Rabbi’s NYT op-ed misleadingly claims that Jews recognized six genders

March 21, 2023 • 10:15 am

Here we have another example of what I call the “reverse appeal to nature”, except that it’s a “reverse appeal to Judaism”. The former trope goes like this, “What my ideology says is good is what I must find in nature.” That is, if you’re a gender activist, you must argue that since there is no sexual binary in humans (a false assertion, of course), then there is no sexual binary in animals in general (another false assertion).

Here we have a subspecies of that bias evinced by a Jewish rabbi and gender activist, who claims that Judaism has long recognized a whole range of genders—six, to be exact.  This is also false, for the “genders” adduced by rabbi Elliot Kukla, a transgender man, are not socially enacted sex roles but what doctors call “disorders of sex development”( DSDs): very rare conditions when the development of sexual characteristics goes wrong (DSDs, despite Anne Fausto-Sterling’s claim, are not “new sexes”). These ancient Jewish categories do not correspond to the kind of genders people recognize today—and Rabbi Kukla admits it.  The fallacy here is imposing onto one’s historical religion what what sees as good today: the recognition and approbation of different genders. (Unlike biological sex, which comes in only two forms in humans, genders can be multifarious, as they are social roles or identities assumed by biological males or females.) Somehow the Rabbi thinks it gives succor to the social justice movement to show that Jews recognized people who were victims of sex-trait development gone awry.

The article identifies Kukla as “a rabbi who provides spiritual care to those who are grieving, dying, ill or disabled. He is working on a book about grief in a time of planetary crisis.” Wikipedia also notes that he’s “the first openly transgender person to be ordained by the Reform Jewish seminary Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.”

Read his op-ed by clicking on the screenshot below, or you can find an archived copy here for free.

There are two issues with Kukla’s article, both involving misleading data. The first one involves transgender people have higher rates of suicide due to oppression or misgendering. But none of the data he adduces shows that “oppression” of transgender people, or calling them by the wrong pronoun, actually causes their suicide.  Here are a couple of his statements:

Over the past few years there have been countless stories in the news of trans and nonbinary young people’s deaths by suicide. In San Diego, a 14-year-old, Kyler Prescott, died after being repeatedly misgendered by hospital staff members in the psychiatric unit that was supposed to be helping him. Leelah Alcorn, a 16-year-old transgender girl from Ohio, was rejected by her parents after coming out. In her online suicide note she wrote, “The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was.”

More than half of young people in the United States who are transgender and nonbinary seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to a survey conducted by the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for L.G.B.T.Q. youth. This figure is staggering, but the Trevor Project’s data also points to what can help. The same 2022 survey found that trans and nonbinary youth who report having their pronouns respected by all or most of the people in their life attempted suicide at half the rate of those who didn’t. And a 2019 Trevor Project survey found that transgender and nonbinary young people who live with even one accepting adult were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the previous year.

A 2021 study published by The Journal of Adolescent Health found that for people younger than 18, receiving gender-affirming hormone therapy was associated with nearly 40 percent lower odds of having had a suicide attempt in the previous year. It’s not being transgender or nonbinary that kills young people; it’s the shunning, lack of acceptance and transphobia they encounter in the struggle to be who they truly are.

Now it’s certainly true that some transgender people are driven to suicide by ill-treatment from others, but we have to realize that the incidence of mental illness and suicidality among transgender people is sky-high to begin with, and the desire to change genders may be one solution people see to their mental problems. If they’re told they’re in the wrong body, or that’s in the air, then they may feel that a mental illness that precedes transition can actually drive people to transition. It’s important to recognize that changing gender is often deeply associated with mental illness; it’s not the same kind of thing as changing jobs.

As one paper reports, “Data indicate that 82% of transgender individuals have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, with suicidality highest among transgender youth.”  I am not claiming that being transgender is a form of mental illness, but that it may be a way that people resolve their mental illness. And in some cases it works: in general, transgender people report themselves happy that they transitioned. But note that in none of the cases above do they separate confounding variables of desire to transition from mental illness.

People who kill themselves after being misgendered, for example, may be those with more severe mental illness, and thus are more sensitive and more likely to take an extreme action after being misgendered.  As far as I know, the relationship between gender-affirming hormone therapy and suicide is controversial, as the most severely ill adolescents may not be given puberty blockers because they’re not deemed stable enough to medically transition yet. (Jesse Singal has bored in on the weakness of studies connecting well being and lowered suicide with “affirmative care”; you can see one of his discussions here.)

