Blessed art thou who made me a man – and a woman

Long before Dana International, Jewish scholars pondered the concept of androgyny and its implications for religious law. Just examine the dilemma of the wife of the biblical Reuven, who, as one scholar describes it, over time turned from a young Jewish virgin into a man.

Can Dana International recite the morning blessing of "who hast not made me a woman"? Two previous articles in this series discussed the legend of androgyny in the story of the creation of Adam and Eve. In this article, I would like to examine the status of the genuine androgyne in Jewish sources. An issue no less relevant – considering the case of Dana International – is the discussion of the halachic attitude toward sex-change operations.Let us first precisely define the terms to be used here. An "androgyne" is someone who has the genitalia both of a male and a female, and should not be confused with a transvestite, a male with effeminate dress and mannerisms, or a transsexual, someone who has undergone a sex-change operation. Greek mythology has it that the naiad Salmacis fell in love with Hermaphroditus, the comely offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite, and after he rejected her, she seized him and entreated the gods to merge them into one being, thus creating the first hermaphrodite or androgyne.

A large section of Mishnaic law is devoted to the laws that apply to the androgyne. The Mishna states that because the androgyne has both male and female organs, "in some ways he is equal to men, and in others to women, and in some ways, he is equal to neither men nor women (Tosefta Bikurim, chapter 2, Liberman, page 289). Because of these doubts, halacha imposes numerous restrictions and prohibitions on the androgyne. It says, for example, that "an androgyne may marry a woman but not a man." Why? Because the status of the androgyne as either man or woman (or a third unclear sex) is ambiguous, and it is simpler, from a halachic standpoint, to allow him to marry a woman – after all, homosexual relations between women are not forbidden in the Torah – than to marry a man, since homosexual relations between men (referring to anal sex) are strictly and explicitly forbidden by the Torah.

Rabbi Simai, an Eretz Israel sage of the third century, ruled that a man who engaged in sexual relations with an androgyne is deserving of execution by stoning whether he engaged in vaginal or anal sex (see Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot, 83b). Rabbi Samai's approach is intriguing because he apparently considers the androgyne to be a full-fledged male, and therefore sexual relations with him, whether with his female or male orifice, is equivalent to male-male relations. This proves that in the eyes of many Talmud sages, homosexual relations were forbidden because of the very penetration of one male by another, although Maimonides ruled that only anal relations were deserving of the most severe punishment of stoning.

The fact that Talmudic sources and the Medieval responsa literature devoted so many discussions and debates to the legal status of the androgyne raises the question of whether this was a common or familiar phenomenon, or whether these debates were merely theoretical. Rabbi Yaakov Glassberg, a 19th century Berlin mohel, discussed this matter from the "professional" aspect in the appendices to a book about circumcision customs. In his comments, Glassberg assails certain Enlightenment scholars who looked upon the Talmudic debates on this issue as an exercise in futility, having no basis in reality. "-And so-called scholars have written that there is no such thing, and I say they speak nonsense and lies when they deny something so well-known." He goes on to provide evidence of various cases of androgynous children that he encountered in his work at circumcision ceremonies. "I personally saw such a case with my own eyes 12 years ago, when I performed a circumcision on such a child. He had a proper male sinew, except that it had no aperture at the head, and instead, where the hole should have been, it had a protuberance on the skin like a thread along the sinew, down until the sac that contained the testicles, and between the two testicles, it had a female organ, from where it urinated. Additionally, the sinew would harden when it was touched."

