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Reading the Trans Talmud

The following is a transcript of Episode 103 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording this episode during pride month. Today, June 13th, 2022. 

So I’m heading off this week to Israel and I’ll be there by the time this episode drops. I’m going for about seven weeks to be in-residence at the Shalom Hartman Institute campus in Jerusalem for our annual suite of summer programs for lay leaders, rabbis, Hillel directors, and more, and I’m really relieved to be going back after we had to move all over activities online for the last two summers. 

I teach a lot during the summers, but the highest pressure moment for me each summer is the lecture that I’ll be giving to open up the lay and rabbinic programs. Each year we pick a different and timely theme for our learning. And I work on my contribution for months. It’s making me anxious now just talking about it. I try to think through the issues of the day and what I wanna say. And I also try to figure out what text to teach and which texts will be most effective to convey those ideas.

And those are all loaded choices. If you believe that education works, as I do, anytime a teacher chooses a topic and curates texts and then reads them in a particular way, we’re engaged in actually making meaning. Hermeneutics, in other words, are a power-play. Handle with care. 

The discipline of how one reads sacred texts, which one to emphasize can be really influential in how individuals and communities think and how we anchor our commitments in a language of authenticity. This way of exercising Jewish power has been around for a long time. We might even say that the history of Jewish innovation and creative leadership is a history of courageous interpretation.

Our Torah traveled from an ancient wilderness to its continued relevance today to millions of people, traversing linguistic and cultural boundaries and winding its way through every evolution in how people think and how we define the good.

And this was only possible because of this relentless commitment to the business of interpretation, as slow and as strange as that enterprise sometimes feels. And those that succeeded in shaping how Jews read our sacred texts, we remember now, as the most powerful Jews in our history. So one of the ways the Jew might wanna make a play for history is through the text themselves.

Now this is a lot to take on. You need to become so expert in this literature to take all the time, to understand it correctly so that you can use that knowledge to make it mean new things. In so doing, you also invite the risk that in becoming so intimately familiar with our texts, you become slavishly devoted to what you think they mean. 

You become a conservative reader rather than a change agent. Tradition is a weird animal that way. And also not everyone’s willing to admit equally that they’re engaged in the same enterprise. Everyone on the ideological spectrum of serious Torah study, from Haredi heads of seminaries and Yeshivot to all the folks on the 7:49 AM Long Island Railroad train from Far Rockaway who study a page of Talmud daily together, to liberal and progressive Jews claiming and reclaiming their place as Torah scholars, all of us tend to think that their method and approach to these texts is the right one. 

The old joke is that anyone to the right of me is too conservative and reactionary. And anyone to the left of me is wrenching the meaning of the text to serve their ideological change strategy. I suspect it’s always been this way.

And maybe the only difference about the age we live in now is that I think actually more people representing a wider diversity of the Jewish people actually study Torah today than ever before. And we can see each other’s hermeneutics in public. In their Sefaria source sheets, on YouTube in the classes that we teach, in the rigorous academic books that we publish to make our case. 

The world of Torah today is, as it has always been, the ideological battleground for the Jewish people to make our case for the power of our ideas and for the empowering authenticity of Torah itself and the stakes of the moral moment couldn’t be higher than they are right now. 

So into this mix steps a new contender with a powerful and difficult book and with a wildly creative hermeneutical strategy that seems made for the moment.

The name of the book is Trans Talmud: Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature. And you know, whenever I have an author here, I hold up their book as I’m saying this, makes no sense on a podcast, but the book is just out from University of California Press, its author is Dr. Max Strassfeld, assistant professor in religious studies and classics at the University of Arizona.

And a person close to my heart in that weird Jewish geography sense as a fellow fellow of mine on the Bronfman program nearly 30 years ago. And who I’m overjoyed to still be talking Torah with these three decades later. The book is methodologically unique and academically rigorous, but it glows with something wildly creative and important inside, a way of reading text that responds to and breaks new ground for this moment that we’re all in, in the rethinking and remapping of human gender and sexuality.

So, Max, welcome. Thanks for coming on Identity Crisis.

Max: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so pleased to be here.

Yehuda: Let me start with this. This is an academic book about Talmud and we’re gonna unpack some of your readings later on. But also, I dunno if anyone will describe this book to you this way, but I kind of experienced it as a love letter of sorts to the human body and to all the people who inhabit bodies that test the normative frames through which they have been so long understood. That’s like a love letter to the liminal. 

And I wanna hear more about that. Where this book comes from as a way of introducing yourselves to our listeners.

