TransTexts: Cross-Dressing and Drag

TransTexts explores what traditional Jewish texts have to say about transgender and gender nonconforming experiences and gender in general. This guide explores Deuteronomy 22:5.

June 3, 2008

By Rabbi Elliot Kukla, Rabbi Reuben Zellman

Created by Rabbis Reuben Zellman and Elliot Kukla, TransTexts explores what traditional Jewish texts have to say about transgender and gender nonconforming experiences and gender in general.

Over several years, we have heard the stories of hundreds of people—people from many different backgrounds, Jews and non-Jews, across the sex and gender spectrum. Many of us are in search of answers to some critical questions:

  • How can Jewish texts continue to shed light on contemporary lives and spiritual struggles?
  • As our understandings about sex and gender continue to develop and change in today’s world, how might ancient teachings guide us in our response?
  • If I want to explore Jewish understandings of gender and sexual identity where do I begin?

 

Our Goal

Our goal for this project is to create a portal to Jewish traditions. It is not our intention to provide a complete or “authoritative” interpretation of these multi-faceted texts. Rather, we want to offer a variety of ways of looking at these remarkable texts — which have been, and still are, largely inaccessible to the general public. Some of the content of this site may be familiar to you; some of it might be very surprising. We invite you to read on and engage with all of it, in the great Jewish tradition of study and discussion.

Inside this guide you will find translations of a number of Jewish texts dealing with sex and gender. You will also find commentaries on these texts, representing the work of Jewish scholars from ancient times to the present day. Jewish texts have their own particular logic and language. This means that a straightforward translation is often challenging. However, every primary source text in this site includes a translation — you do not need to know any Hebrew, or have any background in Judaism, to use this site! Every primary text also has a “Further Explanation” section that will provide more context of each passage.

 

 

A woman should not put on the apparel of a man; nor should a man
wear the clothing of a woman—for whoever does these things—
it
is a to’evah [completely off-limits behavior] to the Eternal your God.
– Deuteronomy 22:5

לֹא־יִֽהְיֶ֤ה כְלִי־גֶ֨בֶר֙ עַל־אִשָּׁ֔ה וְלֹֽא־יִלְבַּ֥שׁ גֶּ֖בֶר שִׂמְלַ֣ת אִשָּׁ֑ה כִּ֧י תֽוֹעֲבַ֛ת יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶי֖ךָ כָּל־עֹ֥שֵׂה אֵֽלֶּה

BACKGROUND
What is the context of this passage?
Who wrote this? When was it written?
Glossary

FURTHER RESOURCES
A note on the implications of the terms “Drag” and “Cross-Dressing” for transgender people.
What might this verse mean for contemporary transgender, gender queer, gender nonconforming and cross-dressing people?
Questions for further discussion on Deuteronomy 22:5
Futher resources

COMMENTARY
Cross-dressing is prohibited when used as a disguise to invade someone else’s space.
The prohibition on wearing men’s accessories is intended to keep women from going to war.
This verse prohibits adultery.
This verse is actually about prohibiting idolatry.
Prohibitions on cross-dressing are defined by local fashion.
Cross-dressing is permitted for the purpose of joy.
This verse is meant to maintain strict distinctions between men and women.
This verse prohibits hiding your true self.

 

BACKGROUND

 

What is the context of this passage?

“A woman should not put on the apparel of a man; nor should a man wear the clothing of a woman—for whoever does these things—it is a to’evah [completely off-limits behavior] to the Eternal your God.” (Deuteronomy 22: 5) This, our central verse, is surrounded by verses that deal with ethical mitzvot—the sacred obligations between us and our neighbors. In the verses immediately preceding our verse we learn that we are obligated to return lost objects, and help lift up our neighbor’s ox if it has fallen in the road (Deuteronomy 22:4). In the verses following our text on cross-dressing, we are taught to rescue a mother bird from her nest, and to build houses with guardrails on the roof to protect the safety of our guests (Deuteronomy 22:6-7).

