To Wear is Human, To Live — Divine

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.

Clothes don't make the person

Creative Commons/Mark Pike

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 (