And as for the “people who live with even one accepting adult” committing suicide less often, the paper really show that the condition tested was NOT “living with one accepting adult”, but having one adult to whom you disclosed your trans status accepting it. From the cited paper:

Youth were first asked whether they had disclosed their sexual orientation to any of the following adults: parent, family member other than a parent or sibling, teacher or guidance counselor, and doctor or other healthcare provider. As a follow-up, youth were asked to what extent they were accepted by the adult(s) to whom they disclosed their sexual orientation. A variable was created that indicated whether youth felt accepted by one or more of the adults to whom they disclosed or did not feel accepted by any adult(s) to whom they disclosed. Past year suicide attempt was assessed with the question “During the past 12 months, did you actually attempt suicide?,” which was asked of youth who reported having seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months. A logistic regression model was utilized to predict past year suicide attempt based on the presence of an accepting adult while controlling for the impact of youth age, gender identity, and race/ethnicity.

Note that all of these are self-reports, so the data are based on whether the trans adolescent “felt accepted”, not “was accepted”. Nor is there anything about living with the accepting adult. The confounding variable here is the self report: even if trans youth are accepted, more severe mental illness may make them feel unaccepted and more severe mental illness may make them more suicidal. Alternatively, those youth who are stable enough to seek and get help might be less likely to attempt suicide because they have less severe mental illness.

I am not dismissing all this research out of hand, but pointing out three things. First, there are confounding variables when it comes to transgender youth that could make certain factors look like they cause suicide when they don’t (or are not as responsible for suicide as proper data would show). Second, the behaviors said to cause suicide may hide the real causes of suicide: mental illness, or may be correlated with the degree of such illness (like sensitivity to being misgendered).

Since the risk of suicidality is a big reason why gender-affirming activists urge parents and therapists to transition children as quickly as possible, it’s very important to figure out the reasons why transgender youth have such high suicide rates—especially the connection with mental illness independent of “affirming” medical care or misgendering.

Third, the rabbi ignores these confounding factors, though I’m not even sure why half of his article, which is pitched as about “six genders of Jews”, is really about suicide

On to the real topic. Did Judaism historically recognize six genders? The answer is, well, not really, for the “genders” were actually disorders of sexual development (DSDs): conditions wheb external genitalia or other secondary sex characteristic did not align with a person’s biological sex. (As always, I construe biological sex as whether someone has the equipment to produce large, immobile gametes [females] or small, mobile gametes [males)].) These ancient Jewish genders don’t at all correspond to the hundreds of genders that people use in modern society.

Rabbi Kukla tells us what those genders were:

In my own tradition, Judaism, our most sacred texts reflect a multiplicity of gender. This part of Judaism has mostly been obscured by the modern binary world until very recently.

There are four genders beyond male or female that appear in ancient Jewish holy texts hundreds of times. They are considered during discussions about childbirth, marriage, inheritance, holidays, ritual leadership and much more. We were always hiding in plain sight, but recently the research of Jewish studies scholars like Max Strassfeld has demonstrated how nonbinary gender is central to understanding Jewish law and literature as a whole.

When a child was born in the ancient Jewish world it could be designated as a boy, a girl, a “tumtum” (who is neither clearly male nor female), or an “androgynos” (who has both male and female characteristics) based on physical features. There are two more gender designations that form later in life. The “aylonit” is considered female at birth, but develops in an atypical direction. The “saris” is designated male at birth, but later becomes a eunuch.

There is not an exact equivalence between these ancient categories and modern gender identities. Some of these designations are based on biology, some on a person’s role in society. But they show us that people who are more than binary have always been recognized by my religion. We are not a fad.

When you look up these four other “genders,” you find that they’re disorders of sex development, and, contrary to the rabbis’s claim, are indeed all based on biology. You can, for example, see a list here that gives the same genders described by the rabbi:

  • “Zachar”, This term is derived from the word for memory and refers to the belief that the man carried the name and identity of the family. It is usually translated as “male” in English.
  • “Nekeivah”, This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English
  • “Ay’lonit”, is a female who does not develop at puberty and is infertile.
  • Saris“, is a male who does not develop at puberty and/or subsequently has their sexual organs removed. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam).
  • Androgynos“, someone who has both male and female sexual characteristics. This would refer to certain intersex conditions, but in terms of gender in the modern day it is closest to androgyne or bigender.
  • Tumtum” A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured.

