Last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze, includes one of the most infamous Biblical verses for us trans* people:
לא יהיה כלי גבר על אשה ולא ילבש גבר שמלת אשה כי תועבת ה׳ אלקיך כל עשה אלה
A man’s apparel (kli gever) shall not be upon a woman, and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment (simlat ’ishah), for whoever does this is abominable to YHWH your God. (Deut. 22:5)
When I went to synagogue last weekend I brought my tallit, my prayer shawl, along with me, but I wasn’t sure I’d actually wear it. (I hadn’t brought it along the first time I’d gone to synagogue post-transition.) It is, after all, traditionally a kli gever, and I have ceased presenting myself as though I were a man. But in this day and age, women wear the tallit as well, especially in an egalitarian synagogue such as the one I attend. But would putting it on make me feel like I was reverting? Would it throw me back to a time when I was pretending to be a different gender? Would I get hit with Trans Demerits?
The Torah has some very clear-seeming advice about this situation. I first encountered this verse in Ki Tetze as a young child, flipping through the Hertz Chumash to kill time during the boring parts of Shabbat services in synagogue. I was probably six or seven. I remember thinking, “Well, there goes any chance I ever have of being happy.” (Years later I would also feel this way about a verse in the next chapter, which specifically prohibits male castration, and has also been used to oppress trans women and exclude us from the Jewish community. More on that some other time.) I looked this verse up many times; I’m not sure why. And then I remember always hurriedly flipping to some other page or shutting the book, lest I be seen to have too much interest here. Probably unduly paranoid of me, yes, but the fear was very real to me. What if they were to find out?
Much modern scholarship and some more liberal-leaning commentaries try to link the verse to some vaguely specified ancient cultic practices involving cross-dressing for “pagan” ritual purposes. I always found this an unsatisfactory explanation for three reasons. First, nobody ever really gave me a good explanation of what exactly these cultic practices were supposed to be. Second, that updated knowledge, if true, was never used to overturn the law. Cross-dressing on Purim (think Jewish Halloween), even though practiced, is still forbidden, or at least discouraged, by most halachic sources. It’s all well and good to say that this verse refers to something in the ancient world, or that it’s a product of its times, but the fact of the matter is that people still take it seriously, and use it against trans* people.
But the most important problem I saw with this verse, even at that young age, was that the Torah didn’t specify what was clothing “appropriate” to one’s sex. What about women wearing pants? The Torah doesn’t tell you. Are pants for women substantially different from pants for men, in our day and age? What if a woman buys pants from the men’s section because they happen to fit her better? What about Scotsmen wearing kilts? In Scotland, that’s a man’s garment. But what if an Englishman wanted to wear a kilt? Would he be violating this law? And what if I wanted to wear a dress?
So back to my original problem. What about women wearing a tallit?
Reb Irwin Keller interprets this verse as the Torah asking us all to be true to ourselves. Rabbi Elliot Kukla and Reuben Zellman believe that the Torah’s concern is to keep us from harming ourselves or others by misrepresentation. I know whereof they speak. I spent too long misrepresenting myself, causing harm to myself and others, by failing to be true to myself. But the tallit does not have to be an instrument of that misrepresentation. In fact, using it that way is a lie.
While the tallit may at one time have been exclusively a kli gever—a man’s garment—in the communities I associate with, it is not one now. And my own tallit cannot be a kli gever, because I am not a gever.
My tallit is an expression of my femininity. It is a sign—an ’ot—of my gender, my identity, a defiant signifier of the silence I can no longer keep—will no longer keep—about my personal truth.
Traditionally, before putting on the tallit, one recites a Kabbalistic meditation: l’shem yichud kudsha b’rich hu u-sh’khin’teh, “For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and His Shekhinah“. What does this mean, to make the divine whole? To make the masculine God one with the Shekhinah, the divine feminine aspect/presence? To blur the lines between genders, between acceptable modes of presentation, between what is a kli gever and what is a simlat ’ishah? To be transgressive, a gender rebel?
I might well add a meditation, when I put on my own tallit: For the sake of helping me become a whole individual. For the sake of unifying the feminine and the masculine. For the sake of self-recognition, self-affirmation, self-healing, and self-unification.
This is what my tallit stands for.