JK Rowling, Gender-Fluidity, and Cancel Culture (Shabbos 136)

While the Torah has always recognized non-binary gender, western society has not caught up until the 21st century.

In recent weeks, we’ve heard a lot about Cancel Culture.  First, JK Rowling tweeted remarks that many considered bigoted.  In response, fans across the globe – including the Harry Potter film actors – “cancelled” her, declaring her persona non grata.  150 authors and thought leaders then leaped to her defence, penning a letter decrying Cancel Culture, and encouraging open discussion and debate.

Meanwhile, the Jewish community has faced antisemitic prejudice from prominent Americans, including footballer DeSean Jackson and entertainer, Nick Cannon.  What does Judaism say about Cancel Culture?

רַבִּי יְהוּדָה מַתִּיר וְכוּ׳. אָמַר רַב שֵׁיזְבִי אָמַר רַב חִסְדָּא: לֹא לַכֹּל אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אַנְדְּרוֹגִינוֹס זָכָר הוּא,.
וּמַאי שְׁנָא מִילָה? מִשּׁוּם דִּכְתִיב: ״הִמּוֹל לָכֶם כׇּל זָכָר״.
כל זכר – ריבויא הוא
כל שאינו מחוייב בדבר אינו מוציא אחרים ידי חובתן
אשה פטורה משום דהוי מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא
אנדרוגינוס מוציא את מינו
את מינו. אבל לא את שאינו מינו. (גמ’) ורי”ף פי’ דאע”פ שחבירו ג”כ אנדרוגינוס אם באותו פעם שהוא נקבה הוי חבירו זכר אינו מוציאו
משמע שפעם הוא זכר ופעם הוא נקבה כמו ששמעתי אומרים שאנדרוגינוס חודש אחד הוא זכר חודש אחד הוא נקבה. ולא משמע כן בגמ’ ובפוסקים ועוד דא”כ ל”ל קרא למעוטי אנדרוגנוס דאין מילתו דוחה שבת אם הוא בחודש שנולד בו נקבה פשיטא ואם הוא זכר קשה נמי האיך ידעינן שחודש הבא יהיה נקבה וק”ל

Rabbi Yehuda permits circumcising an androgynous child on Shabbat. Rav Sheizvi said that Rav Ḥisda said: Not with regard to all matters did Rabbi Yehuda say that an androgynous individual is considered a male (it was only with regard to circumcision). What is distinct regarding the law of circumcision?  Since the Torah states: “Circumcise for yourselves every male.”
Rashi: The extra word ‘every’ comes to include an androgynous child.

Shulchan Aruch OC 589: Any person who is not obligated to fulfil a particular mitzvah cannot fulfil the mitzvah on behalf of others.  Women are exempt from the mitzvah of shofar because it is a positive time-bound commandment.  An androgynous individual can fulfil the mitzvah on behalf of a like-gendered individual.
Magen Avraham: But not on behalf of someone who is not alike. And Rabbeinu Alfasi explained that even though their fellow may also be androgynous, if at that moment one was female and the other male, they cannot fulfil their obligation.

Beer Heitev: The meaning is that sometimes they are male and sometimes female, as I have heard people say that androgynous individuals may be male one month and female another month.  But that doesn’t seem to be the meaning in the Gemara and poskim.  Moreover, if so, why would the verse need to specify an androgynous child – that their bris does not override Shabbos if the month in which they were born they are female – it is obvious.  And if they are male at birth, it is also difficult to understand, for how would we know that next month they will be female?

In our tradition, women are generally exempt from positive time-bound mitzvos.  While they are certainly encouraged to observe mitzvos such as shofar, since they are not obligated in the mitzvah, they cannot blow shofar for men.  The Shulchan Aruch rules that androgynous persons are permitted to blow the shofar for other androgynous persons.

The Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, C17 Poland), however, qualifies the ruling.  If they are gender-fluid, they can only blow the shofar for another at a moment when they are male.  While the Beer Heitev’s (Rabbi Yehudah Ashkenazi, C18 Germany) disagreement is difficult to understand – non-binary gender in babies is clearly more difficult to discern than in adults – he nevertheless acknowledges gender fluidity.  A person may be female one month and male the next.

While the Torah has always recognized non-binary gender, western society has not caught up until the twenty first century.  As a result, many people are still unaware of the reality and prevalence of non-binary individuals.  They are often dismissive and suggest that gender is unambiguous at the time of birth and remains that way throughout a person’s life.  Sadly, such dismissiveness may result in prejudice and bigotry. 

As Jews, we have a duty to educate people who say and act inappropriately towards people they do not understand and are unfamiliar with.  We don’t believe in Cancel Culture.  We believe that life is about learning and education.  Rabbi Elazar teaches (Pirkei Avot 2): “Know how to answer a heretic,” which implies a duty to discuss fundamental disagreements, even with characters you might deem unsavoury.  Because it’s impossible to respond to a person without listening to what they have to say.

We don’t cancel people because they entertain different opinions or exhibit ignorance.  That’s why the rabbinic response to DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon has been to reach out to them to engage in dialogue and conversation.  According to statements by those involved, such discussions have been fruitful.  Jackson and Cannon have expressed remorse for their ignorant statements.

JK Rowling has made inappropriate and hurtful remarks.  She claims that her sentiments cannot be understood without regard to the difficult life she has endured.  It is certainly ill-conceived to allow her the pass she is seeking.  Nevertheless, the Jewish response is not to cancel, but to engage.  Declaring war hasn’t made her do teshuvah for her comments, it has emboldened her.  It is hard to imagine that, after a comprehensive conversation with her about the reality of non-binary gender, she would not express sincere remorse for her statements.

The Torah has always been millennia ahead of western thought in understanding ethics and morality.  We haven’t gotten here by cancelling people we don’t agree with.  Judaism thrives on healthy dialogue and debate.  That’s the only way to arrive at the truth.  May you forever seek to learn and educate by coming to the table and encouraging others to do the same!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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