Happy almost-Purim! I can’t wait! The holiday with tons of gifts, charity, and liquor! Maybe I’ll skip out on that last one since I’m only 14 years old, but I can confirm from experience that getting blackout drunk is not necessary for the spirit of Purim. We are happy, merry, and gay! Not only gay as in “synonym for happy”, but as in, we are able to partake in a rich part of gay culture. I’m talking about the incredible art of crossdressing. Now, I know on Purim, not all crossdressers are looking for much more than a few laughs, but the interesting part is that they do it, and are allowed to by Jewish law.
In Deuteronomy 22:5, the Torah states “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing, for whoever does these things is a toevah to the Lord your God.” As someone who has done drag and cross-dressed on many occasions, this feels weird to me and very nonsensical. What reason could the Torah have for a prohibition like this? I don’t think anyone should prohibit people from wearing clothes that express who they are. But does this verse actually prohibit cross-dressing, and if so, why doesn’t it apply on Purim?
The 12th century biblical commentator Ibn Ezra says this prohibition has to do with categories. The verse about cross-dressing is Deuteronomy 22:5. Verses 9 through 11 prohibit sowing with mixed seeds, plowing with an ox and a donkey together, and wearing shatnez, cloth combining wool and linen. Ibn Ezra writes, using the phrase “hafach ma’seh HaShem”, in other words, a “flipped version of G-d’s creation,” that obscuring, blending, or flipping categories for example, shatnez, should be avoided, and messes with G-d’s intention.
In Judaism, we talk a lot about categories. Tahor and tameh, sometimes translated ritual purity and impurity, are two big categories in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus, which we just started reading this week. Tahor and tameh are not categories that we use much anymore. I don’t know about you, but I don’t go outside the City of Berkeley every time I touch a lizard. Kodesh and chol, the holy and the everyday, are also big ones in Vayikra, and still important to us today.
Another big one that we definitely still use today is the categories of us and them. Our version of this is the Jews vs. the people who tried to kill us, like Amalek, for instance, referenced in today’s maftir, for Shabbat zachor. The tragic potential of us vs. them categories was sadly shown this week with the terrible massacre in two mosques in New Zealand. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.
And yet the reason that humans have categories at all is that we need them. How are you going to make sense of anything without categories? Categories are key to our understanding of the world. Without any differentiation, nothing would be clear or understandable.
On the other hand, categories can be terribly oppressive when you take them too far. For instance, many people expect someone of a certain biological sex to have a certain sexuality, gender, and affect. When those boundaries are rigidly upheld, it can cause a lot of emotional and physical pain. And Judaism tells us we need to be kind to ourselves and others: “V’ahavta l’ray’acha kamocha.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Fortunately for me and other aspiring Jewish drag queens, it turns out that although the verse about cross dressing is in closeish proximity to mitzvot that deal with categories, it is surrounded more closely by mitzvot having to do with protecting others. Deuteronomy chapter 22, verses 1-4, commands us to return lost objects and help lift up our neighbor’s donkey or ox when it has fallen in the road. Verses 6-8 prohibit us from taking a mother bird and her eggs at the same time, and command us to build a guardrail for our roof to protect one another.
Rashi understood the cross dressing verse like this as well. Back in Talmudic times, genders were separated more drastically then they are today. Rashi understands this verse as a prohibition on sneaking into the other gender’s space to commit sexual transgressions, which would be hurtful to one’s partner and possibly others.
However, not wearing the clothes that express your gender identity can do harm to yourself in many ways. Many people who feel trapped by their assigned biological sex or don’t feel comfortable wearing the clothes assigned to their biological sex, suffer when they can’t express their true identity through their clothing and presentation. A 2016 study found that 30 percent of transgender youth report a history of at least one suicide attempt, and nearly 42 percent report a history of self-injury. Given the context of our verse, it’s clearly not asking us to persecute those who are expressing their true selves through “cross dressing.” For that would truly be messing with be God’s creation.
The Talmud says of cross-dressing on Purim, “Ein kahn toeva”, or “there is no toeva/taboo here.” Many commentators point to the fact that cross-dressing is ok on Purim because it is l’simcha, or just for the joy. Cross-dressing nowadays seems like it is almost always l’simcha, rather than for harmful behavior like sneaking around. On the other hand, this verse about cross-dressing is used in a harmful way to make people feel ashamed of who they are.
Wearing makeup is a huge simchah for me. When I was in 8th grade, I went over to my friend Ruth Radwin’s house to hang out. She asked if she could put makeup on me, and I said sure, why not, maybe it would be fun. Well, she did, and I loved it. She gave me some mascara she hadn’t used, and that’s how it started. Nobody really noticed, but inside I felt more confident, and more myself. Somehow when I wore that dab of jet black mascara, it changed how I felt. Anyway, then I decided to pick up a bit of eyeshadow, and that was the beginning of what has become a real simcha for me, a way for me to be creative and express who I am. Sometimes people have given me grief for not fitting into their definition of what boys should look like and do. But lots of people have supported me, and even given me helpful makeup tips! And props to my synagogue, to Netivot Shalom- no adults here have ever given me grief for my makeup. The acceptance I have felt for wearing makeup has been great. I feel seen and loved for who I am, not just for the part of me that fits into people’s familiar boxes.
Ibn Ezra was worried that cross dressing messes with God’s intentions, “Hafach ma’aseh Hashem.” But on Purim, our motto is “Nahafoch hu, Nahafoch hu,” Flip it, flip it! In other words, to flip our categories on their heads. In the same way that the t’shuva, or repentance, of Yom Kippur is not meant to be limited to Yom Kippur, we can take the lesson of Nahafoch hu and apply it to the rest of our lives. The lesson being that categories are necessary for us to function, but are not complete representations of anyone or anything.
Although shabbat is a special day of the week to appreciate God’s creation, and we put it in the category “Kadosh” “holy”, that doesn’t mean that I can’t feel close to God on Tuesday. Although I identify in the category “male”, I am not completely limited to male and I have my moments when I am not so masculine. I don’t always fit into this category.
On the other hand, categories aren’t just necessary. They can also help us recognize and celebrate special aspects of things. Having the categories “Jewish” and “gay” helps me to celebrate parts of who I am that would be harder to express without those labels.
We should keep in mind that we will be always be trying to fit things in categories in order to make sense of things. But they are not the be all and end all of everything. As Maimonides teaches in the Yigdal prayer, one of God’s attributes is “Ein Sof” or “Infinite.” There is no box big enough to fit God inside. And all of us are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.
I know we all will go on using boxes to categorize each other as we navigate our worlds. Jewish or not? Boy, girl, or something else? But let’s remember that “nahafoch hu”, upending our categories, is not just a way to let off steam. It’s also a way to recognize the ein sof in every one of us. Shabbat shalom.