What does Jewish tradition have to say about LGBTQIA+ people? Well like any question in the Jewish world, there are almost infinite potential answers. But something which is indisputable is that diversity of sexuality and gender has always been a part of HaShem’s creation. And I really do mean always. The Torah relates that HaShem created the first human; “So G-d created humankind in His image: in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them” (Bereshit 1:27). We’re all familiar with this story, HaShem creates Adam and Chava, but be careful. Upon close inspection the above verse is difficult, it describes the events of creations sixth day, Chava was not created until the eighth day (Bereshit 2:18). So, what is going on here? If it is only Adam who is created on the sixth day, who is “male and female”?
Our sages of blessed memory took up this issue in Bereshit Rabbah, the famous Midrash (a traditional Jewish form of scriptural analysis) on the book of Bereshit. Here is what they had to say “When the Holy One, blessed is He created the first human, He created him as an androgynous. Thus it is written, he created them male and female” (Bereshit Rabbah 8:1). You read that right, the sages interpret the verse literally, the singular Adam who was created is both male and female, in the Rabbi’s words an androgynous. So, the first human was not a man at all, let alone a male and female couple.
So, what does this mean for us as Jews? A fascinating interpretation comes from Rabbi Steven Greenberg in his book Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish Tradition. Rabbi Greenberg highlights a literary clue in the text of the Torah:
And G-d made adam |in His image
In the image of G-d | made He him
Male and female | made he them.
Rabbi Greenberg notes that there is a pattern here, the first two phrases are the same idea but reversed, in the third phrase “male and female” is in the place which in the first two phrases was occupied by “in His image” and “In the image of G-d” (Wrestling with God and Men, Pg. 47). Rabbi Greenberg is saying that the text implies that HaShem is actually both male and female. This is actually a standard position in the Jewish world, HaShem is not human, but far beyond that, including beyond gender. And He passed this gender transcendence on to Adam.
Adam is far from the only personality in the Torah to have a queer gender or sexuality. Our father Avraham and our mother Sarah also followed in the legacy of divine queerness. We know from the Torah that Sarah was infertile (Bereshit 11:30). The Babylonian Talmud in Yevamot 64a tells us that Avraham was infertile as well and that in fact both of them were tumtumim. This is why they could not have children, a tumtum is a person who is born without any sexual organs. Another opinion in the same place states that Sarah was an aylonis, that is, someone who is born apparently female, but who does not develop in a feminine way. They have no breasts, and a voice that is indistinguishable from either male or female (this definition of aylonis comes from Yevamot 80b). In either case, there is more to avoteinu (Hebrew for ‘our fathers’) and imoteinu (Hebrew for ‘our mothers’) than one might think. Avraham was neither a man nor a woman but a tumtum. And Sarah was either a tumtum, or a butch transmasculine person; born ‘female’ but developing in a decidedly androgynous way.
Let’s review what we’ve learned so far, HaShem created humankind in His image, and that image is neither male nor female but something more, beyond the binary. Consequently, heterosexuality was not HaShem’s original idea, it only happened later on. And avoteinu and imoteinu continued this legacy of divine gender non-conformity. So, we have a nonbinary G-d who envisioned His creation beyond heterosexuality and binary gender, and a queer lineage that follows. Perhaps it sounds absurd, but the textual evidence is right there, and there is much, much more.
To get you started, here are some resources on the topic of LGBTQIA+ Torah and Jewish culture:
- Toldot Trans: Tracing a Trans Lineage through the Torah by Binya Koatz: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/125838?lang=bi.
- This is a fascinating source sheet that demonstrates a thread of divine queerness going right through from Adam to the patriarchs and matriarchs and down to the present day.
- A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969 by Noam Sienna.
- The title pretty much says everything you need to know. This anthology collects everything from Torah to teshuvot to poetry over two thousand years of queer Jewish text.
- Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in The Jewish Tradition by Rabbi Steven Greenberg.
- I mentioned this one in the text. Rabbi Greenberg is known as the first openly gay orthodox Rabbi in history. His incredible book considers how gay Jews might live happy and fulfilling lives while dedicating themselves to orthodox Judaism. A deeply personal issue for the author and myself.