The first two are “genders” that correspond to behaving according to your biological sex: man and woman. The other individuals, except for true hermaphrodites for gametic tissue, (perhaps “androgynos” would be one of those), are indeed male or female in the biological sense (e.g. “saris” is male, and “ay’lonit” is female). These may have been “genders” among Jews in the sense that if your sex was indeterminate, you would have to decide which, if any, sex role to play: male, female, or something else. But they are not genders in the modern sense, nor do they have anything to say about adopting sex roles when you don’t have a DSD.

But these conditions are rare: as I say in an upcoming co-authored paper:

Developmental variants are very rare, constituting only about one in 5600 people (0.018%), and also don’t represent “other sexes”. (We know of only two cases of true human hermaphrodites that were fertile, but one individual was fertile only as a male, and the other only as a female.)

There are certainly more than 1 in 5600 people today who claim they’re of a “non-male or non-female gender”: a Pew study shows that 5% of young American adults say their gender does not correspond to their biological sex. These individuals are nearly 300 times more common than the Jewish “genders” noted by Rabbi Kukla.

That’s pretty much all I have to say. These kinds of disorders would probably have been about as rare in ancient Jews as they are today, and so we can say with some confidence that the four DSD “genders” of Judaism do not at all correspond to modern genders that people assume. Even the good Rabbi himself admits that when he says:

There is not an exact equivalence between these ancient categories and modern gender identities.

And he misrepresents the genders, which are all based on biology, that is, on development going awry.

I needn’t say more except that some orthodox Jews have refuted Rabbi Kukla’s contention in a piece at the Jewish News Syndicate, but since they include Ben Shapiro, whose very name is often used to reject an argument, I’ll let you read them for yourself.

This crazy article is a prime esxample of a someone exaggerating or misrepresenting nearly all the data he adduces with the aim of showing people that the ancients accepted a diversity of genders.  He fails to show that those genders aren’t the same as modern genders, though that’s really his aim: to validate the latter by citing the former. He also fails to fairly assess the meaning of high suicidality in transgender youth.

I’ll add one more bit of confirmation bias from the rabbi:

In fact, Judaism sees us as so ancient that according to one fifth-century interpretation of the Bible, the very first human being, Adam, was actually an androgynos. This explains why Genesis says, “And God created humankind in the divine image, creating it in the image of God,” referring to Adam, the first person, with a singular pronoun. But then, the very same verse says: “creating them male and female.” (1:27). “Them,” in this ancient interpretation, also refers to Adam: a single person who is both male and female. In other words, in this reading of the creation story, the first human being is described with a singular “they” pronoun to express the multiplicity of their gender.

All I’ll say here that this is “according to one fifth-century representation of the Bible.”  Way to cherry-pick, Rabbi Kukla! What about all those other theologians who see Adam and Eve as separate people in the story: a man and a woman created by God?

h/t: Luana


36 thoughts on “Rabbi’s NYT op-ed misleadingly claims that Jews recognized six genders

      1. And I’m surprised to learn that Kukla can be a real person’s name. Though of course Fran and Ollie are.

        1. But Ollie, remember, was born in the wrong body—seemingly a mere puppet, but in his heart of hearts a dragon!

  1. It’s a case of secular society causing religions to change their moral teachings. It happened with slavery, role of women in society, divorce, and now the LGBTQ issue. They desperately look back to try to show that they were the ones that changed society and that they always were on the side of modern secular values.
    But they weren’t.

  2. The reverse appeal to nature is a side effect of the Enlightenment’s combination of science and humanism, which became more serious after various “anti-sexist sciences” in the twentieth century. The falsification of history is only after the left’s egalitarianism has been frustrated in the field of experience reaction, because the scientific facts are so supportive of (and consistent with) most religious and traditional views of human nature, and against Enlightenment views of human nature, failures in the field of experience are what contributed to the Enlightenment’s abandonment of rational discussion (since reason and experience did not support the Enlightenment view of human nature) and was one of the factors that turned into wokeism.

      1. Blank slate, you cannot oppose the blank slate and support Enlightenment at the same time. In fact, biology largely gives a reasonable reason for the existence of social systems and class inheritance separated by men and women. This is also the basis of most traditional religious values. The findings of evolutionary biology have been a great pillar of the conservative tradition to this day.

