Shaya Cohen -


Cross-dressing and Self-Identity

When a boy walks down a street carrying a stick, you know exactly what he is thinking: “what can I whack?” In that moment, the boy is the stick. It is seemingly an inherent part of manhood: men identify themselves by the trappings of power, by those things that project force. It is why every little boy loves swinging sticks and makes-believe with toy guns. It is why my teenagers are inseparable from their knives and swords, and why hoodlums in the ghetto are identified by their bling, their rides, and their weapons. Seeing ourselves through the power we wield may not be the most attractive feature of being a male, but it is nevertheless a core part of masculine identity.

Girls don’t have the same relationship with weaponry; for women, a gun can just be a tool, just as for men, chocolate can be just a food. Instead, women tend to define themselves by how they appear to themselves and others. And the most versatile tool available for that self-definition is clothing: a woman who dresses like a lady is quite likely to be a lady. And a woman who dresses like a floozy sees herself that way.

This actually helps explain a verse that has long puzzled me: the Torah’s apparent prohibition on cross-dressing. My question is not with the concept of prohibiting cross-dressing – instead, my issue is with the odd construction of the verse.

Here is the verse:

לֹא־יִהְיֶ֤ה כְלִי־גֶ֙בֶר֙ עַל־אִשָּׁ֔ה וְלֹא־יִלְבַּ֥שׁ גֶּ֖בֶר שִׂמְלַ֣ת אִשָ֑ה׃

A common translation is something like:

A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing

But it is wrong. The Hebrew is not symmetrical at all! A more careful (but challenging) translation would be:

The stuff of gever should not be on a woman, and do not dress a gever with a woman’s garments.

I do not translate the word gever into “man” because the Torah has the word for man, ish, but does not use it here! Instead, a gever refers to someone with might or power – Nimrod was the first gever in the Torah, and G-d is also praised as being unrivalled for his gever. This verse in the Torah is not prohibiting women from wearing men’s clothes, but from having the overt trappings of physical power. Presumably this is because men define themselves by force projection.

This explains the asymmetrical nature of this verse.

Women have power: sexual power and soft power, both connected to self-identity through clothing. Men’s power is qualitatively different: men instinctively see themselves as a reflection of the might that they wield.

In this understanding, men and women are not two sides of the same coin. We are instead meant to be entirely different in the way we think and see the world. And the Torah clearly thinks that this diversity in thought is a good thing, that there is beauty and growth that come from our differences, not the erasure of that which makes us distinct.

P.S. There is one female gever in the Torah – Sarah is referred to as such three times, and each time in relation to the way she exerted overt authority over her maid, Hagar.

Comments are welcome!

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