While Judaism never adopted “hermaphroditism” as a term because of its mythological connotations to the Greek god Hermaphroditus (son of Hermes and Aphrodite), the term ”androgyny” has been used in Judaism since the third century B.C.E. This entry deals with the application of “androgyny” and its cognates in Early Judaism and Early Rabbinic Judaism.

Early Judaism (ca. 300 B.C.E.–200 C.E.).

The first reference to androgyny in a Jewish context is found in the Septuagint (3rd century B.C.E.). The Greek translation of Proverbs ignores the content of the Hebrew original and invokes judgment upon the androgynos (Septuagint, Prov 18:8 and 19:15), described as an effeminate or sexually divergent man in line with the dominant Greek use of the word (Cook 2008, 80–82; Fonrobert 2007, 285–286).

The Greek writings of Philo from Alexandria also use “androgyny,” though in an ambiguous way as noted by Baer (1970, 83–84), Meeks (1973, 179), and Harrison (1995). On the one hand, Philo is disdainful of Plato’s myth of the androgynous proto-human being (in Plato’s Symposium, 189c–193d), of male effeminacy in mundane life, and of transgender performances of both men and women including cross-dressing (On the Contemplative Life, 57–63; On the Virtues, 18, 21; On the Birth of Abel, 100; Who Is the Heir, 274). On the other hand, Philo advocates spiritual transgender performances in cases where men and women engage in ascetic training of their souls. Both male and female ascetics should strive to unify with their oppositional part within the gender binary because of an assumed androgynous constituency of the proto-human being (On Flight and Finding, 50–51; On Abraham 99–102; On the Contemplative Life, 83–84; Allegorical Interpretations II, 4,12–13; On the Creation, 76).

Early Rabbinic Judaism (ca. 200–600 C.E.).

The first mention of androgyny in a Hebrew text occurs in the Mishnah (ca. 200 C.E.) where the Greek loanword androgynos is used to designate people with both male and female outer genitalia. Resorting to a loanword is the early Rabbinic solution given the absence of an adequate vocabulary in the Hebrew Bible to signify dimorphic genital development despite the fact that it occurs in around one in 1.500 live births (Blackless et al. 2000, 161). The early rabbis needed such a designation because genital dimorphism challenged their efforts to divide their religio-legal system into gender specific performances that led to the construction of male or female Jewish identities. For example, the rabbis considered whether the commandment to circumcise male infants even if it overrides the commandment of not working on the Sabbath should apply to androgynous infants. The majority of the early rabbis ruled that an androgynous infant was not male enough to sanction working on the Sabbath; instead, the rite had to be postponed to the following day. However, R. Judah considered the partial presence of male genitalia in the androgynous infant ample evidence of a required circumcision even on the Sabbath (mShab 19:3–4) and as such of a conclusively male Jewish identity (Fonrobert 2007, 283–284, 288).

Other reflections on the gender of the androgynos are scattered in the different tractates of the Mishnah, whereas the Tosefta (3rd century C.E.) synthesizes these opinions of the early rabbis into a categorical discussion of the gender of the androgynos in a separate sequence in Tosefta’s tractate Bikkurim 2:3–7, subsequently added to the Mishnah as mBikkurim 4. tBikkurim 2:3–7 groups the rulings regarding the androgynos into four categories as pertaining to men, women, both genders, and neither of the bipolar genders.

  • 1. The androgynos is like a man due to h/er seminal flow. Accordingly, s/he must dress like a man and conform to male Israelite hairstyle. Like any other man, s/he is not allowed to mingle with groups of women. S/he may marry a woman but not a man. Due to her partial maleness, s/he is to be stoned together with the penetrating part if s/he engages in anal intercourse with a man. If h/er parents die, the androgynos does not receive maintenance like daughters do. Halakhically, the androgynos “must perform all the commands of the Torah like men” (tBik 2:4).
  • 2. The androgynos is comparable to a woman in that h/er menstrual blood makes him/her ritually impure, s/he cannot mingle with other men, s/he is not to inherit in case of parental death, and s/he cannot serve as a witness (tBik 2:5).
  • 3. The androgynos is comparable to both men and women in that s/he is entitled to compensation for damages to h/erself or h/er property, just as killing him/her results in the death penalty if done intentionally and in banishment if unintentionally. Ridiculing h/er dimorphic identity has legal consequences. S/he is also like both men and women in that h/er mother must purify herself doubly as if she had given birth to both a daughter and a son. If s/he is an only child, s/he is to inherit the parental property and fortune (tBik 2:6).
  • 4. The androgynos is not like men or women in that h/er ritual impurity is neither punishable nor contagious. H/er worth cannot be valuated regarding vows to God, and s/he cannot be sold as a Hebrew slave. Finally s/he cannot receive maintenance or an inheritance except in cases where s/he would be an only child (tBik 2:7). R. Yose concludes this category with the logical statement that an androgynos is sui generis (tBik 2:7) and thereby challenges not only the inconsistent arguments of his colleagues but also their very bipolar conception of gender. Yet his argument bears no fruit. The majority of the early rabbis choose to remain undecided as to the gender of the androgynos.