Max: You know, what’s funny. I I’ve given now all of two book talks and I had someone say to me, your body is on the page quite a bit. And I really hadn’t thought about that at all. I didn’t, it wasn’t a deliberate choice. I wanna think of it. Like I wanna ex post facto say, oh yeah, that was a theoretical reason choice that I made.

But I think in part, I think part of it is about the fact that I don’t have their bodies. Right. There’s a lacuna at the heart of this book. I don’t have the thoughts of androgynes and eunuchs, specifically. I don’t have their words preserved and I don’t have their bodies on the page. Just the observations about their bodies. 

And in the absence of that, I think part of what I did was put my own body on the page to remind us that material bodies are at stake. So I talk about my top surgery scars. I talk about my gray hair. I talk about all sorts of things about my body. And I, I, I really think that was about reminding us that this isn’t just a theoretical debate, but that this is in fact gonna have repercussions, these questions have repercussions for real material bodies in the world.

Yehuda: Hmm. In the subtitle of the book, Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature, you’re, you’re surfacing characters who, as you say, at some point in the book, you’re moving kind of from the footnotes to main stage, but it’s, I didn’t even think about this until you just said it now, which is, any place that we’re gonna find about the discussion of gender and sexuality in Talmud. And it’s all over the place.

And especially around people who for lack of a better phrase who are ambiguously bodied from the perspective of the authors of the text are the object of analysis, as opposed to the protagonist of analysis. So what you’re effectively saying is, there’s still the object of what I’m looking at, but I’m trying to figure out how to make them the first person character in the story.

Is that right?

Max: Yeah. And I do that in a variety of ways. I actually, at some point retell one of the texts from the perspective of the androgyne and the rooster that are characters in this story. Not because I think that’s a more accurate version of the story, but just to notice that absence and to think about what this might have looked like from their perspective. 

And feminist scholarship on the Talmud has made similar arguments, theoretical points around thinking about how we try to recapture the perspective of women as subjects, not just as objects of Jewish law. So my teacher Charlotte Fonrobert thinks a lot about this in her book and in some ways I’m really building on feminist scholarship.

Yehuda: Mm-hmm. One of the other things that you, you clearly build on, you allude to right at the beginning of the book, acknowledging reading Talmud with, uh, with rabbi Benay Lappe has been a guest previously on Identity Crisis, uh, at Svara, um, at and breaking in essence by doing so, kind of breaking the boundary of sorts between how Talmud is studied by Jews, as a means of a pursuit of knowledge, as a means of attaching ourselves to the authentic, um, and what you do in this book, which is, uh, around really rigorous, um, feminist and trans reading of text as kind of governed by the standards in the academy.

Can you talk a little bit about the blending of those two and, and what it means to read Talmud as a reader in one, in one place, as opposed to being a reader of Talmud in another place. 

Max: It’s a little hard because I’m a member of both communities and there’s different kinds of epistemological commitments for both of those communities. Right? So for example, I’ll see, lots of trans and intersex and queer Jews today, arguing that the rabbis talked about androgyns and eunuchs because they were real people. 

Right. That they knew androgyns and eunuchs, and that is the reason why they show up so much in the literature. And I’m completely sympathetic to that claim. It’s really powerful to write yourself into history, to make a claim that we exist. Um, not just historically, but in our own tradition, in our canonical literature, that’s a really powerful activist move.

And as an academic, I don’t have evidence that the rabbis knew specific androgyns and eunuchs. They also practiced animal husbandry. So they probably encountered all sorts of bodies that way as well. Right. So I don’t have evidence pro or con on that particular issue. 

And I think that the adjudication of whether the androgyne and eunuch exist, and whether the rabbis knew them, in fact has more to do with the way we make trans and intersects people invisible today, that then we’re arguing, we are here and we have always been here, that that’s actually the activist move that’s happening. 

And I have mixed feelings about arguing that I am here now. The basic motivating factor for that argument. I, I, I personally, I don’t wanna justify my existence, so I, I both feel really sympathetic to that activist move and I think that they should make it, absolutely, claim these characters and interpret them as creatively and as um as revolutionary figures, do that, go for it.

Uh, but it’s also not quite what I can do as a scholar of Talmud. So I, I often actually feel caught between those dynamics.

Yehuda: You kind of have left with one choice. If you can’t locate yourself in the texts, then what you can locate in the text is still the historical experience of exclusion. Right. Either way you’re located in the text either by being present in the text or being absent from the text. Right?

