Intersex People, Religion and Bridge Building

More than Two Sexes Exist in Jewish and Christian Scripture: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God.

As a Master of Divinity Student at Meadville Lombard Theological School, I originally wrote this as my midterm paper for a summer 2022 class I took at Chicago Theological Seminary. The class was Very Different Visions: Jewish and Christian Biblical Interpretations; with professor Nick Schaser. I received an A and now share it with you as a blog.


I write this paper with the real lived perspectives as an intersex survivor, educator, activist, and an all-faith Master of Divinity Seminarian.  I believe that modern-day society must learn about us intersex people and how we face much prejudice and adversity in a world that is mostly acknowledged only male/men and female/women.  Prejudice often leads to erasure and common denial of our existence.   Being born intersex refers to a person’s physiology, which involves their hormones, chromosomes, genitals, and/or reproductive system.  On the other hand, gender identity is in our brains and heart, and gender expression is how we live and declare ourselves to this world.  An intersex person can have any gender identity, man, woman, both, or neither in some way.  Intersex people are not all non-binary or non-conforming gender.  We often simply live as men and women with intersex physiology.  In Jewish and Christian Scripture, there is evidence that intersex people have existed since the beginning of time.  We were described back then with different labels than the ones used today.    Some religious leaders have wrongly claimed that intersex people were myth. As an intersex gay, transgender man, I do not believe that these biblical accounts were myths.  Nor are we ‘mythical beasts’ that the Jewish Sages invented, and I will show you why intersex people are real living human beings, then and now.      

     Judaism, one of the world’s oldest religions, dates back nearly 4,000 years,[1] and Jewish Scriptures in the Tanakh and Old Testament show clear evidence that more than just males and females existed in the creation stories.  In Ancient Jewish writing, it shows six to eight different sexes/genders, depending on who reports. [2]  Those eight sex/genders are Zachar, Nekevah, Androgynos, Tumtum, Aylonit Hamah, Aylonit Adam, Saris Hamah, and Saris Adam.  The term tumtum appears 17 times in the Mishnah; 23 times in the Tosefta; 119 times in the Babylonian Talmud; 22 times in the Jerusalem Talmud, and hundreds of times in midrash, commentaries, and halachah[3]  The word andrognynos appear 21 times in the Mishnah; 19 times in the Tosefta, 109 times in the Babylonian Talmud, and countless times in the midrash and halachah[4]   Although less common than these first two, aylonit and saris are also found several times in rabbinic texts.   To modernize these descriptions of sex and gender, I will use the word “endosex” to describe the physiology and sex traits of people who are not born with intersex physiology or sex traits.  Even Christianity, acknowledges more than just male and female.[5]  The New Testament mentions the eunuch born that way (see Matthew 19:12)[6]  The prevalence of Intersex people is estimated to be 1.7% to 2% of the world population.[7]  When calculated, this would be around 159 million intersex people if the world population is now about 7.96 billion.[8]  I often share that when you have met one intersex person, you have met one intersex person. 

Intersex People in Contemporary Society Face Oppression

     Intersex people in contemporary society face discrimination, persecution, and even eugenics.[9]  It would not be until the 18th and 19th centuries that binary categories, male/man, female/woman, would be reinforced due to new Victorian science. This new medical way of labeling human sex traits reinforced the male/man, female/woman sex/gender binary. While also being used to regulate women and control people of color in order to oppress them as less than white endosex man/male. This oppression comes from a patriarchal androcentric religious force.  Misogyny and colonialization of the United States would lead to our government and medical complex creating only two binary sexes/genders. Thus, from this day forward, everything in history that was declared otherwise would now be declared a myth by most modern-day religious leaders. Worse, with the invention of the birth certificate, any person not born endosex would now be called a “disorder of sex development” with one of the many intersex variations that the medical complex has turned into a diagnosis, a mental illness.  This label of “mental illness” especially happens when we go against our coerced binary birth assignment.  

