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Literature and Political Theology

Trans Talmud Reminds Us Things Aren’t Forever Doomed to Suck

Max Strassfeld’s groundbreaking Trans Talmud: Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature is a masterclass in denaturalizing oppressive structures. As political backlash against trans folk continues its deadly escalation, Trans Talmud is a crucial intervention in both scholarly and explicitly political domains.

In my ongoing attempt to steer my students away from a narrative of linear moral progress through history, a mythologized golden past, or, perhaps worst of all, a Qohelet-like cynicism about any kind of justice, I sometimes tell them that one can’t say that the past unequivocally sucked more or less than the present. Depending on where, when, and from whose perspective, some things about the past sucked much less than they do now; others sucked considerably more. What one can say, however, is that they often sucked differently. And that, I remind them, should be galvanizing. Understanding the differences between past and present suckage is a powerful tool for denaturalizing any system of oppression. It reminds us that no particular form of suckage is inevitable—or eternal. 

Max Strassfeld’s groundbreaking book Trans Talmud: Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature is a masterclass in denaturalizing oppressive structures. In a moment when the latest spate of political backlash against trans folk continues its deadly escalation, and when the field of rabbinics, along with other adjacent areas in Jewish studies, is reevaluating its approaches to interpretation, Trans Talmud is a crucial intervention in both scholarly and explicitly political domains. It offers rabbinics and ethics alike a radical methodology for interacting with rabbinic material that is at once textually sensitive, theoretically rich, and steadfastly accountable to  trans experience. It insists that trans folk belong and have always belonged in Jewish spaces and Jewish scholarship. And it is a powerful reminder that there is no structure of gendered hierarchy that is timeless or inevitable. “The alterity of the past,” Strassfeld writes, “is fodder that we can use to imagine our current world differently” (15).

Strassfeld’s main characters—the figures, found in numerous places in the rabbinic canon, of the androginos (one with obvious external and internal genitals), the tumtum (one whose genitals are ambiguous or obscured), the saris (one who is a eunuch), and the aylonit (a woman who is unable to reproduce)—have long intrigued trans and gender nonconforming Jews both inside and outside the academy, as well as scholars of any gender who study Judaism, gender, and sexuality. These figures seem to at once provide tantalizing evidence that the Sages recognized the existence of people who didn’t fit into a sex/gender binary, and to serve as boundary cases that ultimately reify the Sages’ epistemic authority over the meanings of gendered bodies. Challenging, too, is the historical task of approaching them: what are the implications of importing present-day categories like “trans” or “queer” to texts from late antiquity?

Strassfeld, crucially, rejects these binaries, choosing rather to show us the dynamic tension between the texts’ late antique voices, the present-day contexts in which they are always entagled as soon as we engage with them, and the voices of the texts’ readers. To this end, Trans Talmud—as, in a way, it says on the tin, is already inviting the reader to read in a carefully literal manner—is animated by Strassfield’s core methodological intervention of transing the Talmud. “Transing,” a term coined by Joanne Meyerowitz and further articulated by Paisley Currah, Lisa Jean Moore, and Susan Stryker, is “a practice that assembles gender into contingent structures of association with other attributes of bodily being, and that allows for reassembly.” This methodology, Strassfeld tells us, has three components: it “unpacks the mechanisms by which genders are formed through their association with other bodily characteristics,” it “describes the way gender functions as a set of practices that both discipline and manage populations,” and it “uncover[s] paths of fugitivity, and the potential of movement toward liberation” (14).

For Strassfeld, transing also means “explor[ing] bad/literal reading strategies” (19); that is, strategies that too literally read material realities of trans embodiment onto the text at hand in a specific and deliberate embrace of anachronism. If the prefix “trans-,” etymologically speaking, has at its base to do with border crossings, then “in order to trans late antique sources we must consider the crossing of temporal boundaries” (15). Strassfeld insists on “paying attention to the materialities of bodies and bodily change” and on “center[ing] a conversation about sex and gender in rabbinic literature.” (20) In doing so, he argues that not only are the boundaries of what is designated “inside” versus “outside” the text far fuzzier than they have been drawn, but also that the process of setting those apparently stark boundaries is in itself an exercise of discipline and power. This is made clear by thinking about who is likely to be called a “bad reader”: trans, queer, feminist, and BIPOC readings, yes, but the accusation has a long history going at least as far back as early Christian polemics that accuse Jews of reading Scripture, command, and embodiment too literally, too enfleshedly.