All of the mitzvot that are nestled around our verse point to a world of compassion, where we are careful not to damage relations between beings. This biblical context was doubtlessly known by our commentators when they interpreted this verse. All of the primary early commentators on this verse offer non-literal interpretations. Their readings of the text all reflect the verse’s context: embedded amongst ethical mitzvot. In the Talmud this verse prohibits transgressing someone else’s space. According to Rashi this verse prohibits sexual betrayal, while for Rambam this verse prohibits idolatry. All of these readings understand the prohibition to be not about cross-dressing per se, but about damaging relationships between us, our neighbors, loved ones or God.

 

Who wrote this? When was it written?

The traditional Jewish understanding is that the five books of the Torah were given to Moses and the Israelite people on Mount Sinai (as described in the book of Exodus). Prior to the start of the eighteenth century, scholars began to take a more academic approach to the Bible, and started to try to determine by whom it was written and edited, as well as when they wrote it. There is general consensus, although by no means complete agreement, amongst modern biblical scholars that the five books of the Torah were created from four distinct sources, and then edited together.

The Book of Deuteronomy
The book of Devarim, Deuteronomy, is structured as homily. Almost the entire book is one long speech, given by Moses to the Israelite people as they are poised to cross the Jordan River and enter the Biblical land of Israel. Much of Moses’ speech is a recapitulation of what has happened from the Book of Exodus on: the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, their escape through the Red Sea, and their tumultuous travels through the wilderness. Thus the book was given the name Deuteronomy, from the Greek meaning “second law.” It is not known exactly when the book of Deuteronomy was written, but many scholars believe that it was composed in Judea in approximately the seventh century B.C.E.

 

Glossary

Ashkenazic: This term refers to the rites and customs of Ashkenazi Jews, who descended from the Medieval Jewish communities of the Rhineland. “Ashkenaz” is the Medieval Hebrew name for Germany. Throughout the Middle Ages, Askenazic Jews migrated through-out Europe and established large communities in Eastern Europe. For religious purposes, Jews of these communities are considered to be “Asheknazim”, meaning not “German Jews” but “Jews of the German rite.”

Rabbi Joseph Caro: Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575) was a preeminent authority of Jewish law in the 16th century. Raised in Spain and Portugal, living much of his life in Turkey and finally becoming the head of an influential circle of scholars in Tzfat, Caro published many legal writings, including his major legal works the Beit Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch. He also made significant contributions to the kabbalistic thought and practice of his time.

Cross-Dressing & Drag: When discussing gender diversity, both ancient and modern, we have tried whenever possible to use the language that gender variant people use to self-identify and describe their own experiences. For this reason we have chosen throughout this section to use the colloquial term “drag” in addition to more mainstream terms such as “cross-dressing” or “transvestitism.” Drag is a term frequently used by individuals who choose to wear clothing that is associated with a gender that they don’t identify with. Drag is often a form of public performance; however some people may dress in drag on a more daily basis.

Isserles, Rabbi Moses: Rabbi Moses Isserles (c. 1525-1572) was one of the great authorities of Jewish law in 16th-century Europe. He was born and died in Poland. As a renowned posek (judge), Isserles was consulted by Jews around the world about legal questions. In addition to his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch and other legal writings, Isserles published many works of philosophy and mysticism.

Minhag hamakom: “The custom of the place.” This is a key principle in Jewish law that governs many aspects of Jewish decision-making. We follow local customs in regards to many aspects of civil and religious life, and this principle sometimes leads to non-literal interpretations of Jewish legal texts.

Mitzvah lo Ta’aseh: A mitzvah lo ta’aseh literally means a “mitzvah of ‘don’t do it!’” (sometimes referred to as a “negative commandment”). Rambam’s book Sefer haMitzvot (Book of Commandments) lists and explains 613 mitzvot, in two sections: things that one must do, and things that one must not do. This text is from the latter section, which lists and explains the mitzvot that instruct us to avoid prohibited behavior.

Purim: This holiday falls in the late winter/early spring, and celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people as described in the biblical Book of Esther. Purim is a joyful, raucous celebration, often involving costumes, humorous skits and drinking alcohol, in addition to the reading of the Scroll of Esther.

d’Rabbanan: A rabbinic based prohibition. In addition to the laws that can be derived directly from Torah based legislation (known asd’Oraita) Jewish law includes policies that were enacted by the rabbis in subsequent generations. These rabbinic laws are still referred to as mitzvot (commandments) and are considered to be binding in traditional communities. However, there are differences in the way that laws that ared’rabbanan are applied and there is significantly more leeway for interpretation and adaptation, since they are not considered scripturally based.

