Deuteronomy 22:5 states, “A woman shall not wear a man’s apparel, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does such things is abhorrent to the Lord your God.”Seems like a pretty obvious prohibition against cross-dressing in any and all circumstances, right?
Well, it’s not.
In fact, interpretations of this verse have varied widely throughout history. That’s because there is a lot that complicates this passage, especially when it’s read in the original Hebrew of Deuteronomy.
This verse is often used as a clobber text against our transgender siblings. In an age when many on the far right are trying to take rights away from trans folk, it’s important to discuss this passage and the nuances within it.
Gendered Clothing Depends on Cultural Context
Before I get to the difficulties of the Hebrew in the passage, I’d like to tell you about one of my favorite theologians. Her name is Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Her work has helped me develop a deeper spirituality. She does wonderful work in her books and on her blog “Life Is a Sacred Text.”
A few years ago she wrote a Twitter thread where she discussed the passage. Many of the difficulties of Deuteronomy 22:5 stem from cultural expectations. For example, high heel shoes are traditionally thought to be women’s clothing. But Governor Ron DeSantis, who just signed an anti-drag bill in Florida, has been wearing high heals to make him look taller. Is that cross-dressing? Are there certain types of high heels that are acceptable for men to wear?
What about skirts? In many cultures, men are allowed to wear skirts, but that’s okay because those cultures call them kilts. In some religions, male priests wear gowns that look a lot like a dress. The pope, especially Pope Benedict, is known for wearing some pretty flamboyant outfits that in any other context would look quite feminine and could appear in any drag show.
(I am reminded of the great American classic from 1993 called “Robyn Hood: Men In Tights.” Okay, the critics hated it, but it has the great line from Little John who says, “Let’s face it. Ya gotta be a man to wear tights.”)
The Ambiguity of the Hebrew in Deuteronomy 22:5
Now let’s take a look at the Hebrew in this passage. There are multiple interesting nuances in the Hebrew text that make this passage very ambiguous.
First, the most common word in Hebrew for “man” is the word ish. According to the Blue Letter Bible website, it “occurs 2,184 times in 1,848 verses.” Ish simply means man.
But Deuteronomy 22:5 doesn’t use the Hebrew word ish in this passage. It uses another Hebrew word for man – geber. According to the Blue Letter Bible website, geber “occurs 65 times in 64 verses.”
What’s the difference between ish and geber?
Ish generally means “man” or “husband.”
The word, geber frequently refers to a “strong man” or “warrior.”
With this understanding of geber, it means that a warrior is not to wear women’s clothing and a woman is not to put on a warrior’s clothing.
Supporting this understanding is the fact that a first-century rabbi, named Eliezer ben Yaakov, stated that this passage means that, “a warrior’s gear may not be put on a woman.”
This interpretation makes sense because the word for a geber’s (man’s/warrior’s) “apparel” is the Hebrew keli. The word keli often means an instrument of war. So, again, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov states that, “A woman must not wear instruments of war or go to war.” (See page 3 of this scholarly article for more on Eliezer ben Yaakov and Deuteronomy 22:5.)
There are many other interpretations of this passage throughout history. In his commentary on the Torah, Robert Alter states that “What is ‘abhorrent’ about the practice of cross-dressing could be an association of pagan orgiastic practices activities or even with pagan magic (a Hittite text prescribes cross-dressing as the first stage in a ritual for curing impotence)” (pg 691).
There are even more interpretations of this passage due to the ambiguity of the wording. You can read about more of them here.
What Does this Passage Mean?
With all the different interpretations of this passage, what does it actually mean?
Torah is a guide to living in connection to God, but not an axe hanging over our necks. “You will live by them,” Torah says of mitzvot. Not die by them.
So wear the clothes that help you live! Thrive! Bring joy and caring to others! Whatever that looks like!