The accusation of misreading, then, is one with history—one that is, in an ironic way, more truly stable across history than the binary regime of sex and gender that anti-trans concern trolls and crusaders insist is timeless and self-evident. And it is one that remains live now. Anti-trans policy and rhetoric lean heavily on the image of trans people—particularly trans youth, and especially disabled trans youthas by definition bad readers of their bodies and their meanings, of norms, of medicine and science. In the case of challenges to even peripherally LGBTQIA+ books, events such as drag queen story hours, and curricula, as well as censorious legislation like the Kids Online Safety Act (which, according to coauthor Senator Marsha Blackburn, is meant to “protect minor children from the transgender [sic] in our culture), the accusation of bad reading, and subsequent necessity of keeping bad reading material away from bad readers, is quite literal.

And, of course, bad readers cannot be trusted to narrate their own stories. Bad readers must be spoken for, interpreted. Bad readers, and their claims and desires, certainly mustn’t be read literally.

This, dear reader, leaves me with a dilemma. Political Theology Network’s review series asks for essays that are perhaps more creative, more literary, than your standard academic book review. This is the sort of writing task I’d normally relish, especially as it presents the opportunity to fly off on the sort of associative tangents I adore, perhaps to explicitly weave in personal experience and take you with me as I leap from precipice to conceptual precipice. (In fact, there are several aspects of Strassfeld’s work, most notably the “bad/literal reading” strategy, and the work on temporality, that open up key insights for my own project on neurodivergent affinities in the Babylonian Talmud).

But this book isn’t about me, a cisgender lesbian. Rather, it calls me, in my positionality, to take it as it comes, to try to read it “badly” or “literally,” and to tell you, the reader, enough of what Strassfeld is saying so that you will go and read his words yourself. Which is why, in the next several paragraphs, I am going to do what reviewers for this series probably shouldn’t do, and what I certainly tell my students not to do most of the time: I am going to give you a partial book report. Of course, I can’t give you Strassfeld in a way that’s fully unfiltered; nobody can do that for any other person or text. What I do and don’t choose to summarize reflects my judgments of saliency (and possibly expediency). But I hope that the ruptures and sutures left by my reading and retelling will jump out at you in a way that makes you want to know more. I hope they’ll give you an idea of the many fruitful interdisciplinary and intertextual strands present, and help you identify the ones that pull on you.


Strassfeld’s core chapters begin with an overview of a range of traditions of understanding and analyzing the categories of eunuchs and androgynes in the late antique Mediterranean—and a reminder that “bad,” anachronistic readings of these traditions are hardly the sole purview of trans readers. Scholars’ contemporaneous attitudes toward sex and gender inescapably shape, and have always shaped, our understanding of these categories. If trans readers can be accused of importing their own understanding of gender to these sources, conversely the uninterrogated transphobia of regnant scholarship means it has “[tended] to either actively ignore eunuchs or to treat them as the conceptual backdrop for same-sex sexuality” (40). But what if, Strassfeld asks, we were to center the androgynes and the eunuchs themselves when reading these sources? How might this act of transing change the narrative possibilities?

The next four chapters offer several possible answers to this question. Each uses a selection of rabbinic texts to elucidate a key aspect of rabbinic gender construction and puts that theme in dialogue with questions of gender operative in the present-day. Chapter two juxtaposes recent U.S. policy and case law concerning legal definitions of sex and gender with a list, variants of which are found in Mishnah and Tosefta Bikkurim, of gendered legal obligations and the androgyne’s relationship to each; a list which is linked to a similar one concerning a kind of hybrid animal called a koy.

The substance of these lists, Strassfeld argues, is fraught—it is notable, for instance, that the passage must emphasize that one who murders an androgyne is liable for capital punishment exactly as though they had killed any other person, such that “the androgyne functions legally as a human uniquely through their injury or death” (76). Yet at the same time, centering the androgyne themselves in our reading of the text provides a powerful rebuke to legal claims, such as that made by Mississippi’s HB 1523, which define trans folk out of existence based in a particular understanding of the essentially binary nature of “biblical” gender. Here, at least, the androgyne—and the koy—are acknowledged in detail, rather than being commanded, “Don’t exist” (85).

