Bogi Takács’s “Three Partitions,” and the rabbinical approaches to nonbinary gender
Caveat: I am a close friend of the author, and so this is not an objective review (if such is even possible), but rather a combination of dialogue, musings, and disputation.
Bogi Takács’s “Three Partitions” is story is important for me to discuss, my friendship with Bogi aside, because it combines two elements much on my mind these days: nonbinary gender, and traditional communities’ power to norm and exclude.
The story is set on an unnamed planet colonized by Orthodox Jews from Mars, who are clearly Hassidic, and have a Rebbe – one assumes a requisite wonder-working Rebbe, or at least one telepathically proficient – on Mars. In order to be able to live on the planet, the Jews must establish a kind of symbiosis with the planetmind. This is to be achieved by allowing one member of the congregation, Adira, to undergo something akin to blending with the planetmind, and become the bridge between it and the community of humans.
There’s only one problem: after the blending, Adira becomes bigender, a shape-shifter who can be both male and female.
The SFnal Orthodox Jewish community is not equipped to deal with that. But deal with it they must – because the community must help Adira maintain her shape through their expectations. Instead, they exclude – overtly, through constructing an additional partition just for Adira (in addition to the one that separates men from women), and covertly – through silences, disapproving glances, and many other acts of exclusion that ring absolutely true to me as a genderqueer person who used to be on the fringes of a number of Orthodox communities. The women still allow Adira and her friend Chani, the narrator, into their spaces, but this is done coldly and grudgingly. Still, they used to be female-assigned, they appear female-assigned, at least one of them identifies as a woman, and both Adira and Chani use the pronoun “she” (there are no non-binary pronouns in Hebrew), and therefore appearances at least can in principle be maintained (mar’it ayin, appearance, is of primary importance to many Orthodox communities. Something must be not just halachically permissible, but also appear to be so – thus, in the early days of veggie burgers, there were many issues and some rulings to not eat veggie burgers with cheese – not because it’s not kosher – no milk and meat blending was involved – but because it could appear to not be kosher). However, it is not clear to me whether Adira the shapechanger would be even grudgingly admitted without the koshere bsule (‘a kosher virgin’) Chani to chaperone her.
Chani is worried about her friend. She is worried about all the standard things one worries about in such a community. How will Adira be able to marry? Childbirth does not come up, but it should have, because marriage and children are at the cornerstone of one’s identity in an Orthodox community. Halachically though, an androgynos – i.e. a person who is intersex, one of the two Talmudic non-binary genders – is not allowed to marry. Though Jewish Law recognizes non-binary people, it does not seem to allow normalcy of communal and family life to nonbinary people.
Exclusion and cold, grudging acceptance are not enough to maintain Adira’s shape. Chani plans a dangerous trick to show the community how much they stand to lose by rejecting Adira – hoping to fear-trip them in to acceptance. The events unfold in such a way that another nonbinary person joins Adira – Shai, previously male-assigned and now a shapechanger who is bigender, or perhaps Talmudically an androgynos. The story ends optimistically : the community is open to a greater acceptance of these nonbinary people, perhaps because there is a distinct possibility that more and more people will undergo blending with the planetmind. And the addition of Shai solves (at least in Chani’s mind) the problem of marriage – the two nonbinary people can now marry each other, and ascribe to normalcy as historically male and female; perhaps it is one of the ways in which the society maintains their shape through their expectations.
As nonbinary people and readers familiar and sympathetic with nonbinary issues, we might perhaps wish for an acceptance of nonbinary people as normal, but I judge this to be entirely true to form: we are to be shaped by expectations into specific cishet gender and sexual identities even if we do not embody them, and perhaps especially if we do not embody them. Nonbinary options exist and are acknowledged, but the shape to be maintained is a binary one.If I have qualms with this story, it’s that I’d like these tensions to be a tad more explicit. I’d like perhaps to have known what language these Jews speak, with perhaps more play with nonbinary pronouns in that daily language versus the binary gender of Hebrew. It is also possible that, unlike most Hassidic people, they speak Hebrew in daily life as well as during study and prayer – the story is ambiguous on that score, but if they do, there would not be a nonbinary option for them, as the whole grammatical system of Hebrew is binary-gendered, not just the pronouns.
Bogi’s story is not an indictment of the Orthodox way of life – it is written warmly, sometimes even tenderly, with an insider’s knowledge. The ending is optimistic. However, the author – a nonbinary person emself – ended up leaving Orthodoxy shortly after writing this piece, mostly over gender-related tensions. When I asked Bogi for an inspiration for this story, e told me that e’s read of an intersex person who received a rabbinical ruling about a separate partition. When the person inquired whether there were actually any communities with such a tripartite division, the rabbi confessed that such people usually end up not coming to shul at all. This, too, is true to form.
I want to trust the hopeful ending of the story, but I do not. The community only becomes more open to the possibility of nonbinary people when a male-assigned person undergoes a blending. This, too, is true to form, showing a hierarchy of genders within the binary. There is a relaxing of gendered restrictions – everybody is invited to study Gemara together – but, eh, I do not trust it. It is at least equally likely that the community would pack their bags indignantly and depart for Mars, where such unseemely blendings would not be required.