Dear Rabbi Fried,
I understand your comments about the holiness of the body, but I don’t understand how that relates to the question of transsexual surgery; would the body not continue to be holy even after such a transformative surgery?
— Elaine W.
The question of transsexual surgery touches upon a number of areas of Jewish law and mitzvos of the Torah. In this column we shall attempt to focus on the first of these points. (Please keep in mind that we, in this column, are presenting the traditional outlook based upon the traditional Jewish sources.) It bears repetition that which we stated in the first column of this series: We are discussing the halachic issues, not the people who have subjected themselves to transsexual surgery.
Regardless of the traditional Jewish attitude toward these procedures, those who have done so still deserve our love and compassion as Jews, and are not to be rejected from the Jewish people or shunned from the community. That said, there will be obvious challenges in the way they will mesh into a very gender-conscious religious society, as we see the debate rages even in secular society today.
One of the issues involved is the prohibition of cross-dressing. The Torah says, “Male garb should not be on a woman and a man shall not wear a woman’s garment …” (Deuteronomy 22:5) The Torah goes on to use strong words for one who does so. The simple understanding of this verse is to prevent excessive commingling of the sexes; if a man dresses as a woman in order to gain entry into the company of women for the sake of lewdness it won’t lead to great things.
The Talmud explains the verse in this context, and outlines some further examples that this includes, such as a man shaving or plucking body hairs in a way that makes him appear feminine, or in ways which are customary for women, and not men, to do. (Talmud Nazir 59a and Shabbat 94b) This includes conducting oneself in other modes of dress, dyeing hair and the like in ways which mimic members of the opposite sex.
To understand this prohibition more deeply, we can refer back to the context we have been building over the past columns. Unlike what is accepted in many Western circles today which look at man and woman as basically the same with perhaps minor differences, the Kabbalah teaches us that the dissimilarities between the male and female bodies reflect on profound spiritual differences. The deeper reason the Torah uses such strong language for cross-dressing is because by attempting to cross over to the other gender one is wreaking havoc with the spiritual worlds.
An example of this is the prohibition in the Torah of cooking meat and milk together, although each of them are completely kosher when separate. The deeper Jewish sources explain that meat, and the color red, represent the Divine trait of judgment. Milk, and the color white, represent the Divine trait of loving kindness. Although the Al-mighty Himself may at times exercise both traits simultaneously, the Kabbalah teaches that for us to mix those two traits together causes mayhem in the spiritual worlds.
We find a similar Kabbalistic explanation for the Torah’s prohibition of mixing linen and wool in our garments, as each one of these materials represents different aspects of the spiritual worlds and God’s connection to our world. (Perhaps we will explain this fascinating concept in greater detail sometime in the future.) To blend them together in our garments causes disharmony in the spiritual worlds.
Although both man and woman share some traits of one another, their physical differences constitute profoundly polar differences in the spiritual realms. When the two of them join together in love and become as one unit, their dissimilarities complement each other and bring the spiritual worlds to a profound level of harmony and completion. When, however, we attempt to bring both into the same physique, like milk and meat, we wreak havoc in the spiritual worlds.
It goes without saying that if the Torah proscribes even dressing like the opposite sex even though there is no permanence to dress, all the more so to make permanent changes to that effect. Indeed, the authorities of traditional Jewish law concur that this issue presents a problem with regard to this procedure.
We are not at all attempting to address how to deal with the enormous emotional challenges taking place in the life of a man or woman contemplating such a transformation, and, as we mentioned, they deserve our compassion and empathy. (Many studies have shown that this way of dealing with the issue very often doesn’t solve the problem; the emotional challenges that brought about the decision often don’t necessarily go away after this change.)
This is an area for psychologists, which I am not. I am just making you aware that, although the body indeed remains holy even after undergoing such a transformation, to do so is tampering with spiritual worlds which are far beyond our comprehension.
May all those who are suffering from these challenges be blessed by the Al-mighty to find peace, serenity and joy in their lives.
Dear Rabbi Fried,