        This is why Enlightenmentism is destined to be hostile to evolutionary biology. It is the belief of most biologists (and their predecessors) in Enlightenmentism that leads them to succumb to wokeism. Since the real science obtained by rational discussion can only be conservative and A weapon of religious reactionaries, in which case evolutionary biology might as well die in irrational wokeism. And the Enlightenment was also abandoned by them under the “anti-rationalism based on reason”. Of course, you can also pursue the “human beings are just animals” Enlightenment, but that already has a name called Romanticism, and it has some differences ways to redirect back into the world of conservatism.(It’s interesting that the theory of evolution emerged during the Romantic era, not the Enlightenment era)

        This can be compared with a sentence by the famous science fiction writer Arthur Clarke, just as “advanced technology is no different from magic”, “a theory of evolutionary biology that is correct enough can only converge with conservatism”

        1. Steven Pinker opposes the blank slate and supports Enlightenment and has literally written several books to explain how and why that is possible and that it is a.good idea.

          1. His argument doesn’t convince me, in fact I despise him, you can’t both be against ”sexism” and at the same time claim that biology justifies certain ”sexist views” to be true. Pinker is a mad Enlightenment believer, insisting that men and women have different talents and preferences, while insisting that an ineffective and potentially socially harmful distribution system is good for society. This is why “centrists” have no weight in politics. You can’t be a leftist scientist and at the same time claim that your ideas can be reconciled with scientific facts that are clearly pro-rightist. There will always be a point where you get overwhelmed by your own contradictions and are forced to resort to faith, and thus easy access to wokeism.

            1. (At the risk of falling foul of our host’s roolz) What absolute drivel. I’ve got no problem in you disagreeing with Steven Pinker, but claiming he’s a ‘mad Enlightenment believer’ is just barmy. As with most, if not all, positions Mr Pinker holds, he goes to extraordinary lengths to explain his reasoning (including writing a book on reasoning). He’s not an Enlightenment ‘believer’. He’s got a well developed set of reasons for admiring several outputs of the Enlightenment.

              Also ‘despise’? For heaven’s sake….

    1. I’m confused by this comment. At minimum, you should clarify which scientific facts are “so supportive of (and consistent with) most religious and traditional views of human nature…”. Much of what you have written is indecipherable.

      1. Men’s natural strength is more suitable than women to do certain jobs. Women are more suitable for childcare work because of their maternal instincts. If you have a certain degree of understanding of evolutionary biology, some research results have confirmed that some conservative views on social phenomena should be common sense. Of course, this intentional ignorance is common among the left biologists.

  3. I don’t understand the appeal to the authority of ancient Judaism. Suppose the Rabbi were correct (even though he obviously is not) ancient Judaism justified slavery. So does that mean slavery is okay today? That is the flaw with this appeal to natural Judaism. The Rabbi only picks out what he wants to pick out from the ancients. I could also mention that the Bible seems to condemn homosexuality, though there is some controversy. But the appeal to natural Judaism is fraught with this problem of selection.

    1. Think of the sex binary as an ancient or medieval wall that is being attacked by an invading army. The gender army’s great crusade is to destroy this wall by any means necessary—any “theory”, any language game, any amount of sterilized children,
      even if they have to drag the poor intersex into this and utilize their pain for the glory of their great crusade—nothing matters except destroying the wall.
      They don’t care about intellectual honesty or consistency, they certainly don’t care about free speech or thought, they absolutely don’t care about how many people may be injured in the battle to tear down the wall, and they certainly don’t care about how much social discord is unleashed.
      Deconstruction uber alles!

  4. Oy. I just wish he hadn’t felt the need to do all those mental and scriptural gymnastics to claim that Jewish tradition and laws are consistent with the politically current beliefs of today. I can’t see how categorizing genders based on cherry-picked snippets from the Jewish literature can possibly illuminate today’s debate. The rabbi is trying way too hard to be relevant.

  5. English is my second language and Spanish my first. I’ve also studied French and Latin, and can read some Portuguese and Italian.

    I had read that op-ed and felt captive since I don’t know Hebrew. But from my language study, I am fully aware of the vagaries of language and translation. Including purposeful tendentious readings.

    But there was something else going on…..and that is Presentism, the bending of the past to fit the exigencies of today. This is a big problem in historical writing today and seems to at the heart of why so many historians have labeled the “1619 Project” something akin to historical gibberish.

