I. What Is Transgenderism?
Transgenderism has been in the news lately, with Bruce Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn and President Obama’s executive order on bathroom usage. Judaism is very clear on this subject, although often misrepresented.
In many places, the Talmud discusses the cases of a tumtum and androginos, people whose gender status is unclear either because their genitalia are covered by skin or otherwise ambiguous (tumtum) or because they show physical signs of both genders (androginos). These are not examples of transgender people. Transgender is an umbrella term for people who believe their gender identity is not fully represented by their biological gender.1 Intersex is a term for people whose physical characteristics do not match solely either gender. Intersex is a physical state. Transgender is a response to a psychological and emotional state, albeit sometimes with physical causes (e.g., hormonal). A tumtum or androginos is intersex, not transgender.2
II. Gender Dysphoria
However, we cannot confuse between different types of transgender people. Differentiating will be important to understanding Judaism’s approach to the subject. Gender dysphoria is a psychological and emotional state, a distress from a feeling of incongruence between one’s physical and psychological gender. This distress due to living as one’s biological gender, with which one does not identify—feeling as if your soul and body do not match—can be great. Transgender is the way people, often those suffering from gender dysphoria, experience their gender identities differently from the way people experience their gender identities when their biological and psychological identities are the same.
Mark Yarhouse, an Evangelical psychologist who specializes in gender and sexuality, quotes a division of gender dysphoria into three categories (based on Blanchard’s Typology): (1) female-to-male gender dysphoria, (2) male-to-female gender dysphoria (androphilic type) and (3) male-to-female gender dysphoria (autogynephilic type).3
In the first type, biological females feel that they are male and look for a female partner to be attracted to them as a male. The second type is similar to the first, but for biological males who feel that they are female. These two types are also called homosexual transgenderism. The third type consists of males who feel aroused when imagining themselves as females. They are often, but not exclusively, macho types who present something that is sometimes called heterosexual or transvestite transgenderism. Some present their transgenderism as a fetish.4
From Judaism’s perspective, gender is biological. A biological male is a male and a biological female is a female. People who are intersex (tumtum and androginos) fall in a complex set of categories precisely because biology is the final word on gender, while for them biology is inconclusive. For everyone else, though, biology determines the gender clearly.
III. Crossdressing in Jewish Law
The Torah explicitly prohibits crossdressing: “A woman shall not wear a man’s clothes, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God” (Deut. 22:5). Both biological men and women are prohibited from dressing like the other gender. The Talmud (Nazir 59a) debates how far this prohibition extends beyond clothing to action. A man may not act like a woman and vice versa. The commentators disagree whether this also falls under the biblical prohibition or constitutes a rabbinic extension. 5
Explanations differ for the underlying reason for this prohibition. The differences between these opinions are important for contemporary understanding.
Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, prohibition 40; Moreh Nevukhim 3:37) states that this prohibition has two reasons. First, crossdressing was an ancient idolatrous practice; it was part of certain rituals. In order to distance us from idolatry, the Torah prohibits a number of pagan ritualistic practices. Additionally, crossdressing is a form of, and leads to, sexual impropriety. This last point is expressed differently in various texts.
Rashi (Deut. 22:5) says that if a man dresses as a woman, he can sneak among women for sin. A married woman walking to a secluded place with a man will fall under suspicion. If she walks with what looks like another woman, no one will ask questions. Therefore, crossdressing is prohibited to (attempt to) prevent this type of indiscretion. However, Rambam explains it differently. He says that people sometimes crossdress in order to arouse their desires, which then leads to improprieties. According to Rashi, crossdressing is forbidden because it allows for sin. According to Rambam, it causes arousal which leads to sin.
IV. Reasons and Reality
All three of these reasons seem relevant today. While we no longer see idolatry around us, it still exists in certain parts of the world. But setting that aside, Judaism began as a protest against idolatry. That is an important part of the Jewish story, which is why we begin the Passover Seder saying that our ancestors were once idolators. The protest against idolatry is an integral part of the religion, regardless of whether those idolatrous rituals are still practiced. Crossdressing is an affront to the main theme of Judaism and all Western religions—monotheism.
