Sacred Clothing, Holy Body, Naked Torah

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Sacred Clothing, Holy Body, Naked Torah

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Peep inside the Holy Ark: We see the tailored jackets, woven of dark and bright and many-colored cloth, embroidered with gold and silver threads, bearing glowing breast-plates of gems and gold and silver — all to act as protection, celebration, for the Torah.

Holy ornaments. Yet the Torah Scroll is holiest not clothed but naked — laid bare with only letters showing. Black fire of meaning — glowing in the midst of the still more naked white space on the parchment, inviting readers to weave new meaning from the strands of blankness.

The Torah is taken out, carried from person to person around the room. We cradle the Scroll like a baby, kiss the cover, lay it gently on a waiting table, undress it, and finally read its naked teaching. Just short of the erotic.

And find there a tale of cloth and fur and color, gold and silver. A tale of crimson, purple, blue. Of clothing. The ornamental clothing of the Priest.

God has told Moses how to make the High Priest's sacred clothing, and Oholiav the son of Ahisamach, couturier extraordinaire, has woven scarlet and purple and violet, linen and silver and gold. The place of God's Presence cannot be made holy unless the High Priest has donned special clothing. (Exod. 39)

Is there a spiritual discipline in what we wear? Does clothing screen us from God's awesome, overwhelming presence — or does some clothing bring us closer, like the priest's? Did nakedness in Eden represent a closer spiritual contact with God? As Eden disappeared, was the first set of clothing that Eve and Adam made for themselves, a screen against God out of fear? Was the second set, the clothing God made for them, a tender mesh of reconnection?

Why does the Shrine itself have at its center two keruvim (usually rendered "cherubim," but that is just a transliteration; they were sphinxes), "their faces, each toward the other," (Ex. 37: 9), so that the Talmud (Baba Bathra 99a; Yoma 54a) teaches that they were actually in sexual embrace? And why then must the High Priest wear beneath his finery a pair of linen underpants, lest by accident his naked body be uncovered?

How did the priests see and feel this Presence of the keruvim, embracing, while they themselves were always clothed?

What connects the spirit and the body? Are the naked words in the Torah the innermost truth? Sometimes the rabbis, those consummate word-weavers, seemed to think so. They voted at Akiva's behest to acclaim the Song of Songs, that poetry of the erotic, as the Holy of Holies. To affirm its holiness, however, they had to veil its erotic power in an allegory, forbid it to be sung in wine-halls.

Is it precisely the dance, the tension, between the body naked and the body clothed, the words of Revelation and the words that conceal what would otherwise be revealed, that make for holiness?

Once, in a Shabbat discussion of the High Priest's clothing, I heard a davvener report:

"Last summer I spent a week on a beach of naked people. Those days felt drenched with sexuality, but something else as well: community. Since we were utterly open — unable to conceal our bodies, our fears, our embarrassments, our attractions, our desires — I suppose we could have responded voraciously, as prey or predator.

"But in fact we responded not by devouring each other but by caring for each other, worrying for each other's sakes about our skin, our sunburn, our dignity. We became a community."

Hearing her, the gathering of prayer and Torah-study glowed. She had shown that the message could be the medium, the clothing could be the naked body. As she had bared her skin there, here she bared her feelings: first her desires, then her fears, then her growing confidence, finally her trust.

And the gathering responded to her spiritual nakedness as the bathers had responded to physical nakedness: by forming a community.

But not just a community. Another party joined the dance: the Torah. Something happened that would have been impossible at the beach. And impossible without the beach.

From below, the disparate group of Jews became for a moment the mystical Community of Israel. From above, the Presence, the Shekhinah, the female aspect of God for whose sake we build the Mishkan, had entered in the midst of the discussion. The distant, veiled, transcendent Deity had for a moment unveiled Herself, revealed Herself, come naked — as it were — into the congregation.

Were the naked bodies on the beach already holy? Or did their holiness emerge when the davvening circle of clothed bodies turned them from bodies into naked words and thoughts and feelings, amidst the memories millennia old of Torah and memories of Torah from centuries yet to come?

I think the holiness came forth adancing when word and body danced into each other, embracing like the keruvim. Melting Body into Spirit, Spirit into Body.

For Biblical Judaism, the body — offerings of food, hereditary priests enclothed in crimson, silver Shrines — was holy. For Rabbinic Judaism, the naked word was much more holy, with the body much more veiled.

Today, Modernity has emptied both the bodies and the words of sacred Spirit.

Today, Modernity has shriveled our bodies into commercials and the earth into an object of commerce, no more holy than the words and ones and zeroes strung together in computers or in genetic codes.

So today we need to renew the dance our Bible knew so well: We look for the Holy Place and see in one glance the naked keruvim and the linen underpants.

We need to renew the dance our prayerbook knows so well: We bless the One Who opens wide our eyes, and then at once the One who shields with clothing our bodies from our gazing.

Today we must learn again to wrestle words with bodies. To stretch the holiness of words in a dynamic tension with holy dance and sacred earth.

Some of the Hassidic rebbes taught: What is the world? The world is God, wrapped in robes of God. And who are we? We are God, and our task is to unwrap the robes and reveal, dis-cover, that we and all the world are God.

If not, we will drown the meaning in our words with floods of ink, and vaporize the sacred earth into a ghostly, ghastly ether.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center (, author of Godwrestling — Round 2, and co-author with Phyllis Berman of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven.

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