     By the late 1800s, there would only be two male/boy or female/girl boxes in which people with intersex traits would have to be assigned.  After the invention of anesthesia and surgery, many intersex children would now become survivors of nonconsenting medically unnecessary cosmetic genital surgeries.  These surgeries often take away sexual function and fertility and can lead to death.  Worse, the genetic specialist often suggests that the intersex fetus be aborted, and I would call this genocide and eugenics.[10]

     By reading these sacred texts that mention us, intersex people, differently, maybe these tragedies would end.  The Jewish holy Scripture is called the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible.  It includes the same books as the Old Testament in the Christian Bible, but they’re placed in slightly different order.[11]  By investigating each religion’s Scriptures, one can find proof that people with intersex variations, such as tumtum and androgenos, and the eunuch born that way existed.  There is a book called ”The Bible with and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently” by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler.  The final words in this powerful book state,  “We are stronger when we wrestle, and when we read together.  And we can, in agreeing to disagree with one reading or another, still ask, “Give me another interpretation,” for that supply is inexhaustible.”[12]  I have taken Levine and Brettler’s suggestion, and through a personal lens as an intersex person, I have looked at the creation story of Adam and Eve and many other biblical accounts.   I now see that God created all of us, male, female, and intersex, in God’s image.  In several different Midrash found through rabbinic literature, including the Talmud, it is demonstrated that Adam is androgyne (androginos). While possibly even using the pronoun “them” to represent one person before they are split into two separate people, male and female.

‘And E-lohim said ‘let’s make Adam in our image, as our likeness’ (Gen.1:26) – Rabbi Yochanan opened with ‘You hedge me before and behind; You lay Your hand upon me’ (Ps. 139:5) and rabbi Yochanan said: ‘if Adam had merits, he eats two worlds, as it’s written ‘You formed me before/achor and behind/kedem’, and if not, he comes to receive judgment and accounting, as it’s written ‘You lay Your hand upon me’. Said R. Yirmiyah ben Elazar: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him (as) an androgyne (androginos), as it is said, “male and female He created them”. Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him double-faced (du-par’tsufin), and sawed him and made him backs, a back here and a back [t]here, as it is said, “Before/achor and behind/kedem You formed me” (Ps. 139:5).  …..”And God said: ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature after its kind” (Genesis 1:24) and then “And God created the Human in His own image” (Genesis 1:27) (Bereishit Rabbah 8:1).

Said R. Yirmiyah ben Elazar: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him (as) an androgyne (androginos), as it is said, “male and female He created them” (Midrash: Genesis Rabbah 8:1).

Rabbi Yirmeya ben Elzar claims that the first human being was created both male and female.  Further, to create male and female, this human being would be split in half to make two distinct people, Adam and Eve.  Based on  the Midrash, I would conclude that the first human being would now in modern times be called an “intersex person.”   The way I read this, it appears that Rabbi Yirmeya is not focusing on the first human’s face(s) but instead their sex organs – they have both male and female sex traits. 

Rabbi Yirmeya ben Elazar also said: Adam was first created with two faces (one male and the other female).  As it is stated: “You have formed me behind and before, and ladi Your hands upon me” (Psalms 139:5) (Eruvin 19a).

Rabbi Yirmeya ben Elzar: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him as an andrognynos.  (one having both male and female sexual characteristics), as it is said, “male and female “He created them” (Genesis 1:27).

Said Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani: IN the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created for him a double face, and sawed him and made him backs, and back here and back there, as it is said, “Behind and before, You formed me” (Psalms 139:5) (Genesis Rabbah 8:1).

Some believe that Shakespeare was one of the first to use the singular ‘they.’[13]  If we read this as I suggest, the use of the singular “they and them” possibly happened before Shakespeare.     

     The Gospel of Matthew also mentions that God made ‘them’ male and female:  He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female.” (Matthew 19:4).  Mathew will also refer to an intersex person as a eunuch that was born this way at birth. Which in my opinion can be interpreted as a person who was born with intersex traits.  This person being born without testicles and also having intersex traits in other ways: 

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can (Matthew 19:12).

     The world governments have taught modern-day people (s), modern-day religions, and the medical complex to pathologize us, intersex people, as being a disorder or birth defect. When many of us intersex activists would rather be considered a variation of human.  Intersex organizations worldwide fight to stop medically unnecessary cosmetic surgeries done on nonconsenting children.  If God created intersex people, too, then people who exist beyond male/man, female/woman binary notions should not be religiously persecuted.   To legally prove intersex is my sex, I fought for my restitution and can now exist beyond binary notions.  As an intersex person, I received the first intersex birth certificate in Colorado on September 17, 2018.[14]  My being born intersex is no longer considered a disorder and is now legally my sex.

