Zohar on Parashat Tazria – Gender and the Spirit

Ran across an interesting discussion in the Zohar on parashat Tazria. If this kind of thing interests you, perhaps you should come by and study with us at RCBI for my regular Thursday afternoon class studying the weekly Torah portion through mystical text!

In this passage, the sages are discussing the question of how spirits end up in their bodies. One rabbi suggests that spirits issue forth as male and female together, but that they become separated into male and female. Assuming a person is worthy, they will be led in their lifetime to the male or female corresponding to the other part of their soul, and this person will be their appointed partner. But Rabbi Elazar objects:

“Rabbi Elazar said, Not so! For in every one male and female are combined together, and afterwards they are separated. But ‘and she gives birth to a male’ (Leviticus 12:2) – they are combined together from the right side. And if she gives birth to a female, female and male are combined together from the left side, such that the left side rules more over the right side, and the male on the right side submits such that it does not rule, and then that male which comes out of the female from the left side, all its ways are like the female, and it is not called male. But the male that comes out of the right, it rules, and the female that comes out of it submits because the left side is not ruling, and therefore it is written, ‘and she gives birth to a male.'”

(Note that in kabbalistic symbolism, the right side is strongly associated with masculinity whereas the left is associated with femininity.)

The language used here by Rabbi Elazar is somewhat complicated, but from what he says we can draw the conclusion that:

  • The soul of every human being contains both elements which are male and elements which are female.
  • That if a soul can nevertheless be said to have a gender, it is because one of these elements rules over and serves as an organizing principle for the others.
  • That even if there are e.g. masculine elements in a female soul, we do not call that soul “male” because those elements emerge according to the (feminine) organizing principle.

Notably absent from this formulation is any indication that the soul’s gender is determined by the body’s physical form. Gender is, at least primarily, a spiritual phenomenon.

Happy International Transgender Day of Visibility!