The "Androgynos" in Jewish Legal Context

Continuing our series on the Six Genders in Classical Judaism, blog contributor Melvin Marsh  takes a look at the halachic (legal) proscriptions surrounding the category known as androgynos.

 

Frequently translated as “hermaphrodite” in English translations of the Talmud, the Androgynos is the first of the special categories of halacha which deals with appears to deal with individuals not clearly male or female.  

The Androgynos and laws concerning him are mentioned extensively throughout Mishna Bikkurim Chapter 4, a chapter not always found in collections of Tractate Bikkurim.  It is in this mishna where we learn that the Androgynos has a somewhat unique position in that he is partially like a man, partially like a woman, and in other ways like neither (Bikkurim, 4:1).  He is like a male because he discharges seminal fluid, dresses as a man, and can marry a woman, but yet not be taken as a wife (Bikkurim, 4:2).  The reason he may not be taken as a wife is due to the prohibitions against having sex with an Androgynos, which is the same as having sex with another male regardless of which organs are being used and thus is considered sodomy (Yevamoth 82b, Yevamoth 83b).  

The Androgynos is like a woman because he contaminates with his monthly flow, may not share in inheritance, and may not serve as a witness (Bikkurim, 4:3).  Further, as he is both sexes yet neither, he may not be housed with women or men or left alone with women or men (Bikkurim, 4:2-3).  He is also considered permanently unclean, although he is not penalized for entering the Temple in an unclean state (Bikkurim, 4:5).  

Religiously, the Androgynos is obliged to perform all the required mitzvot as a man and is not exempt from positive time bound mitzvot like a woman although he is considered a sex all to himself (Bikkurim, 4:1-2,5).  Interestingly, on the subject of religious duties, while an Androgynos is obliged to hear the shofar and may even blow it like other males, he may only blow the shofar for other Androgynos, but not for anyone else (Rosh Hashanah, 29a).  This is due, as Rashi indicates, due to the status of the Androgynos as it is unknown how halacha should treat this legal status.  While a TumTum, who will be discussed later, has a definite answer as to his or her sex and thus his or her legal status (even if currently unknown), the Androgynos is in many ways both sexes, so it is a legal question over whether or not an Androgynos should be considered female, male, or its own category which is debated throughout the Talmud.  Thus he may fulfill any religious duties for himself and for other Androgynos, since they all have the same legal status (Rosh Hashanah, 29a).  

Although we no longer sacrifice to the temple, there was even a discussion over Androgynos Kohanim.  An Androgynos Kohan may eat of terumah, provided he is circumcised, however he may not eat of the “most holy” sacrifices or leftovers (kodshei kodashim) (Yevamoth 72a).  According to Rashi, the ability to eat terumah is due to being the circumcised offspring of a Kohen, while the inability to eat the kodshei kodashim relates to whether or not an Androgynos should hold the legal status of female and thus, as the kodshei kodashim only is eaten by male Kohanim, the Androgynos should not be partaking unless their status (either that of male or female) is known.

It is important to note that Androgynos are to continue to be treated with love and respect and any crimes against the Androgynos are as severe as if it was against either a man or woman (Bikkurim, 4:4).  This is true even though, according to notes by Rashi, being Androgynos is considered by many, but not all, rabbis to be a great blemish, at least as pertains to sacrifices.  This is due to the presence of female genitals (in addition to male genitals) as a possible blemish and thus given one should never sanctify out of doubt, the Androgynos should not be sanctified and made holy (Bechoroth 41a-41b, Bechoroth 42b).  Although on a positive note, due to the unique status of the Androgynos status as neither male nor female, he cannot be sold as a slave.  

This sexual category is very interesting as the mention of the menstrual fluid as well as seminal fluid would imply two relatively functioning sets of organs, a rarity if not an impossibility in scientific literature.  In fact, in Jewish tradition, Adam may well have been the first and only Androgynos mentioned in the Torah as Adam had both male and female characteristics until the first woman was created from him (Bereshit Rabbah 8).  However, assuming this intersex individual exists, it seems this is a person who is both male and female is still to be respected, even if he is not allowed to be with the men or the women and truthfully is in the position of being treated as a male when around women, and as a female when around men.  

 

Melvin Marsh, who prefers to use his Hebrew name Mordechai Yisrael, is a "Reformadox" female to male transsexual interested in the Halacha of sex and gender.  He currently lives in Augusta, Ga where he is attending medical school. 

Comment

Robbie Medwed

Robbie Medwed began working with SOJOURN when it was known as The Rainbow Center as a volunteer in 2008. He served as chair of the TRC Advisory Board and as co-chair of Purim off Ponce (2010, 2011) before moving into his current role as Assistant Director, where he oversees SOJOURN's educational programming and outreach, including our award-winning workshops and training seminars. Robbie holds a master's degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has written curricula and nationally-recognized inclusive programs for the Marcus JCC of Atlanta, BBYO, USY, Camp Ramah, the Jewish Teen Funders Network, Babaganewz, and JewishGPS. Robbie is also a certified personal trainer, group fitness instructor, and cyclist. Robbie can be reached at robbie@sojourngsd.org.