Max: Yeah. Yes. That is correct. And even the suppression of voices is a kind of presence, right? That’s the kind of, that’s the thing that I’m drawing attention to with my body, with all the different tactics I’m using, but that suppression itself is a presence in the book. That’s, that runs throughout. 

Yehuda: Yeah, you have a line on page 187 in the book where you, where you describe the quote historical trace in the echoes of stubbornly resistant embodiment. So whether or not the characters who are the object of the rabbis’ study are present, the very nature of them being talked about embodies the authors and writers of the text themselves. Right?

Max: Correct.

Yehuda: One of the commitments that you make in this book, which gets at this dynamic between the reading of a text as it takes place in Yeshiva or by a seminarian. And the dynamic of reading these texts is trying to really understand what they say in historical context.

One of the dynamics that you surface is a self-reflective analysis of your own reading. Which you call bad slash trans. So I wanna unpack that with you. There’s this is the whole politics of reading thing that I opened up with, which is naming and knowing that you’re reading these texts in ways that they never have been read before and sometimes maybe against, especially with you, like when you tell stories or when you dance between critical scholarship in the 21st century and the contextual place in which these texts originate, is you’re kind of being honest about the fact that you’re reading against the grain at the text, as opposed to with them.

So I can imagine two people dunking on this. Right. One who would say, I don’t like how you’re doing Talmud. Like I don’t, I disagree with the consequences of this. But I can also imagine people who want the Talmud to say what you want it to say or who wanna agree with the conclusions, but don’t want you to admit that it, that your reading is going against the grain. So can you talk a little bit about that dynamic, why it’s so important to you to, to describe what you’re doing as bad slash trans in the context of doing this kind of reading of Talmud?

Max: So I think any historian or anyone working in historical literature has this problem of anachronism. What do we do about the fact that our very categories are formed in a particular time and place? And what they’re talking about is not what we are talking about. 

Translation, it’s the sort of generic problem of translation, but it’s translation, not just across culture and language, but across time. I think that that is a problem that everybody faces. And the question is, how do you address that? And for me, part of my strategy is to dial the anachronism up to like an 11. So if anachronism is going to be present, then the way to address it is to be really straightforward and own it. 

And that makes the kinds of, hopefully, that makes the kinds of interpretive leaps I’m making, more clear and I take responsibility for them. It’s a theoretical move, but it also feels a little bit like an ethical move to me about how I weave together those different time periods. So when I talk about Mississippi house bill 1523, the, the anti-trans bills, right? That’s like, so far outside the box of rabbinic literature, that it’s impossible to ignore the anachronism.

Right. That’s been my strategy on the whole. And that is a kind of thinking about what it means to read badly. And I, I sort of am weaving that in as well to the way that the rabbis are often accused by early Christians of being bad readers, of being attached to the materiality of the body.

Right. They’re too literal. It’s the circumcision of the heart, not actual circumcision. So there’s a way in which an insisting on, yes, this is about material bodies. It’s very much within a kind late antique debate around materiality and hermeneutics.

Yehuda: I love that the, it’s the suggestion that the midrashic impulse itself is the original bad reading. And therefore, to be in the line of the rabbis is to kind of embrace bad reading. Part of what I’m struggling with with the terminology of bad reading is in your, in your chapter, it’s a really powerful chapter around your, your bridge to the Mississippi anti-trans bills. 

You make the case that, that gendered theology, I think your line is, declares to humans that they don’t exist. Right. Tries to kind of legislate actual human beings out of existence by defining the time and space where they can operate in the world.

And in, so doing, you argue that the Mississippi anti-trans laws understand Genesis as the, as you say, the origin story of cis-gendered ontology. They are also effectively doing a bad reading. So the costs of describing your own reading as a bad reading kind of yields the terrain of, why not just claim the good reading, right.

That, why not put the burden on those who would use these texts as a tool of hate, to actually have to describe themselves as being the bad readings?

Max: Because there’s something powerfully destabilizing about acknowledging the multiplicity. Right. So I can sit with the fact that somebody else is reading Genesis this way. I, I disagree with it being imported into law, but I understand Catholic natural law. I understand why they’re reading these sources in the way they are.

And I get to say that this is my reading, and this is the rabbis’ reading, which in fact is very different of exactly the same verse that they’re reading. Both of those exist within the tradition. Both of those are valid ways to read Genesis.

Yehuda: Mm-hmm

Max: So it does see the ground of me being right, in a sense, but it does also allow for kind of radical multiplicity and engaging with the sources.

