This month, for the first time in a while, the group Women of the Wall managed to pray at the Western Wall without any serious incidents (here is a news report of the gathering).  The group’s goal, in addition to simply conducting a meaningful prayer service at the Western Wall, is to advocate for equal treatment of men and women at the site.  While there are many issues in play here (e.g., currently women are discouraged from singing “too loudly” at the Wall and prohibited from reading from a Torah scroll), one of the real hot-button issues has been the right for women to wear a tallit, or prayer-shawl, particularly those that look “manly.”

According to the rabbi who sets the rules at the Wall (and whose decisions are enforced by the regular Israel police force), one of the primary reasons why women are not allowed to wear masculine-looking prayer shawls at the Wall is that women are not allowed to wear any “man’s garment” (e.g., pants) from the Torah:

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

The reason behind this stricture is hardly obvious.  Why should such an activity be forbidden?  The Bible itself doesn’t tell us and it mystified Jews even in antiquity.  In the first century BCE-CE, the Jewish philosopher Philo wrote:

So earnestly and carefully does the law desire to train and exercise the soul to manly courage that it lays down rules even about the kind of garment which should be worn.  It strictly forbids a man to assume a woman’s garb, in order that no trace, no merest shadow of the female, should attach to him to spoil his masculinity….  In the same way he trained the woman to decency of adornment and forbade her to assume the dress of a man, with the further object of guarding against the mannish-woman as much as the womanish-man.  He knew that as in buildings, if one of the foundation stones is removed, the rest will not remain as they were. (Philo, On the Virtues, 18, 21, translation Loeb Classical Library)

For Philo, then, the purpose of the law is to instill in its followers a sense of gender difference.  Dress is one of a complex of behaviors that define the “natural” gender roles decreed by God.

Writing several decades later, though, the Jewish historian Josephus understood the intention behind the law quite differently.  As he pithily relates it:

Beware, above all in battle,, that no woman assume the accoutrements of a man nor a man the apparel of a woman” (Josephus Antiquities 4.301, translation Loeb Classical Library)

For Josephus, the purpose of the law appears to be practical: it is so that in battle men and women would not be confused with each other.  Thus confusion might lead especially to the killing of women, but also for men would serve as a kind of unfair disguise.

The rabbis, though, have yet another interpretation:

Here is the heart of the matter:  A woman should not dress like a man and then go among the men, and a man should not ornament himself like a woman and then go among the women.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says: How do we know that a woman a woman should not put on battle clothes and go forth to war?  Because it is written, “a woman shall not wear a man’s clothing…” (Sifre Deuteronomy 226)

For the anonymous writers, the reason for the prohibition is the fear of promiscuity. Were it not for this prohibition we could expect women to sneak into places where men congregate and vice-versa, a situation that would inevitably lead to illicit relations.

I suspect that the rabbi of the Western Wall is not seriously concerned that women who wear tallitot will use them to slip into the men’s section undectected so that they can cavort with them.  Nor, of course, is there any concern for battle.  So that, curiously, leave Philo’s rationale that improper dress can destroy personal virtue.  (A side thought: I wonder how the authorities would respond to a man who attempts to pray there in a “feminine” tallit.)

However the prohibition is justified today, though, it is intriguing to note that our puzzlement over it is nothing new.