A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord your God. Deuteronomy 22:5
This is an extraordinarily important Torah law—though one suspects its importance has not been appreciated over the past several thousand years, since wearing the clothing of the other sex was rare in societies rooted in the Bible. At the time of this writing, this is no longer the case: this law is widely reviled, regarded as not only archaic, but intolerant, and even immoral. It is therefore imperative to explain what it means, what it does not mean, and why it exists. We will begin with the latter.
As often noted in this commentary, the Torah is rooted in distinctions. Among these distinctions are:
• God and man
• God and nature
• Man and animal
• Good and evil
• Life and death
• Parent and child
• Holy and profane
• Male and female
In the Torah’s views, these distinctions reflect God’s design—and therefore a Designer. In the biblical worldview, recognition of this design makes civilization possible. The demise of these distinctions would mean the end of civilization as we know it. As I explain in Genesis, God spent most of the six days of Creation not creating, but making order. The second verse of the Bible describes the state of the world as chaos (“unformed and void” in this translation) when God began His work. The natural state of the world is chaos; the divine state of the world is ordered; and order means distinctions.
Whenever distinctions are obliterated, chaos ensues. When the arts obliterate the distinction between beauty and ugliness, when doctrines blur the distinction between good and evil, and when movements blur the distinction between human beings and animals (such as refusing to kill a pig to use its heart valve to save a person—see the commentary at Deuteronomy 12:20), these are examples of chaos.
The most recent distinction to be erased is the subject of this Torah law: the distinction between male and female. Its purpose is to maintain this distinction. How we dress is the most obvious way we declare our sex. Therefore, when a man (who looks like a man, has a male name, etc.) publicly dresses as a woman, or a woman (who looks like a woman, has a female name, etc.) publicly dresses as a man, one of the most basic of God’s distinctions is blurred. The sex-distinction of the human being is so central to God’s plan that it is declared at the beginning of Creation in Genesis 1: “God created the human being in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27; emphasis added).
The Torah is not necessarily addressing individuals who identify as, live as, dress as, take the name of, and appear to others as a member of the opposite sex to which they were born—because such an individual is not publicly blurring the distinction between male and female. The Torah is addressing males who continue to appear male (and often even identify as such) but who publicly dress in female garb, as well as females who appear female (and often even identify as such) but who publicly dress as male.
To be clear, publicly blurring the distinction between man and woman is what is prohibited for individuals here. On the other hand, an individual who identifies as a member of the other sex (“transgender” or “transsexual”), appears to be a member of that sex, takes on a name associated with that sex, and dresses as a member of that sex is not necessarily blurring the distinction God made. The individual who truly feels estranged from his or her biological sex is to be given sympathy, not condemnation. If that person does not publicly blur the male-female distinction, that person would not appear to be violating this law.
What the Torah prohibits is the deliberate blurring of the male-female distinction. For example, the winner of the viewed-around-the-world Eurovision contest in 2014 was Thomas Neuwirth, a bearded Austrian man, who performed under the name Conchita Wurst as a drag queen—a man wearing women’s clothing (a floor-length formal gown). He has explicitly stated he is not transgender, but a male who identifies as a male. What he did at Eurovision would be prohibited by this Torah law. So would the practice in America beginning in the second decade of the twenty-first century of “Drag Queen Story Hours”—teachers inviting drag queens to perform in front of children, starting in kindergarten.
How God regards an individual who is convinced he or she is living in the wrong body is not addressed here. I believe God both has standards (that we never blur the male-female distinction) and compassion (for those few individuals who do not identify with their biological sex), and so should we.