The Palestinian (ca. 400 C.E.) and Babylonian (ca. 600 C.E..) Talmuds do not add information to the early Rabbinic reflections on androgyny. Accordingly, the last example from the early Rabbinic material to be mentioned here stems from a midrash in Genesis Rabbah 8:1 (4th–5th century C.E.). The verse opens with a quote from Genesis 1:26: “And God said: ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,’” which R. Jeremiah juxtaposes with Genesis 5:2 by saying: “When the Holy One, blessed be He, created Adam, He created him an androgynos, for it is said, ‘Male and female created He them and called their name Adam.’” The brief passage entertains the conception that the corporeal androgynos is a God-willed being. The midrashic structure even enables the conception that God h/erself is androgynous, thereby rendering the androgynos more Godlike than men and women because it was s/he who was created in God’s image. As with Philo’s enthusiasm for ascetic experiments with gender roles, Genesis Rabbah positions the corporeal androgynos as superseding the degree of perfection in differentiated males and females.

Discussion.

In the history of religion, the Tosefta sequence is unique due to its early, detailed, and progressive reflection on the gender of the androgynos, but modern scholars differ on just how progressive it is. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert (2007, 289) has emphasized how the indecision of the majority opinion protects the androgynos against random killing, violence, and ridicule by insisting on h/er participation in bipolar gender and Jewishness. Marianne Schleicher agrees to the relative uniqueness of this protection but maintains that it does not cover up the cultural violence that struck people with dimorphic genitals—for example, the rabbinically sanctioned isolation of the androgynos who was not to socialize with either groups of women or groups of men. To explain the early Rabbinic unwillingness to grant the androgynos equal rights in matters of marriage, socialization, and inheritance, Schleicher argues that a rabbinic interest in safeguarding God’s double promise to the patriarchs of many descendants and land (Gen 12:1–7) underlies their inconsistent argumentation and indecision. On the one hand, the androgynos is compared to a man so as to render h/er sexually unavailable to fertile men by prescribing the performance of all 613 commandments, including that of circumcision and the role of a husband. The reference to the death penalty should the androgynos submit to anal intercourse underscores h/er construction as a male, thereby ensuring that s/he will not impede a fertile man’s obligation to reproduce. On the other hand, the early rabbis compare the androgynos to a woman to prevent him/her from performing rituals that construct him/her as a legitimate heir to the Promised Land. S/he cannot inherit the parental land unless s/he is an only child. That land is an issue is supported by mBikkurim 1:5, which rules that an androgynos cannot recite the accompanying thanksgiving prayer (Deut 26:5–11) when offering the first fruit because only impeccable men were among the recipients of the land that produces this fruit. The progressiveness of the Tosefta tractate, according to Schleicher, lies in voicing R. Yose’s logical conclusion that the androgynos is sui generis—that is, a third gender. It testifies to an antique protest against the ability of bipolar gender to signify the complexity of human life, just as it, along with Genesis Rabbah 8:1, makes corporeal androgyny intelligible to representation (Schleicher, forthcoming).

Bibliography

  • Baer, Richard A., Jr. Philo’s Use of the Categories Male and Female. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1970.
  • Blackless, Melanie, et al. “How Sexually Dimorphic are We? Review and Synthesis.” American Journal of Human Biology 12 (2000): 151–166.
  • Cook, Johann. “Semantic Considerations and the Provenance of Translated Units.” In XIII Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies. Edited by Melvin K. H. Peters, pp. 65–84. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008.
  • Fonrobert, Charlotte Elisheva. “Regulating the Human Body: Rabbinic Legal Discourse and the Making of Jewish Gender.” In The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, edited by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffe, pp. 270–294. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Harrison, Verna E. F. “The Allegorization of Gender: Plato and Philo on Spiritual Childbearing.” In Asceticism, edited by Vincent L. Wimbush and Richard Valantasis, pp. 520–534. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Meeks, Wayne A. “The Image of the Androgyne: Some Uses of a Symbol in Earliest Christianity.” Journal of the History of Religions 13 (1973): 165–208.
  • Schleicher, Marianne. “Constructions of Sex and Gender: Attending to Androgynes and Tumtumim through Jewish Scriptural Use.” Literature & Theology 25, no. 4 (2011): 422–435.
  • Schleicher, Marianne. “Violent or Tolerant Attitudes toward Deviation from Gender Norms? Insights from Israelite and Early Jewish Religion in the Uneven Distribution of Vulnerability.” In Fluid Love, Fluid Gender, edited by Deirdre Byrne and Wern Mei Yong Ade. Leiden: Brill (forthcoming).

Marianne Schleicher