According to Judaism, God wanted us to enjoy an existence in which our physicality wouldn’t stand in the way of defining ourselves internally. God therefore gave the first man and woman a great gift: the inborn ability to see each other in their totality.
With this perfect vision, man and woman saw each other’s outer self and inner self as one inseparable unit. When man looked at woman, he simultaneously saw her mind, heart, and spirit. At the same moment that woman appreciated man’s appearance, she appreciated who he really was.
When man and woman made their fatal mistake in the Garden of Eden, they destroyed their vision. An illusion-creating screen was lowered in front of their eyes. Viewing each other through this screen, body and soul suddenly appeared to be two distinct entities. The physical self had seemingly disconnected from the spiritual self and assumed an independent identity. And the powerful light which the body now beamed outshone the light of the soul.
This fallen state describes the way we humans today view one another. For all of us, it is practically impossible not to identify a person with his or her outside.
To see how true this is, think of someone close to you whom you haven’t seen for some time. Now imagine running into her and discovering that she’s dyed her hair and completely restyled it, gained 100 pounds, and undergone cosmetic surgery which has radically changed her features. It’s probably difficult for you to internalize the fact she is still the same person. We want to identify one another by our inner selves, but the ability eludes us.
Originally, when they saw body and soul as one, man and woman had been naked and unashamed. Now, for the first time, they instinctively felt the need to put something on.
The meaning we ascribe to clothes can be understood by looking at who we expect to wear them. For example, no one I know has ever exclaimed in shock, “That dog is walking the streets stark naked! Whatever has happened to decency?!” (While some poodles may wear sweaters, those who don’t aren’t held to be in flagrant violation of canine norms.)
We do expect a human being, however, under normal circumstances, to wear some amount of clothing. Yet how much depends largely upon his or her age. My neighbors found it adorably entertaining when one of my children, then a toddler, innocently showed up at their front door straight from the bathtub. If the same child were to repeat that behavior at age ten, however, I suspect they’d be less amused. And if the visitor were an adult, they’d probably slam the door, lock it, and call the police.
From the above examples, a theme emerges. The more we understand a being to have a beyond-physical dimension, the more of his or her body we expect to be covered. A dog can trot around au naturel without offending or even being thought of as “naked,” since we understand (if animal lovers will please forgive me) that an animal is not much more than it appears to be — an essentially physical being, governed by its senses and instincts. Because a baby’s existence is similar to that of an animal, no one blushes at the sight of its bare bottom; at the same time, we do call it naked in recognition of its human potential. A ten-year-old, however, is considerably more than an animal (although some parents may jokingly disagree), and a twenty-year-old even more so — which is why an adult who parades around without clothes isn’t called cute, but an exhibitionist.
Clothing, however, does more than distinguish between people and animals. Within adult society (despite deteriorating sensitivity to these issues), there’s a distinct correlation between the mental and spiritual qualities we associate with a person in a given situation and how much of his or her body we expect to be covered. For example, it’s socially acceptable to wear very little at the poolside, because sunning and swimming are activities which pertain to the physical you. It would not, however, be appropriate to receive a Nobel prize in your bathing suit. After their initial shock, those present would undoubtedly question, “Why is he dressing like a Mr. Universe contestant when he’s being acclaimed for his mind?”
Covering your body, therefore, is the most fundamental way of using your outside to tell others who you are on the inside. Clothing makes the statement: “I am much more than what meets the eye. If you want to see the real me, you’ll have to look deeper.”
Reprinted from “Outside/Inside” A fresh look at Tzniut by Gila Manolson. Available at www.gila-manolson.com