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Emergency Cross-Dressing in Medieval Jewish Communities

Monday, June 17, 2019 - 07:00

I'm very aware of how the content of the LHMP tends to revolve around white, Christian, western European defaults. I try to counter that tendency by seeking out publications outside that academic gravity well. I think of it as a "gravity well" because of the way authors and publications link to and lead to each other in connected ways, building a body of shared interests that reinforce each other. When I find new publications by searching the bibliographies of work I've already covered, I'm absorbing all the biases--both explicit and implicit--of the authors I've already covered. Even when I happen across a work whose topic is outside that "gravity well", much of the existing literature it draws on for context and connection will pull the reader back in. Because academics working on marginalized topics still need to "prove" their standing in the field by reference to the accepted canon (even when that accepted canon is trying to pull free of the dense core of Old White Men, such as this article's touchstone in Judith Butler's work).

All of that is to say that I'm always delighted when I find articles covering topics outside the white, Christian, western European gravity well that also are clearly written by people deeply familiar with the topics in question, and that go beyond a superficial survey. This article is particularly interesting in how it contextualizes actions that give the appearance of being culturally transgressive and points to the ways in which they may actually be working to maintain and reinforce boundaries. In that conflict lie many intriguing story possibilities.

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Roos, Lena. 2017. “Cross-dressing among medieval Ashkenazi Jews: Confirming challenged group borders” in Nordisk judaistik / Scandinavian Jewish Studies vol 28 no. 2. 4-22

Roos examines an interesting Jewish legal commentary from 13th century Germany that discusses the contexts in which Jewish people are permitted to cross-dress, either in terms of gender or in terms of religious affiliation. The thesis of her study is that, rather than being seen as transgressive, these licensed contexts serve to reinforce category boundaries, both of gender and of religious community.

The 13th century ethical tract, Sefer Chasidim, discusses a variety of contexts in which Jewish people are granted permission to dress and behave in ways that disguise their identity. The clause of clearest relevance to the Project is one that permits women to disguise themselves as men (even to take up weapons), or to disguise themselves as gentiles (even as nuns) in order to avoid assault, and in particular sexual assault. Perhaps surprisingly, this allowance includes permission to assume Christian disguise as protection against assault by Jewish men, even if it results in the death of the Jewish attackers.

These cross-category disguises appear to be in conflict with existing Jewish law, especially Deuteronomy 22:5 (also cited by Christians against cross-dressing) which states “A woman shall not put on a man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear a woman’s garment.” Roos examines the dynamics of this allowance via Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performance--that is, the theory that gender categories must be created and maintained by performance, rather than existing on their own.

The cross-category allowances were not offered only to women. Preadolescent boys are also given permission to disguise themselves as women for protection, though in this case the threat seems to be robbery rather than assault. The picture that emerges is that Jewish men were perceived as targets of robbery (and were granted allowances to protect against that possibility) while Jewish women--more as women than specifically as Jewish--were perceived as targets of sexual assault, with their allowances aimed at deflecting that possibility.

The article looks at the evidence and context of gendered distinctions of clothing around the 13th century, as well as distinctive elements of dress that identified the wearers by religion. A key distinction is made (for both the gender and religious contexts) between cross-dressing purely as a disguise to escape oppression, versus cross-dressing as an expression of identity or a desire to explore other identities.

Roos examines the text from Deuteronomy in linguistic detail and suggests that it is less clearly an absolute prohibition on cross-dressing than the usual understanding. But regardless of the nuances of interpretation, the Sefer Chasidim allowance is clearly a special exception to a general prohibition.

Christian versions of the Deuteronomy text erased the possible nuanced readings and turned it into a clear and simple prohibition on cross-gender clothing. But even so, similar allowances for women to dress as men for protection are noted, e.g., for travel. And the motif of cross-dressed saints is discussed. Reasons for why Joan of Arc was not considered to be covered by these allowances are discussed. Other accepted (though disapproved) forms of cross-dressing included those associated with carnival and theater. There was no similar license in Christian society for situational cross-dressing by men, and male cross-dressing was associated with witchcraft or with deception to gain illicit access to women’s spaces.

A similar consideration is given to texts discussing Jewish prohibitions on wearing gentile clothing, including what types of transgressions might result (for example, mixed fibers) and under what circumstances they would require atonement. Roos presents historic data on both the existence of distinctions in dress between Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and the exact nature of those distinctions.

The use of cross-gender clothing as a protective disguise, within a larger context that prohibits cross-dressing can be seen to reinforce gender (and religious) categories by precluding an ambiguous territory between them. Clothing disguise requires that clothing be accepted as an unquestioned gender marker, and this is only possible if ambiguous clothing is forbidden. Similarly, protective pretense to a different religious identity is only effective if boundaries between religious communities are considered inviolable.

But if this combination of prohibition and situational allowance for gender disguise is a reaction to strengthen a gender binary (which Roos suggests), were there challenges to the gender binary that it might have been reacting to? The author explores a number of shifts in gendered behavior that occurred during the middle ages, such as women adopting traditionally male ritual responsibilities within the Jewish tradition (with some interesting parallels in Christian traditions at the same time). In the same texts that discuss permitted cross-dressing practices, these shifts in religious participation by women are criticized, as well as criticizing practices that appear to blur the boundaries between Jewish and Christian religious practice. Thus cross-dressing allowances are firmly embedded in a conservative (and even reactionary) response to an era when the blurring of those categories was perceived as a threat.

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