Nakedness and its Vicissitudes, or, It’s all in the Mind… Berakhot 24

Nakedness is something of a hot topic in the Jewish world nowadays.  It seems that we can’t go long without hearing of some new demand for further separation of the sexes, for woman to cover up another part of their anatomy, for the purity of the male mind to be protected at all costs.

Today’s daf presents some of the key material on the topic, and it’s well worth reading it carefully to see what’s being said.

First up, we have the opinion of Shmuel, who says that if one is in bed naked with another, they may turn in the other direction and recite the Shema.  And this applies even if it is his wife, for his wife is considered like ‘his body’.

What does this mean ‘like his body’?  Surely not that she will therefore not cause him to have sexually inclined thoughts.  That would be very problematic.  It may be a challenge for married life to retain the vigorous zest of its earliest days, desire may well be less intense for that which is familiar, but it is surely too must to say that she could not provoke him at all!

Rather, I think we may read that the level of intimacy between a man and his wife is so complete, so natural and unproblematic that he may, with a mere turn of his body, engage in the meditation of Keriat Shema.  A happily married couple have attained the original intent of Genesis, they have become one flesh.  More than this, they have returned to the state wherein nakedness was not wholly coupled with shame, where clothing was not a secretive mask required for human interaction.  Only after the initial sin did Adam and Eve intuit that they needed to clothe themselves, to hide something of their essence, to create a barrier between what was happening on the inside and the outside.

Rav Yosef makes a curious objection, he thinks that only when in bed with his wife would this twist and Shema move be permitted.  But if a man was in bed with another person, who may be more likely to evoke sexual thoughts, then he cannot turn and recite Shema.

It seems, amazingly, that the Shema would be the problem, but that there would be no intrinsic issue in lying in bed naked with a person who fills one with desire.  I can’t imagine many contemporary Rabbis saying this, perhaps there really was a radically different sexual ethic in those times.

We soon get another flavour for how far removed from our own sensibility these Rabbis were.  Referring to the ‘Twist and Shema’, they ask:

And what about the buttocks?  Are these not considered a problematic form of nakedness??

We must say that this provides support for Rav Huna, who holds that buttocks are not nakedness. 

Brilliant! – Ladies who are pestered on buses to cover more of their arms should state that they follow Rav Huna and show the man their buttocks.  That would help the man put things into perspective.

And we then adduce further support for Rav Huna from the following idyllic image, which reads like something from a 1960s acid assisted love festival:

A woman sits and separates her challa naked, despite the fact that she must recite a blessing over the separation of the challa, because she can cover her genitals in the ground, but a male, [whose genitals are not covered when he sits], may not do so.

There is disagreement as to whether her buttocks are in fact being exposed, and therefore as to whether this is conclusive support for Rav Huna.  But either way, it is clear that her legs, arms, shoulders and breasts are very much exposed, and nonetheless she is encouraged to separate her challa and make a blessing!

I do see that this is talking about a woman on her own, there is no suggestion that a man may be in her presence and make a bracha, but the it is powerfully clear that we are potentially very comfortable with nakedness.  I take this to be encouraging, it suggests that we are not as afraid of our bodies, of the bodies of others, as one might have supposed.

Indeed, there is something beautifully domestic about it all, the woman separating challa as she bakes the family bread, perhaps in preparation for Shabbat, and she does it whilst sitting in the grass, again with an Eden like innocence, her hair tumbling down her shoulders, perhaps with some flowers in it, as the warm Mediterranean sun caresses and soothes her.

Snapping back to the halakha, some significant heavyweights – Rashba and the Magen Avraham – accept this ruling about buttocks, they are not even considered problematic for the recitation of the Shema.

Thus far, all seems well, there is an acceptance of the post Edenic condition in which nakedness is at some level incompatible with making a bracha, but there is no sense in which nakedness is altogether threatening, in which its presence might somehow undermine the foundations of religious life.

Indeed, there’s an imperative to keep things in perspective:

Rav Mari said to Rav Pappa: Does it constitute nakedness if one’s pubic hair protruded from their garment? Rav Pappa said about him: A hair, a hair.

In other words, a hair is just a hair, let’s not get carried away and start looking to cause trouble.

Or, he might be saying: “I understand that some men may have a fetish for pubic hairs, and perhaps you, Rav Mari, include yourself in this category.  I appreciate that the sight of one may cause untold stimulation and excitation, and who knows where that might lead one.  We do not, however, legislate on the basis on the basis of personal fetish, it is neither in principle nor in practice acceptable to make demands on a woman’s attire due to whatever excessive sexuality a man may read into a situation.”

In this spirit, the Talmud continues its exploration of the female body.  It cites Rav Yitzchak, a later Amora, who holds that a tefach, a hands-breadth, of a woman’s flesh is considered nakedness.

