Ki Tetzei: A Trans-gression?

Clothes line

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.

Don’t Forget the T’s!

June is almost gone, and I haven’t written about Pride yet.

We’re waiting for a big Supreme Court decision that will be a big deal for lesbian and gay rights, the question about whether same-gender couples should have the right to marry in the states that haven’t yet proclaimed that right. (I am sure a lawyer could have put that more elegantly.) What I want everyone to notice that if this does come through, it will be great for the L’s the G’s, and maybe the B’s. It isn’t going to do all that terribly much for the T’s. Life is still very, very hard for transgender folk, and that hasn’t really been changed all that much by a certain transwoman appearing on the cover of Vanity Fair.

How is it hard? Transgender persons face discrimination in school and in the workplace. It’s a little better than it was, but it’s not good. Come out as transgender if you aren’t already a celebrity, and you’re going to have a hard time finding work, even if you’re very good at your job. Once you’ve got the job, then you have to navigate bathrooms – bathrooms! – and a million other details. You will have to navigate a web of discrimination when you seek housing, a driver’s license, immigration, even prison. In all these areas, you will have to deal with people in random positions of petty power pulling rank on whatever simple thing you are trying and insisting that no, you cannot have what you want until you tell them about your genitals. Then maybe you can have whatever it is or maybe you can forget it.

In fact, you can’t have a conversation with quite a chunk of America without that topic coming up: what do you have, what do you no longer have, did it hurt, and oh WHAT do you do in bed? (We lesbians used to get that last one all the time, and boy, did it get boring. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have strangers inquiring about specifics of the plumbing on a regular, casual, social basis.) People, this stuff is Not Our Business.

I hope and pray that whatever happens with the Supreme Court, we don’t act like a bunch of [insert rude word here] and tell our transgender neighbors that they are on their own. Because they are us, and they are threatened daily by violence and oppression. Transgender women of color are the most vulnerable: those statistics should break the hardest heart.

How can you help? Glad you asked. There’s an organization doing fantastic work on transgender rights, the Transgender Law Center in Oakland, CA. They have excellent leadership and they make every dime stretch to its limit. They have an impressive list of accomplishments for an organization that has existed less than 15 years. (Click on the link and see!) If you want major bang for your tzedakah buck, TLC is a great investment. I have been a supporter for a decade and I think the world of them.

How can you help if you don’t have any money? Don’t make jokes about transgender people, and discourage such “humor.” Don’t ask about people’s privates, and explain to others who speculate that it really isn’t cool. DO treat a trans person with the same respect and courtesy that you want for yourself. And when and if you have an opportunity to support legislation that makes things more equal, show up and vote.

That’s my Pride message this year.

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!