There are some things that are so instinctively obvious that we just take them for granted. Take nakedness, for example. People are embarrassed to be seen without wearing any clothes. It is such a common theme that it has become a cliché.
In our tradition, nakedness was discovered by Adam and Chava after they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. While many commentators suggest that Adam and Chava discovered nakedness as the first Evil, this explanation is inherently circular. After all, why should exposing our bodies be inherently evil? Just because covering ourselves “feels right” does not make it right – we desire to do many violent or antisocial or destructive things, but we suppress those urges. Yet we indulge this one. On the face of it, it makes little sense.
Conventional explanations about how visible skin “desensitizes us” to nakedness are true – but we don’t use the same logic about so many other mitzvos. Wearing tefillin every day desensitizes us. So does saying brachos all day long. So does Shabbos. In all these cases, familiarity makes us blasé; putting on tefillin for the first time is very exciting, but we don’t achieve that same excitement, that same thrill, years later. So while it is true that nakedness inures us to the human form, that in itself does not explain why nakedness is wrong, why the Torah and Gemara put so much effort into telling us how to behave modestly with our bodies.
It is necessary to point out that the desire to be clothed is not universal. Nudists would argue most strenuously with my assumption that nakedness feels wrong. After all, they would say, clothes are only a social invention, a way to show status, or ownership, or gain protection from cold or the sun. Babies have no sense of shame, and little children love to run around without clothes on. We don’t really need clothes. And the ancient Greeks would have agreed whole-heartedly. Greek men were usually unclothed. But both nudists and ancient Greeks have the same core assumption: that the human body is itself divine, a beautiful thing worthy of worship. Greeks painted and sculpted images of their deities – and Greek gods look like Prime, Grade A Greeks.
Needless to say, this concept is utterly foreign to Judaism. We are commanded to take care of our bodies, but we are not to worship them. And we are forbidden to make any depiction of Hashem whatsoever – since any physical representation is by definition finite, such a depiction negates the infinite essence of Hashem. True, we are made “tzelem elokim,” in the image of G-d. But that image is not our body but our soul – the spark of life and infinite potential that is loaned to us by our Creator. It is our souls that make us capable of improving ourselves; Jews make better intellectuals than athletes in part because of lousy genetics, but also in large part because we seek to better ourselves through our minds, the part of ourselves capable of genuinely imitating Hashem – through innovation and creation. Our bodies are indeed from the animal world, and while we aim to elevate ourselves, it is by harnessing our minds and bodies together, fusing the body and soul in serving Hashem. Unlike the Greeks, we do not admire our bodies; we admire the potential within our soul.
Adam, before he ate from the fruit, was like the ancient Greeks. He did not distinguish between the body and the soul: they are one and the same. Adam saw the whole world, and the Midrash tells us that he saw it all at the same time, all one beautiful picture of harmony and bliss. Adam’s was a unique and perhaps simplified perspective.
When Adam and Chava ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that perspective changed in an instant, as if a switch had turned on in their brains. For the fruit did not merely make one perceive good and evil – it made Adam and Chava understand for the first time, differences, the dualisms inherent in the world that G-d created. G-d had made the world, after all, by separating the waters above and below, by creating disunity and schism. All of the world’s opposites were created in this way – good and bad, matter and energy, heaven and earth, man and woman, materialism and spiritualism – and the most glaring of these to Adam and Chava, as soon as they ate the fruit, was the enormous gap between the body (“dust to dust”), and the soul, which was breathed into Adam’s nostrils by G-d himself.
It is this last difference that makes Adam and Chava shamed; they are embarrassed by the inconsistency they see in themselves, the difference between the soul (which is a spark from Hashem) and the body (which is essentially identical to animals). To cover (kaparah) this difference, they use a garment, beged, to make the body look more holy, less like an animal. G-d sees the garment they made, a fig leaf, and elevates it – from plant to animal. In G-d’s eyes, Man achieved a higher status by eating the fruit, and the image of his body is meant to reflect that higher status. The midrash suggests that the garments were made of light – which means that the garments would complement the “energy” quality of the soul itself.
