Why gendered clothing matters

Deuteronomy turns its attention to both men and women, equally held accountable for misleading Israel by blurring the gender divide and thus, opening doors to the betrayal of the covenant with God.

A DRAG QUEEN in performance. Dress is one of the ways in which gender separation is maintained, and this ensures fidelity to holiness as reflected in sexual separation. (photo credit: MCT)
A DRAG QUEEN in performance. Dress is one of the ways in which gender separation is maintained, and this ensures fidelity to holiness as reflected in sexual separation.
(photo credit: MCT)
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, has no less than 74 mitzvot contained within it, including many mitzvot that relate to social structure and family dynamics, including divorce, levirate marriage, rebellious sons, and daughters who have lost their virginity before marriage. There is also an explicit prohibition against cross-dressing that reverberates strongly within the controversial contemporary topic in halacha (Jewish law) of women wearing pants, touching on motifs of gender interaction, gender identity and sexual promiscuity.
A woman must not put on man’s apparel nor shall a man wear women’s clothing, for whoever does these things is toeva – translated as “abhorrent” or “abomination” to God (Deuteronomy 22:5).
The word toeva appears throughout the Bible to describe detestable acts largely involving idolatry or sexual promiscuity. Bible scholars feel that this prohibition is about either pagan cultic rituals, promiscuity that results from crossing over to the opposite gender, or possibly about gender separation analogous to verses about prohibiting mixtures in cloth and in sowing seeds. God who created the biological separation between men and women is incensed at the behavior of those who seek to blur the separation.
The earliest rabbinic interpretation, found in Sifre Devarim Piska 226, understands the verse to mean the following: “No male article shall be on a woman. Could this be teaching that a woman should not wear white garments nor a man colored ones? Rather the verse concludes, ‘Whoever performs these commits an abominable act before the Lord your God.’ Only practices leading to an abominable act are forbidden. As a rule, a woman should not put on male garb and circulate among men, nor should a man adorn himself in a feminine way and to circulate among women.”
Rabbi Eliezer Ben Yaakov says: “Whence do we know that a woman should not wear weaponry and go off to war? It says, ‘No male article shall be on a woman.’ A man shall not adorn himself in women’s ornaments, as it says: ‘And a man shall not wear women’s clothing.’”
The Sifre brings two interpretations. In the first it explains that the wearing of the articles of clothing is not the essence of the prohibition, but practices which lead to an abominable act are what is prohibited. The Midrash then clarifies its approach: A woman who puts on men’s clothing to circulate among men, or a man who dresses like a woman to access exclusively female space, are both done presumably for the purpose of illicit sexuality.
The second voice of Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov understands the clause to specifically refer to women wearing weaponry and going off to war, and men adorning themselves in women’s ornaments. While this is not directly relevant to our conversation, it touches on questions of gender identity expressed through clothing or other articles and the space in which they are worn. Until very recently, war was a profoundly and exclusively male experience and women had no place in such a setting. Crossing over into male space erodes the integrity of the entire society and is thus, an abomination. Rabbi Eliezer is comparing wearing women’s ornaments to men’s battle garments or accessories. It is not about the intended practice in the apparel, which is what the first tanna (early Talmudic authority) interpreted. The act of simply wearing the others gender’s gendered clothing is prohibited. In addition to maintaining strict gender identity, presumably he too is concerned for sexual indiscretion and promiscuity.
MAIMONIDES EXPLAINS in Sefer Hamitzvot that these acts of cross-dressing by both men and women are to arouse the senses to debauchery, or alternatively, for the purpose of idolatry. In other words, this mitzva intersects with possible transgression across two major categories of sin – sexual and idolatrous. He further alludes to religious cults that require the cross-dressing as part of the idolatrous service, for instance, men wearing gold and pearls and women putting on armor and bearing swords. In Mishneh Torah, the Rambam inserts an important caveat – gendered clothing, accessories and behavior are all according to local societal custom. With this important statement, Maimonides recognizes that there is a heavy socio-cultural component to the gendering of dress and behavior norms and that these can change depending on time and place.
While Maimonides suggested a reason for the mitzvah, the Tur and Shulhan Aruch simply codify the law. In the Tur, it is reduced to a simple sentence: A woman may not wear clothing which local custom deems to be exclusively male nor may she shave her head like a man. The rest of the chapter is concerned with men behaving like women. There are several prohibitions against beard and hair grooming and dying. There is also a prohibition for men to look into a mirror, which is condemned for being by its very essence a woman’s article, equivalent to a weapon being fundamentally a male article. In short, the dominant halachic conversation seeks to clarify and define the prohibition in Deuteronomy as largely applicable to cross-dressing for nefarious purposes.
One of the main ideas that emerges from source analysis is that gender differentiation in society matters in the halachic literature. Dress is one of the ways in which gender separation is maintained, and this ensures fidelity to holiness as reflected in sexual separation. If we remove the markers that police this separation, the possibility of sexual perversion is manifest. As expressed in the Sefer Hachinuch’s analysis of this mitzvah, “If men and women wear the same clothing they will always be mingling and the Earth will be filled with perversion.”
The verse in Deuteronomy turns its attention to both men and women. They are equally held accountable for misleading the community of Israel by blurring the gender divide and thus, opening doors to the betrayal of the covenant with God.
A look at the modern responsa on pants reveals an emerging, very strong religious ideology against women wearing these garments. The justification for the rejectionist line of reasoning is that such garments are so gendered that they become equivalent to sexual perversion by their very makeup, and must be unequivocally prohibited. However, it is hard to equate pants with cross-dressing as we defined it based on the halachic analysis above, since it does not involve a desire to disguise gender or engage in idolatrous practices or sexual promiscuity. Today, pants are simply a garment without relation to gender, worn to cover the body in the same way that shirts, sweaters and socks describe garments that clothe different parts of the body and have no clear gender association.
In a future column, a look at the modern discourse around women and pants will be addressed.
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.