    In terms of transgender and suicide, there is a 41% statistics quoted everywhere as solid fact, but rarely are its origins reference. Below I link to a discussion from where it supposedly originates:


    And here is the paper itself:



  6. One of the deepest Jewish jokes is about the Jew on a deserted island. When he is rescued he is asked why he has built two synagogues on the island. “To that schul, I don’t go!” Even a solitary Jew has to be in a disagreement. So even if you could find in the Talmud, something that you could read as a defense of contemporary gender ideas, you could also find the opposite. The moral is: don’t look to ancient Jewish (or other) texts to defend this or that way we can live with our problems and disagreements about gender.

  7. Rabbi Kukla overlooks the clear correlation between attempts at suicide by individuals and the same individuals being earlier accused of “depression” or “suicidal ideation”. We
    must avoid marginalizing depressed young people by implying that depression is anything to worry about, or by failing to offer anything other than affirmation to their suicidal thoughts. Why, to suggest a diagnosis of any sort of mental illness is a threat to the Inclusion of depressed people, and a denial of their Diversity! Come to think of it, didn’t we go through this scenario about 50 years ago, with R.D. Laing & Co.?

      1. Right you are, Ken. Sometimes, some of the crap that keeps flying by makes me think we are all in a time-warp. The most striking case is the alignment of a part of the most reactionary Repubs with some remnant parts of the “peacenik” Left in opposing military aid to Ukraine. Shades of the opposition to Lend-Lease in 1940-41.

        1. Seconded in the time-warp contest only by the intimate embrace of neocons and establishment Democrats. Precursors in Vietnam, shades of Iraq and Afghanistan.

  8. One of the most disturbing factors involved with trans suicide statistics is the way the assertion that “trans kids will kill themselves if they don’t get what they want/need” has entered the popular narrative surrounding gender confusion. It’s unlikely that there’s anyone over the age of 10 who isn’t perfectly aware of it; if they identify as transgender, they definitely know.

    The assumption is frequently used to force the parents to affirm their child’s new identity: “Do you want a trans son (daughter) or a dead daughter (son)?” — a question which can take place in front of the child. Both grim warnings and casual references to trans people committing suicide appear in almost every article on children and transition, as they do in the Rabbi’s piece.

    This goes against everything psychologists and therapists know about how to deal with information on suicide, and violates media guidelines. Young people are extremely suggestible when it comes to tales of self harm: there’s a well-known contagion effect. You’re not supposed to attribute suicide to any single factor — particularly one in which an adolescent doesn’t get their way in a situation which has been catastrophized into being about one’s right-to-exist-as-who-they-really-are.

    As one source puts it

    …an excessive focus on an exaggerated suicide risk narrative by clinicians and the media may create a damaging nocebo effect (e.g., a “self-fulfilling prophecy” effect) whereby suicidality in these vulnerable youths may be further exacerbated.

    The Rabbi then may be part of another confounding factor in the suicide statistics.

  9. When I was young and had long hair, I was occasionally misgendered (especially if they were behind me, I’d get the occasional “excuse me, ma’am”) and I was would laugh it off. It’s a much bigger deal to autogynephiles because their fetish requires you to recognize them as women or they don’t get the erotic thrill.

  10. The activists will conflate sex and gender when it suits them; they will then insist on differentiating the terms, again, when it suits them. The confusion and willful distortions will continue until the nonactivist crowd drops the superfluous and ever-fluid ideological term “gender”. We will all be better off when it goes the way of so many Freudian terms and concepts that were once the vogue of the intellectual class. Curious this penchant for concepts that simultaneously explain everything and nothing.

    1. Sexes in the Old Testament (Tanakh) : 1)Male (all the men) ; 2) Female (all the women); 3) Non-Sexually Reproductive (God)

      6 Genders in the Old Testament: 1.) Extremely masculine, powerful, and completely authoritative over all things; 2) A real man’s man, strong & brave, good with slingshots; 3.) pretty masculine, but weak when it comes to women; 4) masculine in some ways, feminine in others 5) quite a woman when she dances but disturbingly okay with decapitating enemies 6) so perfectly feminine her children arise and call her blessed.

  11. I saw that article from the NWokeTimes this morning, wishing we had a better hometown paper here. One that wasn’t so given to moral panics, social contagions and culture bound syndromes. Nonsense, in other words. (sigh).

    When I saw it I thought: “Hopefully Jerry will take this one apart.”
    cheers, boss!

  12. I expect you are all thinking it, so I shall be both prurient and gauche and ask it—is the transgender rabbi circumcised? And if so, isn’t that illegal?

Leave a Reply