YK Beyond the Binary: Mordekhai nursed Esther himself

-Everyone shares their names and pronouns

What is the Talmud? - Rabbinic debates and commentaries on the Torah from which we derive Halakha, theology, ethics etc.

But we're not rabbis? - Like Talmudic rabbis and students have done for centuries, and like the approach for projects such as #QueerDafYomi we are studying and interpreting these texts according to experiences. The Talmud belongs to all of us

Mordekhai Nursed Esther Himself: A Midrash (Land of Israel, 5thh Century CE)

by Noam Sienna in A Rainbow Thread

Like the passage from Bereishit Rabbah where the rabbis present the first human as a multi-sexed being, this section of Bereshit Rabbah presents Mordekhai, a central figure in the Book of Esther, as transgressing (or surpassing) the standard restrictions of gendered bodies. here, they expand on a teaching that attributes the qualities of 'feeding and sustaining' to a number of biblical characters; Rabbi Yudan suggests that in Mordekhai's case, he literally nursed Esther himself (presumably drawing on Esther 2:7, 'Mordekhai brought up [va-yehi omen] Hadassah, that is, Esther'). A teaching of Rabbi El'azar goes even further, emphasizing the unique physicality of Mordekhai's body that enabled him to nurse Esther.
The Midrash then records that when one rabbi taught this publicly, he was laughed at by this audience, but he defended his interpretation by referring to a halakhic statement made in the Mishnah to the effect that milk produced by a male (for whatever reason or by whatever process) is still kosher; thus, even seemingly disruptive bodies and natures can still be made understandable by the rabbinic legal system. Indeed, an actual occurence of male nursing appears elsewhere in the Talmud (b. Shabbat 53b)
(pg 34-35)

(איוב לא, יז): וְלֹא אָכַל יָתוֹם מִמֶּנָּה, אֶתְמָהָא. מָרְדְּכַי זָן וּפִרְנֵס, אָמַר רַבִּי יוּדָן פַּעַם אַחַת חִזֵּר עַל כָּל הַמֵּנִיקוֹת וְלֹא מָצָא לְאֶסְתֵּר לְאַלְתָּר מֵינִיקָה, וְהָיָה מֵינִיקָהּ הוּא, רַבִּי בֶּרֶכְיָה וְרַבִּי אַבָּהוּ בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בָּא לוֹ חָלָב וְהָיָה מֵינִיקָהּ. כַּד דָּרַשׁ רַבִּי אַבָּהוּ בְּצִבּוּרָא גָּחוֹךְ צִבּוּרָא לְקָלֵיהּ, אֲמַר לְהוֹן וְלָא מַתְנִיתָּא הִיא, רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר חָלָב הַזָּכָר טָהוֹר.

The Rabbis taught: every [biblical figure whom the text introduces] by saying, 'he was' [hayah] was one who fed and sustained ... Mordekhai [was one of those who] fed and sustained. Really? Indeed, Rabbi Yudan said, 'One time, he went repeatedly to all the wet-nurses but could not find one for Esther at that moment, and so he nursed her himself." Rabbi Berakhiah and Rabbi Abhahu [said] in Rabbi El'azar's name, 'Milk came to him and he would nurse her". When Rabbi Abahu taught this in public, the congregation laughed at him. He said to them, 'Is this not a teaching in the Mishnah? Rabbi Shimon b.El'azar said, 'the milk of a male is pure [tahor]"

Can Cis Men Lactate? YES!

terminology. a cis man is a person who identifies as a man AND was assigned 'male' at birth

All human adults have the necessary anatomic equipment, physiological potential, and hormone receptors required for lactation. The only difference is the production levels of hormone prolactin. There is no medical or biological reason why cis men shouldn't lactate.

