Reprogramming the Gender Binary

Now that the increasingly misnamed Fall Semester is starting to wind down at last, I’ve finally got a little time to address some ideas I’ve had on the back burner. One of these is something that came up during a program on gender here at RRC this fall. We had been discussing the gender binary as a rigid structure that causes problems for people who don’t fit within its either/or classification. Someone spoke up at this point and voiced their confusion about what to do with the fact that many of the people who don’t fit into the binary still tend to describe different aspects of their gendered experience in terms of male/female. Wouldn’t getting rid of the binary entirely invalidate those people’s identities to some extent?

This discussion quickly turned to the question of what to do with non binary gender within a religious framework like Judaism, which relies heavily on oppositions to do a lot of its conceptual heavy lifting:

“Blessed are you, Ha Shem, ruler of the universe, who separates between the holy and the ordinary, between light and darkness, between the seventh day and the six days of work. Blessed are you Ha Shem, who separates the holy from the ordinary.” (Havdalah blessing)

It was at this point that a faculty member (go, go Vivi Mayer!) brought up the passage in the Mishnah (in the oddly tacked on fourth chapter of Bikkurim) that deals with the halachic status of the androgynos (אנדרוגינוס), i.e. a person born with ambiguous genetailia. According to the Mishnah, when it comes to the the androgynos, “there are ways in which he (sic) is equivalent to men, and there are ways in which he is equivalent to women, and there are ways he is equivalent to both men and women, and there are ways in which he is not equivalent to men or to women.”

What is fascinating about this passage is the way in which it uses a binary distinction (man/woman) as a tool with which to define a more complex and ambiguous identity (the androgynos) by means of a carefully articulated set of similarities and differences. As it turns out, this framework (like X in some ways, like Y in some ways, like both X and Y in some ways, like neither X nor Y in some ways) is used more than once in the Mishnah to work out how an ambiguous edge case fits into the overwhelmingly binary structure of halachah. In adopting this framework, the ancient rabbis were able to acknowledge the existence of subjects that don’t fit into that binary structure without thereby expelling them to some undefined space “outside” the boundaries of the halachah (which for them would have been basically indistinguishable from erasing them altogether).

And what occurs to me in this context is that there’s another area in which an apparently simple binary is used in increasingly complex combinations to create something more subtle and interesting, and that’s the binary code that underlies the functioning of computers. When you drill down to the most elemental level, all computer code is ultimately made up of ones and zeroes. A single bit, a single position, can only ever be either/or: 1 or 0, this or that.* But at that level of simplicity, very little can be accomplished. One bit doesn’t give you very much information at all. But once you start stringing positions together, more complexity can be achieved. With two bits, you now have four possibilities rather than two: 00, 01, 10 and 11. String together four bits and you have enough for the numbers 0-9 and you can now do math with decimal numbers. Once you string seven bits together you’ve got enough for the full range of alphanumeric characters and you can write a book, all with nothing but ones and zeroes.

But here’s the thing: Just because a long string of ones and zeroes is a useful tool for encoding a text file of, say, Moby Dick, doesn’t mean that Moby Dick is itself a one or a zero. The ones and zeroes are the material it is made up of, but the book transcends these materials to do something new, something much more complex and interesting. If I were to decide that the ones and zeroes were the most important part of Moby Dick and go around dividing it, and other books, into two big piles based on whether there were more ones or more zeroes in each one, as if that actually said anything significant about the book, you’d call me crazy. The same might be said about gender.

When we say that we want to challenge the gender binary, we aren’t necessarily saying we want to (or even feel like we can) live in a world where we have to make do without reference to gendered language. What we’re saying is that our culture is heavily invested in the idea that all books are either ones or zeroes, and that this creates serious problems for books that feel like they’ve been miscategorized, or that the category into which they’ve been assigned doesn’t say everything (or even anything) important about them. We’re saying that using the gender binary as a set of rigid categories in the first place is possibly the least useful and least interesting thing we could do with it, like fixating on the ones and zeroes stored in a computer instead of combining them in interesting ways to do math, or write books, or create software that allows us to launch a simulated bird at a tower of evil pigs.

