Ancient Judaism Recognized a Range of Genders. It’s Time We Did, Too.
Elliot Kukla is a rabbi who provides spiritual care to those who are grieving, dying, ill or disabled. He is working on a book about the power of rest in a time of planetary crisis.
I’m not a detail-oriented person. My clothes are usually rumpled; when I write, I rarely dot every i or cross each t (either literally or metaphorically). But when I am officiating at a funeral, I meticulously study each letter of the name of the person who died — especially when I’m leading a memorial service for a transgender or nonbinary person. Our names are so often disrespected in life, let alone death.
I’m transgender and nonbinary, and as a rabbi I’ve offered bereavement spiritual care for the past 17 years. In recent years, I’ve accompanied mourners through the losses of many more very young trans people than in the past. Each of those funerals was heartbreaking, but taken together, they were terrifying. And I know there will be a lot more deaths like these, unless something changes.
Over the past few years there have been countless stories in the news of trans and nonbinary young people’s deaths by suicide. In San Diego, a 14-year-old, Kyler Prescott, died after being repeatedly misgendered by hospital staff members in the psychiatric unit that was supposed to be helping him. Leelah Alcorn, a 16-year-old transgender girl from Ohio, was rejected by her parents after coming out. In her online suicide note she wrote, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was.”
More than half of young people in the United States who are transgender and nonbinary seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to a survey conducted by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for L.G.B.T.Q. youth. This figure is staggering, but the Trevor Project’s data also points to what can help. The same 2022 survey found that trans and nonbinary youth who report having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their life attempted suicide at half the rate of those who didn’t. And a 2019 Trevor Project survey found that transgender and nonbinary young people who live with even one accepting adult were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the previous year.
A 2021 study published by The Journal of Adolescent Health found that for people younger than 18, receiving gender-affirming hormone therapy was associated with nearly 40 percent lower odds of having had a suicide attempt in the previous year. It’s not being transgender or nonbinary that kills young people; it’s the shunning, lack of acceptance and transphobia they encounter in the struggle to be who they truly are.
This year, more than 450 bills have been introduced in 44 states, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker, that make it harder for transgender and nonbinary youth to get the support, respect and health care they need to survive.
Within days of each other, Mississippi and Tennessee enacted bans on gender-affirming health care for young people. Arizona moved forward one bill that would ban from schools any books that promote “gender or pronouns” and another that would prohibit teachers from using pronouns for young people that differ from their biological sex, without a parent’s written consent. A bill in Florida could allow a parent to remove children from a supportive home with their custodial parent and take them across state lines to keep them from receiving gender-affirming health care — even if those children are simply “at risk” of getting that care.
This legislative attack is often framed as a battle between traditional religious values and modern ideas about gender. But we are real people, not ideas, and we have always existed, including within age-old religions. In my own tradition, Judaism, our most sacred texts reflect a multiplicity of gender. This part of Judaism has mostly been obscured by the modern binary world until very recently.
There are four genders beyond male or female that appear in ancient Jewish holy texts hundreds of times. They are considered during discussions about childbirth, marriage, inheritance, holidays, ritual leadership and much more. We were always hiding in plain sight, but recently the research of Jewish studies scholars like Max Strassfeld has demonstrated how nonbinary gender is central to understanding Jewish law and literature as a whole.
When a child was born in the ancient Jewish world it could be designated as a boy, a girl, a “tumtum” (who is neither clearly male nor female), or an “androgynos” (who has both male and female characteristics) based on physical features. There are two more gender designations that form later in life. The “aylonit” is considered female at birth, but develops in an atypical direction. The “saris” is designated male at birth, but later becomes a eunuch.
There is not an exact equivalence between these ancient categories and modern gender identities. Some of these designations are based on biology, some on a person’s role in society. But they show us that people who are more than binary have always been recognized by my religion. We are not a fad.
In fact, Judaism sees us as so ancient that according to one fifth-century interpretation of the Bible, the very first human being, Adam, was actually an androgynos. This explains why Genesis says, “And God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God,” referring to Adam, the first person, with a singular pronoun. But then, the very same verse says: “creating them male and female.” (1:27). “Them,” in this ancient interpretation, also refers to Adam: a single person who is both male and female. In other words, in this reading of the creation story, the first human being is described with a singular “they” pronoun to express the multiplicity of their gender.
In the Mishna, the oldest and most authoritative source of Jewish legal theory, composed in the second century, we learn that anyone who kills or harms an androgynos (either accidentally or on purpose) is subject to the exact same ramifications as someone who hurts a man or woman. That chapter ends with a conversation about whether the androgynos is more like men or women. One of the sages, Rabbi Yossi, suggests that “he is a created being of her own.”
This phrase plays with the gender in Hebrew grammar to poetically express the complexity of the androgynos’s gender. The first time I learned this text, I was with my study partner, a transgender rabbi named Reuben Zellman. “Rabbi Yossi is right,” he said, “but not just about us. Everyone is a created being of their own.”
I have never forgotten this insight. Trans people, and especially trans young people, make human uniqueness more visible for everyone. We are all individuals who have distinctive outlooks, particular health care needs and shifting desires for self-expression, and we grow in unexpected directions as we age. Trans liberation is a gift to everyone, because it expands the categories for what it means to be human.
The growing wave of anti-trans bills in the United States represents not just a trans crisis, but a humanitarian crisis. History has shown countless times that when a government limits one group’s legal rights, it will eventually do the same to other groups.
I might be accused of having a “trans agenda.” I do. And it’s the same as my religious and my human agenda. I want trans kids, and all young people, to survive.
Elliot Kukla is a rabbi who provides spiritual care to those who are grieving, dying, ill or disabled. He is working on a book about grief in a time of planetary crisis.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
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