Rambam: The Rambam is a Hebrew acronym referring to Rabbi Mosheben Maimon. Ben Maimon is most commonly known by his Greek name, Moses Maimonides. Maimonides (1135-1204) was a rabbi, physician, philosopher and codifier of Jewish law. Many of his extensive works on Jewish law and ethics—including his Mishneh Torah and Guide for the Perplexed—were initially met with opposition during his lifetime. After his death he was acknowledged to be one of the foremost rabbinical thinkers in Jewish history. Today, his works and his views are considered a cornerstone of classical Jewish thought and study.

Sefer haChinuch: Sefer haChinuch (“The Book of Instruction”) is a work which systematically discusses the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. It was published anonymously in 13th Century Spain. The work’s enumeration of the commandments is based upon Maimonides’ system of counting as per his Sefer HaMitzvot, each is listed according to its appearance in the weekly Torah portion and the work is structured correspondingly. The Sefer haChinuch separately discusses each of the 613 commandments, both from a legal and a moral perspective.

Sephardic: This term refers to the rites and customs of Sephardi Jews, of Iberian descent, who were expelled from Spain in 1497. This word comes from the Hebrew word for Spain. However, the term Sephardi has come to include Jews of Arabic and Persian backgrounds many of whom have no historical connection to Iberia except their use of a Sephardic style of liturgy. For religious purposes, Jews of these communities are considered to be “Sephardim”, meaning not “Spanish Jews” but “Jews of the Spanish rite.”

Shulchan Aruch: The Shulchan Aruch (“The Set Table”) was compiled by Rabbi Joseph Caro. It was first printed in Venice in 1565. Based primarily on Caro’s own commentary on the Tur, Caro attempted to concisely determine the law on a wide range of practical issues in Jewish life, ranging from home life to business dealings to ritual matters, and primarily reflecting a Sephardic worldview and milieu. By the 17th century, the Shulchan Aruch became the definitive law code in the Jewish world, and is still the primary legal reference for regular use by observant Jews today.

To’evah: The Hebrew word “to’evah” is most commonly translated into English as “abomination.” However, “abomination” has moral overtones that do not fully capture the Hebrew. Although this term is used to refer to forbidden sexual practices, in the book of Deuteronomy it is also used to refer to animals that are forbidden for consumption (see Chapter 14) such as deer, goat and antelope. This demonstrates that unlike the English word “abomination” the Hebrew “to’evah” is morally neutral. A better translation might be “completely off-limits.”

The Tur: Arba’ah haTurim, or “the Tur”, first published in its completion in 1475, is the major work of scholar Jacob ben Asher (c. 1270-1340). The Tur is a collection of numerous decisions, laws, and customs across many areas of Jewish life. It is divided into four sections, broadly covering prayer and holidays; ritual law; marriage and women; and civil codes and relations.

 

FURTHER RESOURCES

 

A note on the implications of the terms “Drag” and “Cross-Dressing” for transgender people

In contemporary transgender and gender-queer communities, what it means to wear the clothing of “a different sex” depends on how we construe our identities. For example, a person who was assigned male gender at birth may know herself to be a transgender woman. She might live part-time as female and part-time as male, and consider the time she spends in male clothing for professional or family reasons a form of “drag.” In gender-queer communities, the concepts of “drag” and “cross-dressing” generally mean showing a gender presentation that differs from one’s primary preferred gender and inner sense of self. A person might tolerate cross-dressing for practical reasons, or one might do drag as performance, for artistic/creative reasons.

 

What might this verse mean for contemporary transgender, gender queer, gender nonconforming and cross-dressing people?

