classical midrash. Rashi is trying to explain why there are two different creation accounts and also reconcile the singular-plural problem.

Rashi cites the opinion of Shmuel bar Nachman who argues in the midrash that the first human being was a double-faced and duel-sexed entity. However, after offering this version, Rashi rejects it as he feels that it does not match the “plain meaning” of the verse. He then offers an alternate explanation for the inconsistencies in the verse.

Rashi argues that, although they appear to be distinct, both creation scenarios describe different moments within a single, cohesive creative act. According to Rashi’s interpretation Genesis 1:27 teaches only “that” male and female beings were both created on the sixth day. How they were created is described in more detail in Genesis 2, where we learn that God first created a male-bodied being and then promptly fashioned a woman out of one of his sides on the same day.

This explanation reconciles the apparent conflict between the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. It also explains why our verse (Genesis 1:27) is in both the singular and plural forms—the first half of the verse refers to the creation of the male being and the second half of the verse refers to later in the day when the female being had also been created.

 

Men, women, and every possibility in between were created simultaneously. —Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig (21st century)

“. . .this verse is a merism, a figure of speech in which a totality is expressed by two contrasting parts (e.g. “young and old,” “thick and thin,” “near and far.”). . . God created male and female and every combination in between.”

Further explanation on Rabbi Wenig’s comments.

A merism is a literary figure of speech, used frequently in the Bible, by which a large single concept is referred to by a phrase that enumerates only two of its many parts, to indicate the breadth of the whole. For example, in Genesis 1:1 we read that God “creates the heavens and the earth.” These two parts combine to indicate that God created the whole universe. Similarly, in Psalm 139, the psalmist declares that God knows “my down-sitting and mine uprising,” indicating that God knows all that he does.

According to Rabbi Wenig’s interpretation in our verse (Genesis 1:27) “male and female” are also two small parts, within a larger whole of the gender spectrum. Thus this verse indicates not just that God created male and female bodies, but all of humanity and every gender that lies between men and women.

 

The first human beings described in this verse were two rigidly defined binary sexes — male and female. —Rabbi Rebecca Alpert (21st century)

This myth [Genesis 1] introduces a rigid binary identity system in which to be human one must be either biologically male or female… The problem is further complicated by an overly simplistic understanding of the terms “male” and “female” from the perspective of culture as well as biology. As the text is most often read, “male” and “female” stand not only for anatomy, but also for role behavior, the positions that men and women are expected to occupy in society. Because the text implies a fixed understanding of “male” and “female” it leaves little room for exploring ambiguous gender identities, or for broadening the definition of what it means to be male and female. (Alpert; p. 21)

Further explanation of Rabbi Rebecca Alpert’s comments.

In this modern text Alpert puts forth the idea that by framing the creation of humanity in the gendered terms “male and female God created them” our verse prioritizes sex as an essential and absolute way to think about humanity. Furthermore, she argues that this text has been used to form the way we look at gendered social roles and not just sexual anatomy in Jewish tradition, promoting a rigid and hierarchical view of gender and sex. It is important to note that although this website includes many alternatives and (potentially) libratory ways of reading Genesis, the creation story has certainly been used through-out history to justify a rigid gender binary that is misogynist and heterosexist.

 


We thank the fantastic, hardworking TransTexts Advisory Board:

Dr. Rachel Adler
Micah Bazant
Rabbi Lisa Edwards
Devra Felder Noily
Dr. Charlotte Fonrobert
Ari Lev Fornari
Rabbi Steven Greenberg
Dr. Gwynne Kessler
Rabbi Benay Lappe
Rabbi Joshua Lesser
Dr. Sarra Lev
Dr. Judith Plaskow
Or Rose
Maggid Jhos Singer
Max Strassfeld
Michael Waldman
Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig

TransTexts also extends our thanks to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco, for use of facilities, in-kind assistance, and unflagging support of this work.

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