But you’re right. Yes. Their reading is one way to read Genesis. I just don’t like it. 

Yehuda: Right, I like mine better than others, but so that the resistance is not then merely, I’m saying you’re wrong and I’m claiming this is the authentic reading of the text. You’re actually just kind of blowing open the readings of the text to say, yeah, these can pull in all directions.

And then maybe, maybe I guess that all that makes us all honest and self-reflective of what are the prisms that we’re using to read these texts? And if I do it to myself, maybe that’s an invitation to someone else to do the same.

Max: And it kind of undermines the way in which they’re saying, okay. Not only does Genesis mandate the non-existence of trans people, but also, that religion itself is transphobic. So we’re gonna make that there’s a kind of connected claim that happens in those religious freedom laws. Where they’re making claims about the essence of religion as a result of that particular reading of these sources.

And if we can poke at all in that argument, that the essence of religion is to be transphobic, through a kind of strategy of multiplicity, that that helps to undermine that kind of naturalization.

Yehuda: I’m gonna ask you a hard question that I struggle with myself, which is when it comes to making that choice, which is essentially a choice to fight within religion for religion, as opposed to understanding it for its fundamental brokenness. You know, there was one time I was, uh, I went out to teach a class in California as part of a Hartman curriculum and I had a class to teach on gender.

And I walked into the room and sat down was a bunch of lay people in California. And one of the people sits next to me is like a vice-chancellor in the UC system, a very, very powerful person, capital B, capital B. And she, um, she leans over right. Literally right before I start and says, just so you know that , it’s always a great start, right?

There’s nothing in those texts and she just waves dismissively at those texts, that’s gonna be more sophisticated or moral than anything I already think about this topic. In other words, this religious tradition, like it was gonna make complicated things that were already simple, and it was gonna drag her down.

And the class wasn’t great. I’ll just say, it wasn’t great. And I, I don’t know. Maybe my hard question is like, you’re, you’re in the mix of this interpretation to pull something out from these texts. And I, you know, when are the moments when you say, forget it, I’m leaving this in the ancient world. 

Max: Yeah, and there’s lots of really deeply problematic texts in the book. From a trans perspective, many of these have edges. They’re painful. The trans project through Svara is talking about dysphoric readings and euphoric readings. And there’s plenty of texts that feel gender dysphoric to read and engage in.

I think for me, part of the answer, well, part of the answer is, it’s not gonna speak to her, this is not her mode. Right? So if you look at the history of feminist fights over Genesis and the way Genesis has been invoked in everything from suffrage debates in the us, to now the bathroom so-called bathroom bills.

You see that, um, feminists have taken various positions on whether in fact to leave the Bible behind altogether. When Elizabeth Katie Stanton says we’re gonna do the women’s Bible, she gets pushed back from early feminist movements because of the fact that it’s just too charged and we don’t need that book we can just, we can just leave it behind.

Right. And that’s powerfully attractive for some people. And if that’s your strategy, go for it. But for those of us, for whom these literatures are, are central to our identity, community, that may not be an effective strategy for us. 

And for me, someone who is working with historical literature, part of what is helpful for me is the very alterity itself. The fact that androgynes and Eunuchs aren’t trans and intersex people. The fact that the way the rabbis are understanding sex and gender are so different from the ways that we are creating taxonomies of sex, gender, and sexuality today. It undermines the naturalization of sex and gender today.

So when I teach religion and gender or religion and sex, my queer, trans, and intersex students, are all there already. We have a relationship to religion, gender, sexuality, and sex. And we’re thoughtful about that. Many of my cis and straight students think that gender and sexuality are not categories that pertain to them.

So I’ve learned that I have to work very hard early in the semester to get them to think about all the ways, all the messages they received as children about what was expected of them, what they played with, who they interacted with or didn’t. 

And once I can get them to understand that they too have some kind of relationship to gender and sex and sexuality, then I can begin to get them to engage in the process of thinking about how that shapes how they understand all these topics, how that shapes, how they understand other people’s religious practices. But they have to understand they have a framework first. 

We’ve so naturalized the way the relationship between sex, gender, and sexuality, you have to sort of unlearn, I have to unteach them first before they can even see what’s happening around them. And in that sense, then the very alternative of the past is useful. It was not always this way. And whether it’s better or not. And often it’s not, even though this reality, this contemporary reality is particularly punishing to trans people.

