Live from the Lilith Blog

April 30, 2009 by

I Wish I Could Seduce You in the Nude (Bava Kama 86b)

The following is the blogger’s analysis and personal musing on seduction, inspired by Aviva Zornberg.

Yesterday’s Daf (Bava Kama 86) considers the question of whether a naked person can be embarrassed. The Talmud begins by quoting a Braita which states, “If one embarrasses someone while he is naked, he [the embarrasser] is liable, and embarrassing someone naked is not the same as embarrassing someone when he is clothed…. Our master said: If one embarrasses someone when he is naked, he is liable. But is a naked person capable of being embarrassed? (?ערום בר בושת הוא) Rather, this refers to a case where the wind has bunched up his clothes and a person comes and lifts his clothing further, thereby embarrassing him.”

The Talmud, although at first asserting that it is indeed possible to embarrass someone while that person is naked, goes on to question this assumption. As Rashi explains, “Since he does not care about walking around naked in front of others, what does he have to be embarrassed about?” Presumably a person who does not mind if others see him naked is immune to other people’s opinions of him, and is therefore not susceptible to embarrassment. The Talmud is then left with the question as to why the Braita taught that a person is indeed liable for embarrassing someone who is naked, and concludes that this was a person who was at first only partially naked. The embarrasser comes along and exposes him even further, and thus he is considered to be liable.

The discussion of the relationship between nakedness and embarrassment immediately conjures, in my mind, the seduction scene in the garden of Eden, where we are told that “The two of them were naked (ערומים), the man and his wife, yet they felt no shame (יתבוששו). Now the serpent was the shrewdest (ערום) of all the wild beasts that the Lord had made.” Adam and Eve, when they are naked, are not capable of experiencing embarrassment. They do not view their sexuality as something to hide, and thus they walk about freely in the garden, unclothed. Once they eat of the fruit, however, they become capable of embarrassment, and their first act is to cover themselves. In this new state of self-consciousness, they realize that they have something to hide, and they hide it. Milton gives eloquent voice to the moment of Adam’s awareness of the need to clothe himself:

But let us now, as in bad plight, devise
What best may, for the present, serve to hide
The parts of each other that seem most
To shame obnoxious, and unseemliest seen–
Some tree, whose broad smooth leaves, together sewed,
And girded on our loins, may cover round
Thos middle parts, that this new comer, Shame,
There sit not, and reproach us as unclean. (Book IX lines 1091-1098)

Shame is the key word in this passage, suggesting that the major difference between before and after Adam and Eve eat the fruit is whether or not they are capable of embarrassment. Before the serpent came on the scene, Adam and Eve were completely comfortable with one another. Their sexuality was nothing to be ashamed of; it was part and parcel of who they were. Jewish tradition does not hold that humanity discovered sexuality only after they ate the fruit; rather, as Rashi states, the snake was impelled to tempt Eve in the first place because “he saw them [Adam and Eve] in naked intercourse, and he desired her.” As Rashi’s statement teaches us, Adam and Eve had sexual relations before they ate the fruit, before they were capable of being embarrassed.

I wonder about this totally innocent, un-self-conscious sexuality. What was it like? For one, there was probably not much seduction involved. Adam and Eve were like a little boy and a girl playing together naked in a sandbox, unaware that there is anything of which to be ashamed. (Interestingly, right after discussing whether a naked person can be embarrassed, the Daf proceeds with the question of whether a minor (קטן) is capable of embarrassment.) I imagine that at this point Adam and Eve had a relationship of total intimacy, in which there were no barriers separating them from one another. After all, Eve had just been created from Adam’s rib, and so in their relationship with each other, they retained the memory of this formerly conjoined state. They were not really two separate beings quite yet, because they shared everything. And they could not be embarrassed yet because embarrassment involves the act of exposing, whereas they were already fully exposed at all times, both in their sameness and in their differentness. (It is interesting to note that their different parts, in the Torah, are referred to as “their embarrassings,” as in Deut. 25:11-12, a verse that is frequently quoted in Bava Kama: “If two men get into a fight with each other and the wife of one comes up to save her husband and puts out her hand and seizes him by his embarrassings [במבושיו], you shall cut off her hand.” “Embarrassings” is understood to mean genitals, though the word itself comes from Boshet.)

The genitals are not a site of Boshet until after the serpent, when Adam and Eve know a more mature, self-conscious sexuality. Now their differences are something to conceal; and now, presumably, they can flirt and seduce and play games with one another. They are no longer Arum in the sense of naked; they are Arum in the sense of shrewd. This was not God’s original intention for humanity, of course. This was not how God envisioned the relationship was to be between man and his help-meet. And most importantly, this was not what God expected when He told them, in the final verse before the serpent comes on to the scene, “Thus shall a man leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, so that they become one flesh.”

I find God’s injunction very perplexing in the wake of what follows. After all, it is all very well and good to command man and woman to become one flesh when they have no self-consciousness and no shame and they prance around the garden without a stitch. But I cannot help but wonder: Is this ideal really attainable after Adam and Eve become capable of experiencing shame? Can they really become one being once their differences are a source of self-conscious embarrassment and seductive allure? Or, to phrase the question somewhat more provocatively, are intimacy and eroticism really compatible with one another?

Most (though thankfully not all!) of what I know about seduction comes from literature, and if there is anything I have learned, it is the following: Seduction requires clothing. All the great seduction scenes involve some sort of strip tease. In Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes,” my favorite literary seduction, Porphyro hides in Madeleine’s chamber and gazes at Madeleine, witnessing the following:

Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed.

