“Why are you wearing boy clothes?” This was a question posed by the principal of the Brandeis School, a community day school in New York, to a seven year old transgender student. “These aren’t boy clothes! I am a boy, and these are my clothes,” the child answered, confused as to how the principal could think that clothing has a gender. The boy’s statement was pure and simple, but not enough to stop the school from expelling him for violating the dress code—according to which he conformed as a boy, just not a boy who is transgender.
This verse is the very source that not only permits transgender Jews to wear clothing that supports their gender identity, but also arguably obligates them in doing so.
Gender identity and sexual identity are different, independent, and critical to distinguish in conversations about Jewish law and tradition. For those who choose to shut down conversations about these issues by quoting Scripture, Deuteronomy 22:5 is to gender expression what Leviticus 18:22 is to homosexuality. The verse states: “A man’s garment shall not be on a woman, nor shall a man wear a woman’s garment, for anyone who does so is an abomination of Hashem.” But as I understand it, this verse is the very source that not only permits transgender Jews to wear clothing that supports their gender identity, but also arguably obligates them in doing so.
To understand this reading, let’s begin by looking at the issue of cross-dressing on Purim. Purim is a story about the shift from living with a hidden identity to coming out as truly oneself. It is not coincidental that we find expression of this theme in the laws about the holiday. The Code of Jewish Law, (R’ Moses Isserles 1520-1572) explains:
“There is a custom to wear masks on Purim, for men to wear women’s clothing, and for women to wear men’s clothing. It is not prohibited because the only intention is to experience happiness and so too [it is not forbidden] to wear garments that contain rabbinically forbidden mixtures.”
This passage seems to be revealing a caveat in the scriptural prohibition against cross-dressing. How can something that the Torah forbids, like cross-dressing, become permissible on account of the happiness it brings? Why doesn’t Rav Moshe permit the wearing of biblically forbidden (and not simply rabbinically forbiden) mixtures of wool and linen under the same circumstance? What are we to learn from the comparison of wearing misgendered clothing—ostensibly a biblical prohibition—with “rabbinicialy forbidden mixtures”?
Clothing, which we use to cover our bodies, serves as a perpetual reminder of this sin.
When the Talmud asks where we find in the Torah an allusion to Haman, the evil villain from the Purim story, it brings a verse from the Garden of Eden after the snake causes Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit: “Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten of the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?” In Hebrew, “from the tree” is hamin ha-eitz, which sounds similar to Haman who was also hung on a tree (an eitz).
The mystics explain that one of the consequences of eating from that tree was that we lost the letter “aleph” from the word “emet” (aleph-mem-tet), meaning truth, and we were punished with “met,” death. The aleph, represents the One, Ruler of the world, whose name is Truth and who can’t coexist with perversions of truth. G-d originally clothed us with light, but after the sin it was replaced with skin, as the garment for the soul. The difference in the Hebrew spelling of light and skin is one letter – aleph. The fall from light, which is spelled with an aleph, to skin, which is spelled with an ayin, expresses the subversive nature of coverings – in this case skin.
Clothing, which we use to cover our bodies, serves as a perpetual reminder of this sin. It reminds us that our spiritual identity is no longer our dominant mode of expression. We can now reconsider what Scripture meant in Deuteronomy 22:5, when it prohibits cross-dressing. The medieval commentator Rashi explains that the “abomination” is only when a person BOTH presents falsely as another gender, AND with licentious intentions to make it easier to sin by misrepresenting themselves as someone else. It is not, however, referring to someone who wears clothing to give voice to their true gender identity.
The rabbis intentionally do not uphold the prohibition against cross-dressing in moments where they might cause pain.
It is with this understanding that the The Code of Jewish Law operates. The rabbis intentionally do not uphold the prohibition against cross-dressing in moments where they might cause pain, where they would be obstacles in the performing of a mitzvah, or in circumstances deemed “uncommon” whose uniqueness needed no specific declaration.
“When we enter into the month of Adar, we increase our happiness.” The rabbis interpret this talmudic teaching to allude to the reunification of our intimate coexistence with G-d. By creating spaces for people to be one with G-d as their most authentic, genuine, and honest selves, we are restoring the relationship with G-d in a way that reveals the truth that was lost with the original sin.
Each year on Purim, we are invited to wear costumes in order to diminish the role that clothing has in defining us with physical labels.
Our rabbis teach that on Purim we accepted the Torah again, but this time it wasn’t out of fear, like at Mt Sinai. It was out of a unity of love, for G-d and each other, that brought a new level of acceptance for the differences we have as people, revealing unique aspects of G-d. Each year on Purim, we are invited to wear costumes in order to diminish the role that clothing has in defining us with physical labels. We amplify the voice of our soul that provides awareness of our true identity. By rejecting the right of transgender Jews to wear clothing that most supports their gender identity in religious spaces, it is not only a communal failure of our responsibility to provide sanctuary for all of G-d’s children, but also a denial of the truth of the Torah itself.
Rabbi Mike Moskowitz is the senior educator for Uri L’Tzedek, Orthodox Social Justice and a vocal ally for inclusivity. He writes frequently at the intersection of transgender issues and Jewish thought.
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