A literal reading of our verse certainly seems to imply that the Torah forbids cross-dressing. We read: “A woman should not put on the apparel of a man; nor should a man wear the clothing of a woman—for whoever does these things—it is a to’evah completely off-limits behavior] to the Eternal your God.” (Deuteronomy 22: 5)

However, this verse has never been understood literally by Jewish sacred traditions. The great medieval commentator Rashi explains that this verse is not simply forbidding wearing the clothes of the “opposite gender.” Rashi writes that such dress is prohibited only when it will lead to adultery. Maimonides, a 12th century codifier of Jewish law, claims that this verse is actually intended to prohibit cross-dressing for the purposes of idol worship. (Sefer haMitzvot, Lo Taaseh 39-40)

In other words, according the classical scholars of our tradition, wearing clothes of “the wrong gender” is proscribed only when it is for the express purpose of causing harm to our relationship with our loved ones or with God. The prohibition that we learn from this verse is very specific: we must not misrepresent our true gender in order to cause harm. Otherwise, wearing clothing of another gender is not prohibited. The Talmud puts it most succinctly: v’ein kan to’evah—”there is no abomination here.” (Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 59a-b)

So, what does this verse mean for contemporary transgender and gender queer lives? In order to understand it in our own 21st century context, we need to examine two questions: 1) What does it mean to wear clothing of a gender we are not? and 2) What does it mean to cause harm?

Many people feel like their true gender is not (or is not only) the gender that was assigned to them at birth. The Torah is asking us not to misrepresent our gender, which we can understand as using external garments to conceal our inner selves. Unfortunately, many transgender and gender-queer people today feel forced to hide in exactly this way. In our society the penalty for expressing the fullness of a gender variant identity is often severe and can include verbal, sexual and physical abuse, employment discrimination, an inability to access education and health care, and sometimes, murder.

Gender rigidity does not just impact transgender and gender queer people. It also harms the eight year-old boy who was suspended from school for wearing his ballet tutu to class in upstate New York, the flight attendant in Atlanta who is currently suing her employer for firing her because of her refusal to wear make-up, and the butch lesbian who was shouted at and harassed in a “women’s” restroom in a synagogue in Los Angeles. Much of this mistreatment comes from those who insist that wearing the clothes of the “other gender” is wrong “because it says so in the Bible.”

Classical Jewish scholars do not accept such a justification for narrow-mindedness. Neither should we. Rather, we can flip mainstream understandings of our verse on their head and understand it as a positive mitzvah: a sacred obligation to present the fullness of our gender as authentically as possible. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to fulfill this mitzvah without endangering their life or livelihood, and the protection of human life always comes first in Judaism, but the Torah wants us be able to true to our selves.

Next, we come to the second part of our prohibition: that we must not cover up our gender in order to cause harm. Transgender and gender queer people who hide under the clothing of the gender they were assigned—rather than expressing themselves as they really are—suffer terrible harm. Rates of depression, suicide, and destructive self-medication are astronomical.

Our verse on drag falls within a section in the Torah that is largely concerned with the minute details of preventing harm. The lines before our verse, teach that if we see that someone’s donkey has fallen down, we are required to help that person lift the animal up. The verse immediately following, instructs us never to hurt a mother bird as we are collecting her eggs. And the very next verse commands us to build a guardrail around the roof of our houses, to prevent anyone from falling off. The verse about what to wear is nestled amongst mitzvot that guide us towards exquisite levels of empathy and gentleness towards all of creation.

As our Sages realized, a sacred tradition that commands us not to cause pain to a single mother bird, must not be asking us to conceal our true gender. Jewish tradition asks us to safeguard each unique being created in the image of God by preventing harm. When we cover up our true souls and muffle our divine reflection under clothes that feel “wrong”, we are harming God’s creation.

