In a recent essay in the New York Times, Rabbi Elliot Kukla writes that Judaism’s “most sacred texts reflect a multiplicity of gender,” and in fact “nonbinary gender is central to understanding Jewish law and literature as a whole.” Drawing on various talmudic passages, Kukla finds support for his concerns about the fate of young transsexuals, as well as reason to oppose various legislative measures in certain states. Tal Fortgang is unconvinced:
“There are four genders beyond male or female,” [Kukla] writes, “that appear in ancient Jewish holy texts hundreds of times.” These are tumtum (one whose genitals are obscured), androgynos (intersex), aylonit (an atypically developed female), and saris (a eunuch). The Talmud, rigidly legalistic as it tends to be, is frequently interested in how to categorize these rare individuals within ancient Judaism’s highly gendered structures of Temple service, ritual purity, and much more. (By reifying categories that are relevant only in a highly binary and gender-role-driven society, Kukla thus inadvertently makes the opposite point from what he intended.)
But if Judaism has long “recognized” progressive ideas about gender, and transgenderism has always existed (but is only now being set free in the West, like left-handedness, which appeared more frequently once the taboo against it vanished), why do we have thousands of years of Jewish history, liturgy, commentaries, and rabbinic responsa that fail to mention this? The Talmud has a law for everything; where is the law of the male who thinks he is a woman?