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?