Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines

August 26, 2015 at 8:26 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

The equipment of a gever shall not be upon a woman, and a gever shall not wear the outer garment of a woman, for toeivah of God, your god, are all who do these things.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5)

Joan of Arc 15th century CE

Joan of Arc
15th century CE

gever (גֶּבֶר) = an adult man; a man in a position of power; a warrior or soldier.

toeivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = abhorrent, repugnant, causing visceral disgust; an “abomination”.

A hasty reading of the above verse in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei (“When you go out”) leads some people to think that God finds cross-dressing abominable.

Last week, in Shoftim: Abominable, I wrote about how attributing toeivah to God anthropomorphizes the One.  The verse in this week’s Torah portion probably means that a faction in 7th-century B.C.E. Judah (when the book of Deuteronomy was probably written) found everyone who did “these things” disgusting, and wanted to reinforce their social norm by attributing that disgust to God.

But does the verse actually prohibit cross-dressing?

The Babylonian Talmud (Nazir 59a) points out that the purpose of the verse cannot be to teach that men should not dress like women, and vice versa, because mere cross-dressing is not an abomination.  The Talmud offers two other reasons for the verse.  The first is that someone should not cross-dress in order to sneak into a single-sex group in order to seduce someone. According to the Talmud, unauthorized sex is abominable.

Assyrian bronze sickle sword

Assyrian bronze sickle sword

This interpretation fails to account for specific words in the verse in Deuteronomy.  It prohibits a woman from wearing the equipment of a man, not his clothing.  Furthermore, the text uses the word gever, which implies a warrior or a ruler, rather than ish, the common term for any man.  In the Torah, the equipment of a warrior is his sword or his bow and arrows; the equipment of a ruler is his staff.

Ivory cosmetics box from Sidon

Ivory cosmetics box from Sidon

The second Talmudic interpretation, attributed to Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, fits the verse better:   women should not go to war bearing weapons, and men should not use cosmetics to beautify themselves.  This is also the interpretation of Targum Onkelos, the first century C.E. translation of the Torah from Hebrew into Aramaic, which says that men should not beautify their bodies in the manner of women.

In today’s terms, it would be acceptable for a woman to wear pants, but not for her to carry a gun.  A man could wear a skirt (for comfort, not to show off his legs), but he should not wear jewelry or make-up.

The underlying assumptions are that weapons and war are part of a man’s nature, and that personal beautification is part of a woman’s nature.  These assumptions were rarely questioned until the 20th century C.E.

19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that Deuteronomy 22:5 “…forbids each sex that which is specifically suited to the nature of the opposite sex.  A man shall not attend to his external physical appearance in the way appropriate to a woman’s nature, and a woman shall not appear in a vocation suited to a man’s nature…” He added that a woman’s place was in the home—i.e. that motherhood was the calling of all women, and any other vocation was for men only.

I suspect it did not occur to Hirsch, any more than it occurred to my mother and other women born in the 1920’s and 1930’s, that women who made beauty and sex appeal their top priority were planning to be dependent on men for financial support. From Biblical times until my own “baby boomer” generation, most cultures assumed that war and jobs requiring muscle or authority were for men, while housework and child care were for women.

This view of the “natures” of men and women is countered by two stories in the Hebrew Bible: one about an armed woman, and one about a primping man.

The Torah does not say that Joseph primps or applies cosmetics; that tradition began in the commentary.  It does say that Jacob spoils him by giving him a fancy coat or tunic.  When Joseph becomes a slave to Potifar, and Potifar’s wife tries to seduce him, the Torah says:

And Joseph was beautiful of shape and beautiful of appearance.  (Genesis/Bereishit 39:6)

Joseph keeps refusing to lie with Potiphar’s wife, but on one occasion she catches him in the house alone, and grabs his clothing.  He flees outside, leaving his clothes in her hand, but his virtue intact.  The frustrated woman uses Joseph’s clothes to slander him and send him to prison, where his adventures continue, and he eventually becomes Pharaoh’s viceroy.

The Midrash Rabbah on Genesis (86:3), edited in the 4th to 5th centuries C.E., says Joseph was vain about his beauty:  “It may be illustrated by a man who sat in the street, putting kohl around his  eyes, curling his hair, lifting his heel, and exclaiming, ‘I am indeed a man.’ ‘If you are a man,’ the bystanders retorted, ‘here is a bear; up and attack it!’”

Yet Jacob’s deathbed blessing praises Joseph’s power with a manly weapon:  And his bow was continually taut, and his arms and hands were agile… (Genesis 49:24)

Joseph has a reputation as both beautifying himself like a woman, and being a gever with weapons and the power to rule.

A story in the book of Judges features two women who engage in acts of war.  The prophetess Devorah serves openly as the general of an army recruited from two tribes of Israel, though she wears no weapon and her male lieutenant, Barak, leads the soldiers into battle. When they win, the enemy general, Sisera, flees to a tent where he believes he will be safe—because Sisera’s king is friends with the owner of the tent, Chever the Kenite.  Chever is not at home, so his wife, Jael,  welcomes Sisera inside and gives him a drink of milk.

"Study of Jael in Red Chalk" by Carlo Maratta

“Study of Jael in Red Chalk”
by Carlo Maratta

Sisera naturally assumes all women are subservient to their men, so he drinks the milk and relaxes.  Then Chever’s wife kills him.

The Bible gives two accounts of the murder.  In the first one, Jael waits until Sisera falls asleep, then kills him by hammering a tent peg through his skull.  Next the book of Judges provides an ancient poem describing the same incident, but implying that Jael crushes Sisera’s head with a hammer while he is still awake and upright.  Either way, Jael does not have access to men’s equipment, so she improvises her own weapon.

Far from censuring her for using a weapon and taking the authority to make an independent decision, the book of Judges praises Jael—as a woman.

Most blessed of women is Jael, the wife of Chever the Kenite; most blessed is she in the tent. (Judges/Shoftim 5:24)

Thus even in the Torah, both a woman who improvises the equipment of a gever, and a man who is beautiful (and perhaps enhances his beauty) as if it were the outer garment of a woman, are praised for taking on the roles of two genders.

Adopting roles previously associated with the opposite gender is commonplace in advanced societies today.  Some men are tender parents of infants and young children, and some men devote themselves to looking sexy.  Some women succeed in vocations previously reserved for men, and some women are soldiers.

Are we moving toward a society in which both men and women are complete people, like Joseph and Jael?


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  1. […] Nevertheless, for more than two millennia people have used the law in Ki Teitzei about cross-dressing to promote the traditional gender roles in their own societies. (See my post Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines.) […]

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