Photo: Alex Kolomoisky
'The naked body with all its needs is shameful and clothes are intended to cover it'
Photo: Alex Kolomoisky

'Tazria': On clothing and double crossing

A recent repressive trend in the Jewish culture views the human body as a vessel full of humiliation and shame, and its sexuality as a 'putrid drop,' and therefore women (and men) are wrapped in excessive layers of clothing.

Showing respect for clothing

This week's Torah portion, "Tazria," can be the exemplary portion for those employed in the garment industry. In the framework of the detailed discussion on types of possible leprosy and the manner in which they are treated, the Torah raises a fascinating picture containing leprosy-stricken clothing (Leviticus 13:47-59):



"And when the plague of leprosy is in a garment, whether it be a woolen garment, or a linen garment... If the plague be greenish or reddish... And the priest shall look upon the plague, and shut up that which hath the plague seven days... This is the law of the plague of leprosy in a garment of wool or linen, or in the warp, or in the woof, or in any thing of skin, to pronounce it clean, or to pronounce it unclean."


Doctor, my shirt has malignant leprosy

"For it is a malignant leprosy; it shall be burnt in the fire" (Leviticus 13:52). The possibility of diagnosing malignant leprosy in clothing ignites the imagination, and unfortunately I could not find any commentary discussing it. I imagine myself taking a shirt from the closet, discover on it a moldy corner that is colored green or red, and hurriedly run with it to the priest. The priest will carefully check the stain on my shirt, ponder over it, check with his friends (perhaps he would like a second opinion), and in the end will rule that the shirt should be locked away for seven days.


At the conclusion of the isolation, he will reexamine my shirt. If the stain has grown, he is likely to sentence my shirt to death by incineration. However, if the stain does not spread, a further diagnostic procedure will be utilized whose essence is continued solitary confinement after washing it to ultimately decide its fate. Is the shirt pure? Does the infected area need to be torn off? Perhaps there is a burning. There is a real halachic poem here that could be entitled: "A Diagnosis of a Shirt."


Before clothing chain Fox made it big

Of course we are not really talking about my shirt. We are talking about a period prior to retail clothing store chains. A period when a person had one, maybe two, sets of clothing. A period when the clothes that a woman brought with her from her father's house to her husband's house were counted for her credit on her Ketubah. A period when thick, quality cloth was your only protection from winter weather, when worn thin protection from the summer sun, and when it was no longer wearable its remnants served other general purposes.


It is told of the Mishnaic Sage Abba Hilkiah, a pious ascetic and grandson of Honi Ha-Ma'agel, that when he would be walking through a thorny site, he would roll up his clothing. When asked to explain this strange behavior he answered (Ta'anit 23B): "This (the body) will heal, while this (the clothing) will not." While we, amongst other reasons, wear clothing to protect our body, an ascetic person like Abba Hilkiah protects his clothing with his body.


The Bible of clothing

It's possible to read the entire Bible through the prism of clothing: To start with the garment of skins that God sewed for Adam and Eve, to pass through Joseph's coat of many colors made for him by his father Jacob, to see the deceptive garment that Potiphar's wife leaves in the hands of Joseph, to remember the emotionally moving obligation to return to the poor each night their clothing taken as collateral "for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin; in what shall he sleep!?" (Exodus 22:26).


And moving on to the prophets: To the small jacket that Hannah leaves for Shmuel, to the cloak of the prophets and the kings that is torn during their disagreements, to the many colored coats that virgin daughters of the king wear, the same one that Tamar tore off her body after being raped by Amnon.


In a sharp twist we will turn to the Israelite women of Shomron, criticized by the prophet Amos for dressing and excessively decorating themselves in gold while oppressing the poor, and as opposed to them the torn and exposing outfits of the captive daughter of Judah who is held captive in the Book of Lamentations. The long and varied usages of clothing in the Bible could go on and on.


And back to riddle of 'leprous clothing'

Despite all this, despite the incredible cultural importance of clothing in the Bible, it seems to me that the riddle of "the leprous clothing" remains unsolved. Food vessels also had importance in their culture, as did the limited home furniture. Farming equipment and domesticated animals also were important. However, leprosy only afflicts humans, clothing, and homes. Why did specifically the clothing merit the exciting possibility of being stricken with leprosy?


How we will wake up after the resurrection?

Maybe you haven't asked yourself that, but Cleopatra specifically asked this question (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Sanhedrin 90B): "Queen Cleopatra asked Rabbi Meir: 'I know that the dead will be resurrected as it is written 'they blossom out of the city like grass of the earth' (Psalms 72:16), but will they be revived naked or clothed?' He (Rabbi Meir) said to her (Queen Cleopatra): 'I offer you a fortiori answer from wheat. Wheat is planted naked yet sprouts with several layers of clothing. All the more so the righteous who are buried dressed (will be revived clothed).'"


Now we can relax. If we awake with the resurrection of the dead, we will not need to suffer from the sight of streets full of confused and naked people!