Additionally, crossdressing for sexual purposes is one manifestation of gender dysphoria. The first approach, that of Rashi, seems like a common fear today. The media discusses often the case of men entering women’s bathrooms for improper purposes, although the frequency of such occurrences remains unclear. Rambam’s approach represents an acknowledged manifestation of gender dysphoria—men dressing as women for arousal. From this perspective, the prohibition against crossdressing directly addresses a common contemporary phenomenon.
V. Judaism and Gender
There is another, completely different, explanation of the prohibition against crossdressing. Ibn Ezra (Deut. 22:5) explains the prohibition more or less like Rashi, that it is intended to prevent women and men joining improperly. However, at the end of his comment, he adds the following enigmatic statement: “God despises someone who change the act of God.” I’m not quite sure what he means. This could be a denunciation of unnatural methods of marital relations or it could mean something more, a general statement about Judaism and gender. Regardless of whether Ibn Ezra declared that we cannot change gender because it is an act of God, others have said it.
Like Rambam, Rav Yitzchak Abarbanel offers two explanations for the prohibition against crossdressing. His first reason is prevention of licentiousness and impropriety, as above. His second reason adds an important issue to the conversation. According to Abarbanel, people are forbidden to crossdress because God created nature in a specific way that we must respect and preserve. God gave you a biological gender that you may not change, whether by dressing or acting like the opposite gender. 6
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch follows Abarbanel’s path. In his Horeb (Chukim 64), Rav Hirsch writes: 7
“God has divided the sexes, giving each specific tasks in the fulfilment of life. Both tasks, if fulfilled in purity, are equally sublime, equally holy. He also divided them in their external appearance, in order that moral purity should be upheld. And you should also preserve the outward appearance of the sexes, as willed by God. The woman should appear as woman, and the man as man…”
More recently, Rav Asher Meir writes in his Meaning in Mitzvot (ch. 171): “Cross-dressing, like homosexuality, blurs the border between the sexes, a border that is meant to complete the Divine image by uniting its two distinct expressions among mankind.”
According to this understanding, this prohibition demands that we retain the biological gender given to us at birth (or before). Gender bending in any form is forbidden. (None of this addresses unisex clothing or actions.)
However, a prohibition—no matter how explicit—does not resolve the dilemma of someone experiencing gender dysphoria. What we have learned is that the methods of addressing the discomfort of gender dysphoria—the confusion and the pain—cannot include crossdressing (gender reassignment may fall under the prohibition against neutering, as well). Other therapies have to be used. If the mental anguish rises to the point of the individual entering a class of sick people as defined by Jewish law, then an expert rabbi should be consulted who may differentiate between rabbinic and biblical prohibitions, between wearing a single garment or multiple garments, whether the intent is to look like the other gender or not, as well as other important legal considerations. However, perhaps most importantly for the community, the concept of biological gender as a binding legal and theological construct must be acknowledged.
Feeling uncomfortable with one’s gender is not something embarrassing or objectionable. However, acting or dressing contrary to one’s biological gender is considered disturbing God’s plan with the world.
1. I intentionally refer to biological sex as biological gender.
2. Some quote the Gemara that God originally created man as both male and female in a single being, and then split them. I don’t see the relevance because we all live after that split. At most, that would be a precedent for intersex, not for transgender.
3. Mark Yarhouse, Understanding Gender Dysphoria, pp. 95–98.
4. Note that Blanchard’s Typology has been severely criticized. That is par for the course in this highly politicized field. See the related Wikipedia entry for more information.
5. See Beis Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 182.
6. This is contained in Abarbanel’s initial commentary on the Torah, published in the journal Kovetz Al Yad, vol. 15 and summarized online by Prof. Shaul Regev.
7. See also Rav Hirsch’s commentary to Deut. 22:5.
By Rabbi Gil Student