Opacities can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics. To understand these truly one must focus on the texture of the weave and not on the nature of its components.
The rabbis of the Talmud often seem desperate to fit everything into binaries (man vs. woman, night vs. day, kosher vs. treyf, etc). Yet by trying so hard to maintain these separations, the rabbis in fact meditate at length on what exactly the binaries cannot contain. Indeed, they become obsessed with subjects where binary logic seems suspended, like twilight, or the point at which a bud becomes a flower, or the categories and spectrums of gender and sex. These moments constitute much of the Talmud’s discourse: outliers, ambiguities, indeterminacies. One gray area in particular flourishes in the Talmud’s discussions of two of its several gender categories. The androgynos is the Talmudic hermaphrodite, having both traditionally male and female sexual organs and occupying different legal genders throughout the rabbis’ discussions. Tumtumim (plural) are presumed either male or female but obscured, unidentifiable, and in doubt. The tumtum consequently constitutes an additional category, despite representing the ontological analogue to what today might be considered non-binary sexual identification. Translated as “hidden” in English, the tumtum hovers in a perpetual state of doubt and wonder, and the androgynos oscillates between different legal arrangements and arguments, both living in between and sometimes outside the two imposed poles.
The androgynos diverges from the tumtum by always falling somewhere within a bipolar gender system and is treated multiply in the Talmud — as a woman, a man, neither, and both (Mishnah Bikkurim 4). While the androgynos can exist in multiple genders, the tumtum seems only able to occupy one gender at a time. I see the tumtum as an act of movement in themself, freely slipping outside and inside of the binary until the rabbis deem it necessary to make the indeterminate determinate. Being a tumtum means that you are this movement; you have not been placed in fixed male or female positions. Gender is something you travel and traverse, landing at different destinations, passing through different areas; ultimately, a tumtum is a gender migrant and a performance of the motion of gender all in one.
It is this migrancy and motion that compels an analogy to passports and driver’s licenses. These documents mark gender, or even take it hostage, to enable physical movement. When compared, efforts towards gender inclusion on government identification and Talmudic treatment of the tumtum bring up tensions in mobility, containment, and exposure. In recent years, there has been a growing push for an “X” or otherwise gender indeterminate category on state identification documents. However, inclusion for the sake of determination also enables biometric data collection used to surveill, control, and, ultimately, foreclose movement. The egalitarian inclusion of people outside of gender and sex binaries does not amount to liberation, not only because there is danger in stability, but also because we ought to consider demanding the right to opacity and non-identification.
Expanding gender categories on IDs, rather than removing them, forces people to choose a category in order to access mobility and assumes gender is identifiable and steady. Cassius Addair, a researcher of transgender people and the internet commenting on the anti-Black history of driver’s licenses in the United States, writes that “racial and gendered data collection on identification documents is not an inherent aspect of regulating individual driver safety but a technique that expands states’ capacity to determine which types of people are permitted to move through public space.” By identifying your gender as “X” on an ID, you divulge an intimate detail to the state, which, while perhaps emotionally validating, entrenches state control of mobility and migration. Likewise, when the rabbis debate sex and gender categories in the Talmud, the impact for the tumtum is a prescriptive legal decision that divests them of a secret in order to instill order and organization in Jewish society.
While driver’s licenses and passports establish us as fit for travel, they also serve to contain. Simone Browne, a scholar of contemporary digital culture, argues that “While serving as proof of identity, [identification documents] also provide our connection to a surveillance regime that classifies and monitors the movement of bodies, as well as those movements that are ‘bodyless.’” Browne refers to movements like swiping a credit card or digital clicks, but I’m interested in the “bodyless movements” of a tumtum. In some ways, the Talmud can obsess over the body’s outward-facing characteristics in order to determine categorization and law. However, the Talmud treats tumtumim, who have no external sexual organs to clarify, as more-or-less bodyless until proven otherwise, making their movements somewhat hypothetical. There is also a fear of certainty that haunts their fate — “perhaps he will be torn open,” (bYevamot 83b), skin ripped, their “true” sex revealed. This specter of revelation impacts legal applications for the tumtum. For example, a man is obligated to marry his brother’s childless widow, a process called chalitza. But because there exists a chance that a tumtum will be turned inside out and revealed as female, Rabbi Yehuda argues that tumtumim should not perform chalitza. An unlikely (although terrifying) scenario, to be sure, but rabbis nonetheless sought to clarify gaps and contradictions, especially when uncertainty in law poses risks to others (and other laws).