 

Questions for further discussion on Deuteronomy 22:5

  • None of the classical commentators understand this verse literally as a Torah based ban on wearing the clothes of another gender. How do they understand this verse (you might want to review the links in the “Key Commentaries” section of this web site)? Why do you think they reject a literal reading? How do you understand the literal meaning of this verse?
  • What are each of the commentators concerned about? What kind of boundary(s) is each of them trying to protect?
  • Rambam allows local communities to define “appropriate apparel.” What are the boundaries around gender and clothing in your community? Is it considered acceptable to see women in pants on Shabbat at your synagogue? What are the expectations for the clothing that bar or bat mitzvah youth will wear? What messages about gender do these expectations communicate to young people? How might you shift or expand clothing boundaries in your own community?
  • What do you think it means to wear the clothing of the “wrong” gender? Have you ever been pressured to wear clothing that feels “wrong” for your gender? Have you ever pressured someone else to change their clothing based on your gender expectations of them?This verse appears in the context of a passage that deals with sacred obligations to each other and to God. How are outer garments and inner holiness related? Do the choices you make about clothing feel sacred to you? Does your relationship to other people and/or to God impact the way you choose to clothe yourself?

 

Further resources

Bornstein, Kate. My Gender Workbook: How to become a real man, a real woman, the real you or something else entirely. New York and London: Routledge, 1998.

Boyarin, Daniel. Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture. Berkeley, Los Angeles and Oxford: University of California Press, 1993.

Dreger, Alice Domurat. Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. 1998.

Halberstam, Judith “Jack” and del LaGrace Volcano. The Drag King Book. New York, NY: Serpent’s Tail: 1999.

Holtz, Barry W. editor. Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts. “The first complete modern guide to the great books of the Jewish tradition: What they are and how to read them.” Summit Books. NY. 1992.

Peskowitz, Miriam B. Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender and History. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1997.

Robinson, George. Essential Judaism. New York: Pocket Books, 2000.

The Intersex Society of North America www.isna.org

 

COMMENTARY

 

Cross-dressing is prohibited when used as a disguise to invade someone else’s space.

Babylonian Talmud Nazir 59a (2nd – 4th C CE)

A woman should not put on the apparel of a man.” (Deuteronomy 22:5) 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 [by previous commentators in reference to this verse] that it is completely off-limits! But there is no to’evah here [it is not a completely off-limits behavior]! [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.

Further explanation of Nazir 59a.

This text is found in the Babylonian Talmud, in a discussion about how men and women can and cannot dress. The author of this passage, one of the Talmudic Sages, argues that it is not plausible to read the verse from Deuteronomy literally. Why? Because this author believes that wearing the clothes of another gender could not possibly be seen as completely off-limits! Therefore a simple ban on cross-dressing could not be what this verse really means. (This rejection of a literal reading of our Biblical verse is echoed by all the later medieval commentators on this text.) Instead, the author of this Talmudic text understands the Torah prohibition this way: wearing clothes of another gender in order to falsify your identity, and infiltrate spaces reserved for the “opposite” sex, is what is forbidden by the Torah.

The key point here seems to be that cross-dressing is only prohibited when there are ulterior motives involved. This early rabbinic commentary sets the tone for the rest of the classical discussion on our verse. Therefore, the primary classical commentators do not read this verse literally. They do not believe that cross-dressing itself is explicitly prohibited by the Torah, as this text states clearly: “There is no to’evah [completely off-limits behavior] here!”

 

The prohibition on wearing men’s accessories is intended to keep women from going to war.

Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 59a, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov (2nd – 4th C CE)

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says: “From what biblical source do we learn that a woman may not go out bearing weapons of war? We learn it from the verse: ‘A woman should not put on the apparel of a man’ [And the rest of the verse? How should we understand it?] ‘Nor should a man wear the clothing of a woman,’ [means that] a man should not adorn himself with women’s accessories.”

Further explanation on Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov’s comments.

In this text Rabbi Eliezer understands the term “Kli Gever” (the apparel of a man) in a very narrow sense to mean weapons of war. The Hebrew word “kli” has broad implications in the Bible: it refers to vessels and utensils, as well as garments. Rabbi Eliezer understands war as a strictly male pursuit; hence the “kli” (utensils) of men refer to pieces of battle gear. This view is supported by later rabbis elsewhere in the Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 2b) who argue that is appropriate for men to engage in war, but not for women to do so. Rabbi Eliezer’s primary concern seems to be that women should not transgress male social roles by going to battle. He understands this verse as a prohibition on women using the tools that would lead them into men’s social arena. On the other hand, he interprets the prohibition on men wearing women’s accessories to be a much broader ban, prohibiting men from adorning themselves to look like women.

