Clothes line

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?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

13 thoughts on “Ki Tetzei: A Trans-gression?”

  1. I love that you so consistently ask these questions about this incredibly important social justice of our age. Well, of long before this age too, but an issue that seems to be gaining traction finally.

    Thank you for challenging the more troubling and divisive texts… The ones that hardliners love to use for the sole purpose of oppression and keeping power. Who the heck cares, morally, if a woman wears pants, or a man likes dresses, or some people find the gender binary bafflingly inapplicable, or their genitals misaligned with every instinct about their true gender?

    There’s enough suffering in this world – religion is about relieving suffering and challenging us to be better, more just people. There’s no place for oppression in religion, that’s a twisting of beauty for power or politics.

    This verse, for me, it’s like the one about stoning stubborn children to death – it’s so clearly unacceptable that we cannot accept it. We can flat out reject it, or use clever arguments to get to the “there is no stubborn child ever” point.

    I wonder how many Torah/Old Testament verses that use the translated word “abhorrent” fall under that morally unacceptable stoning-children category. 80%? Ooh new blog post topic! 😀

      1. Could I ask you to find am additional source for these terms? The first link, the PDF had a definition and count, but nothing that’s really a definitive source. The article you reference only had one source, that same PDF that was your first link. I’d love to have really solid sources on this, but as a non- rabbi, I don’t even know how to start to look.

  2. Dear Rabbi,
    This morning’s entry is one reaon I so love reading your posts with my morning coffee…thank you for never shying from the difficult texts…..especially those that people use to justify their own bigotry. Mahela

  3. Thanks for this wonderful post! I personally make an effort to study with Orthodox teachers because they are FORCED by their adherence to Halachah to confront difficult passages head on. No sidestepping allowed. I think that your list of 6 genders demonstrates that deep requirement to look at life, use Halachah and find an answer. There are verses in the Torah that the rabbis & sages so completely fenced in that the punishments described essentially can never be used. Getting stuck on them does us no good. They’ve been written off the books.

    Rabbi, you and I have discussed how a transgender person who is converting can go to an Orthodox synagogue to experience a service. You & the Orthodox rabbi worked it out easily. It is that kind of mutual respect that we could all use more of. As we head into the High Holy Days My personal resolve is to be alert to sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and to seek to eradicate it in my speech.

    I love this post and will be sharing it with others. Thank you.

  4. The talmud interprets this verse to mean a disguise in order to defraud, specifically to engage in non-consensual sex:

    “Why does Scripture say, ‘Men’s effects are not for a woman etc.’ If it were merely to teach that a man should dress in a woman’s garment, nor a woman in a man s garment, behold it says this is an abomination, but there is no abomination just in that! It must therefore mean that a man should not put on a woman’s garment and entice women, nor a woman a man’s garment and entice men.”
    (Nazir 59a) my translation

  5. What a refreshing interpretation! It’s great to see the more troubling passages, that are often thrown around to justify bigotry, broken down in context.

    I didn’t know that the Talmud acknowledged gender beyond the binary. I suppose I could have just asked my spouse, but where’s the fun in that? I’ll have to do some more reading on the subject, but I do find it a little troubling that ay’lonit is always listed as being infertile- as if infertility somehow justifies the transition from female to male. Too often the inability to give birth is used to belittle transwomen, because it ‘proves’ they’re not really women. And it also leaves me wondering where I would fit in this spectrum- a man, with a potentially fertile uterus. It looks like there’s a lot more studying in the near future for me.

    1. I recommend the website for a starting point in exploring these matters. Also, keep in mind that the Talmud offers a 1st millennium point of view. We’re living in the 3rd, and our understanding of these issues has to take scientific advances (like hormone therapy) into consideration.

  6. Hi Rabbi! You certainly do have trans readers and I’m one of them. Thank you for this post, your knowledge, and the resources listed. To add to that list, the book “Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentary on the Hebrew Bible” offers smart and engaging perspectives on gender, sexuality, and identity.

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