We have a long history of recognizing the mystery and complexity of the human condition. It is well known that the rabbis of the Talmud recognized and addressed a much richer and diverse range of gender than many of our contemporary religious leaders. To commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance, we share with you a surprising gender-bending voice from our history. Below is an excerpt from Even Bohan, a religious and ethical treatise written by Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, a medieval scholar of rabbinic literature, philosophy and medicine. We share this remarkable voice to honor the valiant and ongoing struggle we are engaged in to make sense of gender, and ourselves through the lens of our faith.
Kalonymus ben Kalonymus
Excerpt from Even Bohan, 13th Century
What an awful fate for my mother
that she bore a son.
What a loss of all benefit! . . .
Cursed be the one who announced to my father:
“It’s a boy! . . .
Woe to him who has male sons.
Upon them a heavy yoke has been placed,
restrictions and constraints.
Some in private, some in public,
some to avoid the mere appearance of violation,
and some entering the most secret of places.
Strong statutes and awesome commandments,
six hundred and thirteen.
Who is the man who can do all that is written,
so that he might be spared?
. . . Oh, but had the artisan who made me
created me instead—a fair woman.
Today I would be wise and insightful.
We would weave, my friends and I,
and in the moonlight spin our yarn,
and tell our stories to one another,
from dusk till midnight.
We’d tell of the events of our day, silly things,
matters of no consequence.
But also I would grow very wise from the spinning,
and I would say, “Happy is she who knows how to work
with combed flax and weave it into fine white linen.”
And at times, in the way of women,
I would lie down on the kitchen floor,
between the ovens, turn the coals,
and taste the different dishes.
On holidays I would put on my best jewelry.
I would beat on the drum
and my clapping hands would ring.
And when I was ready and the time was right,
an excellent youth would be my fortune.
He would love me, place me on a pedestal,
dress me in jewels of gold,
earrings, bracelets, necklaces.
And on the appointed day,
in the season of joy when brides are wed,
for seven days would the boy increase my delight and gladness.
Were I hungry, he would feed me well-kneaded bread.
Were I thirsty, he would quench me with light and dark wine.
He would not chastise nor harshly treat me,
and my [sexual] pleasure he would not diminish
Every Sabbath, and each new moon,
his head he would rest upon my breast.
The three husbandly duties he would fulfill,
rations, raiment, and regular intimacy.
And three wifely duties would I also fulfill,
[watching for menstrual] blood, [Sabbath candle] lights, and bread. . .
Father in heaven, who did miracles for our ancestors
with fire and water,
You changed the fire of Chaldees so it would not burn hot,
You changed Dina in the womb of her mother to a girl,
You changed the staff to a snake before a million eyes,
You changed [Moses’] hand to [leprous] white
and the sea to dry land.
In the desert you turned rock to water,
hard flint to a fountain.
Who would then turn me from a man to woman?
Were I only to have merited this,
being so graced by your goodness. . .
What shall I say? Why cry or be bitter?
If my Father in heaven has decreed upon me
and has maimed me with an immutable deformity,
then I do not wish to remove it.
And the sorrow of the impossible
is a human pain that nothing will cure
and for which no comfort can be found.
So, I will bear and suffer
until I die and wither in the ground.
And since I have learned from the tradition
that we bless both the good and the bitter,
I will bless in a voice, hushed and weak,
Blessed are you, O Lord,
who has not made me a woman.
Translated by Rabbi Steve Greenberg