It’s not that a discussion of which different ways you stoned somebody who had sex with an androgyne is ever gonna be the source of queer and trans liberation in, in the contemporary sphere. But what it tells me about how they construct their categories and organize them differently, leaves me hope that they may again be organized differently in the future.

It was not always this way. And therefore it may not always be this way in the future. 

Yehuda: Right. It reminds me of something you say in the book about how, to read these texts in a way that responds to transphobia by crossing time and space, you’re actually making visible that transphobia itself is timeless and eternal. In other words, it’s not the invention of an anti transphobia it’s acknowledging, right?

That, that, that seems the same dynamic that you were describing with your students of just because you’re not trans doesn’t mean that you’re not a human body who’s embodied right, in all sorts of ways. So I, let me, let’s go inside baseball to Talmud a little bit if that’s okay. Um, uh, I assume we have some Talmud lovers among podcast listeners.

So, um, methodologically, it felt to me throughout the book that you were working with the premise of the idea of the border case as something that’s emblematic of rabbi tradition. Rabbis tend to love the idea that like there’s A and there’s B and I know the difference is very clearly between A and B, but I wanna find case A slash B which has properties of A and properties of B to try to, sometimes it’s not really about understanding case A B, it’s actually being able to illustrate the differences in the binary.

Right? So the one I studied for my graduate work was Syria. Less interesting, but it was like, okay, I know the rabbis have two categories for geography. There’s Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. And then there’s Chutz La’aretz, things outside the land of Israel and then I have this place called Syria, which is kind of part of the land of Israel still is right by the way.

Um, partly outside the land of Israel and predictably, agricultural laws, some of them apply in Syria and some of them don’t and it’s an illustration of a border case that helps to illustrate the polls. So you do this in this book, right, with the emphasis on, you do a little bit on animalness, but it’s really much more about humanness, right?

Trying to locate the intermediate categories that help us understand these two poles. So I I’d love for you to talk through a little bit how you understand this yas part of the rabbinic project. And to talk a little bit about what happens both to the polls and to the intermediate categories themselves.

Like how those get developed as a result of kind of studying this middle ground.

Max: So first of all, that idea of the poles is really evocative from a trans studies perspective, just because of gender binaries. So we are always already thinking about poles and the way they’re constructed and what happens to that constitutive middle or the thing that makes those poles function.

So it’s a very trans studies move to get interested in those ways that the rabbis create those clear dualities and then do all their best to undermine them in a variety of ways. The best example of this that I can think of from a kind of trans liturgy perspective is Ruben Zelman has a poem called the Twilight People.

Twilight being that time in halakha that’s sort of between, so what do you do if you know, it’s supposed to be during the day versus, right. So twilight is the in-betweenness and he’s playing with that around trans and intersex identity. I do think there is a way that rabbis play this out on bodies, they do it all over the place with land, with time, on all sorts of ways. When they do it with bodies, it just highlights all the ways in which bodies are very unpromising objects of legislation.

They are perverse, they have their own temporalities. They don’t all go through puberty at the same time. They don’t all meet our expectations. They aren’t in our control, you know, all the ways in which we try and, and shape our presentation, our hair, our body size and shape, all those ways that people spend so much time and energy, invested in shaping how our bodies move through the world. 

And in the end, you know, all of us experience the kinds of vicissitudes of embodiment. Well, the rabbis do it all over the place. There’s something particularly interesting and paradoxical about the attempt to legislate bodies, when in fact, most of what we learn is how about how they’re not really in our control.

Yehuda: Yeah, right, because land is a fixed example, right? Part of the problem there is that boundaries were fickle in antiquity and remain fickle today. Uh, but at a certain point you can draw a line. You can make a map. And then this part of this city is inside this land and this city is not, whereas human bodies are so variable that the ability to legislate across them as though even the category of androgynes and eunuchs, which we know from the rabbis, it’s not that clear of a category. Um, the attempt to do that universally seems so difficult. 

I wanted to read one of the texts that clearly guided and governed a lot of your reading. It appears a few times I’ll just share it. There’s a content warning for our listeners, there’s some sexual violence in this text. 

Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi relayed the following story. When I went to learn rabbi teachings with rabbi Elazar ben Shamuya, his students banded together against me like the famously aggressive roosters of Bait Bukia. They allowed me to learn only one teaching. And it was this. Rabbi Eliezer says that in the case of the androgyn, a man who penetrates the androgyne anally is liable for the penalty of stoning for transgressing the prohibition against sex with a man just as he would be if he had anal sex with a non androgyne male, that’s from Yevamot, 84 a. 