     Since Intersex people are also created in the image of God, we too would be included in the book of Psalms, David: 

For it was You who created my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I will praise You because I have been fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalms, David 139:13 and 14).  

When translating the word “fearfully” from Hebrew, it means with great reverence, heart-felt interest, and with respect. Some say that the word “wonderfully,” when translated from Hebrew, means unique and set apart. This is a much better way to celebrate being born with intersex traits.

Human Diversity and Intersex Terminology in Rabbinic Literature

     Today, Zachar would now be called an endosex male, and Nekevah, an endosex female.  The way I see it, I can interpret that the other types of humans mentioned would now all be considered sexual minorities.  With the other sexes being, Androgynos: a hermaphrodite, or one with both male and female reproductive organs. (Babylonian Talmud, Rush Hashanah 29.a).  The hermaphrodite is in some ways like men and in other ways like women.  In other ways, he is like men and women, and in others he is like neither men nor woman (Mishnah Bikkurim 4:1).  Tumtum: undistinguishable genitals, undetermined sex traits, or one whose sexual organs from birth are concealed or are so undeveloped that it is impossible to determine whether the individual is male or female. (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 29a).  Aylonit Hamah (seen as female at birth but later naturally developing male sex traits), Aylonit Adam (seen as female at birth but later developing male characteristics through some form of human intervention), Saris Hamah (seen as male at birth but later naturally developing female sex traits), and Saris Adam (seen as male at birth and later developing female characteristics through some form of human intervention).[15]   I think it is possible that these ancient names not only described people with intersex traits but also might have been describing what we now call transgender, nonbinary, nonconforming, or even cross-dressing people. It stands to reason this would be the case, but due to eugenics erasure, and their use of a different language to describe people back then, it is difficult to back up my claim.  Yet, in a global survey conducted in 2021, two percent of respondents from twenty-seven countries identified themselves as transgender, nonbinary/nonconforming/gender-fluid, or in another way.[16] I do not believe that a population of people this great is simply a modern-day phenomenon.

     Intersex people are not always infertile.  When reading about the physiological traits, I believe that I would have been described as a tumtum. I now live as a gay man, and I have successfully given birth with my endosex/cisgender husband two times. Thus, in my life, I have sometimes been referred to as a woman and sometimes as a man. I also often consider myself a “seahorse dad” or “gestational father.”  Here are various rabbinic texts from the Babylonian Talmud regarding the sex traits of people known as tumtum and androgynos:

10 GEMARA: The Sages taught the following baraita: All are obligated to sound the shofar: Priests, Levites, and ordinary Israelites; converts; freed slaves; a tumtum, i.e., one whose sexual organs from birth are concealed or are so undeveloped that it is impossible to determine whether the individual is male or female; a hermaphrodite [androginos],i.e., one with both male and female reproductive organs; and a half-slave, half-freeman (Rosh Hashanah 29a:9).

Here is an account regarding Abraham and Sarah and their fertility, while also being described as tumtum: 

Rabbi Ami said: Abraham and Sarah were originally tumtumin, people whose sexual organs are concealed and not functional, as it is stated: “Look to the rock from where you were hewn, and to the hole of the pit from where you are dug” (Isaiah51:1), and it is written in the next verse: “Look to Abraham, your father and to Sarah who bore you” (Isaiah 51:2), which indicates that sexual organs were fashioned for them, signified by the words hewn and dug, over the course of time (Yevamot 64a-b).

Rabbi Yose says: ‘An androgynos is a created being of its own.’ The Sages could not decide if the androgynos is a man or a woman. But this is not true of a tumtum, who is sometimes a man and sometimes a woman (Mishna Bikkurim 4:5).

From the halakhic perspective, androgynos is said to be both male and female, as well as neither male or female:   The androgynos is in some ways like men, and in other ways like women.  In other ways, he is like men and women, and in others, he is like neither man nor woman (Mishnah Bikkurin 4:1).  In Hebrew, the Mishnah often would refer to androgynos with the pronouns he/him.  Yet, this appears to be insufficient given the rabbinic description of this person’s genitals and reproductive systems.  We truly do not know the pronouns for this type of person.  In Rachel Scheinerman’s article, on the eight sexes in the Talmud, they state:

Reading on, we find that androgynos is, for the rabbis, in many ways like a man—they dress like a man, they are obligated in all commandments like a man, they marry women, and their “white emissions”[17] lead to impurity.  However, in other ways, androgynos is like a woman—they do not share inheritance like sons, they do not eat of sacrifices that are reserved only for men, and their “red discharge”[18] leads to impurity.[19]

The Mishnah shows that if a person tries to do harm to an androgynos person, they will be accountable, like any endosex human being: “one who strikes him or curses him is liable” (Bikkurim 4:3). Similarly, one who murders an androgynos is considered a murderer.  But Androgynos is also unlike a man or a woman in other important legal respects – for instance, such a person is not liable for entering the Temple in a state of impurity as both a man and a woman would be.[20]

I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever (Isaiah 56:5).

