Ancient Judaism and the Variety of Genders

Ancient Judaism and the Variety of Genders

In our increasingly polarized world, the idea of gender as a 'binary' between male and female is often naively accepted as gospel. But it turns out that far above and beyond societal constraints on human identity existed even in ancient Jewish cultures of two thousand years ago; texts discovered by religious scholars reveal depths to be explored when interpreting identities through a wide lens! Who knew that such philosophies about something so personal were alive-and-well centuries before we ever did?

What Does the Talmud Say About Genders

With its ancient wisdom and profound insight, the Talmud sheds light on an often-forgotten historical phenomenon: at least eight genders were recognized by Jewish law nearly 2 millennia ago! These categories included zachar (male) or nekevah (female), but a wealth of other gender identities beyond these two binary labels have been explored in commentaries from rabbinic scholars. According to Rabbi Elliot Kukla's New York Times article, this diverse range reflects not only an acknowledgment of multiple gender expressions within Judaism’s stories and teachings – it also illustrates how far society has come in recognizing varied representations for centuries now.

Many people may not be aware that gender identity is seen differently by different cultures. Judaism, for instance, recognizes several distinct categories of gender identification including androgynos (a person with characteristics both male and female), tumtum (someone whose sex is undetermined) aylonit/saris (respectively, initially assigned as one sex at birth but later develop the opposite side). Even within ancient Jewish tradition, Adam was thought to have been an example of this concept known as 'androgynos'. Through understanding the range of genders available, we can appreciate how complex our views on gender genuinely are.

The ancient commentary of Genesis Rabbah gives us a unique insight into the creation story, suggesting that at first, Adam was an androgyne being - existing without any gender distinction or separation before God established two distinct genders for his creations. This is indicated by the use of "them" when describing Adam in Scripture.

Beyond Judaism

For centuries, many Indigenous communities across the Americas have recognized a spectrum of gender identities. Often referred to as "two-spirit," this understanding allowed individuals who may not fit into traditional definitions of maleness and femaleness – or those that exist in between - to assert their own unique identity within their culture with pride. This special designation could entail roles such as weaving for two-spirits assigned male at birth, hunting and leading tribes by two-spirits designated female at birth, all while embodying traits exclusive to them.


Though these practices were lost when colonialism touched down, they still serve today as a reminder that there are no binary lines when it comes to sexual expression - but rather an infinite number of possibilities where we can create our paths of selfhood without shame or judgment.

As debates surrounding gender continue to emerge and evolve, the deep-rooted understanding of this concept among ancient faiths becomes ever more intriguing. We must ask ourselves if our current limited perspective on gender is a necessary step forward or, instead, an alarming regression compared to what those before us once believed.

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