So for the benefit of our listeners who may or may not get into all of the weeds of this book, tell me what jumps outta you about this text, why it drives so much of your scholarship? You start the book, you come back to it, um, at the end, and give us a little bit of a short reading, uh, of this text as being so significant for the thesis that you’re advancing in the book.

Max: Yeah. So I start the book talking about encountering this text, both with my dad and my chavruta. And, and in Svara. And I remember learning about it and thinking, oh, I really wanna understand this. Like there’s so much here. It’s all of four lines. It’s really short in the Hebrew. Basically, the story is about one rabbi who happens to be a famous rabbi, for those of you who know the name. 

But one rabbi going to learn with another rabbi and the students basically prevent that. So there’s this kind of tantalizing piece about what is it about these roosters, students, these hyper-aggressive hyper-masculine students, and how they’re attenuating access to their teacher. 

How can we think about that dynamic in terms of how we reproduce knowledge? Are we supposed to be sharing this? What are we doing when we’re studying Talmud? Is this something that we’re supposed to be passing along? Are we supposed to guard our lineage? What’s the theory on how knowledge is reproduced here? Are the students acting badly in this story? Or is Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, as the Palestinian Talmud suggests, maybe he’s not worthy to learn with this teacher. 

So there’s other versions that try and explain this story in other ways. So there’s that whole piece around the reproduction of knowledge that’s hinging on this text or this teaching about a non reproductive sex act. And then you have also this kind of impenetrable border presented between Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi and the teacher, predicated on this text, that’s about a multiply penetrable body. 

So all of those dynamics. What do you do with this idea of the social boundaries between groups of rabbis, with reproduction of knowledge, with all of the gendered implications of those hyper-masculine roosters, these famous roosters, which don’t appear anywhere else in the Talmud, so I don’t know how famous they actually were. Beit Bukia is nowhere else. 

Yehuda: So famous. Yeah. Note to self for a Purim costume. Sorry, go ahead. 

Max: So, you know, what do we do with all of these dynamics? It seems so rich and the text itself, right? That, that metaphor of the roosters, that, that the, the pun on the fighting cocks of Beit Bukia, the fighting roosters, that works in the Hebrew as well. That association is in the Hebrew. 

So what am, what am I to make of that? And I could sense all the complications of that source and I wanted desperately the tools to be able to really interpret what’s happening there with all of that, with all that violence, with all of that bodily regulation and, um, with all of that weird gender happening in that, in that source.

Yehuda: Okay, so now I get the first half, right? An attempt to gain access, the blockage by the rabbi’s students, they enact, they are the fighting cocks. They block him from coming in and then the object, the human being on which, which is the only text that he is allowed to learn is about this forced physical sexual act against the androgyne.

It’s so crude. Why? Like, why that text? Why that case? What is it doing for helping us to illustrate the boundaries of knowledge or the boundaries of access? It’s heartbreaking to see the metaphor portrayed on the body of the vulnerable. So help us with that.

Max: Yeah. I’m not entirely sure that we’re talking about a forced sexual encounter, right? The, the law is really about how does this Leviticus verse apply to an androgyne. Maybe it’s any kind of sex within androgyne. How do we, how do we weigh the body of the androgyne? Is it anal sex? Sorry to, is it okay to. Is it both anal and vaginal sex or is it just anal sex? 

What is, what does that verse mean in the context of a body that’s multiply penetrable? Of course androgynes are not the only kinds of people that are multiply penetrable, but they’re kind of focusing their attention in that way on the body of the androgyne as a masculine body that has multiple possibilities of penetrability.

Yehuda: Got it. 

Max: I mean, I think that’s why the Palestinian Talmud is interpreting it as a slight, that Rabbi Yehuda is not worthy, right? Because the, the kind of implication is that this is not an important discussion. And in a sense, that’s the whole, right, we treat these bodies as footnotes as marginalia, what happens if we say no, actually that is a really important conversation.

I’m gonna put it in the book. I’m gonna center that text specifically, that text that implies, this is a throwaway line, right? This is something he gets because he can’t access anything that’s more crucial. That’s gonna enhance his learning more. 

What happens if we take specifically that text and put it at the center of the book, and I feel like it helps me open up all kinds of different ways that gender, sex, and sexuality are in relationship with each other in rabbinic literature.

And it really helps me highlight the absence. I mean, that’s why I rewrote that text there, because precisely what’s missing from that encounter, is the perspective of androgynes who are treated like this currency between two competing groups. 

Yehuda: Can I, can I give you my own bad trans read on the text?