     Studying Jewish and Christian biblical texts has shown that intersex visibility and acknowledgment of our existence might have been stronger in ancient times than today.  Jewish law, or halachah, recognizes sex and gender diversity and has done so through Jewish history.  These laws not only show us that more than men/males and woman/females existed but how intersex children should honor our parents no different than endosex boys or girls, as this Midrash states:

“Honor your father and your mother”: I would think (that they are to be honored) with words. It is, therefore, written (Mishlei 3:9) “Honor the Lord from your wealth.” Just as there, “wealth,” here, too, food, drink, and a new garment (are understood). Variantly: “Honor your father and your mother’: (Leviticus 19:3) “A man, his mother and his father shall you fear,” this tells me only of a man. Whence do I derive (the same for) a woman/ Whence do I derive (the same for) a tumtum (one of indeterminate six) or a hermaphrodite? It is, therefore, written “Honor your father and your mother,” — in any event. Just as with honor (of parents) there is no distinction between a man or a woman, so, with fear. R. Yehudah b. Betheira says: It is written: “A man, his mother and his father shall you fear and My Sabbaths shall you keep.” Just as with (keeping of) Sabbath, there is no distinction between a man or a woman, so, with honor (of parents), there is no distinction between man or woman, tumtum or hermaphrodite. (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael 20:12).

In this Midrash, I interpret that it shows that tumtum (those of uncertain sex) and androgynos (hermaphrodite) people will also get to inherit the land of Israel:

(Bamidbar 18:20) “And the Lord said to Aaron: In their land you will not inherit, and you will not have a portion in their midst. I am your portion and your inheritance in the midst of the children of Israel.”: Why is (all of) this stated? Because it is written (Badmidbar 26:53) “To these shall the land be apportioned,” I would think that all are included — Cohanim, Levites, Israelites, proselytes, women, bondsmen, tumtum (those of uncertain sex) and androgynos (hermaphrodites); it is, therefore, written: “And the Lord said to Aaron: In their land you will not inherit” (Midrash: Sifrei Bamidbar 119:1).

In this Babylonian Talmud, it discusses the eating of terumah, a sacrificial ‘gift’ to God[21]:  

The Gemara raises an objection from a different source: A priest who is a tumtum may not partake of teruma, but his wives and slaves may partake of it. A priest who had been circumcised, but subsequently the residual foreskin was drawn forward, and similarly one who was born circumcised, i.e., without a foreskin, may partake of teruma. A priest who is a hermaphrodite [androginos], possessing both male and female genitals, and was circumcised may partake of teruma, as whether he is male or female he is entitled to eat teruma, but he may not partake of sacrificial food, which is permitted only to male priests, as he might not be a male. A priest who is a tumtum may not partake of teruma or sacrificial food, as he might be a male, and since his member is hidden he cannot be circumcised (Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 72a).

The baraita show be understood as follows:  What is the reason that a tumtum may not partake of teruma? It is because there is uncertainty as to where he is uncircumcised, and an uncircumcised priest may not partake in teruma or sacrificial food. (Yevamot 72:18).

The Master said above in the baraita: A priest who is a tumtum may not partake of teruma, but his wives [nashav] and slaves may partake of it (Yevamot 72a:12).

Below I share my favorite quote that lifts us, intersex people up, that maintain justice and do right, as being acknowledged by God as being possibly more revered than endosex people.  It is from Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament):

This is what the Lord says: “Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand, and my righteousness will soon be revealed.  Blessed is the one who does this- the person who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath without desecrating it, and keeps their hands from doing any evil.”  Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.”  And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.”  For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant- to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever (Isaiah 56:1-5 New International Version).

