Trans Tal­mud: Androg­y­nes and Eunuchs in Rab­binic Literature

Max K. Strassfeld

By – June 3, 2022

A quick search for Judaism gen­ders” will reveal count­less arti­cles, source-sheets, and Red­dit threads high­light­ing the mul­ti­ple gen­ders that were alleged­ly rec­og­nized by the rab­bis of the Tal­mud. But what has been miss­ing until now is a com­pre­hen­sive study of what exact­ly these cat­e­gories mean and don’t mean, how we might under­stand them in rela­tion to our con­tem­po­rary under­stand­ings of sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der, and what wis­dom the ancient rab­bis might have to teach the mod­ern world.

Dr. Max Strass­feld, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Reli­gious Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ari­zona, now offers us a wel­come guide to Tal­mu­dic gender(s) in this metic­u­lous, far-reach­ing, and lyri­cal book. It wel­comes a wide vari­ety of read­ers with patient expla­na­tions of cen­tral con­cepts in the fields of gen­der and queer stud­ies and the world of the Tal­mud and rab­binic lit­er­a­ture of late antiq­ui­ty. For exam­ple, trans­ing,” as in the title Trans Tal­mud, applies trans and inter­sex per­spec­tives to think through the very idea of gen­der itself and how it func­tions as a set of prac­tices and mean­ings. Strass­feld also explains the imper­fect solu­tion of the Eng­lish words eunuch” and androg­y­ne” to refer to a num­ber of Hebrew terms used in the Tal­mud: the for­mer encom­pass­ing the saris adam, the saris hama (which Strass­feld ren­ders, respec­tive­ly, as born saris” and acquired saris”) and the aylonit; the lat­ter refer­ring to the androgi­nos and the tum­tum. As Strass­feld empha­sizes, none of these terms can real­ly be trans­lat­ed” to con­tem­po­rary under­stand­ings of gender.

While some read­ers might want a straight­for­ward account of how the Tal­mud cel­e­brates queer and trans iden­ti­ties, and oth­ers might look for a take­down of con­tem­po­rary dis­tor­tions of clas­si­cal texts, Strass­feld sat­is­fies nei­ther impulse. Instead, he returns again and again to the ten­sion of read­ing rab­binic texts: on the one hand, encoun­ter­ing their dif­fer­ing approach­es can bring a sense of relief to those of us who suf­fer under the cur­rent regimes of sex and gen­der. The alter­i­ty of the past is fod­der that we can use to imag­ine our cur­rent world dif­fer­ent­ly.” At the same time, as he writes, these sources are not intu­itive­ly liberating.”

Strass­feld deft­ly illus­trates that while these rab­binic dis­cus­sions large­ly serve to solid­i­fy rab­binic author­i­ty over gen­der, and mas­culin­i­ty in par­tic­u­lar, with­in Jew­ish law, they also pre­serve a space for those who defy expec­ta­tions of how gen­der is lived and expe­ri­enced. Per­haps the most strik­ing inno­va­tion of Strassfeld’s work is the weav­ing togeth­er of his dis­cus­sion of rab­binic lit­er­a­ture with con­tem­po­rary voic­es. In the sec­ond chap­ter, con­tem­po­rary Evan­gel­i­cal con­cerns about trans bod­ies are con­trast­ed with the rab­bis’ approach to hybrid­i­ty in Mish­nah Bikkurim. The third and fourth chap­ters use dis­abil­i­ty the­o­ry and inter­sex activism to chal­lenge the def­i­n­i­tions of fit­ness,” fail­ure,” and dam­age” in regards to sex and repro­duc­tion. The fifth chap­ter con­sid­ers trans tem­po­ral­i­ty, and the par­al­lel ways in which the saris and aylonit both help and thwart the rab­bis’ attempts to imag­ine how a body should change over time.

Strass­feld con­cludes that while the rab­bis are invest­ed in a sys­tem of bina­ry sex, it is not an inher­ent­ly sta­ble one, but one that has the muta­bil­i­ty of sex” embed­ded in its core; thus, con­tem­po­rary trans­pho­bic appeals to a Judeo-Chris­t­ian gen­der bina­ry are not sim­ply inad­e­quate, but, in some cas­es, delib­er­ate­ly efface Jew­ish texts and their long his­to­ry of engag­ing non­bi­na­ry bod­ies.” Look­ing ahead to the work of trans and inter­sex Jew­ish schol­ars, activists, and artists, from Mic­ah Bazant’s 1990s zine Tim­tum to the con­tem­po­rary artistry of Nic­ki Green and Tobaron Wax­man, and the trans Jew­ish rab­bis, poets, and writ­ers who grow more numer­ous every year, Strass­feld invokes Elliot Kukla’s dec­la­ra­tion that these texts are a resource not just for desta­bi­liz­ing mod­ern dichoto­mous sex­es, but also for sta­bi­liz­ing whol­ly new and sur­pris­ing con­struc­tions” of identity.

Noam Sien­na is a his­to­ri­an of Jew­ish cul­ture in the medieval and ear­ly mod­ern peri­ods, with a par­tic­u­lar inter­est in Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties in the Islam­ic world. His first book, A Rain­bow Thread: An Anthol­o­gy of Queer Jew­ish Texts from the First Cen­tu­ry to 1969 (Philadel­phia: Print-o-Craft Press, 2019), was award­ed the 2020 Ref­er­ence Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries.

Discussion Questions

How does cen­ter­ing the mar­gin­al trans­form the way we under­stand the whole? This is the bold ques­tion at the heart of Max Strassfeld’s Trans Tal­mud, which explores eunuchs and androg­y­nes in rab­binic lit­er­a­ture. The book puts into pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tion the fields of trans and inter­sex stud­ies and rab­binics, shed­ding new light on the Talmud’s dis­cus­sions about non­bi­na­ry gen­der as well as inte­grat­ing the Tal­mud into trans­gen­der his­to­ry. It also prompts read­ers to recon­sid­er more broad­ly the cat­e­gories of sex and gen­der, embod­i­ment, humans and ani­mals, law, mas­culin­i­ty, and tem­po­ral­i­ty in rab­binic sources.

Close tex­tu­al analy­sis is cou­pled with insight­ful the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sions, con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal con­text, and per­son­al nar­ra­tive in cre­ative ways, thus pro­duc­ing not only a work about a par­tic­u­lar top­ic in the Tal­mud but also a dif­fer­ent mod­el for what schol­ar­ship can encom­pass, and the insights that emerge when sources from mul­ti­ple peri­ods are put into dia­logue. Com­pelling and coura­geous, Trans Tal­mud engages mul­ti­ple audi­ences about a top­ic as ancient as it is timely.