Dark, Light. Day, night. Oceans, dry land. Pure, impure. Permitted, not permitted. Heaven, earth. Good inclination, evil inclination. Man, woman. I thought I had finally figured it out – that in a system built upon these, it is not entirely surprising to find this:
לֹא־יִֽהְיֶה כְלִי־גֶבֶר עַל־אִשָּׁה וְלֹֽא־יִלְבַּשׁ גֶּבֶר שִׂמְלַת אִשָּׁה כִּי תֽוֹעֲבַת יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ כָּל־עֹשֵׂה אֵֽלֶּה
There shall not be the implements of a man upon a woman and a man shall not wear the garment of a woman because all who do this are an abomination to Ad”nai your G”d. (Deut. 22:5)
How interesting that just the other day, while catching up on some recorded TV shows, I watched an episode of Major Crimes (the successor to The Closer) that centered on the murder of a child with gender dysphoria. I missed it when it was originally aired back in mid-July, but I knew then it was likely to be a powerful episode. I remember TNT touting how cast members would be live Tweeting during the broadcast.
I cannot rationalize away the words from Torah above. It may be that I have no choice but to reject them outright. So today I muse about how I can deal with this problematic verse. I have known and taught students with gender dysphoria in both synagogue and day school settings. I accept their statement of “I am what I am.”
I have heard these students echo words similar to those the writers of the “Boys Will Be Boys” episode chose to attribute to the victim at an early age that “G”d has made a mistake, and put me in the wrong body.”
Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen it. In the episode, that father appeared to embrace his child’s choice to be female rather than male, while the mother felt that the father was indulging a phase the child might outgrow. The older brother appeared, initially, to be as supportive and understanding as the father. The plot took some wonderful twists and turns, focusing first on a bully who posted a video of himself and some friends mocking and “pantsing” the child,clearly dressed as a female, and exposing his male genitalia in a mall ladies room. Then the focus turned on the father, who couldn’t properly account for his whereabouts and some financial transactions. Turns out, however, that the father had been making arrangements for he and his child to live elsewhere and start the child on hormone treatments to facilitate the child’s need to be female. Next suspicion turned on the mother, who had not been supportive of her youngest child’s choices and her husband’s support of them. In the end it turned out the mother was protecting her older son, who, when he learned that his father and sister were going to move out on their own, killed his sibling in a fit of rage over how this would destroy his family and jealousy of how his sister was always the focus of attention for the family. (The portrayal of this brother as jealous and angry is so eloquently balanced by how he so lovingly refers to his sibling as his sister, and appears to be so supportive, and generally in agreement with his father. Add to that the irony of his mother trying to protect him from being found out as his sibling’s killer. Brilliant writing. )
On a superficial level, it would almost be easy to read into this story a cautionary tale that almost seems to support the biblical injunction. The child’s attempt (and father’s support) to deal with his gender dysphoria by allowing the child to dress as a female is what ultimately led to the child’s death. One of the final scenes, however, does a little blame shifting. In it, one of the detectives confronts the bully, telling him that is was his bigotry, and his shameless and insensitive act that really destroyed this family and led to the death of the child. There’s a lesson for all of us in that.
If only the writers of Major Crimes had written this verse of the Torah, things might be a little different.
Coming to an understanding that this verse reflects our ancestral understanding of the universe as comprised of balancing opposites (or forces) which also led to many prohibitions about mixing things together (which also appear in this parasha and elsewhere) turns out to not be particularly helpful to me. In fact, it leaves me with quite a quandary. If Judaism is so largely predicated on these paired opposites (or balancing forces, or whatever you want to call them) and this verse is so patently wrong, what does that say about all those pairings? Are they wrong too?
If the boundaries between male and female gender can be blurred, it stands to reason that other boundaries can be the same. But wait a minute. This IS the reality of our universe. It is fraught with liminality. Consider twilight, or the swamp. Situational ethics. Good coming from evil (and vice versa.) G”d appears to have both male and female aspects, and somewhere in G”d those must meet and overlap or blend. Human beings do have both male and female characteristics within them. So why should it surprise us that in some people, the dominant physical shell doesn’t match the dominant brain?
If we accept the fact that there are people born in this world who were truly placed in the body type of the wrong gender, then it would not be an abomination for that person to wear clothes of the gender that they knew themselves to be. That sort of works for me, but then raises the question of why G”d would create people with gender dysphoria in the first place. Perhaps to remind us that boundaries and divisions are not always so clear?
Our ancestors tried so hard to see the universe in clear, almost black and white terms. Yet even in their own times, those efforts were hampered by the realities. I sometimes think that the very existence of the concept of “exceptions” exists because it was our only way of dealing with the fact that the real universe didn’t work in the simplistic way we wanted it to work. We still have this tendency, this desire, to see things as black or white, either or, good or evil, male or female, etc.Yet in almost each and every second of our lives the futility of this desire is thrown back in our faces. Everything is in shades of gray.
It seems logical to assume that if the Torah say cross-dressing is prohibited, that there were people doing it back then! Gender dysphoria is as old as we are. I think our ancestors knew this in their hearts. It may be why G”d didn’t create Adam and Chava each independently from the earth. The Torah says woman was made from man. (That it was this way around and not the other we need only to chalk up to the misogynism of the redactors.) Think of it not that woman was made from man, but that woman and man are from the same source. There’s a little man and woman in each of us.
So I recognize my own failing here. I argued and tried to see pairings that Torah tries to show us as opposites, as existing in a black and white state, and that if one example is wrong, they all are! How not true. How inaccurate. How foolish. I know, and have known for a long time, and have written it many times here and elsewhere, that Judaism is not about opposites, it is about balance, or rather finding a balance between forces/ideas/inclinations.
If I, thousands of years later, still fall into the same trap, I should be more understanding of my ancestors. I should also have greater faith in their ability to be nuanced.
We resisted for centuries having our ancient teachings codified by placing them in written form. In the process, they did lose some of their flexibility – but not as much as we might have feared. Words are slippery things, as liminal as anything in this universe.
Being themselves liminal, we can look beyond the words, bleeding across boundaries and resistant to being given completely clear meaning in all circumstances. Perhaps our ancestors, too, were sophisticated enough to read this verse the way I have now come to understand it: that what is says to be true to who you are.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Ki Teitzei 5772 - The Torah, the Gold Watch, and Another Retelling
Ki Teitzei 5771 - Metaphorical Parapets
Ki Tetzei 5769 - The Choice of Memory
Ki Tetzei 5767 - Honoring Inconsistency
Ki Teitzei 5766-B'Shetzef Ketzef
Ki Tetze 5764/5-The Torah, The Gold Watch, and The Rest of the Story
Ki Tetze 5757,9,60,63--The Torah, The Gold Watch, & Everything
Ki Tetze 5758--Exclude Me
Ki Tetze 5762--One Standard