A similar view is reflected by the Targum Pseudo-Yonatan, an early Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which understands “kli gever” (men’s apparel) as strictly applying to ritual garments: tallit (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries). Pseudo-Yonatan shifts the focus of the verse away from cross-dressing per se. Instead he focuses on restricting women’s access to ritual participation. Both Psuedo-Yonatan and Rabbi Eliezer are concerned with circumscribing women’s roles in public society, and are less concerned with the actual clothing that women wear.

The opinion of Rabbi Eliezer seems to indicate his understanding that women are prohibited from wearing men’s clothing when it encourages them to “act like men.” Men, on the other hand, should not “look like women” at all. This interpretation is echoed by the Tur, a Medieval Jewish law code. It is interesting to note that, while this position is troubling in that it reinforces misogyny and limits men’s freedom to dress in a way that feels authentic for them, it is still a very non-literal reading of our central verse. The Bible appears to be putting a total ban on cross-dressing, but these interpretations make the prohibition a great deal narrower.

 

This verse prohibits adultery.

Rashi on Deuteronomy 22:5 (c. 11th century)

“A woman should not put on the apparel of a man. . .” that she will resemble a man and go out amongst men for the purpose of adultery. “Nor should a man wear the clothing of a woman…” [Deuteronomy 22:5] in order to sit amongst the women. As we learned [in the Babylonian Talmud Nazir 59a]. “It is completely off-limits behavior…”[Therefore] the Torah is forbidding garments that lead to such off-limits behavior.

Further explanation on Rashi’s comments.

In his commentary to our Torah verse, Rashi is following the opinion in the Talmud—that wearing the clothing of another gender is only prohibited if it is for the purpose of falsifying your identity. Rashi’s interpretation then further narrows the prohibition: one must not falsify one’s identity in order to seduce someone. Here Rashi further clarifies the point that clothing in and of itself is not the central issue. According to Rashi, the term to’evah used in our Torah verse refers to the acts that might arise from costumes used for tricking others into non-consensual sexual relations

 

This verse is actually about prohibiting idolatry.

Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh 39 (12th C CE)

This commandment also forbids us to follow the customs of the heretics, in regard to women wearing the clothing of men, or their adornments. As [God] 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.

Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta’aseh 40 (12th C CE)

This commandment also forbids men to adorn themselves with women’s accessories. As God said [in the Torah]: “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 woman’s apparel and adorn himself with gold, pearls and things like that. If the maker is a woman she should wear armor and weapons. This is well known to people who are experts on this topic.

Further explanation on Rambam’s comments.

In this text, the Rambam too indicates that drag, in and of itself, is not the problem. For him, the issue is that wearing the clothing of another gender is sometimes associated with idol-worship. Rambam’s chief concern seems to be differentiating the boundary between Jewish and non-Jewish cultural practices. He is anxious about local costumes that might lead to religious offenses, such as idol worship; and he focuses on this concern, rather than discussing any opposition to gender transgression itself.

This commentary is similar to other classical opinions ( Babylonian Talmud, Rashi) in that it does not take seriously the idea that cross-dressing and drag in themselves can be seen as a to’evah (completely off-limits behavior). Although the punishment of whipping that is prescribed in this text may sound harsh to the modern ear, whipping is the punishment for rabbinic based (d’rabanan) offenses, not Torah-based (d’oraita) offenses. This implies that Rambam is not reading our central verse literally as a Torah-based ban on men wearing women’s adornments and vice versa. Rambam, like the Talmud and Rashi) argues that the problem of wearing the clothing of another gender is that it might lead to other forbidden practices.

Equally importantly, Rambam defines gender norms in clothing purely by local community standards. In other words, it is up to us, the people–and not divine or human religious authority figures–to define the boundaries around “appropriate apparel.” In most times and places these boundaries have been drawn fairly narrowly, excluding the expression of trans and gender nonconforming individuals. However, if it is up to us to define our own norms, we are then empowered to define, push, and change the boundaries around clothing in expansive and liberating directions.

 

Prohibitions on cross-dressing are defined by local fashion.