With this in mind, I think the helpful answer to the person who spoke up in the discussion would be that we need to get to the point where we think of the binary as a language for programming in and not a set of rigid and sterile containers. As an exercise, I invite you (if you aren’t the kind of person who’s in the habit of thinking this way), to look at the following list of things that we habitually lump into the single, all-encompassing container of “gender” and consider them as individual, discrete “bits” in a string of gendered information, with regard to each of which individually a person might be “equivalent to male, equivalent to female, equivalent to male and female, or equivalent to neither male nor female.”**

Gendered bits:

  • Biological sex
  • Genetic sex (chromosomes)
  • Anatomic sex (genetailia)
  • Physiological sex (reproductive function)
  • Assigned gender (what the doctors put on your birth certificate)
  • Legal gender
  • Gender expectations (how others expect me to behave, present and identify)
  • Pronouns people call me by
  • Pronouns I prefer to be called by
  • Behavior patterns of others toward me (personal space, language, communication style, assumptions about preferred social groups, etc.)
  • Gender identity (how I think of myself)
  • Gender presentation
    • Clothing
    • Appearance
    • Behavior

* At some level the analogy doesn’t hold, because beyond “1” and “0” the rabbinical formulation from the midrash has access to the additional (and very useful) positions of “both 1 and 0” and “neither 1 or 0.” This makes the system even more flexible, and I hope the general similarity is apparent.

** It’s important to note that this list is in no way comprehensive, and that each item on the list is itself a complex construction possibly made up of a network of other, more subtle “bits.”

The Role of Halachah in Liberal Judaism

The following is a few notes that I jotted down recently about the role of halachah in liberal Judaism, heavily inspired by Rachel Adler’s amazing book, Engendering Judaism. Reconstructionists often identify our movment as a “post-halachic” movement, but personally I don’t think we should be so quick to give up the term “halachah,” or the fundamental approach to religious life that it represents.

One of the things I’ve always apprciated about Judaism is that as a religion it sets itself the task of teaching us how to be human–that is, not to transcend our fundamental humanity, but to live as human beings in community with other humans and with God. As someone whose neurological makeup often makes it difficult to navigate a social world made up of nonverbal cues and unarticulated empathetic identification, it felt intensely liberating to immerse myself in a tradition in which the “rules” for interacting with and taking care of your fellow beings are articulated clearly in terms of concrete behaviors. The primary framework within which Judaism has historically pursued this project is halachah, and it is this framework which I see as valuable and worth preserving alongside more vaguely-framed “values-based” ways of understanding ethical obligation.

At the same time, liberal Judaism has brought a number of extremely important critiques to traditional halachah as it has come down to us, among which are:

  • That traditional halachah is overly rigid, having calcified to the point where it lacks the flexibility required to adequately adapt to changing social conditions.
  • That the framework of traditional halachah is fundamentally sexist, prioritizing male perogatives and experience and relegating women to the status of second-class citizens.
  • That the range of gender and sexual roles provided for in traditional halachah does violence to those who do not fit within those boundaries, forcing them to either painfully repress themselves to live within the roles that the system forces upon them or to leave the community altogether.
  • The power differential whereby halachic decisions are made by an educated elite of rabbis, invalidating and downplaying the contributions of Jews who are not part part of those elites (i.e. “Jewish folk religion”)
  • etc.

My thoughts on reconstructing halachah in light of these critiques are as follows:

  • First, it is important to point out that “Law,” or even “religious Law,” is a very poor translation of the word “halachah.” A much better translation (and much more in keeping with the word’s etymology) would be “procedure.”
  • In this framework, there would be no such thing as “halachah” in the sense of an overarching, internally consistent framework. To reconstruct halachah for a postmodern world, we have to abandon the project of “codes” which halachists have been engaged in since Maimonides and go back to the looser and more polyvocal world of the Talmud and Midrash. In place of Halachah we have halachot, “procedures,” which are related to each other and to the texts on which they are based but in a way that acknowledges multiple possible constellations rather than a sigle all-inclusive system.
  • What therefore is a halachah within this framework? One possible procedure for actualizing a mitzvah.
  • The Torah contains mitzvot, some of whicha re like case law, some of which are like values, many of which are mixtures of both. Each of these mitzvot reflect a certain aspect of the Jewish historical exprience and a certain aspect of the Jewish encounter with God, but to give them a voice within our own lives they need to be actualized in halachah, i.e. concrete procedures reflecting the values and experience contained within a mitzvah.
  • For any given mitzvah, there is the “what” of the mitzvah and its “how”: What are the values contained within the mitvah? What is the historical experience it expresses? How are we going to actualize the mitzvah in our own communities in a way that makes sense and in such a way as to forge a link between ourselves, our history, and God?

What I’m posting here isn’t anything close to well researched or thought out, but I thought it might be worth putting up here just the same. As always, comments and critiques are highly encouraged.