Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines

by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

Joan of Arc 15th century CE
Joan of Arc, 15th century CE: Toeivah?

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 those who do these things.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 22:5)

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 all cross-dressing abominable.

Last week, in Shoftim: Abominable, I wrote about how attributing toeivah to God is an anthropomorphization.  Whoever wrote down this verse in Ki Teitzei1 probably found everyone found everyone who did “these things” disgusting, and wanted to reinforce a social norm by attributing that disgust to God.

But does the verse actually prohibit cross-dressing?

The Babylonian Talmud (Nazir 59a) states 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.  It suggests 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 first interpretation fails to account for specific words in the verse in Deuteronomy, which prohibits a woman from wearing the equipment of a man (kli), 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 the ruler of a clan or tribe 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.2

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

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

As late as the 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 many 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 either 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 a primping man, and one about two warrior women.

The Primping Man

The Torah does not say that Joseph primps or applies cosmetics.  But the book of Genesis/Bereishit does say that Jacob spoils his son Joseph 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:

“The Glory of Joseph” by James Tissot

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

Rashi, following Midrash Tamchuma, commented: “As soon as he saw that he was ruler (in the house) he began to eat and drink and curl his hair.  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Your father is mourning and you curl your hair!  I will let a bear loose against you.”Other classic commentary implies that Joseph not only curled his hair, but put kohl around his eyes and wore elevated heels.

Yet Joseph eventually became a viceroy of Egypt, and 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)

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

The Warrior Women

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 some of the tribes of Israel, though she wears no weapon and her male lieutenant, Barak, leads the soldiers into battle.  When the Israelites win, the enemy general, Sisera, flees to a tent where he believes he will be safe.  (Sisera’s king is friends with the owner of the tent, Chever the Kenite.)  Cheve, the owner of the tent, 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 swallows the milk and relaxes.  Then she 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 comes 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  a man who is beautiful (and perhaps enhances his beauty as if it were the “outer garment of a woman”), and a woman who improvises the equipment of a gever, are both praised for taking on the roles of two genders at once.

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.

Perhaps we are moving away from the society preferred in this week’s Torah portion, and toward a society in which both men and women are complete people, like Joseph and Jael.

  1. According to current scholarship the book of Deuteronomy was written, or at least recorded in written form, in 7th-century B.C.E. Judah.
  2. 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.
  3. Genesis Rabbah 86:3, edited in the 4th to 5th centuries C.E.
  4. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), following Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeshev 8, translation by