The poem’s attention is not on the flesh but on the clothing. We do not know what body parts become exposed (nor would we want to know!); we are told only of the unclasped jewels, the loosened bodice, and the rich attire that falls to the floor. This marshalling of elaborate sartorial detail as a form of restraint is of course the source of the poem’s seductive power. We, like Porphyro, are in Madeleine’s thrall.

This preoccupation with sartorial detail is true of nearly every seduction scene I can recall. Consider Billy Collins’ “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” where the poet, engaged in this very project, tells us that

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Dickinson’s nakedness is the speaker’s ultimate destination, but the entire poem is preoccupied with the journey there. Likewise, Robert Herrick acknowledges in “Upon Julia’s Clothes” that what catches his eye about Julia is how she moves in her clothing:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.

And if we consider the most vividly-imagined seduction in the Bible (second only to Eden, perhaps), we are told that “Potiphar’s wife would each day try [to attract] Joseph: The clothes she wore in the morning she would not wear in the evening, and the clothes she wore in the evening she would not wear in the morning” (B. Yoma 35b). In case the Talmud’s point is lost on us, Rashi clarifies two terms here: “To try” means “to seduce” (thank you, Rashi) and “the clothes” were “for him” (what would we do without you?). The Biblical account relates that Joseph, when he flees, leaves one of his garments with her (ויעזוב בגדו אצלה), perhaps a sign that he refuses to take part in these games of seduction which are all about clothing.

It is often noted that the Hebrew word for clothing, בגד, comes from the same root as the word for “treachery.” Clothes are a way of deceiving and tricking; thus Tamar “took off her widow’s garb, covered her face with a veil, and wrapped herself up” (Genesis 38:14) in order to seduce Judah. It is not surprising that clothes play such a role in seduction because seduction, too, necessarily involves duplicity. To seduce is to play a game of revelation and concealment; it is to alternately expose and then hide, as in the classic case of the strip tease. But therein lies the rub, because if there is something that you are hiding, then you cannot be completely transparent. So long as you are alternately revealing and concealing, then you are not sharing everything with the other person. Thus seductiveness precludes intimacy.

The converse, I fear, is also true: intimacy precludes seductiveness. If you expose everything and keep nothing from the other person, you lose your allure. As a dear friend once told me, there is nothing seductive about a person who walks around naked all the time. There is nothing exciting about a person who tells you everything about himself, or makes herself completely available from the start. Is a knowing half-smile not infinitely more alluring than an ear-to-ear grin?

I do not have an answer to this quandary. As a person who values honesty and transparency in all my relationships, and yet who also strives for the deepest form of connection with another person, I find this matter deeply troubling. As the Talmud ultimately tells us, one cannot be naked and also be embarrassed. How can we help but long for the intimacy and utter lack of self-consciousness that Adam and Eve knew in the garden? And how can we resist the temptation to reach for the fruit and gaze, mesmerized, as that fragrant bodice rustles to the floor?

–Chavatzelet Herzliya


  • http://www.rashisdaughters.com Maggie Anton

    Clearly a naked person can be embarrassed; for example, if several men are swimming together and one of them points out a disfigurement on another man’s body. Or in a bath house, when one relates a shameful story about another. So what does the Talmud mean that a naked person cannot be embarrassed? Maybe it means a person who hides nothing about his life [sorry about not being gender neutral, but that's how Talmud is] can no longer be shamed. Everything about him is known, so he cannot be embarrassed by his secrets becoming exposed.

  • Don Bridgeman

    This nakedness issue invokes corrupt communication. What does that exactly mean? When one exposes his or her nakedness, it doesn’t exactly mean I know everything about that particular person. What it does invoke is the extensiveness of the individual’s outer being. Looks can be deceiving. Further explanation of what Torah is trying to teach comes from a personal experience.

    For eight month I haven’t cut my hair or beard. So my outer appearance has articulated many under-the-breath and outwardly loud comments from a diverse crowd (poor to rich). And yet, I have never taken drugs in my life, don’t drink alcohol, go to work supporting myself, keep myself clean by bathing every day, paying my bills on time, and read Torah. Looking at my outer appearance lends to stereotyping. Why is this wrong?

    The outward appearance (extensive exterior) doesn’t necessarily mean the intensive (inner being) is corrupted by worldly standards. The issue of nakedness and clothing should state: my nakedness and clothing should be for only one person’s eyes, your spouse, exacting the sovereignty of unity in oneness and intimacy and not an adulterous relationship. This is why Torah teaches that God is a jealous God, for God wants our eyes to be solely focused on Him and not worldly measures and statutes because the only true reality in the world remains God’s Spiritual reality, one of compassion. Alternatively, when individuals judge another by appearance or nakedness, they become judge, jury, and executioner taking God’s rightful place of ownership over others (enslavement by traditions). Only God has the right to uncover an individual, exposing one’s nakedness, exposing our sin. One who is never embarrassed about their nakedness mocks God. Torah teaches us, His people, the purpose for a covering means unity and intimacy with God, for God is our teacher (spiritual awakening and true reality in this world), our provider (for nourishment and strength to endure to the end), and our sovereignty (our government). God provides us with this image in the marriage relationship between a man and a woman, making homosexuality an abomination to God, for God specifically set the rules by which men and women should live (the story of Noah and the cursing of Canaan).

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