Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tetzei

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetzei (“When you go out”) and it includes many commandments, some of them quite difficult to understand. The commandments for a woman taken in war are here, as are the commandment concerning an unloved wife and the one concerning a disobedient son. Those are just in the first eleven verses!

Many of these commandments continue to perplex us as we struggle to see how to live lives of Torah. Some concern matters we’d rather not think about at all. Some seem to demand impossible acts.

For instance, the rules for dealing with lost property begin with verses found in this portion. If we take the commandments literally as written, then any time we find any object that might be lost, no matter how beat up it is, no matter how hopeless it is to find the original owner, we must keep that object and search until we find the owner. If we read it literally, then every observant Jew would lug around a huge bag full of discarded ticket stubs, broken ballpoint pens, and other detritus, searching for their owners. This is where the process we know as “Talmud” kicks in – the Talmud is the record of our communal struggle with seemingly impossible or unfair commandments. (If you want to learn more about that, I refer you to the post What is the Talmud? elsewhere in this blog.)

Lots to talk about in this portion! Here are five divrei Torah on Ki Tetzei:

Whether you believe in the Metzaveh or not, you are not free to walk away from proper behavior to others by Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Ki Teitzei: You Are What You Wear, Part 1 by Maggidah Melissa Carpenter

Over Troubled Water by Rabbi Eve Posen

Getting Married is Half the Battle by Hannah Perlberger

Ki Tetzei: A Trans-gression? by Rabbi Ruth Adar

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Shabbat Shalom! – Ki Tetzei

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tetzei (“When you go out”) and it includes many commandments, some of them quite difficult to understand. The commandments for a woman taken in war are here, as are the commandment concerning an unloved wife and the one concerning a disobedient son. Those are just in the first eleven verses!

Many of these commandments continue to perplex us as we struggle to see how to live lives of Torah. Some concern matters we’d rather not think about at all. Some seem to propose impossible acts!

For instance, the rules for dealing with lost property begin with verses found in this portion. If we take the commandments literally as written, then any time we find any object that might be lost, no matter how beat up it is, no matter how hopeless it is to find the original owner, we must keep that object and search until we find the owner! If we read it literally, then every observant Jew would lug around a huge bag full of lost pennies, broken ballpoint pens, and other detritus, searching for their owners. This is where the process we know as “Talmud” kicks in – the Talmud is the record of our communal struggle with seemingly impossible or unfair commandments. (If you want to learn more about that, I refer you to the post What is the Talmud? elsewhere in this blog.)

Lots to talk about in this portion! So without further explication, here are some divrei Torah on Ki Tetzei:

On Right Relationship with Each Other – Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

At Home and On the Road – Rabbi Dan Fink

Whether You Believe in the Metzaveh or Not – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Shimon Peres: Pursuer of Peace – Rabbi Sharon Sobel

Honor – Rabbi Kari Hofmeister Tuling, PhD

To Wear is Human – Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Rabbi Reuven Zellman

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?