Trans Talmud
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Trans Talmud

Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature

Max K. Strassfeld

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eBook - ePub

Trans Talmud

Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature

Max K. Strassfeld

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Trans Talmud places eunuchs and androgynes at the center of rabbinic literature and asks what we can learn from them about Judaism and the project of transgender history. Rather than treating these figures as anomalies to be justified or explained away, Max K. Strassfeld argues that they profoundly shaped ideas about law, as the rabbis constructed intricate taxonomies of gender across dozens of texts to understand an array of cultural tensions. Showing how rabbis employed eunuchs and androgynes to define proper forms of masculinity, Strassfeld emphasizes the unique potential of these figures to not only establish the boundary of law but exceed and transform it. Trans Talmud challenges how we understand gender in Judaism and demonstrates that acknowledging nonbinary gender prompts a reassessment of Jewish literature and law.

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Transing Late Antiquity

The Politics of the Study of Eunuchs and Androgynes

One chapter cannot comprehensively cover all the different materials on eunuchs and androgynes circulating in late antiquity or in the broader Mediterranean world. Instead, I will explore a series of case studies that provide a snapshot of different traditions and that serve as an introduction to the study of eunuchs and androgynes. More information is available on each of the rabbinic categories (and their precursors) in the chapters that follow. In this chapter, I demonstrate the ways in which contemporary attitudes toward transgender and intersex people have profoundly influenced the study of eunuchs and androgynes. I argue that centering eunuchs and androgynes reshapes our historical narratives.


Recent scholarship has contextualized the rabbinic movement within the period of late antiquity. In this section, I will trans late antiquity by demonstrating how eunuchs are central to the stories that scholars have told of this era. In so doing, I want to imagine the rabbinic engagement with eunuchs within this moment of the slow decline of the Roman Empire. Transing can offer us a different perspective from which to challenge received narratives about late antiquity.
Late antiquity is a period comprising approximately the second to the eighth centuries of the Common Era.1 Situating the rabbis in late antiquity positions them in a time of cultural and religious innovation: in late antiquity, Jewish sectarianism waxes and wanes; Christianities are invented and discarded; Zoroastrianism transforms Iranian political culture; Islam spreads beyond the Arabian Peninsula; and Roman (pagan) religions continue to thrive. Scholars have argued that this rich environment of religious and political transformation profoundly shaped rabbinic culture as the rabbis navigated between Greco-Roman and the Sasanian Persian milieus.2 The later layers of rabbinic oral traditions, according to this argument, are formulated within the tensions between empires and religions.3
That the rabbis function within these broader (and competing) cultural contexts does not mean that these cultures “influenced” them in any straightforward way. There are several problems with the model of influence, including the following: that it supposes two distinct and separate entities; and that it ignores the power dynamics of Roman imperialism.4 Moreover, staging the interaction between rabbinic sources and the Greco-Roman and Sasanian worlds as “influence” plays into the dynamics of interreligious polemics of late antiquity. In the context of a world in which the authenticity of religious traditions is often measured by how old they are, the question of whose tradition has influenced whom led to intense (and polemical) debates. For example, early Christians accused devotees of the Magna Mater goddess tradition of copying the rite of baptism.5 At the same time, in order to avoid hermetically sealing off the rabbis from their environment, it is important to position the rabbinic movement within its historical and cultural context.
This scholarly desire to contextualize the rabbis within late antiquity coincides with a general increase of interest in this period and its contributions.6 The portrayal of late antiquity as an era of innovation and transformation (as I sketched briefly above) is a relatively recent revision; the previous, long-standing narrative of late antiquity depicted an age of cultural decline in which the innovations of the classical world were frittered away as the Roman Empire slid slowly toward the “Dark Ages.”7 Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire popularized this traditional (perhaps even lachrymose) narrative. Gibbon’s work is an elegy to the classical period sketched against a backdrop of the crumbling edifice of Roman imperial power. For Gibbon, the growth of Christianity contributed greatly to the demise of the cultural and political accomplishments of Greece and Rome.
Gibbon’s narrative about the decline of the Roman Empire is not only a narrative about religion (and Christianity specifically); it is also decidedly gendered. For Gibbon, the Christianization of the Roman Empire transforms and weakens Roman masculinity, and this weakening results in Rome’s waning political and military power. Christianity “emasculates” Rome, and it is therefore at least partly to blame for Rome’s fall. Recent scholarship engages Gibbon’s intertwining of gender, religion, and the decline of empire in a variety of ways.8
Although scholarship has explored Gibbon’s gendered rhetoric, few scholars have noted his specific focus on eunuchs, or the way he connects the figure of the eunuch to the emasculation of Rome.9 For example, in his section on Constantine (who is often described as the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity), Gibbon relays the story of Constantine’s famous victory and unification of the empire. Directly following this investigation of Constantine’s conversion, Gibbon argues that this unification of the Roman Empire served only to “establish the reign of the eunuchs over the Roman world.”10 When Gibbon connects Constantine, who is so often tied to the Christianization of the Roman Empire, with eunuchs, he simultaneously attaches the softening of Roman masculinity to Christian deviance.11 At the same time, Gibbon marks this transformation as Eastern, calling the spread of eunuchs “the contagion of Asiatic luxury.” The rhetorical effect of this characterization positions eunuchs as a contagious disease that spreads throughout the empire, penetrating Roman households. This orientalizing and racialized narrative about the deviant spread of eunuchs forms the basis of a fantasy of an inviolate, masculine, Western Greco-Roman past.12 In a footnote, Gibbon asserts that while individual eunuchs may, on occasion, distinguish themselves, the rise of eunuchs inevitably spells doom for empires—specifically the Persian, Indian, and Chinese empires. In the process of characterizing the importance of eunuchs, therefore, Gibbon also describes them as monstrous.13
One could, of course, simply excuse Gibbon’s theories as outdated and therefore irrelevant, despite the way the field continues to argue implicitly against this narrative of late antiquity. Rather than arguing against Gibbon, I want to entertain his thesis for the moment: if we assume that he is right, might we then imagine, alongside him, that eunuchs, in all their exoticized emasculation, have the power to spell doom for the collective imperial might of Rome, Persia, India, and China? If, as Gibbon claims, eunuchs are monstrous, then perhaps with that monstrousness comes great power.14


Having explored some of the potential benefits of transing late antiquity, I will now discuss the impact of transphobia in general, and of eunuchphobia in particular, on the existing scholarship. Disgust, especially toward castration, has conditioned the interpretation of ancient and late antique sources. My goal in this section is not to call out the “failings” of any individual scholar; to identify scholarship from a hundred years ago that does not conform to contemporary queer and trans politics would not, after all, signify much. Rather, my intention is to describe a systemic problem that exceeds any one particular field.16
In his introduction to the volume Eunuchs in Antiquity and Beyond, Shaun Tougher optimistically states: “It can be reported that the growth of eunuch studies shows no sign of abating.”17 Currently, there is research that addresses eunuchs in early Christianity, the Hebrew Bible, Greek literature, medical literatures, Pagan rituals and religious traditions, and the broader ancient Near East. Scholars have emphasized the numerous material remains that challenge conventions on sex and gender. For example, there is much interest in the seated figure of Ur-Nanshe, whose gender presentation is ambiguous in the context of Mesopotamian cultures. There is also a significant body of literature on the Sumerian figure of the gala (Akkadian kalû), which has been variously interpreted as a eunuch, an impotent man, a homosexual, or a man wearing women’s clothing.18 Almost universally, this scholarship is either reacting to or built on a foundation of research that evinces clear disdain for eunuchs and androgynes.
And yet, scholarly disdain cannot entirely obscure the evidence that eunuchs and androgynes excited broad interest in the ancient world. Castration was widely practiced, for example. The Hebrew Bible refers to castration, but the practice certainly predates the Hebrew Bible. Some scholars argue that castration is already so widespread by the second millennium BCE that the ancient Near East becomes singularly associated with it.19
Still, the study of castration has been mired in controversy. Take, for example, the field of research on castration in Egypt, a field of research that has focused on both the historical phenomenon and the literary representations of it.20 Since the evidence that attests to the presence of eunuchs in Egypt relies primarily on Greek and Latin historiography, modern historians struggle to ascertain the genuine scope of the historical phenomenon.21 Given the polemical ways in which eunuchs are often invoked, the historiography cannot straightforwardly mobilize Greek and Latin sources as history. But these prosaic challenges to assessing the historicity of sources cannot fully explain the scholarly aversion to discussing castration in the ancient Near East.22
Scholars of rabbinics have not avoided the topic of castration, but they have often treated it with disdain. For example, Julius Preuss’s work on biblical and Talmudic medicine remains a classic resource for anyone working on the body and medicine in rabbinic literature. Preuss begins his section on castration: “The abnormalities of the genitalia enumerated here are individual cases of the commonly practiced abomination called serus, meaning castration.”23 While there is little pretense of neutrality, the use of the word abomination relies on the premise that both the reader and the texts themselves share the disdain for castration that Preuss evinces so unquestioningly. A type of historical connection, animated by disgust, links the scholar to his subject.
Traces of this apparent disgust can be found, albeit much more subtly, within the literature on castration in studies of the Hebrew Bible. The term “saris” appears forty-five times in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, but biblicists disagree on the question of how frequently the term refers to someone who has been castrated. Often, there are no contextual clues—take, for example, 1 Chronicles 28:1: “David assembled all the officers of Israel . . . with the sarisim and the warriors, all the men of substance to Jerusalem.”24 In this verse (and many others), the term “saris” is used without any explanation, and it is unclear from the context whether it refers to someone who has been castrated or not.25
Several scholars have pointed out that there seems to be a contradiction in the status of the saris in the biblical text. On the one hand, there are verses that refer to the saris as a high official, such as 1 Chronicles quoted above, which lists the saris am...

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