I spent the Yeshiva shabbaton reading a book that I had been meaning to revisit since Sophomore Tutorial: Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud by Thomas Laquer. The basic thesis of the book is that the Enlightenment marked the shift from a one-sex model of the body to a two-sex model. Today we are used to thinking of the body in terms of two sexes – we view these biological distinctions as “real” and uncontestable, although we recognize that gender (the psychological, emotional, and social qualities that make us male and female) are socially constructed. But this is a very modern view of sex and gender – for much of human history, it was radically otherwise. In pre-Enlightenment texts, the cultural categories of gender were assumed to be real, whereas physical sex was conventional and subject to change: “To be a man or a woman was to hold a social rank, a place in society, to assume a cultural role, not to be organically one or the other of two incommensurable sexes.” And thus we must understand, given this historical shift, that sexuality is not an inherent quality off the flesh, but a way of experiencing our bodies that is very much a product of our times.
Laquer goes on to survey anatomy textbooks from Galen (2nd century) to Vesalius (Renaissance) to show that for hundreds of years, women’s bodies were thought to be lesser versions of men’s bodies. The female genitalia was considered an inverted, internalized version of the male – and thus the ovaries were known as the “female testes,” for instance. Very few distinctly female body parts had names of their own, because women’s organs were represented as versions of a man’s. There was “only one canonical body and that body was male.” Instead of any true, essential sex that differentiated man from woman, there was one sex whose more perfect exemplars were deemed male at birth, and whose less perfect ones were labeled female. Medieval and Renaissance texts are thus filled with anxieties about inappropriate behaviors that might cause a change of sex. For instance, according to one medieval text, a girl in the heat of puberty once jumped across a ditch while chasing pigs through a wheatfield and “at that very moment the genitalia and the male rod came to be developed in him, having ruptured the ligaments by which they had been held enclosed.”
But then in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a dramatic revolution took place in our conceptions of sex and gender. Science fleshed out the categories “male” and “female” as opposite and incommensurable, and sex become biological. Anatomists no longer emphasized physical and physiological equivalences between men and women, and there was a general abandonment of the old metaphors that had linked reproduction to the natural world (i.e. the penis as plowshare and the womb as field). Sex was no longer known as “generation” (which reflects the repetition of God’ creation) but rather as “reproduction” (a mechanistic term more appropriate for a future age of Xerox machines and mass production). But most importantly, a biology of hierarchy (men as superior women) gave way to a biology of incommensurability, in which the relationship between men and women was fundamentally one of difference. Laquer links this shift to social and political changes such as Lockean ideas of marriage as contract, postrevolutionary (French, that is) feminism, the factory system with its restructuring of the sexual division of labor, etc. No matter the cause, the result was indisputable: by the time of the Enlightenment, women had become the opposite sex.
As a student of Talmud, I take away from this book a sense of new possibilities in terms of my own historical relationship with sexual identity in Judaism. As I see it, a Jewish woman of the twenty-first century has far more in common with a Jewish man of rabbinic times. When I study Talmud, especially Masechet Ketubot (as we are doing this year), I feel very alienated and distant from the halachic category of nashim. I identify as an ish rather than as an isha: I daven regularly, I wear tzitzit, I earn money and own property, I participate fully in the social and political life of my community. I do not place a premium on virginity or on reproductive capacity; I value myself far more for the amount of Torah I have mastered. And so I devote my time to learning and leyning, which I consider essential parts of living fully as a Jew. These activities do not make me feel like a man rather than a woman – but Laquer’s book reminds me that in another era, they probably would have. In fact, one of Vesalius’ frummer anatomy students might have observed my halachic behavior and warned me that if I were not careful, I would suddenly feel my own ligaments start to rupture like the girl chasing pigs across a ditch.
When I put on tefillin, I have more in common with Rabbi Akivah than to Beruriah. But that said, I don’t view wearing tefillin as a masculine behavior. Haviva Ner-David writes that putting on tefillin in the morning reminds her that her body is deserving of adornment. I feel the same way, but I think this is a very feminine response. It is not that gender roles have shifted, but rather that the halachic categories of “male” and “female” have been reappropriated. As a free, independent person, I am a man — as far as rabbinic Judaism is concerned. My gender remains fixed but my sex is fluid, unconstrained by biological or anatomical “reality.” It is in this sense, more than any other, that I identify most fully as a Jewish feminist.