After years of prejudice, reading Isaiah 56 as an intersex person gives me much hope.  It shows me that God acknowledges that more than endosex male/man and female/women existed and how God will honor us too.

Conclusion

     Israel’s Scriptures and later Jewish texts show that the existence of intersex people are not myth.  We, intersex people, have walked this Earth then and to this day.  With the new words “endosex” bodily variations” and “intersex bodily variations,” we no longer have to use terms that pathologize and medicalize our intersex sex traits.  I believe that only by understanding our ancient past can we truly become intersex welcoming and inclusive. With examples from ancient Jewish texts, we can now see that intersex people are born in the image of God too and that all religious communities should celebrate us, intersex people.  I am proud to be a real living tumtum.


Footnotes and Sources Used:

[1] History.com Editors, “Judaism,” History.com (A&E Television Networks, January 5, 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/religion/judaism#:~:text=The%20first%20version%20of%20the%20Talmud%20was%20finalized,Judaism%20embraces%20several%20other%20written%20texts%20and%20commentaries

[2] Rachel Scheinerman, “The Eight Gender in the Talmud: Judaism has recognized nonbinary persons for millennia,” My Jewish Learning, Daily online 2002-2022:  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-eight-genders-in-the-talmud/.

[3] “How I Met the Tumtum – Transtorah,” accessed August 20, 2022, http://transtorah.org/PDFs/How_I_Met_the_Tumtum.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] Angela Guzman, “How Old is Christianity? The timeline of Christianity is highly debated,” Beliefnet, 2022: https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/christianity/articles/how-old-is-christianity.aspx#:~:text=The%20question%20of%20how%20old%20Christianity%20actually%20is,adherents%20whose%20beliefs%20and%20biblical%20interpretations%20are%20different

[6]  Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, “Mathew 19:12,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[7] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 
“United Nations Intersex Fact Sheet,” United Nations for LGBT Equality, 2022: https://www.unfe.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/UNFE-Intersex.pdf

[8] “Current World Population,” Worldometer, accessed August 17, 2022, https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/.

[9] United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 
“United Nations Intersex Fact Sheet,” United Nations for LGBT Equality, 2022: https://www.unfe.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/UNFE-Intersex.pdf

[10] TEDxJacksonville, “TEDxJacksonville Born Intersex: we are human!” Written by Anunnaki Marquez, November 29, 2018, on YouTube,  http://bit.ly/TEDxMxAnunnakiRayMarquez

[11] History.com Editors, “Judaism,” History.com (A&E Television Networks, January 5, 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/religion/judaism#:~:text=The%20first%20version%20of%20the%20Talmud%20was%20finalized,Judaism%20embraces%20several%20other%20written%20texts%20and%20commentaries.

[12] Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, in The Bible with or without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (San Francisco: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2020), p. 426.

[13] NYU Local, “Shakespeare Used the Singular They, and so Should You,” Medium (NYU Local, November 16, 2016), https://nyulocal.com/shakespeare-used-the-singular-they-and-so-should-you-6452240ca9e0.

[14] TEDxJacksonville, “TEDxJacksonville Born Intersex: we are human!” Written by Anunnaki Marquez, November 29, 2018, on YouTube,  http://bit.ly/TEDxMxAnunnakiRayMarquez

[15] Rachel Scheinerman, “The Eight Gender in the Talmud: Judaism has recognized nonbinary persons for millennia,” My Jewish Learning, Daily online 2002-2022:  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-eight-genders-in-the-talmud/.

[16] Simona Varrella, “Gender Identity Worldwide by Country 2021,” Statista, January 25, 2022, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1269778/gender-identity-worldwide-country/

[17] Stephen H. Arnoff, “Seder Toharot (Ritual Purities),” My Jewish Learning, April 7, 2022, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/seder-toharot-ritual-purities/.

[18] Channa Lockshin Bob, “A Detailed Explanation of Niddah, or ‘Family Purity’ Laws,” My Jewish Learning, January 23, 2019, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-laws-of-niddah/.

[19] Rachel Scheinerman, “The Eight Gender in the Talmud: Judaism has recognized nonbinary persons for millennia,” My Jewish Learning, Daily online 2002-2022:  https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-eight-genders-in-the-talmud/.

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Terumhah – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV),” Blue Letter Bible, accessed August 20, 2022, https://www.blueletterbible.org/lexicon/h8641/kjv/wlc/0-1/.

~.V.~

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