Saturday, December 02, 2006

When the Line Isn't Clear

Today's NY Times reports on emerging responses to children who do not "conform to gender norms." They cite an increasing trend to regard gender variance "as a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a disorder." We can be happy that the dominant culture is trending toward this outlook, but also note that in Judaism, this approach has been part of the philosophy since Talmudic times.

The aylonis, for example, is a woman who exhibits masculine characteristics and is incapable of bearing children. The saris is a man whose male parts do not mature. These are people who could be divorced simply because they were incapable of producing offspring, but the fact that they fall outside the range of gender norms is not otherwise stigmatized.

The fact that the Talmud can discuss such people so matter-of-factly stands out in a world where parents and schools continue to pressure children to suppress their instinctive modes of expression, even advocating the use of hormone blockers to delay puberty to avoid dealing with ambiguous gender identifications.

I'm not suggesting that this is a clear triumph for Jewish ethics, but it is another reason to study some of our oldest texts in search of answers to seemingly modern problems. Delaying the onset of puberty may be a desperate measure embraced by parents who are more fearful to discover who their children really are than they would be if they took for granted that there are many different kinds of children and they all have a place in the ongoing unfolding of creation.

This week, as Conservative Judaism wrestles with proposed new halakhic responses to gender identity, our ability to appreciate the breadth of gender identifications could not be more relevant.