It is not clear what he is referring to, and at this point the Talmud drops a bit of a bombshell:

If you say that it comes to prohibit looking at an exposed handbreadth in her, didn’t Rav Sheshet say:  Anyone who gazes upon a woman’s little finger is considered as if he gazed upon her naked genitals.

And there we have it, one of the most popular statements for justifying attacks on what women choose to wear.

Let’s unpack this.  First of all, Rav Yitzchak wasn’t talking about this, he was talking about Shema, and we do not accept his opinion.  We accept the more open minded opinions already cited.  So the common phrase ‘Tefach Be’Isha Erva’ actually has no application, it is, essentially, rejected.

Now, onto Rav Sheshet.  How are we to square this with everything more accommodating that we’ve seen above?

First of all, I think we have to note that the verb used here is ‘mistakel’, which suggests an intense form of staring, ‘gazing’, as the translation above has it.  We are not entertaining the idea that a chance sighting of a woman’s little finger is in anyway the same as seeing her genitalia.  What I think we are talking about, however, is the power of fantasy, of the imagination.

There is a recognition that if a man has lustful feelings towards a woman, then even the slightest glance at part of her body, at a finger or toe, at the passing shadow of her form, will be enough.  It will contain the power to carry his weakened and subservient mind into a world of illicit possibilities.

This is to take Rav Pappa’s thought to its conclusion, we cannot possibly legislate for all instances of sexual provocation, because perhaps ninety percent of that provocation is happening inside the mind of the man, with only incidental assistance from the external world.  It’s a very Kleinian worldview.  His mind is in a state where it is disposed towards lust and desire, perhaps in general, perhaps with regard to one specific woman.  And in that state, no matter what we were to do, even were we to banish him to a cave on his own, he would come to think lustful thoughts.

So the burden is upon him, not upon the woman.

The plot thickens, it turns out that Rav Sheshet, who made the comment about the little finger, was blind (TB Shabbat 109a, 119a), possibly since birth.

Where to go with this?

On the one hand, he is hardly the most realistic judge of what is and is not sexually provocative in the realm of sight.  That just has to be an indisputable reality.

On another level, what we do have, what we must be dealing with, is his imagination.  He must imagine that to see this part of a woman, a woman one desires, is as much as to see her nakedness in its entirety.  And he is right, to an extent.  In the realm of the imagination, of fantasy, the smallest symbol can be the key to the whole image, can trigger a vision of the totality.  He is presenting us with an imagination fully formed, in its most excitable state, and he is right to suggest that in this condition, the smallest glance could be overpowering, intoxicating.

We must be in the realm of the imaginary, I was sure of this before I was reminded of Rav Sheshet’s blindness, now I am utterly convinced of it.

We then have another two famous examples of what constitutes nakedness in a woman.

One is the leg, and the verse used to support this is from Isaiah.  Well, actually a verse which talks about a leg is next to a verse which talks about nakedness.  And the nakedness isn’t physical, but sounds more metaphorical, existential:

“Your nakedness shall be revealed and your shame shall be seen” (47.3)

I take it that we are in the realm of what might provoke an excitable male, of musings on the fickle side of man.  But what I do consider is that perhaps the anxiety around nakedness is provoked by this idea of Isaiah’s, as follows:

In our nakedness we do experience shame, and therefore we seek to avoid shame, and we do so by avoiding nakedness, and not just our own, but nakedness in general, perhaps in particular of those who evoke shame in us.

In psychoanalytic language, this would be a form of projection, a kind of displaced transference, wherein we direct our powerful emotions at very much the wrong object.

And this happens again with the next quotation, which seeks to establish the female voice as ‘nakedness’.  There the quotation is from The Song of Songs, that powerful and sensual love song which gave some of the Rabbis so much trouble.  And what better way to deal with that than to use it to reduce the amount of sensuality in one’s environment, to clamp down on the unease that it brings about.

Rashi seems to be thinking this way, he comments, perhaps ironically:

Since the verse exalts the voice so highly, we learn from there that it is a source of desire (ta’ava).

So both of these assaults on the female body can be read as expression of male unease and anxiety.  And the fact that they are not generally taken as legal rulings, neither in the Talmud nor, universally, in the codes, gives us more room for this provocative and challenging reading, for us to ask what was really going in this discussion.

We are given a variety of conflicting views, and it’s important to distinguish the manner in which we ought to read them all, if indeed that manner has been clearly established.  I believe that a close reading of the text makes the issues a lot less black and white than commonly assumed, and that it also makes for a richer, more psychologically interesting discussion.

Sensuality evokes unease, that is what it means to live outside Eden.  But how we manage that, how we act it out, that we do have control over, and it is demanded of us that we do so in as honest and considerate a way as possible.