Notes from Limmud 2011
To Wear Is Human, To Live Divine: Cross Dressing and Drag in Jewish Texts
Rabbi Elliot Kukla
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout.]There are many ways to read these texts; what follows is the speaker's. (See also Torah Queeries, also available online.)
Deuteronomy 22:5 דברים כב ה A woman must not wear man's apparel, nor shall a man wear woman's clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the LORD your God. לֹא־יִהְיֶה כְלִי־גֶבֶר עַל־אִשָּׁה וְלֹא־יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה כִּי תוֹעֲבַת ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ כָּל־עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה׃
Seems really simple, right? But there is not a single Jewish commentator throughout history who reads this text this way! Yet everyone today thinks it that way. Especially since this is only second to Lev. 18:22 as used by Christian right-wingers against a queer lifestyle.
Here's the wider context:
Deuteronomy 22:1-8 דברים כב א-ח A woman must not wear man's apparel. If you see your fellow's ox or his sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you, or you do not know who he is, then you shall bring it unto your own house, and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. If you see your fellow's ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it. [The above verse.] If, along the road, you chance upon a bird's nest, in any tree, or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with the young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. When you build a new house, make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house, if anyone should fall from it. לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת־שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ׃ וְאִם־לֹא קָרוֹב אָחִיךָ אֵלֶיךָ וְלֹא יְדַעְתּוֹ וַאֲסַפְתּוֹ אֶל־תּוֹךְ בֵּיתֶךָ וְהָיָה עִמְּךָ עַד דְּרֹשׁ אָחִיךָ אֹתוֹ וַהֲשֵׁבֹתוֹ לוֹ׃ וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ וְכֵן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְכָל־אֲבֵדַת אָחִיךָ אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאבַד מִמֶּנּוּ וּמְצָאתָהּ לֹא תוּכַל לְהִתְעַלֵּם׃ לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ׃ [The above verse] כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן־צִפּוֹר לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּכָל־עֵץ אוֹ עַל־הָאָרֶץ אֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ בֵיצִים וְהָאֵם רֹבֶצֶת עַל־הָאֶפְרֹחִים אוֹ עַל־הַבֵּיצִים לֹא־תִקַּח הָאֵם עַל־הַבָּנִים׃ שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת־הָאֵם וְאֶת־הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח־לָךְ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים׃ כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ וְלֹא־תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ כִּי־יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ׃
A phrase used much here is "don't ignore", literally לֹא הִתְעַלַּמְתָּ "don't hide yourself." How does the cross-dressing verse tie in with this? Perhaps dressing in the wrong clothes is a form of hiding yourself.
These verses are characterised by: compassion, concern for life of all beings, responsibility for others, etiquette—a sense of community standards. How does crossdressing fit in with that? Read on...
Here's what the Gemara says on the matter, in a ברייתא (i.e. a Tannaitic-era text):
Nazir 59a נזיר נט א What does the Torah mean by this verse? You might think that it simply means that a man may not wear a woman's garment and a woman may not wear a man's garment. But behold, it has already been said that it is completely off-limits! But there is no to'evah here [it is not a completely off-limits behaviour]! [Therefore], the verse must mean that a man may not wear women's clothes in order to sit amongst women, and a woman must not wear men's clothes and sit amongst men. לא יהיה כלי גבר על אשה מאי תלמוד לומר אם שלא ילבש איש שמלת אשה ואשה שמלת איש הרי כבר נאמר תועבה היא ואין כאן תועבה אלא שלא ילבש איש שמלת אשה וישב בין הנשים ואשה שמלת איש ותשב בין האנשים
תּוֹעֵבָה is left untranslated here as "abomination" carries moral connotations which don't apply here: we don't think of eating shrimp as being morally wrong: it's just something we don't do.
[Audience interjection: The rabbis know there are cross-dressers, and therefore try and accommodate them within the context of the law, rather than drawing up the law and excluding people.] We don't know this for certain, but it is a possibility. At any rate, the rabbis of the Talmud dismiss out of hand theRashi on the verse: of the text; they're more concerned with maintaining separate male and female spheres in society.
A woman must not wear man's apparel, that she will resemble a man and go out amongst men for the purpose of adultery; nor shall a man wear woman's clothing in order to sit amongst the women. As we learned, "It is completely off-limits behaviour". The Torah is only forbidding garments that lead to such off-limits behaviour. לֹא־יִהְיֶה כְלִי־גֶבֶר עַל־אִשָּׁה שתהא דומה לאיש כדי שתלך בין האנשים, שאין וא אלא לשם ניאוף׃ וְלֹא־יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה לילך ולשיב בין הנשים... כי תועבת—לא אסרה תורה אלא לבוש לבוש המביא לידי תועבה׃
He's not concerned with the act but the intent, which is unusual in Jewish tradition.
Rashi's concerned it gives the opportunity for unmarried women to get out of the house unchaperoned. He's concerned about the Yentl situation, or Reish Lakish spotting R. Yoḥanan bathing in the river. From the Gemara elsewhere it appears dressing as a man is a good way to get picked up by men!
Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, Lo Ta'aseh 39:
This commandment also forbids us to ollow the customs of the herertics, in regard to women wearing the clothing of men, or their adornments. As [G-d] said [in the Torah]: "A woman should not put on the apparel of a man".
Any woman, who adorns herself in a way that is publicly known to be men's accessories in the city where she lives, becomes liable to whipping.
והמצוה הל״ט היא שהזהירנו כם כן מהמשך אחר חקות הכופרים שתהיינה הנשים לובשת בגדי האנשים ותתקשטנה בתכשיטיהם והוא אמרו יתעלה לֹא־יִהְיֶה כְלִי־גֶבֶר עַל־אִשָּׁה׃
וכל אשה שתתקטש באחד מתכשיטי האנשים המפורסמים בעיר ההיא שזה הוא תכשיט מיוחד לאנשים לוקה׃
Maimonides is concerned with the custom of heretics, not adultery (Rashi) or disguise (the Talmud). And he is aware that different communities dress differently. [My interjection: Whereas Rashi only moved between Troyes and Worms, the Rambam moved vast distances, from Spain to Fez to Cairo, so he will have seen different apparels in different places.] Maimonides says we get to decide the boundaries.
Possibly this whipping never happened, because Jews rarely had the authority to carry out punishments like this. They are more given as an indication of how serious they felt the offence was.
In Maimonides' society, whipping is a comparatively minor offence, compared to stoning for breaking a Torah commandment. Whipping is only for breaking aissue. So Maimonides is actually saying the prohibition on cross-dressing does not come from the Torah! (There's also a second type of whipping, but later halachic decisors do not go with that interpretation.)
Maimonides, Sefer Hamitzvot, Lo Ta'aseh 40 (Hebrew at the above link, as it was longer than I could be bothered to type in):
This commandment also forbids men to adorn themselves with women's accessories. As G-d said: "Nor should a man wear the clothing of a woman". Any man, who adorns himself in a way that is publicly known to be women's accessories in the place where he lives, becomes liable to whipping. You must know that this act—women adorning themselves with men's accessories and men adorning themselves with women's accessories—is sometimes done for the sake of arousing desire. This is common amongst alien nations and is sometimes for the purpose of idol worship, as is described in books devoted to this topic. It is also common to stipulate, in the making of certain talismans, that if the maker is a man he should wear women's apparel and adorn himself with gold, pearls and things like that. If the maker is a woman she should wear armour and weapons. This is well known to people who are experts on this topic.
[Audience member: British society bears the Rambam out here, in the form of molly dancing—an oddly sexual version of morris dancing, with everyone in drag. "Molly" is a sixteenth century term for a gay man.]
As for the talismans, the fact that the Rambam is concerned to prevent people doing this implies that Jews were doing it. [Audience member: there is archaeological evidence for Jewish talismans, in the form of skull fragments with writing on.] And by saying we should not use talismans, he is almost reinforcing the magic of them.
Isserles' gloss to the Shulchan Aruch (אורח חיים סימן תרצו סעיף ח):
In the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 696:8) we read: "It is permitted [for a man] to dress up as a woman on Purim." R. Isserles comments on this text: "...so too the practice of dressing up in masks on Purim, a man wearing the attire of a woman, and a woman wearing the accessories of a man—there is no prohibition of this, since what they are intending is merely joy, and furthermore the [prohibition of] wearing adornments is derabbanan [and is therefore of a lesser level of concern]." מותר לישא אשה פורים׃ הגה׃ ומה שנהגו ללבוש פרצופים בפורים, וגבר לובש שמלת אשה ואשה כלי גבר, אין איסור בדבר מאחר שאין מכוונין אלא לשמחה בעלמא; וכן בלבישת כלאים דרבנן׃
For Isserles the concern is not disguise (as in the Talmud), adultery (Rashi), the custom of heretics or idolatry (Maimonides), but malevolent intent. If it's for joy, it's all right.
Not only that, but he has completely divorced the prohibition on crossdressing from the Torah verse!
What does this mean for contemporary LGBT people?
All of the above list are concerned with breaking faith in a relationship—with your community (disguise), with your spouse (adultery), with G-d (heresy or idolatry). Going back to the Biblical context of compassion and etiquette, the prohibition on cross-dressing makes more sense now. It's to stop you causing harm in your relationships.
So what does this mean today for people who are transgender (but have not necessarily come out), or gender-queer?
The speaker's view is that for trans people there is a feeling that when you are wearing the clothing of the gender you were assigned at birth, that is hiding yourself. If the prohibition is not to hide yourself in order not to cause harm, there is tremendous harm in hiding your inner nature: there is a very high rate of depression in trans people who have not yet come to terms with their nature. For the speaker, before he came out as a trans man, dressing in "lesbian drag" really depressed him, and prevented him from being able to relate properly to the patients he dealt with in nursing homes, hospitals and hospices as a rabbi.