I am putting aside the amusing thought that the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (the seventh and the famous who lived from 51BCE to 12BCE) could have conversed with Rabbi Meir (who lived in the Second Century CE), as in order to do so she herself would have required resurrection from the dead, and I will try to understand if there is beyond the humor some greater cultural or theological significance to this fabricated dialogue before us.


Critical look at belief in resurrection of dead

It is likely that whoever created this strange dialogue between Cleopatra and Rabbi Meir wanted us to think critically about belief in the resurrection of the dead. Clothed or naked – this is what bothers you?! What age will we be when we are revived? How will there be enough space on earth for all the resurrected dead? How will it be possible to rebuild the families that fell apart and changed after all the death? When will we die a second time? How will all this ultimately end? And why at all should we embroil ourselves with all the theoretical complications accompanying the resurrection of the dead? It would seem that before us is an attempt to ridicule the belief in the resurrection of the dead.


Reflections on nakedness and shame

Rabbi Meir rules that we will be reborn clothed, just like wheat. He is trying to say covering our bodies will transform from a cultural activity to a biological reality. Adam and Eve came into the world naked. It was only with the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that the sense of sin and shame were born. With those feelings came the first clothing.


It seems likely that Rabbi Meir is proposing that next time God will be more alert to the need and wisely skip over the belief in the possibility of innocence and create us fully understanding and fully dressed.


May it be God's will that won’t be like wheat

On the culture of honor and shame that may be contained in Rabbi Meir's answer to Cleopatra, 15th century Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, better known as the Maharal of Prague and associated with the legend of creating the Golem, explains (in his book "Ner Mitzvah" on Hanukkah): "Because he has a body that has some disgraceful parts. Also he came into the world in a less than honorable fashion, in a naked state. ... And the clothing covers the disgraceful parts of the body ... And a person has removal and withdrawal from honor, and is left with the body itself, naked and disgraceful. He also departs from the world naked. And in addition he contains all the shame of feces and urine and all the other bodily contents.


"But the resurrection will be entirely honorable for humanity, as they will revive fully dressed and will not be naked, and this teaches of complete honor. And he said, because he is 'all the more so than wheat'. That is to say, a person is born naked and disgraceful because the body is created from a putrid drop (of semen), and therefore contains disgrace and is born naked. But the wheat does not come from a putrid drop (of semen), only from clean wheat. Therefore it emerges 'with several layers of clothing', and does not emerge disgracefully."


Thusly, the naked body with all its needs is shameful and clothes are intended to cover it. With the resurrection of the dead, God will free us of our nakedness, we will not have sex, we will not be ashamed, and with that our bodies will be redeemed.


Paradoxically, something from God's efforts at resurrecting the dead is connected to specifically to the feeling of repugnance to the bodily aspects of human life. If the body is so repugnant, why strive to resurrect the dead?!


I love the idea of the resurrection of the dead (even while I choose not to believe in it), because I understand it as expressing an appreciative, even religious relationship to the human body. Because it is an important foundation stone in the Talmudic endeavor to worship God by means of our body. Because it seriously suggests a bold and material commentary on the term "Image of God."


'Leprous clothing' versus repressive culture

I am happy that we aren't born wearing clothing, and I do not look forward to a day when the body and the carnal desires are covered by a calming Divine coverage. I only know myself with my desires and I prefer to see in them a Divine gift and not primeval sin. I am happy for the opportunity to choose my clothing and choose the degree of concealment I see fit.


Unfortunately, in the recent past, a repressive trend in Jewish culture has been flourishing that views the human body as a vessel full of humiliation and shame, and in its sexuality as a "putrid drop," and therefore wraps women (and men) in excessive layers of clothing.


"Leprous clothing" is a disease that can only happen in a community wherein people get dressed and undressed. In "the resurrection community" of Rabbi Meir there will be no "leprous clothing" because the shame will spread and we will be born wearing clothing. There will be no nakedness. There will be no intimate touch. There will be no need for sexual relations. With or without "leprous clothing," my heart is in the community of people who take responsibility, who are not excessively ashamed or especially guilty, and who choose when to cover themselves and when to expose themselves. I find Rabbi Meir's message of the resurrection of the dead, since his meeting with Cleopatra, a little less exciting.


And in the beit midrash of talkbacks

Many wrote to me in response to last week's column (for example: "Someone who knows the details" - talkback #198) that Alin Levy's conversion process was stopped because she lied to the rabbis. And to this I say: "So what? What do you expect from her? How can those undergoing conversion not lie to the rabbis? When the rabbis make unreasonable demands that are not connected to the reality of Jewish life today, those interested in converting become frightened and lie. Read the response to talkback #198 which rightfully referred there to Ruth the Moabite.


Another claim was proposed by responders that "this is how it was and this is how it will be" and that the rabbis did not invent anything themselves (talkback #187, for example). Well, (1) the rabbis did make things up. I tried to prove that. Whoever wants to disagree with me, the burden of proof is now on them. (2) The problem is not that the rabbis made things up, rather the problem as I understand it is that that their halachic concoctions are terrible.


Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas


Click here to read this article in Hebrew


פרסום ראשון: 03.31.14, 00:40
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