Reinterpreting the Biblical Prohibition of Wearing What Is Gender-Inappropriate: A B’Mitzvah Drash

Cluster of Yaela Wiser, her mother Morissa Wiser, her teachers safta/tutor/Rabbi Phyllis Berman and Rabbi Jessica Dell’Era gathered at the bimah on a Friday morning in 2022, so that Yaela could become familiar with the Torah scroll and the setting.

Although there is a lot of famous and important content in Ki Teitzei, my Torah portion, I’d like to talk about my least favorite part, which seems to contradict a major belief of mine:

לֹא־יִהְיֶה כְלִי־גֶבֶר עַל־אִשָּׁה, וְלֹא־יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה, כִּי תוֹעֲבַת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כׇּל־עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה׃

Lo yihyeh kli gever al ishah, velo yilbash gever simlat ishah, ki to’avat YHWH elohekha, kol osei eyleh

This is commonly translated as: “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 your God YAH.”

Some people use this verse against trans people, interpreting it as a complete prohibition on cross-dressing or gender transition. These people interpret the Hebrew word kli to mean any kind of clothing, while the literal meaning of the word is a tool, instrument or weapon.

Many classical commentators, the people we rely on to interpret the Torah correctly, understand the word kli as “weapon” instead of “clothing.” In general, these commentators viewed this verse through the lens of war. They were concerned that in the chaos and confusion of war, people would give in to the sneaky temptations they imagined could arise when one puts on the clothing of the opposite gender.

Rashi, a rabbi from the late 11th century in France, is most commonly turned to first when deciding the true meaning of a verse. Rashi focuses on the temptation of adultery — that wearing the clothing of the opposite gender could be used to trick people and gain access to places they shouldn’t be in. He is imagining a soldier sneaking away from his watch to hang out with his mistress.

Rashi doesn’t think that cross-dressing should be completely banned, but he is concerned that it could sometimes be used for nefarious purposes.

Another perspective is offered in the 2009 book Torah Queeries. In their chapter on my parshah Ki Teitzei, trans rabbis Eliot Kukla and Reuben Zellman discuss the holiday of Purim. They mention that even the Shulkhan Arukh, the 16th-century Sephardi law code by Joseph Caro, approves of the custom of dressing up as any character from the Purim story, no matter your gender or the character’s gender.

And Moses Isserles, an Ashkenazi rabbi also from the 16th century, whose commentary is often paired with the Shulkhan Arukh, explains why: Cross-dressing on Purim is for the purpose of promoting happiness, joy and merry-making. Because Judaism thinks of rejoicing as a religious obligation, he argues, cross-dressing to give someone joy must be permitted and even encouraged.

Now we have to pause for a moment because I’m sure you’re all wondering what Purim has to do with trans people and Kli Gever. We need to understand a Talmudic debate strategy called Kal VaKhomer.

The sages use this strategy to explain how if something were to be true in a Kal, an easily resolved situation, it should be even more true in a Khomer, a situation that is hard or even life-threatening.

If cross-dressing is permitted for the joy and self-appreciation of Purim, then how much more should it be even more encouraged when one’s life is on the line?

A person who is trans, who does not identify as the gender they were assigned at birth, is not trying to deceive anyone. In fact, they are trying to share who they really are and to STOP deceiving people by presenting as who they are not.

Some trans people make the argument that Kli Gever acts as a mandate to present only as their true selves, not the gender assigned at birth. If they never get to be who they are — to live in the world as they know themselves to be — that would be the real abomination.

The verses that surround Kli Gever emphasize this idea of being honest and true to those around us.

Immediately before Kli Gever, the Torah teaches the honesty of returning the belongings of others, even if it would be easier and more profitable to keep the property for yourself.

Then after Kli Gever, the Torah tells us to build a safety railing on the roofs of our houses. Even if you don’t think that you will fall off your own roof, someone else might. We have to anticipate the dangers and be responsible enough to prevent them even if it involves additional costs.

Kli Gever is not truly about cross-dressing but about honestly giving your true self to your neighbors, peers and other people around you.

Another passage in the same chapter declares that if you decide you don’t like your wife, you can divorce her, but don’t make up lies about her doing something wrong to gain personal wealth, shaming her in the process.

In all three examples surrounding Kli Gever, the underlying message is honesty, primarily to avoid harming those around you for your own benefit.

All of this points to Kli Gever with the central idea of not deceiving others. With this in mind, Kli Gever is not truly about cross-dressing but about honestly giving your true self to your neighbors, peers and other people around you.

The biggest thing that I have taken away from all of this is the idea that what matters most is being who you feel yourself to be.

I would like to explain that this is not some sort of grand coming out, though that would be an awesome one if anyone wants to do that. Actually, I don’t feel like I need to decide anything about who I am, who I want to be or who I will be.

In this day and age, we have the freedom to make a big discovery of who we are, and I admire everyone who has figured themselves out. With this comes pressure to declare your identity, but I’d like to feel comfortable with a simple “I don’t really know, and maybe I’ll know one day, but not yet and not today.”

I want to support my friends and help create spaces where they and everyone feels safe and loved.

I feel that Kli Gever gives me some room to be OK with not knowing. A line from the Talmud supports this by stating, “Teach your tongue to say: I do not know,” because that is often the most accurate thing you can say.

So, for today, this is me! One day, I think that will change, and that day will come no sooner that it will. Right now, I want to support my friends and help create spaces where they and everyone feels safe and loved. Thank you to all the people who have helped me come this far, and I hope you will continue to help and inspire me for the rest of my life.

5 Responses

  1. I am trans myself, and I loved reading this. The point about Kal vaKhomer really brought it home for me. Thank you. 🏳️‍⚧️❤️

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