In the same essay, Browne identifies the function of identification documents to attest to and materialize a “stable self.” The state’s perception of the individual as stable can then be used to garnish mobility — access to the road, travel, and traversing boundaries, but always at the cost of reifying a system that closely monitors and enforces stability. Similarly, the tumtum and androgynos categories seem to affirm a “stable self” for those who fall outside of the gender/sex binary (and even with the Talmud’s multiple categories, a male/female binary always hovers over them). This system, while seemingly inclusive, still imposes boundaries on interactions with religion and culture. By grouping these people into a category, those with unconventional genitals, sexualities, hormones, and bodies become separated, identifiable, and easier to control. Indeed, androgynos are prohibited from occupying both women-only and men-only spaces, effectively only permitted to exist either with people of multiple genders or alone.
Despite this condition, when I read discussions of the tumtum and the androgynos in the Talmud, they don’t feel like some sort of taboo. The rabbis don’t seem to consider these characters threatening or deceptive — like political discourse concerning trans-inclusivity does today. The indeterminate identity of the tumtum and androgynos were nonetheless determined in a stable way. Fluidity was accounted for. In this way, tumtumim maneuver between genders and laws while their maneuvers remain regulated by a higher authority.
Access to migration maintains fluidity and autonomy in both space and time. While driver’s licenses and passports can enable people to travel freely across space, Talmudic gender classifications can determine one’s mobility through time. For example, women are generally exempt from time-bound positive commandments and are even occasionally required not to fulfill mitzvot that men are obligated to perform (Kiddushin 1:7). Gender starts impacting the experience of time almost immediately once life begins and in all facets of Jewish life. Eight days after leaving the womb, a baby boy will have a bris. When a crime occurs and needs deciphering, men can be witnesses, but women and those of “double gender” are not able to testify despite being at the scene, leaving men with the sole power to disclose what happened and therefore how the future should look (Mishnah Bikkurim 4). On Shabbat, women of the household light the candles, enacting the entrance of the weekly holiday. What I mean to illustrate is that gender and sex offer varying temporal movement capabilities and responsiblities in Judaism. Gender can define one’s relationship to time. Living in a timeline informed by gender means that people have unique, specified licenses to different movements and expanses of time, much like a driver’s license or passport permits for physical travel.
Poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant champions the right to opacity, to resist the reduction of people to digestible data categories. Referring to another dominant system of classification, he states that “accepting differences does, of course, upset the hierarchy of this scale. I understand your difference, or in other words, without creating a hierarchy, I relate it to my norm. I admit you to existence, within my system. I create you afresh. But perhaps we need to bring an end to the very notion of a scale. Displace aIl reduction.”
Adding an “X” gender on a state identification document already becomes an object of surveillance, stagnation, and heteronormativity. While this descriptor is voluntary, unlike the Talmud’s didactic classification of people, the consequences are nonetheless grim as a choice of gender still has to be made. There is no room for opacity or blankness, whereas, in the Talmud, this space is explicitly maintained.
The movement of the tumtum is a perpetual untethering from the scale — they are themselves movement and opacity, and there is no need for permission or documentation. Tumtumim thrive in the liminal space of opacity before judgement is called for, essentialism revealed, scale surmounted. An “inclusive” driver’s license beckons the skin to be torn and some truth to be divulged for the sake of better identification — an ultimate thwart to mobility under a pretense of advancement.