Dedicated to the memory of Leslie Feinberg whose anniversary of death was on November 15th and whose yartzheit is the 22nd of Chesvan, coming up this week. And whose works of great chesed and fierce protective gevurah encapsulate both of our ancestors Abraham and Sarah.
We are at the crux of the story of Abraham and Sarah’s familial story. In this week’s parsha we read of the beginnings of the first Jewish couple’s attempts to expand their family and the ultimately terrifying test of whether that family would continue – the Akeidah. Next week’s parsha is entitled Chayei Sarah – The Life of Sarah – and begins with her death. In honor of Sarai and the woman Sarah she became, I dug a little deeper into some trans and queer narrative aspects I found in the texts.
The most well known text that is often cited by trans folks about Sarai comes from the Babylonian Talmud in Yevamot 64a and 64b. Back in parsha Noach, at the very end as we’re tracing genealogy, we come across the verse 11:30 which states:
וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי עֲקָרָה: אֵין לָהּ וָלָד
“And Sarai was barren; she had no child.” There is a rabbinical analysis tradition that there are no extraneous words in Torah, therefore all seeming redundancies must be resolved. And so the rabbis ask, Why does it say both that Sarai is barren /and/ that she does not have a child? Wouldn’t you be able to infer one from the other? Therefore Rabbi Ami says that both Abram and Sarai are both tumtum, of indeterminate sex. And Rabbi Nachman states that we can infer that Sarai was not just barren, but that she had no womb; she was an aylonit, a person assigned female at birth who fails to develop the usual secondary sex characteristics associated with their assigned sex.
And that’s usually where the trans narrative of Sarah begins and ends. But with that mindset in focus, with that tidbit of Talmud Torah on our tongues, I think many more possibilities of a trans narrative open in the text.
In parsha Lekh L’kha, Abram and Sarai travel down to Egypt and, before arriving, Abram states in Genesis 12:11 הִנֵּה-נָא יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת-מַרְאֶה אָתְּ “I know that you are a beautiful woman to look upon.” Because of the verb’s tense, it can also be read as “I know now that you are a beautiful woman …” Rashi gives two readings. One is that this is to be read through the plain meaning, that Abram has always been aware Sarai is beautiful and he worries for their safety in Egypt. The other reading comes from Midrash Tanchuma 5 and states that, because of her innate modesty, Abram had never truly noticed Sarai’s beauty until this potentially dangerous situation pushed him into realization.
But I think this line holds a spark of trans-ness in it. These stories are the narrative of our ancestors, their travels towards Judaism, towards forging a family, towards finding a homeland, and all the struggles and joys that arise during those times. Knowing they are tumtum, this journey is also one from a state where children do not seem possible, to being parents. We all have these moments in our lives, when many small changes coalesce and suddenly other people see. Trans people in particular know this feeling, the small changes that seem barely perceptible until you are suddenly seen as you. And when reading this last week at the Transkeit conference, I realized the midrash’s interpretation could be seen in a trans light. Not that Abram had never noticed how beautiful Sarai was before, but what a beautiful /woman/ Sarai was. “Behold please, I now know you are a beautiful woman to look upon.” Almost as if he is apologizing for not seeing this moment before, for missing the woman Sarai had become.
In their journey forward, comes another more obvious moment that resonates with trans folks; Abram and Sarai become Sarah and Abraham, trading old names for new.
Our next possible threads of trans-ness come in parsha Vayeira which starts with three angels informing Abraham that he will have a child of his own with Sarah. Sarah, overhearing this news, laughs. Usually the verse וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, Genesis 18:12, is translated as “And Sarah laughed within herself.” However, Rashi presents another reading: “And Sarah laughed at her insides,” that she looked at her body and asked “How is it possible these innards will bear offspring?”
Right before this is a description of of Sarah that states, in 18:11, חָדַל לִהְיוֹת לְשָׂרָה אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים “the course of women had ceased to be” Rashi again swoops in and lets it be known that חָדַל – “ceased” – can also mean “withheld.” Rashi, of course, upholds the normative narrative, that Sarah had a menstrual cycle and that it had ceased. But knowing our Talmud and knowing Sarah’s seemingly trans history, we can also know that perhaps it didn’t cease. Perhaps it never started because “she had not even a womb.” Especially given that the sentence right after this is the very sentence in which Sarah laughs at her insides, knowing with a bitter chuckle, that she has no way to birth a baby. She has no womb, she’s had no periods, how can she possibly have a child?!
The last verse I’d like to point out is Genesis 18:14, right after g-d hears Sarah’s inwards laugh They – yes, g-d Themselves – asks הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיי דָּבָר “Is any thing beyond Hashem?” This would seem a very simple straightfoward sentence. Hashem works miracles, this is a miracle. That’s that. However the word הֲיִפָּלֵא is an interesting one and Rashi, again, brings some enlightening contextual information. Rashi informs us that Onkelos, the Aramaic translation, renders the text as “Is it covered?” He continues with g-d saying “is there anything truly set off and separated and covered from Me?”
The word tumtum, the very word used in Talmud to describe Abram and Sarai, means “hidden” or “covered” because the genitals of a tumtum are covered, such that when they are born society can’t use its usual ways to sex the baby. This root of the word – פּלא – is also often connected with miraculous and mystical things. And that is, I think, the great miracle of Sarah’s life. Not just that she ultimately had a child, even in her old age, but that the threads of her transness were not hidden or set apart either from g-d or from her story.