Stanford prof: Talmudic rabbis were into analyzing sexuality

Seven years ago, Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, the new director of Stanford’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies, wrote an essay for “Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia,” exploring the centrality of multiple gender categories in classical Jewish legal discourse. Likely the first scholarly article on this topic, Fonrobert approached the essay as part of her growing body of work exploring gender and sex in talmudic culture, as well as the question of boundaries and limits in Jewish law and society.

Among her findings: Although the rabbis were committed to a “fundamental assumption of gender duality,” they were remarkably interested in the varieties of sexual categories.

“I count seven sexual categories in the literature, and you could probably cook up a few more,” she explained over coffee near Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, where she received her doctorate. “While this might seem like a marginal issue in the tradition, discussions of it pop up all over the place.”

Among the detailed sexual categories that the rabbis discuss are androgynos (one born with both primary sexual organs), tumtum (one born with neither) and two kinds of eunuchs, the saris hamah (a man who is sterile from birth) and saris adam (a man who becomes incapable of reproduction).

While the distinctions among these categories might have seemed both theoretical and fanciful for most students of rabbinic literature, Fonrobert argues that the assignment of a sexual identity was crucial for the validity of Jewish rituals. For instance, the urgent need to circumcise a male baby on the eighth day meant that the procedure would occur even on the Sabbath. But if the baby was not “officially” male — meaning the gender was ambivalent — then there was a chance of violating the Sabbath for a procedure that would, in effect, be done on a girl. Similarly, in the very specific case of levirate marriage, in which the brother of a childless deceased man must marry his widow, the “potency” of the brother, and therefore his specific sexual status, must not be in doubt.

“Putting aside the issue of what these distinctions actually meant for the [talmudic] rabbis,” she explained, “we are now in a powerful moment in contemporary Jewish life, when readers of these texts identify with categories that the rabbis ‘invented,’ and do so in order to develop a new social vision.”

This moment reflects a deep cultural shift in both the general and Jewish community. Fonrobert points to Facebook’s decision earlier this year, on its page allowing users to select their gender, to choose among 58 categories, including “non-binary,” “androgyne” and “pangender.” This diversity of choices reflects recent biological and social research, suggesting that sexual identity lives in the shifting, dynamic space between nature and nurture.

Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert

And in the Jewish community, many Jews who consider themselves along the wide spectrum between poles of male and female are assuming leadership roles in both communal and scholarly Jewish life.

Fonrobert is quick to point to the work of colleagues and students blazing a trail within the scholarly-communal arena, including her former Stanford student Max Strassfeld, who just assumed a post at the world’s first academic program on transgender studies at the University of Arizona. She gives credit to a Bay Area community of scholars and activists who have combined rigorous Jewish study and courageous social exploration to help create useful categories of thinking about identity and ritual from the rabbis’ apparently fanciful theorizing.

But the shift in Jewish thinking is far from limited to progressive Bay Area activists, and has been brewing for a generation. Fonrobert offers two examples. In the 1970s and 1980s, the treatment of intersex babies started to be discussed in Orthodox medical halachah by prominent rabbinic leaders like Eliezer Waldenberg and Moshe Feinstein. And in 1998, after the transgender Israeli singer Dana International won the Eurovision song competition, a serious debate ensued as to “whether, and how, Dana International should daven in shul.” The result, according to at least one rabbinical authority: “Once a man always a man, so s/he should be counted in a minyan. But since s/he is also now a woman, she can’t sing in front of the community,” since that would violate the Orthodox proscription of kol isha.

Contemporary Jews searching for wisdom in the tradition have explored not just the legal discussions in the Talmud, but the interpretive creativity in ancient midrash. Fonrobert points, among many examples, to texts interpreting Abraham and Sarah as tumtumim whose sexual status changed late in life so they could procreate, as well as a Genesis interpretation that the first human was created as a hermaphrodite and later cut in half into male and female identities.

Fonrobert’s journey to the leadership of Stanford’s Jewish studies program (she was previously co-director with her colleague Vered Shemtov) is as complex as a passage of the Talmud. Born in Dusseldorf, Germany, she had considered a career as a Protestant minister when she began to study biblical Hebrew. Captured by a new world of Jewish ideas and scholarship, she eventually moved to Berkeley, where she earned her doctorate and then underwent an Orthodox conversion. She went on to write the award-winning book “Menstrual Purity: Rabbinic and Christian Reconstructions of Biblical Gender,” and co-edit the Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, among many other publications.

When asked about the connections between her biographical and scholarly journeys, Fonrobert wondered aloud at the similarities between two areas where we often think in binary terms: male-female, and Jewish-not-Jewish.

“The language we use here is interesting. We talk about ‘conversion’ and ‘transition’ [as metaphors] for people moving into an intangible place,” she offered.

In an essay in the collection “Balancing on the Mechitza: Transgender in the Jewish Community,” edited by local author Noach Dzmura, Fonrobert acknowledges that the Talmud’s approach to sexual possibilities should not be confused with “the scale of sexual identities” imagined by contemporary advocates for “intersexuality … where human bodies and their sexual identity are considered to be as variable as can possibly be imagined.”

And yet the effect of the Talmud’s attempt to understand and articulate these varieties suggests an orientation of inclusiveness, rather than punishment. For the rabbis, she writes, “It was much more important to demonstrate that the Torah, in the form of law or halacha, could absorb everything under its mantle.”

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Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.