Was Adam a Hermaphrodite?
I am responding in this series to frequently asked questions about some gender-bending translations of Torah texts I have proposed in a few articles since 2008, and in an Op-Ed in The New York Times, “Is God Transgender?” (August 12, 2016).
So far, we have looked at Eve as “he”, Noah repairing to “her” tent, and Rebecca, who is called a “young man.” Now we turn our attention to Adam, a hermaphrodite.
Frequently Asked Question: In support of your theory of “gender-fluidity” in the Torah, you note that Adam is referred to as “them” (Genesis 1:27). But isn’t that because the word adam is used there to mean “humankind”? A collective noun can be treated either as singular or plural (e.g. “army”). Why do you insist that “them” refers to the individual named Adam?
My Response: We’ll get to Adam’s name in moment. But yes, a collective noun can be treated either as singular or plural. However, Genesis 1:27 refers to Adam as “it” (oto, singular) and “them” (otam, plural) in the same sentence; male and female, created in the image of God.
The rabbis understood this to mean that Adam was created as an intersexed being, a hermaphrodite; singular in one respect, plural in another. Exactly how Adam was constituted as an intersexed being was debated. Rabbi Jeremiah ben Elazar held that Adam was an androgyne, while Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman held that Adam was more like conjoined male/female twins. Here is the passage from Bereishit Rabba 8:1:
… Said R’ Yirmiyah ben Elazar: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created him [as] an androgyne/androginos, as it is said, “male and female He created them”. Said R’ Shmuel bar Nachmani: In the hour when the Holy One created the first human, He created [for] him a double-face/di-prosopon/du-par’tsufin, and sawed him and made him backs, a back here and a back [t]here, as it is said, “Back/achor and before/qedem You formed me” [Psalm 139:5].
A better known Adam and Eve creation story occurs in Genesis Chapter 2. There, God takes a tzayla from “the Adam” (ha’Adam), which becomes Eve (Genesis 2:22; 3:20). The word tzayla is usually translated as “rib.” But Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman disagreed. The word, he argued, means “side”:
They objected to him: But it says, “He took one of his ribs/ts’la
ot_...” [Genesis 2:21]! He said to them: [It means] “[one] of his sides/_sit’rohi_”, just as you would say, “And for the side/_tsela of the Tabernacle/mishkan” [Ex 26:20], which they translate [in Aramaic] “for the side/seter”.
And now, if we look at the entire Genesis section again we may notice that Adam (“earth creature,” from the Hebrew adamah) is not really a proper name. Nor is a proper name ever conferred upon the creature. This is not a new insight. Almost forty years ago, in “The Image of God in Man – Is Woman Included?”, the distinguished historian of ideas Maryanne Cline Horowitz noted: the dual-gendered nature of Adam “is completely distorted by Bible translations which consistently capitalize the term as a proper name Adam.”
Rabbinic midrashic tradition and modern students of the Bible both understand Genesis 1:27 as depicting the adam as having been created an intersex being. Here, my reading is far from novel.