Legend and history are filled with stories of cross-dressing. Achilles’ mother dressed him in women’s garb to clandestinely enter the court of Lycomedes without being noticed by Odysseus. “The Odyssey” describes Athena dressing as a man to help people. In ancient Norse mythology, the hero Frotho dresses for battle as a warrior maiden, while the god Odin dresses as a female healer to seduce Rindr.
Hua Mulan (5th century; not clear if she’s fictional or historical) donned a soldier’s uniform so her sick father would not have to serve in the Chinese army. Joan of Arc (15th century) led the French into battle with the British dressed in mail. Catalina de Erauso (17th century). Jazz pianist and saxophonist Billy Tipton (20th century) was actually Dorothy Lucille Tipton but few knew this until after his death.
Ki Teitzei tells us:
A woman must not put on man’s apparel (k’li gever), nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing (simlat isha); for whoever does these things is abhorrent (to’evah) to the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 22:5)Most societies have prohibitions and taboos related to cross-dressing. According to Torah, God doesn’t like cross-dressing (except on Purim) either. In fact, cross-dressing is termed a to’evah (“abomination”). That is very strong language. Torah views the universe through the lens of dualism, everything and its opposite (light/dark, good/evil, Israelite/gentile, male/female). Torah strongly favors keeping things in their “proper” category and not blurring the presumed clear-cut boundaries of God’s creation. Can you imagine my teacher’s reaction when I came to school wearing culottes? Yentl would have kicked out of my third grade class.
Torah seems determined to keep the distinction between men and women clear and visible. If we sift through later commentaries on this verse, as summarized by Rashi (10th century) and codified in the Shulchan Arukh (16th century), we see that the underlying concern of many interpreters is that cross-dressing can lead to sexual immorality: women might don the clothing of men and go out to socialize among men, and vice versa. Sefer ha-Chinukh (13th century, Spain, anonymous) summarizes the concern succinctly: "The root of this mitzvah (commandment) is to keep us from sexual sin... there is no doubt that if men and women's clothing were the same, they would mix and the earth would be filled with impropriety” (mitzvah #564). I wonder if they considered that perhaps cross-dressing was about something other than sex? Think Yentl again. Or think comfort.
Of course what constitutes “male” and “female” attire differs widely from locale to locale, and generation to generation. This makes Torah’s concern very elusive. Are jeans in the province of men? I don’t think my husband would want to wear mine, and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to see him in them. Is the category of the garment (e.g., jeans), the style, the color, or something else that makes it “male” or “female”?
Torah’s concerning with restricting everything to its “proper” category, and the Rabbis’ concern about preventing possible sexual immorality aside, we know that the world is not black or white -- it is mostly gray. Sexuality and orientation do not lie in distinct “his and hers” baskets, but rather along spectra. Today, we understand far more than previous generations. We acknowledge and (ought to) treat with respect people who are bisexual, transgendered, and queer. They are how they are, just as heteronormative people are how they are. What matters is who they are.
We can easily dismiss Torah as reflecting a pre-scientific unenlightened time. But before we do that, we can note three things:
- Torah is unclear. What is the precise meaning of k’li gever (men’s gear)? Some have said it means men’s military appurtenances meaning that women cannot become warriors. What is simlat isha (women’s wear)? Is it clothing or hairstyle? Again, there are differing opinions. There is not even agreement on what to’evah (abomination) means.
- The commentators use the caveat of local custom. Some have said that the Torah’s concern is that men should not shave their hair (under their arms and in the pubic area) as women in some localities do, unless that is local custom. There is no pinning this one down. Interpreters recognize that this is about fashion customs, and customs differ from place to place.
- 3. In Judaism, the principle of k’vod ha-briot (human dignity) trumps just about everything, and certainly the vague concern expressed in Deuteronomy 22:5, and the rather unlikely scenario Shulchan Arukh and Sefer ha-Chinukh are worried about.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman