[This week's Haveil Havalim is here.]
Jennifer Finney Boylan, in a New York Times Op-Ed entitled The XY Games (8-3-08), discusses the problem of determining whether someone is a man or a woman.
Apparently, Olympic judges need to know whether a competitor in a female event is, in fact, a female. So they’ve set up a laboratory, presumably to test gender on a chromosomal level – the old XX vs. XY.
The problem, as Ms. Boylan points out, is that gender is not nearly so simple to identify. What do you do with someone who is XXY (Klinefelter’s Syndrome)? Or, as Boylan notes, what do you do with a woman who actually has a Y chromosome, but due to androgen insensitivity never develops male sexual characteristics?
This reminded me of the difference between the way Judaism historically identified gender, and how Jews identify gender today.
Judging from Tanach, and certainly from the mishnah and gemara, Judaism defines gender based upon visible reproductive organs (whether they are fully functional or not is irrelevant) - cf many discussions about tumtum and androgynus, for example. The historical test, then, was based on appearance.
Today, though, many Jews do not identify gender based on appearance. Springing from an embrace of mysticism (from Zohar to the Ari z"l to Tanya) over the past millenium, many Jews have come to believe that men and women are different at the level of the soul.
This is very clear when we look at two arenas: Technology and Spirituality.
What happens when a surgeon forms body parts simulating the opposite sex, with hormone therapy subduing the elements of one’s birth sex? Since Judaism follows the visual, should we accept as legitimate the results of this surgery? (Granted that the surgery seems to violate various halachot; this is a separate point.)
In fact, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg z”l raised this possibility in his Tzitz Eliezer, but I have yet to see the writings of a halachic authority who would act on this – giving a transgendered male an aliyah, etc.
We seem to be uncomfortable with the idea that human intervention can change someone’s halachic status. I’m not sure this is entirely because of the morphological phenomena, either; I suspect the discomfort would persist even if gene therapy could modify a person’s chromosomes themselves. It seems that many Jews believe that there is something fundamentally different about men and women, on a level deeper than physiology.
The question is common: Why does the Torah differentiate between men and women, in terms of mitzvah obligations?
The answer, to my mind, is fairly straightforward: Two roles are needed, one for people who raise and nurture children, one for people who raise and nurture society. Women fit naturally into the former, because they are the only ones who can naturally gestate and birth and nurse children. That leaves the latter role for men.
However, over the past few centuries a body of apologetics has sprung up based on a mystical understanding of spirituality. Within this school, women’s souls are spiritually superior to men’s souls. Therefore, women are not obligated in the mitzvot which men need. (To my mind, this thinking is silly, and it runs counter to many classic sources, but many serious-minded people buy into it.) This is what generates different male and female mitzvah obligations.
What emerges, then, is that, like Ms. Boylan, many Jews today are not willing to identify “male” and “female” based on a chromosome (let alone an appearance). On the other hand, we don’t go by lifestyle, either. Perhaps the Maccabi Games should look into a soul-testing lab…