Gender Identity and Parashat Tazria


This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, starts with the verse “If a woman becomes pregnant and gives birth to a male child.”

Noting the verb roots of the verse, Eitan CooperExecutive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of The Schechter Institutes  calls attention to a Talmudic debate between Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani and Resh Lakish on how men and women were created.  This debate shows how even the ancient scholars engaged in debates on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Read the accompanying article below:

The beginning of this week’s torah portion, Tazria, can offer us some ancient insights into contemporary debates on gender identity and sexual orientation. It starts with the statement אשה כי תזריע וילדה זכר , often translated as: if a woman becomes pregnant and gives birth to a male child.

But everywhere else in the Bible when a woman is described as being pregnant the root ה-ר-ה (heh-resh-heh) is used, most familiar to modern Hebrew speakers in its form “הריון” (pregnancy). The root used here is  ז-ר-ע(zayin-resh-ayin)  meaning “seed” in its causative verbal form. The only other place in the Bible where this form of the root is used is in the third day of the Genesis creation story, in the expression עשב מזריע זרע, which can be translated as “grass spreading seed”.

The peculiar use of the word Tazria at the beginning of this Torah portion did not escape the attention of many Biblical commentators throughout the ages, particularly because “spreading seed” is an attribute of male sexuality. In Greek philosophy, for example, the male was viewed as the causative, active agent in reproduction, while the woman was seen as the passive medium in which the offspring grows, as in the symbolic term “mother earth”.

This anomaly launches a brief but bizarre discussion between sages in the Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, where Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nahmani states that mankind was created as sexually androgynous, with both male and female attributes.  Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish (Resh Lakish) responds that mankind was first created as a creature with two faces, one male and one female, formed back to back and facing in opposite directions. God cut him in two to create men and women.  Resh Lakish interprets the word “tsela” ( (צלעותיו usually understood as one of Adam’s ribs from which Eve was created, as really meaning the first human’s “sides”, which were sliced in two.

This Midrash is borrowed directly from Plato’s dialogue on love, the Symposium, in which Aristophanes (the Athenian satirist and one of the interlocutors) explains the origins of human sexuality through a myth: Once upon a time, humans were androgynous monsters with two heads, four arms and four legs and two sets of genitalia. There were three types: male-female, male-male and female-female. The Gods were threatened by the speed and power of these creatures so they decided to cut them in two and make them walk upright. But the newly-divided human still longed for its other half and sought to connect with it: those who had been male-female became heterosexual, and those who were male-male or female-female became homosexual.

The rabbis in the Midrash reframe Aristophanes’ myth in a way that produces an argument much more familiar to us:

If as Rabbi Shimon Bar Nahmani states, we are created androgynous, with both male and female attributes, then our gender identities are pliable, formed by psychological and cultural influences, and changeable through technology.

If as Resh Lakish sees it, the sexes were created by slicing humans in half, then men and women are fixed, differentiated biological types, and ontologically we can only truly be completed by connecting with the “other”.

The ancient rabbinic reframing of the even older Greek tale is similar to contemporary debates on the nature of gender and sexuality, and is reflected in the ideologies of LGBTQ activists at one extreme, and of religious fundamentalists at the other.

As Ecclesiastes said long ago: there is nothing new under the sun.