Max: Yes. Do it.

Yehuda: So the students are preventing him from coming to learn with a rabbi, but the rabbi is the one who pushes his way through and says, look, this is the one thing I want to teach you. And it’s not because it’s marginal. It’s not because it’s irrelevant. Cause it’s the one thing you need to know. 

Like, Hillel to the man standing on one foot. No, no, there’s one principle of Torah you need to know and it gets, it’s actually a perfect text to teach if it’s the one thing of Torah you need to know, which is number one, it encapsulates this whole rabbi ethos of hybridities and boundaries.

Right. It’s a way of thinking, and it’s a way of learning about the world. And by locating a human at the center of the text, it also becomes a powerful warning against the insistence on legality, without regard for the human beings on whose bodies that legality is being exercised. 

I like to envision him yelling over his students, you can’t come in but take this with you. This is the Torah that you actually need to carry away from this place. And I can’t fix this place. This locker room. I can’t fix it. Right. I need you to carry it with you. What do you think? How did I do?

Max: I love it. I love it. It’s such a good queer and trans subversive reading of that source. Right. And I think, you know, there is a question about whether there’s a criticism of the various parties involved and who’s at fault that’s very, that’s very hard to pin down. I think there is an implicit criticism that the students are behaving badly.

Like there’s not, there’s not a reason that’s given that would explain their behavior, at least in the Bavli version. Certainly. So it just seems un, unaccountable, like this is the ethos, this is how we do this. And they’re refusing to play. This is, this is the game, they’re refusing to play, they’re refusing to participate in it. 

And therefore they remain unnamed. Right. We have Rabbi Yehuda Hansi’s name. We have, they don’t reproduce anything. They, they disappear in the lineage of knowledge because of that. Um, so I, I think there is certainly a, a piece of critique there that you are picking up on. And I love that idea that, um, in fact, that their teacher is also schooling them in this moment of, this is not how this works, Y’all like, here it is. Here’s this source. And from this source, you can learn so much about the poorness of borders, which you are now trying to uphold, how that doesn’t work. Right?

Yehuda: Yeah. It doesn’t work. Right.

Max: Yeah.

Yehuda: So let’s talk a little bit about gatekeepers cause that’s, you know, it, maybe it’s these sages, right. Who are surrounding their teacher and protecting him. 

You know, the moment we’re living in is basically simultaneously like the tearing down of gate keeping around hybridities and breaking down binaries, and then the emergence of really powerful gatekeepers, uh, in response. It’s, you know, it’s, it’s one of the items in our social order that is having such disruptive social and political consequences wildly out of proportion to even the number of people who identify as trans.

It’s because we’re shaking the foundations of a society that likes to think in terms of binaries, as opposed to hybridities. You point out the ways in which there’s an imagined Judaeo Christian binary, gender, which is an ironic hybrid, right? Judaeo Christian in itself is a hybrid identity that doesn’t really exist in the world. 

I I’d love for you to reflect a little bit inside the book or outside the book on, on what happens in this contest between the gatekeepers who are seeking to preserve binaries. Those binaries don’t really exist. They don’t they’re, they’re not in real life. And, and, and the stakes really that’s involved in this, not only what you’re talking about, conceptually, but in this kind of scholarship right now.

Max: Yeah. I mean, when I start on this topic with my students, I like to ask the question. Okay. So if this stuff is all so normal and natural, why do we have to expend so much energy legislating it? If this were just the way that the world works, would we need so many laws to enforce that? 

I wrote the book, really before the current wave. So there was a, there was a wave starting in the Obama administration of anti-trans legislation, that were generally dubbed bathroom bills by the mainstream media. I don’t love that term, which I can talk more about if you want. But there were, there was a wave of anti-trans laws that I think because of the timing, one of the ways we could think about that is about kind of a white supremacist backlash against Obama’s presidency and that light, it’s not an accident that they started with bathrooms. 

If you think about the social history of regulating bathrooms in this country around race and gender. And if you look at some of the ad campaigns that they were running, you’ll see race show up in interesting ways. 

Um, so I think you can sort of locate the Genesis of this most recent spate of anti-trans law there, but the recent ramp up against trans youth specifically happened after the book was already in production. So I don’t really talk about that, but it’s so new, I’m still learning how to talk about that. 

I think part of my reaction right now is not just as a trans person, but as the parent of a non-binary child. And there’s a way in which as a parent, my heart is breaking in a really a different way than it was before when it was really just about me. Like, I feel personally heartbroken in a different way, and it’s hard for me just personally, this isn’t academic, now, this is just me.

