Shaya Cohen -


Layers of Meaning: Nakedness and Altars

Most commandments in the Torah are symbolic in nature, containing both a practical element and a symbolic one. For example, the animals that Jews are allowed to eat lead to direct dietary laws, but also can – and should – be explained for the symbolic meaning of those commandments as well. The prohibition against eating pigs can be understood both as a practical law as well as a symbolic. So in accordance with the letter of the law we do not eat pigs, and in accordance with the spirit of the law, we try to understand why bacon is forbidden.

The symbolism is embedded in the text itself. For example, the tefillin that Jews wear are commanded to be worn “between the eyes.” While we do not wear them in this way (in practice, we place them higher on the forehead), the language that the Torah uses tells us about the symbolic meaning of the commandment. All the symbolic commandments can be understood, using the text of the Torah itself as the key.

Of course, symbolism comes in different layers; the very same verse can be reasonably understood in a variety of ways – over and above the practical commandment itself. Let’s take, for example:

Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it. (Ex. 20:23)

Parsing this for the practical commandment is pretty easy: The altar has to be higher than ground level (because we are supposed to ascend). And the path upward should be via a ramp instead of steps. Simple enough, right?

But the text says none of those things directly! The Torah could have just said, “The altar should have a ramp and not steps.” But it does not. Instead, we infer the practical result, but the language that the Torah uses ignites our imagination about the deeper symbolic meanings.

Specifically: the Torah tells us that the prohibition is about “nakedness” – but it did not have to mention nakedness in order to have us build the ramp instead of using steps. Indeed, given that the priests wore clothing that blocked exposure in any case, then there should be no issue – nakedness would not have been exposed anyway!

Consequently, the verse screams out for symbolic interpretation. Here are a few of the meanings, some of them more widely known than others:

1: Aiming for holiness is inherently anti-animalistic. In Judaism, the two components (coming close to G-d via sacrifices / base organs) must be mutually exclusive. Judaism consciously de-emphasizes our animal parts when we are trying to grow a relationship with our Creator. This is in contradiction to pagan religions that involve excrement (Japan had entire pantheons of poop gods!) and/or sex (Dionysus, the connections between spring and orgies, fertility rites and the like) as necessary part of their rituals.

2: Clothing, though deceptive, is superior to “the underlying truth.”

Consider that all people can be described as members of the animal kingdom. And that we are all equipped with reproductive and waste systems. Yet we humans are masters of deception. We spend enormous amounts of energy deciding what our clothes, or cars, or houses or furniture or children say about us, because at some level we believe that those trappings make a difference to our real underlying selves, helping to define who we really are. The shocker is that the Torah agrees: the trappings do matter!

Clothing is an projected fiction: the clothes we wear show how we show ourselves to the outside world, even though underneath the clothing we are all naked animals. The Torah tells us that we are commanded to aim higher than our physical reality, to seek to have a relationship with the divine. Clothing is a way of creating a subjective truth, tools that we use to define ourselves and how others see us. We can see uniforms very much in the same light: uniforms tell both the wearers and third parties that the person in the uniform belongs to a certain group, or performs a certain task (whether nurse or police office, banker or trainee).

And so in service to G-d we concern ourselves with the way in which we project ourselves to G-d, other people, and even to inanimate stone steps. Our clothes and the way we walk matter. Not displaying our “objectively true” nakedness is a way of maintaining and supporting the idea that mankind is not only capable of creating our own reality: the Torah commands us to do so!

3: Connection to Noah. The first person who builds an altar in the Torah is Noah. He is also the first person to offer an “olah” – an elevation offering (sharing the same root word as “ascending” the altar). Noah is also the first person whose nakedness is exposed (the root word is shared with Adam and Eve after eating the fruit, but the same word used for the ramp, “ervah,” is first found with Noah). It seems pretty clear that the prohibition against exposing ourselves while engaged in elevating to G-d is a direct result of the fact that the first guy who elevated toward G-d (earning 19 verses of praise and promises from G-d in response!) degraded himself shortly afterward.

And it got us thinking: consider all the scandals of great, powerful and, yes, even holy men – men who ascended to the highest heights, and were brought low by entirely avoidable but deeply embarrassing personal failures. It is almost a cliché – CEOs of Boeing or GE who do not resist their basest desires. Hollywood power players are famous for it. So are most male politicians, and far too many religious leaders. The strongest men are, in silly and perverse ways, also the weakest. There seems to be an innate desire in mankind to keep a balance between our elevation and our debasement. In this sense the biblical verse about exposing our nakedness while we ascend the altar is a version of “the higher you climb, the harder you fall,” but its literal text foreshadows the less hallowed adage: “the higher you climb, the more ass shows.”

This trait seems to be part of the human condition. Noah was the first, but he was not the last, not in the Torah and not in human history. Our lives are invariably more like stock market charts – there are trend lines, to be sure, but every day is a collection of ups and downs. The more volatile the person, the more exaggerated his swings.

The practicality of this is shown in Jewish prayer: on the afternoon of Yom Kippur when we are presumably at our holiest and furthest from moral weakness and failing, the Torah reading contains the list of forbidden sexual relations. It is an admission and a warning that humans instinctively seek ways to self-destruct, especially when we should be at our most indestructible.

This is why the verse tells us to elevate to Hashem without exposing ourselves. It is a commandment from the Torah to constantly remind us to resist the urge to be idiotic, to resist the reflex of balancing our high thoughts and ideals with wasteful, selfish and sinful contrasting deeds.

Each of the interpretations of the symbolism complement one another; they are each valid and valuable ways to understand how we can elevate ourselves as we approach G-d.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Comments are welcome!

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