As has been mentioned several times, a beged comes from the same root as “to deceive” – garments deceive the onlooker (and often the wearer himself), as they cloak the reality of the body underneath. Until Adam and Chava eat from the fruit, they were simply ignorant of the separation in the world, and of their own inconsistency. This is the root of shame and embarrassment for all of mankind – when our images of ourselves do not match others’ images of us. This interpretation of the story of the forbidden fruit means that from the moment of revelation, people feel the need to deceive themselves and others about themselves. We despise inconsistency in ourselves and others, and so we cloak the inconsistency between who we are and how we appear by dressing up, by changing our appearance to match our self-image. That is why people spend so much time, money and effort in improving appearances.
As petty as fixating on appearance often is, it is far superior to the Greek or nudist solution to the inconsistency between the body and the soul: lowering the soul to the level of the body, by engaging in and justifying all manner of vile acts.
With this perspective, it is now easy to understand why the Torah puts so much emphasis on sexual commandments. The soul may be creative – but so is the body, for only the body can reproduce. Sex is a creative act, both in terms of procreation but also because it fuses two people, two souls, together. Sex is also a means to repair the defects in the world that we became aware of when we ate the Fruit. But because it is such a powerful force, it is especially potent, good or evil. These halachas are there to tell us which way unifies the world – and which further destroy it. Refusing to admit the dualisms in our world, including the differences between body and soul, is inherently destructive, because it makes it impossible for us to work to repair the breach and complete G-d’s work in our world.
The Torah gives us a pivotal example of where the sexual force was at its most destructive, of where the future of the Jewish people was balanced on knife-edge. When Cosbi mates with Zimri in public, the act itself is a rejection of the very first lesson Adam and Chava learned, it is a denial that there is any difference between body and soul, between Jew and Midianite, between Good and Evil. By rejecting this basic fact of creation, the fundamental understanding of the value of separation, Zimri almost wipes out the Jewish people.
Intimacy, like nakedness itself, must be private, because modest conduct confirms, rather than rejects, the lessons of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Holiness is achieved when the act is not merely physical (like the mating of animals), but also spiritual.
This is why the Torah explicitly connects nakedness with sexuality; sexual prohibitions in the Torah talk of “uncovering the nakedness” and we understand it to mean sexual intimacy. In a Torah framework, rejecting the connection between nakedness and sexuality is tantamount to rejecting the first revelation man and woman ever achieved.
This also explains the halachas having to do with the differences between people and animals. Animals mate to produce other animals, creatures of the physical world. Animals do not have the capability to improve the world, to complete G-d’s work. People, on the other hand, have the potential to create new people – complete with spiritual neshamas from Hashem – and we are commanded to improve the world. So animals and people are not comparable. Anything (whether it is animals mating, or people behaving like animals) that makes us think of intimacy as a purely animalistic act is to be avoided because it confuses us into thinking that the two might be qualitatively similar.
This attitude to intimacy summarizes the differences between Avodah Zorah, idol worship, in the ancient world, and Judaism. Ancient pagan societies (including polytheistic Greece and Rome) all had the common theme of ignoring the basic dualism revealed by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. These societies depicted their deities as finite creatures, comparable to fine athletes or warriors – and in so doing, denied the infinite nature of the divine. The only thing infinite about Greek and Roman gods was their immortality, which only goes to show the immaturity of those societies. The word “immortality” contains within it its own root – mortality. Greek and Roman gods were born, just like people, but they do not die. Hashem on the other hand is not immortal – G-d is timeless.
And the ancient world celebrated sex as a way to blur the differences, to ignore or reject the schisms in the world. In that world, man has no constructive role to play in tikkun olam, and hedonism reigns supreme. In the ancient non-Jewish world, a logical end-point was that people contented themselves with the belief that pleasure is the only thing that is good for a person – the only good imaginable. This was not the conclusion of all such societies (or even of most Greeks), but it is a logical outcome of the belief that there are no fundamental differences between good and evil, naked and clothed, or man and woman. And we certainly see this kind of hedonism in the world around us. When we reject all absolutes and insist that everything is a shade of gray, we end up leading to the ultimate conclusion that modesty is silliness and no act that pleases us is shameful.