But it’s hard for me to think about this in any way other than trying to eradicate trans people. I don’t wanna use the word genocidal, but I don’t know what other word to use in a sense, like knowing the high rates of suicide ideology among trans youth, any laws that make trans existence more difficult for trans youth, we know are gonna have horrifying effects. We know that this is gonna create a health crisis. 

So it’s hard for, it’s hard for me to understand it in any other way, as a real attempt to legislate the eradication of transness by targeting our youth, even as there’s this kind of rhetoric of protecting our young women in sports, protecting other youth from other youth. That’s the way these laws are working. And as the parent of a non-binary middle schooler tween in the state of Arizona, which now has one of these laws, it’s just, it’s just terrifying. So that’s a very non-academic answer. 

Yehuda: I mean, I think that the part of the reason it emerges, feels like a natural conversation piece here is because also, you know, the Talmudic tradition is obsessed with continuity. And the contemporary Jewish community is obsessed with continuity. So on one hand, we are scared that there will not be people who come after us.

On the other hand, there’s so much gatekeeping around who those children are and are supposed to be. A profound and constant indictment of parents who would allow this to be the normative culture with their children. There’s something so strange.

I guess it makes sense. You’re obsessed with the future and how the future carries forward. And at the same time, a kind of intense policing of who children are and, and who they’re supposed to be. 

Max: I mean, I think it’s all still also racialized, right? That rhetoric of, what’s the line they’re using around the sports bills, like leveling the playing field. Like all of that language is so over-determinately racialized. And we know that as with all legislation, the families that are going to be affected the most are families of color with trans youth in them.

So it feels like I’m like shouting, all the time, trying to shout all the time, like this is a state of emergency. And I think that there’s such an onslaught of these various laws happening all at once, not just around trans people, but Roe V. Wade, all these issues happening all at once. It’s hard to pay attention. And that is perhaps one of the strategies. 

Yehuda: Yeah. I like the idea that you say you’re shouting all the time, but you’re shouting in Talmud, just like the best type of shouting. There’s more, more to talk about here. I want, I’d love to just go on a, you know, down a rabbit hole with you about Paul as part of Judaeo-Christian ideologies, hybridities, and boundaries all the time.

But we can’t do that. Last question though, you have this wonderful line at the end where you talk about seeking transcestors, and it goes back to what we were talking about earlier around the impulse to either locate ourselves in these texts or to locate our absence in these texts. 

So, tell me a little bit about what, how you’re envisioning this, this mandate of the seeking of transcestors, I guess, for your students and, and what you are hoping to be, if I can ask as one of those ancestors. 

Max: Yeah. I, I am now one of the older generation, like my students, 

Yehuda: Yes you are. Welcome. 

Max: I feel very middle aged now when I talk to my students and all of my cultural references are outdated. And I realize that some of them are looking to me as an example of someone who’s survived. Which I did when I in college as well. 

I looked to older queer and trans folks as, these are the people who made it through and survived. How did they do that? What do their lives look like? What choices did they make? I realized in retrospect it put a lot of pressure on those, those folks, yeah, and I don’t think of myself as a role model.

For me in fact, it’s been really helpful to see my child grow up in a really different environment, come out at their Jewish day school in a really different environment. I learned so much from watching that process and seeing how different it is for them. Not always in better ways, given the political reality around us, but in some ways, it’s really different than when I was a, a teen and a child.

So I have some hope myself for looking to the next generation, but I do always feel also that pull to look backwards, even as, I don’t think androgynes and eunuchs are trans or intersex in any simplistic, easy way. I do think there is something really powerful about passing down our, our yerusha, our inheritance to the next generation to do with, as they wish. 

And they’re gonna do interesting things that I’ve never thought of with these sources. And I feel lucky that I get to live in a moment where so much change is happening, that I get to see some inklings of what the next generation looks like and what they’re doing. 

Yehuda: Well with that, thank you all so much for listening to our show this week and special thanks to Dr. Max Strassfeld for coming on our show.

Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode was produced by David Zvi Kalman and M. Louis Gordon, and edited by Jordan Mills with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by So called.

Transcripts of our show are available on our website typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Institute, you can visit us online at We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover in future episodes or other great books that we should read. So if you have a topic you’d like to hear about, or if you have comments about this episode, please write to us at [email protected]. You can rate and view us on iTunes to help more people find the show and you could subscribe to our show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week. And thanks for listening.

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