Researching Parashat B’midbar, I couldn’t help but not begin to think about this question of counting, and in particular the counting of a people through the lens of gender. The book of Numbers indeeds begins very much with numbers, and the counting of “males,” and I began to wonder how did the sages of our past designate gender? Indeed one of the truths of Jewish traditions that is not talked about often enough is that we embrace a history that recognizes the multiplicity of bodies and gender identities. Rabbis of old did not fall prey to what unfortunately many do today, which is the idea that all people fit neatly within a construct of male and female. And indeed, some Rabbis of today also do due diligence in resurrecting this history.
What is now understood in modern terms of transgender and intersex issues, Jewish scholars and Rabbis have long grappled with, and have talked about in much more complex ways, and is cited quite often in the text as people who are “androgynous” or “timtum“. There has been incredible scholarship done on this issue by many much more well versed then I, and I thank them for their ability to re-invigorate much needed conversations about gender, identity and bodies today. (more soon to come on jewschool when it becomes live on the internet)
So what would happen today? How would we count? What even happens to babies today when doctor’s make their designated call in the birthing rooms? Or more so, when they can’t? What happens when doctors are confused? Well, the Intersex Society of North America notes that according to experts at medical centers a child is born so “noticeably atypical” in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in about 1 in 1500 to 1 in 2000 births. But a lot more people than that are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won’t show up until later in life. What happens next? Generally, a surgery is imposed, many times without talking to parents, but rather with doctors whisking babies away to make a “social” emergency into a “medical” emergency. Intersex advocates have been working tirelessly to educate masses of people that the issue at hand is primarily a problem of stigma and trauma, not gender, and they are right to be doing this work.
The issues impacting intersex people should not be conflated with those impacting transgender people, yet there are aspects that do overlap in terms of self-determination, gender identity and the body.
Again, I wonder, how would these bodies be counted in these stories? It remains, still, a bit unclear to me–I’d have to consult my Rabbis.
But here are stories I do know about, including the one I was forwarded yesterday about a transexual woman whose appeal to the High Court of Justice was rejected after a prior Rabbinic Court decision has prevented her from continuing to meet with her nine-year-old daughter. While an alimony agreement was reached after the two parents separated, now because she has medically transitioned, she has been deemed unfit to continue to being a parent.
While the media rarely covers the lives of transgender, transexual and intersex people well (and didn’t do a great job with this one either), stories like these are not uncommon. Everyday I hear of friends, colleagues, peers and community members who are told, basically, that they are not human–that they are not valued, that they cannot be a mother, daughter, father, brother, sister and the list goes on and on.
This needs to stop.
I feel blessed, and know that I am lucky that I have been able to participate groups like SVARA . The fact that this organization not only exists, but will hopefully continue to thrive in supporting local initiatives and creating spaces and providing tools for those of us who are rejected by many Jewish educational institutions to learn with our peers about the text that we so often think speaks against us, to see how in many ways the text embraces us, and that we can speak back and challenge the ideas set forth.
And reading stories like the ones above, it couldn’t come at a sooner time. Unfortunately, yet again, we see the Rabbinic court will not be following in the tradition of their elders past.