Tur, Yoreh De’ah, Chapter 182 (14th century)

A woman should not wear garments that are especially for a man, according to minhag hamakom [the local fashion]; and a woman should not cut her hair as a man does. A man should not wear the garments of a woman.

Further explanation of the Tur’s opinion.

In this text, author Jacob ben Asher condenses prior rabbinic opinions and offers his own understanding of what the Jewish laws on cross-dressing should be. It is interesting to note that the law, as he defines it, is not parallel for women and for men. Women are prohibited from wearing clothing that is miyuchadin l’ish—”especially for a man.” Women are not prohibited from wearing everything that a man wears; only items that are particularly for men in some respect.

By contrast here men are prohibited from wearing bigdei isha—”clothing of a woman.” Therefore, it seems that the Tur prohibits men from wearing any clothing that women wore. This demonstrates an apparent pattern in many of our texts: options for dress and accessories are being expanded for women and narrowed for men (see for example Rabbi Elizer in the Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 59a).

Further on in this chapter, the text goes on to say that men may not even pluck gray hair from their heads, since to do so is the custom of women. In this respect, some traditional Jewish law is quite similar to the culture of the Western world in the twenty-first century. Options for what is “okay” for women to wear in mainstream society continue to expand. For example, it is now generally acceptable for women to wear pants in virtually all situations, and short hair among women has become very common. By contrast, dress and hair standards for men have remained virtually unchanged.

It is interesting to note that in this text which items of clothing are designated for men and which fashions are exclusively for women is determined entirely by local customs and fashion standards. Given the fact that community norms fluctuate widely through time and geography it is safe to assume that what was considered “especially for men” in one place would have been quite different in some other corner of the Jewish world. It was, and is, within the power of each community to determine what their dress standards are and how open or how narrow these standards can be.

 

Cross-dressing is permitted for the purpose of joy.

Rabbi Moses Isserles’ commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (16th century), Orach Chaim 696:8

In the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 696:8) we read:
“It is permitted [for a man] to dress as a woman on Purim.”

Rabbi 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 d’rabanan (a rabbinic prohibition) [and is therefore of a lesser level of concern].”

Further explanation of Isserles’s comments.

The Shulchan Aruch explains that the custom of men dressing as women on Purim—a common custom to this day—is permitted under Jewish law. Isserles, in his supplementary comments, explains why: that this is done in order to increase the joy of those who are celebrating the holiday. For Isserles, promoting happiness and rejoicing is a worthy goal, and cross-dressing in order to increase happiness is considered perfectly acceptable.

This commentary provides an interesting balance to the commentaries of Isserles’ predecessors, including the Babylonian Talmud, Rashi, and Rambam. These commentaries offer us scenarios when cross-dressing is done for unacceptable purposes: when it is for purposes of violating a relationship with people or with God. Isserles offers us an example of cross-dressing being done for a good purpose: the promotion of happiness.

This can be understood as a significant teaching in the context of transgender and cross-dressing communities. If we choose to wear clothing that is traditionally designated for a different gender than the one in which we were raised, according to this text, this is acceptable if we are doing it because it makes us happy. For many people in trans and gender nonconforming communities, “cross-dressing” affirms and reveals one’s full identity, increases comfort, and promotes living with joy.

It is important to note like many other major commentators Issereles takes for granted that cross-dressing is not a Torah based prohibition, but rather a rabbinic restriction. Therefore, he explains, even if cross-dressing were not for a good purpose such as increasing happiness, it still would not be as serious a concern as other issues such as eating non-kosher foods or kindling fires on Shabbat.

 

This verse is meant to maintain strict distinctions between men and women.

Sefer haHinuch, section 542, 13th Century

The root of this mitzvah is to keep our holy nation from sexual sin. . .and there is no doubt that if men and women’s clothing were equal, they would become intermingled with each other constantly “and the earth would become filled with licentiousness.” (Leviticus 19:29)

Further explanation of the Sefer haChinuch’s opinion.

The Sefer haChinuch claims that we must maintain distinctions in dress between women and men: if we do not, men and women “would mix and the earth would be filled with impropriety.” It seems that there are two possible implications of this opinion.

