With the holiday of Simchat Torah coming up, rabbinical student Becky Silverstein considers how the Jewish calendar lets her renew her relationship with the Torah each year – and how it reminds her to use our sacred text as a tool, and not a weapon.
Eisegesis: an explanation of a text in which the interpreter’s own biases and assumptions are read into or placed upon the text.
As an educator who has worked mostly in experiential and informal educational settings, I know a lot of icebreakers and community building activities, not to mention name games. Last fall, as a visiting rabbinical student in a liberal yeshiva, I learned a new game that was intended to serve as both an icebreaker and a way for people to learn about each other. The name of the game was “eisegesis.” We, students and our teachers, gathered in small groups. Slips of paper with verses from that week’s Torah portion were distributed and directions were given: read the verse and share with the group how that verse describes a part of who you are, a part of your life, or a part of the community that you are coming from.
I looked at the verse in my hand just as it was being read aloud: “A woman shall not wear man’s clothing, nor shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Adonai your God (Deuteronomy 22:5).” I panicked.
As the only gender non-conforming person in the room and one of only two out LGBTQ-identified students in the community at the time, I had not yet decided how, if, or when I was going to come out and whether I would discuss my gender identity as it relates to my identity as a rabbinical student. The go-around began. A male teacher shared how his running in spandex shorts might be considered too effeminate. Another teacher asked him what he would do if his son wanted to wear a dress, making it clear that there was only a question about the father’s response if this happened once or twice. After that the son’s behavior would clearly need to be corrected. Another shared the first time she wore pants in her religious community. Shaking, all I could say was, “just another example of how the Torah can be used to oppress people.”
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbis Elliott Kukla and Reuben Zellman examine parashat Ki Teitze, proving that clothes most certainly don’t make the person.
For all those who have ever struggled with how to discipline children’s bad behavior, this week’s parashah, Ki-Teitze, offers an easy answer: stone them to death! (Deut. 21:18-21)
Thankfully, Jews have recognized for over a thousand years that this is an unacceptable solution to a common problem. In fact, we learn in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 71a) that this apparent commandment of the Torah was never once carried out. Our Sages refused to interpret this verse literally, as it conflicted with their understanding of the holiness of each and every human life.
With this scenario in mind, let us look at another verse in our parashah: “A man’s clothes should not be on a woman, and a man should not wear the apparel of a woman; for anyone who does these things, it is an abomination before God.” (Deut. 22:5) Just as classical Jewish scholars reinterpreted the commandment that says rebellious children should be stoned to death, they also read this portion’s apparent ban on “cross-dressing” to yield a much narrower prohibition.
The great medieval commentator Rashi explains that this verse is not simply a prohibition on wearing the clothes of the “opposite gender.” Rashi writes that such dress is prohibited only when it will lead to adultery. Maimonides, a 12th-century codifier of Jewish law, claims that this verse is actually intended to prohibit cross-dressing that is for purposes of idol worship (Sefer haMitzvot, negative mitzvot 39-40). In other words, according to the classical scholars of our tradition, wearing clothes of “the wrong gender” is proscribed only when it is for the express purpose of causing harm to our relationship with our loved ones or with God. The prohibition that we learn from this verse is very specific: we must not misrepresent our true gender in order to cause harm. Otherwise, wearing clothing of another gender is not prohibited. The Talmud puts it most succinctly: v’ein kan toevah — “there is no abomination here” (Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 59a-b).