The 6 Genders of Judaism
June is Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month honoring the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. The riots were the beginning of the LGBT movement to stop police harassment and persecution and to change discriminatory laws against LGBT Americans.
The observance of Pride month made me realize I know nothing about what Judaism teaches about LGBT issues and inclusivity of LGBT peoples in the Jewish community. I decided to research Judaism and sexuality and quickly found that the Mishnah (edited record of the complex body of material known as oral Torah), actually discusses six different genders. An article written by Jordan Dashow explains the six different genders that are recognized: male and female, as well as
1. Androgynous - having both male and female sexual characteristics
2. Tumtum - a person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured
3. Ay’lonit - someone who identified as female at birth but develops male characteristics at puberty and is infertile
4. Saris - someone who is identified as male at birth but develops female characteristics at puberty and/or is lacking male genitalia.
Further, there is such a belief that since Eve was created “out of” Adam, Adam was created androgynous. Many in the LGBT community find comfort in that non-binary gender ideas are rooted in our rabbinic texts and although there is the unambiguous biblical statement against same-sex orientation in Genesis, Jews are only responsible for religious obligations that they can freely choose to fulfill. Therefore, many Modern Jews feel that since being gay is involuntary, non-binary identification and being gay cannot be forbidden.
Regardless of whether you believe in Adam being androgynous, we are taught by the Torah that everyone is created in the Divine image of God b’tzelem Elohim and therefore everyone deserves equal respect and “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
The various movements have made relative progress in accepting gay, transgender, and non-binary Jews. The Reform movement not only welcomes openly gay people, but they are eligible for admittance into Reform rabbinical schools, and rabbinic officiation of same-sex marriages is approved of. Within the Conservative movement, it is up to the rabbis, synagogues, and institutions whether or not to hire openly gay rabbis and cantors and to officiate commitment ceremonies; this decision paved the path for the movement of ordaining openly gay Conservative rabbis. In the Orthodox community, the presence of LGBT people has increased and several organizations and support groups have formed for gays and lesbians. The Orthodox community has also taken steps to include transgender Jews.
In Israel, the 2018 Tel Aviv pride parade attracted over 250,000 people, including about 30,000 from across the world. Contrasting the rest of the Middle East, where LGBT culture is not tolerated, Israel has permitted openly gay Israelis to serve in the military since the early 1990s. The Israel Defense Force is the ninth most gay-friendly military, per a 2014 study. The Gay Happiness Index, which measures how gay men feel about society’s view on same sex relationships, how gay men experience the way they are treated, and how satisfied gay men are with their lives and do they accept themselves, ranked Israel at the 7th happiest place for gay males to live. The Western Wall, the holiest place for Jews, now has a mixed-gender prayer space at the Robinson’s Arch and transgender Jewish people can pray without having to misgender themselves.
When I went on a UF to Israel Birthright trip in December 2016, I met Tyler Ellman, a now alumnus of the University of Florida. Tyler came out as gay his freshman year of college. Growing up in a Reform Jewish family and his mother actively involved in their synagogue, he was surrounded by the religion. From early on in his Jewish education, Tyler learned the core values of perseverance, compassion, and family. Despite his ties to the Jewish community, Tyler at first felt shunned by the more religious Jews he encountered, “It became hard to find the beauty in Judaism when according to them it wasn’t “right for me to be gay.”’
However, he soon discovered that “there were so many members of the Jewish community, especially my Rabbi, that showered me with endless love and support.” This realization gave him “more pride in my Jewish heritage and reminded me of the principles instilled in me through my religion.” This support is a constant thread throughout Tyler’s coming out; when he decided to come out to his brothers in his Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, Tyler did not know what to expect. However, his brothers’ responses of unconditional love and resounding support spoke volumes. Tyler reflected on what he learned from his brothers, and it’s a stark contrast from the generalizations we often hear about Greek life, “the importance of standing by the people you care about, fighting for what you believe in, and the importance of unconditional support.”
A specific memory on Birthright that still resonates with me was the night before we went to Yad Vashem. To emotionally prepare ourselves, our Birthright group had a conversation about being marginalized. Tyler shared how being a minority in two groups has taught him that to truly understand one’s own struggles, one must first listen to others about their struggles. We often justify our own victimization, instead of realizing that everyone has overcome challenges and those challenges have altered perspectives. Tyler prides himself on empathy, listening, and learning from others experiences, instead of claiming he already knows the way someone views the world. To truly understand someone’s perspective, “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and give other people the respect and ear you would want in return.”
Tyler is a true activist. Throughout his entire college career, Tyler coordinated, with UF Hillel’s support, two Holocaust Remembrance Walks, a Liberation Peace Rally, and produced Tap Dancing Through Auschwitz, a full length play he wrote which explored the themes of identity and faith while visiting Auschwitz. UF Hillel was a safe space where he received the support to develop and execute his ideas. Tyler’s experiences are a true testament to what he feels UF Hillel prioritizes creating solidarity, a safe space, and an outlet for students to amplify their voices.
Coming out for Tyler was much more than stating who he is attracted to. Rather, it was the beginning of exploring who he is and how he identifies himself. For those who are afraid to come out or are about to come out, Tyler says to “have faith in others, but more importantly have faith in yourself.”
From all of this I learned what I have always known, Judaism is centered around understanding and acceptance. Although we are becoming more accepting of LGBT peoples, as a community there is still progress to be made for complete inclusivity of all Jews regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and race.
UF Hillel is wanting to cultivate a focus group with the purpose of determining actionable items for us to effectively amplify Jewish and LGBTQ+ voices at UF. If you are interested, please contact Emily Snider.