Ki Tetzei: A Trans-gression?

A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 22:5

Historically, this commandment has mostly been used to reinforce the status quo around gender. It guards against the danger that women will cross-dress and usurp men’s power, or that men will cross-dress as a way to trespass in the harem. In other words, it safeguards patriarchal inheritance rights.

Fast-forward to the gender anxieties of the 20th century, when some of us have been very worried that women were trying to “wear the pants” or that men were “being castrated” by women. Back in the 1960’s I remember a lot of fuss about women and slacks; this verse was always a popular proof-text. Today it is handy for those who wish to buttress transphobic feelings with Biblical texts.

In fact, Jewish tradition has not always seen gender in a binary way. The sages of the Talmud recognized and discussed six genders:

  • zachar – male
  • nekevah – female
  • androgynos – one having both male and female characteristics
  • tumtum – one whose gender characteristics are unclear or unformed
  • ay’lonit – one who is identified as female at birth but develops male characteristics and is infertile
  • saris – one who is identified as male at birth but develops female characteristics and/or is lacking male genitalia

Notice that some of these categories are mutable and change over the course of a lifetime.

Some readers may think that this is a wild Reform reading of the texts.  (I am certainly a Reform rabbi!) If you are interested in following up, I recommend Terms for Jewish Diversity from Classical Jewish Texts by Rabbi Elliot Kukla. He gives citations and a count of the time these terms appear in the texts. The Religious Action Center offers a readable article on the subject, Gender Diversity in Jewish Tradition.

So now, in the present day, what might we do with the commandment that seems to say “no crossdressing?”

What if we were to make a new interpretation of this verse? Try this:

Do not disguise yourself as something that you are not, unless it is necessary for the preservation of life. Do not oppress someone on account of gender, because we are all made in the image and likeness of the Holy One.

What do you think? I have no idea if I have any trans readers, but if so, I’d be particularly interested in hearing from you.

A Season of Growth – #36rabbis

A little over a month ago, I wrote about shaving my head at the “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave” event in Chicago. A group of rabbis, mostly but not all Reform, shaved our heads in an effort to raise consciousness and cash for pediatric cancer research. Our inspiration was the life of a little boy who did not survive leukemia, the eight year old child of our colleagues, Sammy Sommer.

The experience has given me one surprise after another.

It turned out that it wasn’t much of a sacrifice to shave my head: I actually felt freed by it, and after fulfilling a promise to a friend this summer, I intend to get rid of the hair again. I liked the bald look: elegant in its own way, and striking.

In the meantime, I’m walking around with what looks like a bad crew cut as the hair grows out. My hair is about half an inch long. If I put on a hat, my scalp itches. Every day, I’ve gotten a little more upset when I looked in the mirror, and today I finally figured it out.

I had gone out today without makeup or earrings. While I was pumping gas, I caught sight of a reflection in the car window. The image looked to me like a middle aged man with a bad crew cut. “Who IS that guy?” I thought, annoyed.

Then I realized: That guy is me.  

My next thought was: Never, ever leave the house again without lipstick.

I am quite aware that just as shaving my head was nothing like having cancer, this tiny bit of gender discomfort is nothing like the reality facing transgender people. On the other hand, it does seem that there may yet be more to learn from this experience, especially since now I know why the clerk at Staples seemed to be looking at me funny, and hesitated in speaking to me.

So – if you would like to join me in supporting childhood cancer research, you can still donate here. Truly, it’s a good cause.

And if I learn anything worth passing along about being mistaken for a middle aged guy with a bad crew cut, I promise to print it here!