Is It About Time, Bodies, or Both?
I just read Trans Talmud: Androgynes and Eunuchs in Rabbinic Literature by Max K. Strassfeld, published in 2022 by the University of California Press. I do my own thinking about eunuchs in history, and I’d really like to share several important takeaways from Strassfeld’s book.
We Can’t Classify People Neatly, And Probably We Shouldn’t Try
Strassfeld examines the rabbis’ categories of “the born (male and female) eunuch, the man who becomes a eunuch, the dually sexed person, and the person without a clear sex.” Like all taxonomies, “rabbinic taxonomies of eunuchs and androgynes are formed within their own context of power and knowledge.” Which is to say, the way human beings label each other is never objective. We always have assumptions and motivations.
And yet there’s value in consciously applying trans assumptions and concepts, at least to begin thinking through a text. (What’s the alternative? A cis assumption?) The Talmud may not be “essentially subversive or trans,” but it is “more trans” than many people expect, and “when we focus on eunuchs and androgynes, we gain a fuller picture of the way gender works in rabbinic literature.”
Strassfeld acknowledges it’s “anachronistic” to “translate and organize eunuchs and androgynes through the lens of the categories of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’.” For his part, he doesn’t think “contemporary trans and intersex identities translate easily to the aylonit, saris, androginos, or tumtum.” There is no “easy correspondence.” The rabbis of long ago used “an entirely different conceptual framework.” The people whom the rabbis called eunuch today might be people we’d call intersex or trans.Historians argue about how closely we can link the past and present. But whatever someone’s answer to that question, “any study of eunuchs and androgynes in the past has to grapple with the relationship between sex and gender and how these categories are mobilized across time.”
The Eunuch as Foreign
One “widely dispersed and polemical characterization,” Strassfeld writes, “is of the eunuch as foreigner, or as a figure used to sketch the boundaries of ethnic identity.” For example, “in…