Inherent vs. Conditional Prohibitions
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: On one of the audiotapes about the 7 Noachide laws, a Rabbi mentioned that the prohibition of men wearing clothes worn exclusively by women would not include women wearing slacks today, since both men and women in today’s society wear slacks. Am I correct? Am I also correct to say that a thousand years ago this wasn’t so, for many societies? If that is so, does it mean that if enough people violate this prohibition, then sooner or later the prohibition becomes no more? Am I missing something here? Compared to some Torah prohibitions mainly dealing with copying ways of the idolaters (such as Molech, shaving side burns, etc.) such practices may no longer be practiced today, yet the prohibition still stands. I think I heard another Rabbi once say that the Torah is trying to teach us just how far we should stay away from idolatry.
Thanks in advance, Omphile Tshipa
Mesora: Yes, you are correct. The prohibition to wear the dress of the opposite gender requires a standard, and that standard of style is based on the “current” dress code. I once asked a great Rabbi, “Do we consider only Jewish women’s dress when determining “woman’s clothing styles”, or all women, gentiles included?” He responded the latter; we also consider what gentile women wear. Therefore, if years ago, women’s dress did not include slacks, but today it does, then women do not violate “dressing as a man” when they wear slacks. Of course modesty is another issue, so tight-fitting slacks would violate modesty, but it would not violate cross-dressing. Since slacks became accepted as “women’s clothing”, they are no longer exclusive to men. Hence, a woman does not violate cross-dressing by wearing slacks.
So you asked the next, natural question: “Do we apply this reasoning to ANY prohibition? Do we say that although idolatry was prohibited back then, just as were slacks for women, and just as the majority of women now wearing slacks removes the violation, so too idolatry: it is also more popular today, and it too should be permissible?!”
However, this equation is based on a false premise: that once something is popular, this equates to permissiveness. This is not so, as Christianity’s rise has not abrogated the prohibition of deifying man or idolatry: both remain forbidden.
Let us identify and clarify the core issue: women wearing slacks is not inherently wrong, unlike idolatry which is. The prohibition for women from the Torah is not wearing “slacks” but rather, wearing “men’s clothing.” And this is defined precisely by a culture, and an era. So when times change, so do styles. And that which was formerly exclusive to men, is now applicable to women too. Now you ask why a violation of women evolving and wearing slacks, removes the prohibition on slacks in the future. However, gentile women do not have the violation of cross-dressing. This being so, their initial change from exclusively dresses to include slacks as well, was no violation with regard to the “gender” of woman. Now, since women’s dress evolved, now including slacks, the very definition of what is “exclusively men’s clothing” no longer included slacks, even Jewish women could now wear slacks. The reasoning is that “women’s dress” is not determined by Jewish women, but by “all” women. Cross-dressing is a gender issue, not a Judaic issue. And this Rabbi ruled that in New York, the majority of women wear slacks, so it is not prohibited for a Jewish woman to wear modest slacks, as it is not cross-dressing.
In contrast, idolatry is not a conditional law as is cross-dressing, but an inherent violation for all mankind. Hence, popularity does not remove its violation.