Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines

August 26, 2015 at 8:26 pm | Posted in Ki Teitzei | Leave a comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, Maggidah

The kli of a gever shall not be upon a woman, and a gever shall not wear the 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

kli (כְּלִי) = gear, equipment, implements, vessels, utensils, weapons.

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

toeivah (תּוֹעֵבָה) = 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 scribe or an authority in 7th-century B.C.E. Judah found everyone who did “these things” disgusting, and wanted to reinforce the social norm by attributing disgust to God.

If we discount the reference to God’s disgust, does the verse 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 “mix” with the opposite sex and thus find opportunities for illicit sex, which (according to the Talmud) is abominable.

This idea comes from a long tradition of attempting to prevent heterosexual sex outside of marriage by separating men and women, rather than by requiring that both genders exercise willpower.

Assyrian bronze sickle sword

Assyrian bronze sickle sword

This first interpretation fails to account for specific words in the verse in Deuteronomy.  It prohibits a woman from wearing the kli, the gear, of a gever, not his garment.  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 gear of a warrior is his sword or his bow and arrows; the gear 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 more generally that men should not beautify their bodies after 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 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 used our verse in his commentary on Deuteronomy to support his belief 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.  Hirsch wrote that in our verse, “…the Torah 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…”

I suspect it did not occur to Hirsch, any more than it occurred to most women of my mother’s generation, that women who made beauty and sex appeal a top priority expected to be dependent on men, unable to support themselves.

From Biblical times until my own “baby boomer” generation, marriage followed by motherhood was the primary goal for most young women. Men would bear weapons and fight in wars, while women would stay at home with their children—and hope that enemy soldiers did not reach their houses.

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, 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 (Ya-el), 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 an ancient poem describes the same incident, but implies 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 gear, so she improvises her own weapon.

Far from censuring her for using a weapon and a man’s power of 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, a woman who improvises the kli (gear) of a gever (warrior), and a man who wears the beauty (and perhaps vanity) that the Torah assigns to a woman, are praised for taking on the roles of both 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 fighters.

Are we moving toward a society which takes off from the stories of Joseph and Jael, rather than from the verse in this week’s Torah portion?  Are we moving toward a society in which both men and women are complete people?


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