  • There are fundamental differences between men and women that are inherent and correct, and these differences can and should be easily maintained. Many traditional Jewish societies have upheld very distinct roles for men and women, and the two genders are expected to remain separate in many environments: prayer, education, etc. Dress codes prevent a person of one gender from assuming the role, responsibilities, or privileges of another gender. Different clothing for men and for women is to make sure that each person’s “true” sex is easily and immediately identifiable. This allows gender roles and single-gender spaces to be easily maintained. The possibility of gender-crossing or role-crossing is the “impropriety” that this text is concerned about and wishes to prevent.
  • The concern is about uncontrolled sexual activity among heterosexuals. Part of the function of separate gender-spaces and roles in some societies is to keep men and women from engaging in sexual contact that the society deems inappropriate. If a person were not identifiable by their clothing, then that person might be able to enter a single-sex space in a way that the society does not permit. (See also Babylonian Talmud Nazir 59a) This, in turn, could lead to sexual contact between men and women that is outside of the context of marriage; and this might be the “impropriety” that is the concern of this text.
  • In this website we have generally tried to highlight the classical texts and traditions that have the most potential for supporting a libratory world view for people of all genders and sexualities. However, it is important to note that the view that the distinction between men and women, as well as rigid heterosexual norms, should be defended and maintained is a loud voice within Jewish tradition. Both historically and in the present there are many commentators who feel that this opinion reflects the most authentic reading of our central verse, however it is interesting to note that this view is not the dominant one reflected by the most central early commentators on this text including the Babylonian Talmud, Rashi and Maimonides.

 

This verse prohibits hiding your true self.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards (21st century)

I have long been fascinated by this verse (Deuteronomy 22:5) . . .Perhaps because, ever since I was a little kid, my mom let me, even helped me, dress most of the time “like a boy,” and keep my hair short even in an era when every other little girl had long hair. I dressed, as I said, “like a boy,” but that’s a phrase really that other people would use, not me, and not my mother, who would sometimes counter their remarks with something like, “no, she dresses like herself”. . .

Read the rest of Rabbi Lisa Edwards’s sermon.

. . .I want to draw our attention not only to this verse, but also to the seemingly unrelated verses that immediately precede it, four verses that contain commandments about returning things—animals and clothes—that your neighbor has lost and you have found; plus helping lift up any animal of your neighbor that has fallen in the road. The translation of these verses that we are most used to say: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.” A bit later it says about returning any lost thing to your fellow: “you must not remain indifferent.” And finally it says “if you see your fellow’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him lift it up.” [Deuteronomy 22:1-4]

Do not ignore it; you must not remain indifferent; do not ignore it, says our familiar translation, but both Everett Fox and Richard Friedman point out in their wonderful, more literal, translations that rather than saying “ignore” or “remain indifferent,” the Hebrew actually says hitalamtah and l’hitaleim—not “ignore” or “be indifferent,” but rather a literal translation is, “do not hide yourself.”

“Ignore” and “be indifferent” are nice interpretations, but they are not translations. Hiding yourself is different from ignoring something or being indifferent to someone else’s plight, don’t you think? Hiding yourself is not only about shirking responsibility—it’s about closeting yourself. It’s about hoping no one will notice you, maybe it’s about hoping you won’t notice yourself—won’t notice who you really are. . . Perhaps this verse [when read in its fullest context] is about: not hiding yourself behind clothes that do not belong to you that do not show who you are, that do not allow you to feel like yourself when you are wearing them.

 


We thank the fantastic, hardworking TransTexts Advisory Board:

Dr. Rachel Adler
Micah Bazant
Rabbi Lisa Edwards
Devra Felder Noily
Dr. Charlotte Fonrobert
Ari Lev Fornari
Rabbi Steven Greenberg
Dr. Gwynne Kessler
Rabbi Benay Lappe
Rabbi Joshua Lesser
Dr. Sarra Lev
Dr. Judith Plaskow
Or Rose
Maggid Jhos Singer
Max Strassfeld
Michael Waldman
Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig

TransTexts also extends our thanks to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, San Francisco, for use of facilities, in-kind assistance, and unflagging support of this work.

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