With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

Liberal Judaism: Challenging societal boundaries

24 March 2021

A woman must not put on a man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Eternal your God (Deuteronomy 22:5).

The sidrah of Ki Tetzei is a smorgasbord of legislation, criminal, civil, moral, it’s all here. Ki Tetzei is my Bar Mitzvah portion (1983!) and having a Liberal Rabbi as a father (that’s Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein, the current President of Liberal Judaism), gave licence to choose the sections I was to read. I think Dad did a great job, allowing for some humorous interpretation, dealing with a rebellious son, a simple instruction that has become one of my key watchwords, lo tuchal l’hitaleim, do not be indifferent, do not ignore stuff; but no one could have predicted me becoming vegan, not from reading a verse of Torah 34 years earlier about not taking a mother bird with its young!

We missed out some verses including Deuteronomy 22:5 and others we probably would have considered inappropriate for a Bar Mitzvah. We still skip today we find irrelevancy. We are also Liberal in not penalising our Bnei Mitvah this year: Already inconvenienced enough by the pandemic, to learn a completely different parasha to the one they were due to read.

Lyla, whose Bat Mitzvah eventually fell on Ki Tetzei would also have been at Machane Kadimah, our LJY-NETZER summer camp were it not for the pandemic. Deuteronomy 22:5 would not have been a verse that they would have shied away from.

Jewish tradition, as with most traditions, was patriarchal and interested in a simple life. Clutter was undesirable, unfussy categorisation far easier to manage. Create boundaries to keep everyone in a box and we create order. They applied this to the Divine Will: A binary understanding of gender and sexuality sees a clothing style that differs from the expected norm as altering ‘God’s design,’ or some might say the ‘natural order of things’ and therefore abhorrent to the Eternal One.

There is a rather obvious problem with this, at least if our understanding is that cross-dressing and other gender and sexuality issues are not choices but something of our being. If this is the natural order or God’s design, how do we explain the fact of people who wish to cross-dress?

Our biblical commentators did not necessarily fault the practice of cross-dressing but were concerned with behaviour that might lead one to transgress other legislation. For example, they were concerned that a cross-dressing man or woman may find themselves in situations of sexual impropriety leading, for example to a man engaging in inappropriate hair removal. They had obviously not heard of the extraordinary lengths professional cyclists will go to, viva La Tour!

What seems to be suggested is that crossdressing occurred, was not in and of itself a problem but that it challenged societal boundaries that made life easy, and there were assumptions made that one thing would lead to another.

Younger generations constantly challenge us and generally lead to progression in society when they get to make the rules. We cannot say that allowing complexity, fluidity of boundaries and a breaking down of binary thinking is easy. Far from it and most of us struggle with it.

Yet in questioning ourselves, we often find ourselves describing long-held categories as prejudicial. We may find ourselves slightly less judgmental and more able to live according to an individual’s merits.

As Joshua ben Perachyah used to say in one of the most uplifting of aphorisms from Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of our Sages:

Find yourself a teacher; get yourself a friend; judge everyone by their merits.