Ethnographic, anecdotal, and personal evidence also provides a history of cis men lactating either through nipple stimulation, in extreme circumstances (such as the mother passing away at childbirth), or through Prolactin supplements

A note from us: Our goal with this reading is not to make a case that cis men should be breastfeeding their kids - though for anyone interested there is a wealth of discussion on the topic. Rather, its to make the point that classical Judaism has the tools, the language, and the space to hold bodies, identities, and behaviours that we might today consider outside of the gender binary

Six Genders in Classical Judaism
We are now going to read an explanation of terms used in classical Jewish texts to refer to gender. We aren't proposing that we revive these terms, or that they are more authentic than modern gender identities. In many ways these terms, with their focus on the body are difficult for us to accept toady. However, they are interesting to us because these terms indicate that classical Judaism wasn't stifled by the gender binary.

This source was put together by Rabbi Elliot Kukla who was the first openly transgender person to be ordained by the Reform Movement's Hebrew Union College. He administers TransTorah.org and works at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center

Terms for Gender Diversity in Classical Jewish Texts by Rabbi Elliot Kukla

Zachar: This term is derived from the word for a pointy sword and refers to a phallus. It is usually translated as “male” in English.

Nekevah: This term is derived from the word for a crevice and probably refers to a vaginal opening. It is usually translated as “female” in English.

Androgynos: A person who has both “male” and “female” sexual characteristics. 149 references in Mishna and Talmud (1st-8th Centuries CE); 350 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes (2nd -16th Centuries CE).

Tumtum: A person whose sexual characteristics are indeterminate or obscured. 181 references in Mishna and Talmud; 335 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

Ay’lonit: A person who is identified as “female” at birth but develops “male” characteristics at puberty and is infertile. 80 references in Mishna and Talmud; 40 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.

Saris: A person who is identified as “male” at birth but develops “female” characteristics as puberty and/or is lacking a penis. A saris can be “naturally” a saris (saris hamah), or become one through human intervention (saris adam). 156 references in mishna and Talmud; 379 in classical midrash and Jewish law codes.


-What did you struggle with in this text?
-What resonated with you?
-What can you take away from this reading?

Some Further Sources

If there is time you might want look at some of these sources of male nursing from our tradition and beyond

"Experience may tell you that producing milk and nursing youngsters is a job for the female mammal, not the male. But your experience is probably limited, and the potential of biology--and medical technology--is vast."
--Jared Diamond (1995) "Father's Milk"

הֶאָנֹכִ֣י הָרִ֗יתִי אֵ֚ת כָּל־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אִם־אָנֹכִ֖י יְלִדְתִּ֑יהוּ כִּֽי־תֹאמַ֨ר אֵלַ֜י שָׂאֵ֣הוּ בְחֵיקֶ֗ךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשָּׂ֤א הָאֹמֵן֙ אֶת־הַיֹּנֵ֔ק עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖עְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָֽיו׃

Moses: Have I conceived all this people? have I brought them forth, that Thou shouldest say unto me: Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing-father carrieth the sucking child, unto the land which Thou didst swear unto their fathers?

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מַעֲשֶׂה בְּאֶחָד שֶׁמֵּתָה אִשְׁתּוֹ וְהִנִּיחָה בֵּן לִינַק וְלֹא הָיָה לוֹ שְׂכַר מְנִיקָה לִיתֵּן, וְנַעֲשָׂה לוֹ נֵס וְנִפְתְּחוּ לוֹ דַּדִּין כִּשְׁנֵי דַּדֵּי אִשָּׁה וְהֵנִיק אֶת בְּנוֹ.
The Gemara cites a related baraita in which the Sages taught: There was an incident where one man’s wife died, and she left him a son to nurse, and he did not have money to pay the wages of a wet-nurse. And a miracle was performed on his behalf, and he developed breasts like the two breasts of a woman, and he nursed his son.

"It is well known that in the males of all mammals, including man, rudimentary mammae exist. These in several instances have become well developed, and have yielded a copious supply of milk"
-- Charles Darwin (1871) Descent of Man