Gender-bending in the Talmud

It’s one of the most reviled prayers by Jewish women, the one Orthodox men say as part of their morning prayers: “Blessed are you, God, Ruler of the universe, who has not made me a woman.”

While many Jewish women have been pained to learn about that particular morning blessing, those same women often don’t know what Orthodox women say in the morning as its equivalent: “Blessed are you, God, Ruler of the universe, for making me according to Your will.”

“Most of us have taken offense to [the former]” said Jhos Singer at the daylong “Jewish Women and Spirituality” conference Sunday, July 10, at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.

Singer, who is a spiritual leader at Berkeley’s Chochmat HaLev and at the Coastside Jewish Community of Half Moon Bay, provided an overview of gender theory in a highly animated style that one participant said was akin to listening to Robin Williams teach Talmud.

“Let’s look at the two blessings. Which would you rather say?” Singer asked the group of women.

In the Jewish tradition — one that is fixated on having children as one of its most important values — a woman who has a child has fulfilled her obligations, Singer said, and really doesn’t have to concern herself with anything else. Meanwhile, men are continually called upon to do good deeds, or mitzvot. “If you’re a man, you’re starting from zero,” she said. “You have to build it, every mitzvah gives you validity.”

While those two morning blessings took up part of her discussion, Singer spent most of her time talking about how the Talmud deals with gender categories outside of men and women.

While the world is based on a binary gender system, she said, today we live in a world where those traditional boundaries have relaxed somewhat.

Nevertheless, even in a period where gender roles were much more rigidly proscribed, there were two categories that came up repeatedly, the tumtum and the androgynos, said Singer.

The tumtum is of indeterminable gender, while the androgynos is like a hermaphrodite, exhibiting characteristics of both genders.

Singer spent time on one talmudic passage that describes in detail who is commanded to fulfill the mitzvah of blowing the shofar — everyone from slaves to converts to tumtums and androgynos — with separate rules applying to each.

Both tumtum and androgynos are unique gender types outside the binary system, she said.

The rabbis grappled with “who can marry a tumtum?” Singer continued, with “Rashi being disturbed by this tumtum category.”

On another topic, Singer said that Judaism was never fearful of divorce, and “neither has it been particularly bothered by polyamory.” But when there were objections to it, it was more “not because [the rabbis] found it skanky but because it caused jealousy.”

Singer pointed to the documentary “Trembling Before G-d,” about Orthodox gay and lesbian Jews, as an example of how this is true even in the modern day. In the movie, gay men and lesbians who married were advised by some rabbis to satisfy their desires outside the marriage, but the first obligation is to a spouse and children.

During another snippet, Singer reminded the participants about how maturity was assumed at a much younger age. The appearance of two pubic hairs on both girls and boys was enough to make them old enough to marry.

The issue of the aylonit (the category assigned to a woman who has matured but has not had a child) was also discussed. If a woman reaches age 20 without giving birth, she is assigned this term, based on the assumption that she’s not fertile.

“If a woman doesn’t have children, then is her gender different?” Singer asked. “Is she still exempt from doing mitzvot since she hasn’t had children?”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."