Chapter three opens by considering “corrective” surgeries performed on intersex—particularly BIPOC—infants in dialogue with a rabbinic debate, beginning in b. Yevamot 83b, over whether surgery can disambiguate a tumtum’s sex, and whether sex with an androgyne violates the Levitical prohibition of mishkav zakhur, or “lying with a man.” Here, Strassfeld points out, while we “tend to think of sexed surgeries as emerging in the twentieth century” (93), the rabbis imagine a surgery that “reveals” the sex of a tumtum, whose genitals are assumed to be obscured by a flap of skin. Unlike the surgeries performed today on intersex children, the surgery the rabbis imagine does not reshape or reconstruct the genitals. But in both cases, the aim is disambiguation and, ultimately, legibility, for a body that cannot be read into extant legal categories is a body that is difficult to regulate—or, as the sugya’s subsequent discussion of the liability of one who penetrates an androgyne demonstrates, a body that is difficult to regulate with.

Chapter four applies the methodological lens of disability and crip studies to a series of passages from Mishnah Yevamot 8 that consider the legal status of genitally damaged men, eunuchs, and the aylonit. Here, noting the thin line between “kosher” genital rupture (circumcision) and disqualifying genital damage or deviance (including certain ways of lacking reproductive capacity), Strassfeld argues that “genital damage becomes a useful vantage point…for examining the ways that body parts come to be imbued with meaning” (149). This spectrum of change and rupture, and the mechanisms by which locations on it are sorted, come to teach, “For all of us, sex changes throughout our lives. Some of those sexed changes are accommodated. Others are manifestly not” (150).

Chapter five interrogates the intersection of gender and temporality through the analogy of old men to eunuchs, and the figure of the “born saris”—one who is identified as a eunuch from birth rather than having been castrated—in Bavli Yevamot 79b-81a. These figures, Strassfeld argues, allow us to “perceive the challenges they pose to the orderly progression of somatic time” (153). Foregrounding his strategy of “bad/literal reading,” Strassfeld asks, regarding the born saris, “What does it mean for an infant not to be fit for procreation?” (166). Eunuchs, in this passage—which begins, counterintuitively, in old age and proceeds through infancy, then gestation, and finally puberty—“carry the weight of failing to conform to gendered expectations of age and development. In the process, eunuchs both delineate and undo the boundaries of normative somatic time” (157).


So where does this leave us? Strassfeld’s temporal interventions, in chapter five and throughout, let alone the news, should have sufficiently cautioned us against either glorifying the rabbinic past or assuming we’ve transcended the systems and structures of somatic, temporal, and gendered control of the past. Even as languages of trans acceptance become more mainstream and narratives of a multitude of trans experiences become more widely available, the social and political backlash against these very things becomes increasingly intense and deadly. Indeed, the “paths of fugitivity” that transing uncovers have once again become distressingly literal, as trans youth and their families, as well as trans adults, flee states with gender affirming care bans.

Yet cynical despair is just as wrong a place to leave this as oppressive optimism or blinkered nostalgia. Rather, it seems to me that “bad/literal” reading might, yet again, show a more accurate and galvanizing option. For Strassfeld shows us that the saris, the tumtum, the androgynos, and the aylonit are not direct analogues to transgender, nonbinary, two-spirit, and intersex people today. He also shows us that they don’t have to be.

In the book’s conclusion, Strassfeld argues that “centering androgynes and eunuchs [shows] that contemporary appeals to a Judeo-Christian gender binary…deliberately efface Jewish texts and their long history of engaging nonbinary bodies.” At the same time, it is precisely this “rabbinic interest in the changeability of sex [that] establishes the rabbis’ expertise in interpreting the body” (183), an expertise that is itself a means of regulation and control. And yet understanding the rabbis’ need to establish this kind of epistemic and taxonomic authority over bodies, for one who has learned, over the course of the book, to read with the kind of literalist clarity that allows one to see across barriers to the connections hidden in plain sight, itself demonstrates that no set of sexed or gendered categories is natural or inevitable. The rabbis must work for their epistemic authority; they must carve out the contours of the categories they produce. Like the bodies they seek to define, the categories themselves are fragile and porous, vulnerable to redefinition, reinterpretation, and rereading.

“Some stories,” Strassfeld tells us in the hauntingly beautiful conclusion to chapter three, which imagines a moment of pensive, pleasurable kinship between an androginos and a capon (a castrated rooster), “may be lost to us.” However, he continues, “We may still imagine what they might have said” (114). Indeed. And in imagining what they might have said, we claim the power to narrate a continuing place for stubbornly fugitive lives. Trans Talmud reminds us that other stories are always possible because other stories have, in a multitude of unruly ways, always been there.

Things, that is to say, are not forever doomed to suck.

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