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How many genders in the Torah and the Talmud?

In the history of Major League baseball, there have been 22,587 players (or a slightly different number, depending on which early baseball leagues one includes). To my knowledge, exactly one of these 22,587 players has played regularly as both a hitter and a pitcher in the same season and sometimes even the same game, and that is the absolutely remarkable, unique Shohei Ohtani. Even the legendary Babe Ruth, who was both a pitcher and a hitter, did not and could not play both positions at the same time.

How many types of baseball players are there? Two. Hitters and pitchers. (True, up until recently, all pitchers also hit, but that would no more make them a third type of player than would be the rare hitter who, in a game in which one team used up all of its starting and relief pitchers, is called on to pitch.)

What about Shohei Ohtani? Would we say that there are three types of players because one out of 22,587 players is both a hitter and a pitcher? I would not. I don’t think anyone would. There are two types of players; and then, there is Shohei Ohtani, the extraordinary exception.

I would not redefine baseball because of Shohei Ohtani. An exception does not a rule make.

The Talmud analyzes the halachic status of the tumtum, a human being lacking evident sexual characteristics. A tumtum is a person with a deformity. It is an aberration, and a very rare one. Not only that. While in antiquity a tumtum would remain such until death, this is not the case with current surgical techniques. What was not possible in ancient times is possible now, namely, the surgical removal of tissue that covers sexual organs. The tumtum is a male or a female, not another gender.

The Talmud also analyzes the halachic status of the androgynos, which we translate as hermaphrodite. This is a human being with evidence of both male and female sexual characteristics. This too is a deformity, and a rare one, not a gender.

But if the tumtum and androgynos are so rare, and not independent genders, why does the Talmud deal with them at all?

Because the exploration of every possibility, no matter how remote, is the bread and butter of halachic analysis in the Talmud. It is commonplace for the Talmud to deal with the halachic implications of countless remote realities, among them the tumtum and hermaphrodite. In analyzing these implications, the Talmud is not thereby affirming either aberration as an independent gender; rather, the Talmud is providing one more example of its customary exploration of every imaginable circumstance that could impinge on Halachah, and one more example of its attempt to establish the correct behavior in response to every imaginable nuance in reality.

This methodology — the Talmud’s search for the applicable law in remote realities — also applies to two other, rare sexual aberrations that the Talmud addresses.

So much for the Talmud. What about the Hebrew Bible? 
 Much is made of a beautiful midrash that when G-d created the human being, G-d initially created one being, part male and part female, and then divided this being into male and female.

This midrash has recently been taken to mean that since G-d created the original human being as neither all male nor all female, there are more than two genders. In fact, the midrash means the opposite. The midrash expresses, in its typically poetic way, that the two genders, male and female, are to unite, or, if you prefer, to reunite, in marriage. A male is alone and incomplete, a female is alone and incomplete, until they come together in marriage, as the Biblical text says, “they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:25).

Much is made of the Biblical text that refers to Adam as “it” or “him” (singular) and as “them” (Gen. 1:27): “And G-d created Adam [humankind] in His image, in the image of G-d He created him [or “it”]; male and female He created them.”

The Hebrew text’s reference to “them” has been taken to mean that the Biblical text acknowledges more than two genders.

I think the text is clear that “them” simply refers to the verse’s “male” and “female.”

But consider also this: The Hebrew language has no upper case and no lower case. When the Hebrew text in Genesis makes reference to the creation of “humankind,” i.e., the human race, it uses the word adam.

When the Hebrew text makes reference to the first male, i.e., to one single human being, it uses the exact same word, adam. Except that in English I can distinguish between the two different references by capitalizing “Adam” to signify and name the first human being . The Hebrew can’t make that distinction. This means that the reader who knows no Hebrew can be misled when the translated text uses adam to signify “humankind” and when the text uses adam to signify the first human being. In the verse I quoted above — Genesis 1:27 — it begins with, “And G-d created adam,” i.e., humankind, and the verse ends with “them,” i.e., the same humankind, which the verse characterizes as “male” and “female.” Humankind, adam, does not denote a slew of genders. Says Genesis: In humankind, there are two genders only. No more and no other.

Much is made of the pronoun “He” as a reference to G-d. This is strictly a convention. It does not mean that G-d is a male. When G-d is referred to as “HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One, Blessed be He,” it does not mean that G-d is a male. Likewise, when G-d is referred to as “Shechinah,” Hebrew’s grammatically female descriptor for G-d, it does not mean that G-d is a female. G-d has no gender. Just as G-d is neither a male nor a female, G-d is not a transgender, not a binary, a nonbinary or any other gender referent. As Maimonides pointed out in The Guide for the Perplexed, the ascription to G-d of any positive trait limits G-d, and one can accurately say only what G-d is not. G-d is not a gender.

But if so, why is G-d repeatedly referred to as “He” in the Torah?

Because, as the Talmud puts it, “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings”; i.e., in conventional human usage. I don’t know a single person who thinks that G-d is a male because the Torah refers to G-d as “He.” To emphasize this point, many Jewish circles today prefer the appellative “The Holy One” over “The Holy One, Blessed be He.”

When the Talmud says that the Torah speaks in the language of man, this may be taken in more than one way. One may say, for example: “To me, the better convention is to refer to G-d as She.”

True enough. If that works for you, fine. Indeed, in the prayers, G-d is often referred to as a female (for example, modim anachnu lach).

Or, one could say, “To me, the better convention is to refer to G-d as nonbinary.” I would say fine to that too if it were not for the fact that I am not aware of the use of nonbinary other than to maintain that there are more than two genders. Neither the Torah nor the Talmud think so. But if “nonbinary” is one’s personal way of simply saying that G-d has no gender, fine.

Who ever thought that the most controversial verse in the Torah would turn out to be Genesis 1:27: “And G-d created Adam in His image, in the image of G-d He created him, male and female . . . ?”

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1 thoughts on “How many genders in the Torah and the Talmud?

  1. Deane Berson

    Thank you very much for this information from Jewish sources; they are the source of what we have called “common sense.” One suggestion: I think using “sex” in place of “gender” could have been done almost if not every time you used “gender”–doing so would to my mind be more consistent with the points you were making. I enjoy the IJN and thank you for publishing my column on p.4 of the 6-12-2020 edition. I’m now working on a response to Jordan Friedman’s 5-5-23 column.

    Deane Berson


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