Rabbi Glassberg quotes an 11th century physician, Ibn Sina, who wrote that some believe that an androgyne can have sexual intercourse both as a male and a female, but he himself did not believe so. Glass expressed surprise that Ibn Sina did not know that Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah, explicitly wrote that the androgyne can have sexual relations in two ways (and Rashi of course based his comments on those of Rabbi Simai in the Talmud). He also quotes from the Book of Inheritances by Rabbi Se'adya Gaon, in which an intriguing issue of inheritance is raised. If a person who had an androgynous child as well as boys and girls dies, should the androgyne be considered a son or a daughter for the purpose of inheritance laws? This is the solution: "For one must look and see how he urinates – if he urinates from a male member, he should be judged a male, and if he urinates like a female, he should be judged a female."This leads to a discussion of the matter of sex change as perceived by halachic authorities. Surprisingly enough, this matter has been discussed in the past, despite it being considered a purely modern development. The "scientific explanations" offered in the answers of the rabbinical authorities to the phenomenon of sex change as understood in their time are indeed bizarre. Thus, for example, we find in the responsa Yad Ne'eman (printed in Salonika in 1804) a reference to a pamphlet written by a Jerusalem scholar of the period. The author of the pamphlet describes various bizarre cases of "changeovers from female to male," and he also explains that in his opinion male and female organs are not all that different from an anatomical aspect. "Except that the female has her organs inside her body and with the male, the organs are on the outside." Thus, according to this theory, each woman has inside her "foreskin and testicles," the only difference being that hers are internal and hidden. From this it follows that if "there is increased heat or a surplus of blood – the organs of the womb will expand and the foreskin of the womb could become external, with the female turning into a male. Or the opposite could occur: If there is too little heat and a decrease of blood, the organ will shorten and withdraw inside the body, and from a male, will turn into a female."

And because this was not entirely new to them, it should come as no surprise that questions that dealt with the halachic aspects of these sex changes occasionally arose. Thus, for example, we find an intriguing question in the book, "Joseph and His Brothers," (Izmir, 1896). "What is the ruling concerning Reuven who married a normal Jewish virgin, and lived with her as man and wife, and after many years it so happened that she changed from a female into a male in every way? What is the law concerning someone who was a female and the legal wife of a man, and who was transformed into a male? If Reuven wants to marry and take another wife, does he have to give his first wife a bill of divorce because she was his wife in the past, or perhaps he does not have to give her a bill of divorce because she is no longer a woman, but rather a man?" The rabbi concludes that it is not necessary to go through the divorce ceremony in this case.

The man-woman, however, should be aware that in the morning prayers, he should no longer recite the woman's blessing of "who has made me according to thy will," but neither can he recite the blessing of "who has not made me a woman" because this blessing is reserved for those who were born males, and God did indeed make this man a woman. The rabbi consequently suggests that this man recite a special blessing: "Blessed art thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has changed me into a man." Additionally, he brings to the attention of the inquirer a certain doubt raised by Rabbi Elia Abulafia, an Izmir scholar.If that man should again revert to being female after a number of years, what will be his/her legal standing vis-a-vis Reuven, the one-time husband. This could become crucial if, for example, this woman should marry another man and subsequently divorce him. Would she then be permitted to remarry Reuven? According to the Torah, after all, a divorced woman may never return to her husband if she has married someone else following her divorce. But this woman, because she at one point turned into a man, might be considered a "new creature," as if she had been born anew and had no previous history. Abulafia does not have a clear-cut answer, and decides at this point only to present the different aspects of the question, "and if such a matter should indeed come before, then he will decide on the matter."

A contemporary authority, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldinberg, raised this question again recently. Although he discussed the issue before the facts concerning sex-change operations of Jews in Israel became public knowledge, he comments that he had already heard about such operations being conducted in hospitals abroad. Waldinberg indeed bases his response on the answers brought here, but he adds something of his own which will certainly seem bizarre to those who are not familiar with the manner in which halachic authorities relate to the Aggadic parts of the Talmud. Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein, who lived in the 14th century in Neustadt near Vienna, asked the following question in his book "Trumat Hadeshen": What was the legal status of the wife of Elijah the Prophet after he rose to heaven in a chariot of fire? Can this woman marry another man or not?

The doubt arises, of course, because Elijah did not die, according to the Scriptures and as the story was understood in the Aggadah, and she, therefore, is not really a widow. Rabbi Isserlein's answer to this theoretical question is that Elijah's wife is certainly permitted to marry again because she is now married to an angel and not to a man, and the Torah does not forbid the wife of an angel from remarrying. This means that the marriage ceremony between Elijah and his wife was retroactively nullified the moment Elijah rose to heaven – even though he never died in the conventional sense and she is not a legal widow! Based on this odd "precedent," Rabbi Isserlein determines in his response that a if married man turns into a woman following a sex-change operation, a similar legal process will apply. The marriage ceremony of this (former) man will be canceled retroactively because he is now a woman.

© Copyright 1998 Ha’aretz. All Rights Reserved. Translation to English by Ha’aretz staff.