Yesterday was not the first time someone approached me, inquiring of my unorthodox conduct: “why did you watch such and such movie (or show) which contains scenes of brief, or lengthy nudity?” Yes, the topic is taboo. Yes, people refuse to address the topic, despite the fact that we are inevitably exposed to nudity in some way or another on a daily basis, that is, assuming you live in this postmodern world of global media and communication. It should be no wonder to us why the Ultra-Orthodox tendency is to ban internet apparatus for their communities, but even that is slowly coming to an end. So what does the Torah say about nudity? Must adherents of Mosaic law engender a sense of sexual censorship like an FCC member would dream of doing on HBO? Let’s be real; we all know what happens once censorship of our personal lives begins. Because Priests and Bishops, in their saintliness and abstinence from worldly affairs, definitely don’t molest little boys and girls, and let’s not forget how no Rabbinic figure in history has ever molested students of theirs, justifying their actions in the name of religious stature.
The great thinker and founder of Freudian psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), taught that sexual repression was the chief psychological problem of mankind. While his theory on the libido archetype is far more complex than what I am presenting, Freud concluded that repression and constriction of sexual behavior in youth would manifest itself in adulthood in unhealthy and detrimental manners. Under the guise of Judaeo-Christian piety, the West had long treated exposure of women as a taboo subject, and covered over (pun intended) normal and abnormal sexual behavior as “sinful”, very often neglecting appropriate help and guidance for those in need of help. In contradistinction to this arcane, almost medieval approach, see Igrot Moshe (O.H. 4:115, or here: http://daattorah.blogspot.com/2009/03/homosexuality-view-of-rav-moshe.html) for an apologetic and empathetic approach of dealing with the sexually confused. Be that as it may, Freud was able to persuade his opponents and admirers alike that sexual repression was rampant, unhealthy, and the indirect cause of much crime and illness in the world. It is therefore critical to assess this matter textually, and not via precedent and dogma, for the text is the will of God (which is my view of the intent behind Logos in John 1:1 and Zohar 2:92b).
While the Rabbinic view of nudity varies from the original Biblical view, there is an overlap of stringency and leniency on both sides. During the campaign against the Midianites, Moses instructs his people (Numbers 31:17) to “kill every woman who has known (laid) with a man.” There is no way to tell if the woman at hand laid with a man unless she is examined. Needless to say what that entails. Deuteronomy 21:13 states that if one wishes to bring back a captive woman of war back home, “you shall remove the clothing of her captivity from upon her.” Even in Rabbinic literature, the Mishna (Sanhedrin 6§5) states that although we must strip criminals on death row of their clothing before execution, “men are hanged facing the public, but women are hanged facing the gallows.” Likewise, the Talmud (Soṭa 7-8a) relates how during the Soṭa procedure, the Priest “seizes her garments — if they tear they tear, if they shred, they shred — until he uncovers her bosom, and he undoes her hair.” The Talmud goes on to note that in the context of official procedure and execution, we are not worried for arousal. It seems that in all the cases listed above, the setting of nudity plays a huge factor in determining its appropriateness.
Even the famous “do not stray after your heart and after your eyes” (Numbers 15:39) does not necessarily refer to being led astray after “alien worship and adultery”, as the Sages state (Sifre to Numbers: 15:39). The reader should put this verse in proper context of the precept it is addressing: wearing tassels on the corners of garments. After a man is spotted collecting wood from the ground (see Shabbat 96b for violation definition of this act), the Torah instructs the Israelites to “make tassels on the corners of your garments…So that you should be mindful, and perform all of my commandments, and [thus] be holy for your God.” Unlike the man that violated the Sabbath laws, God guides the Israelites not to stray after *their* hearts and *their* eyes, to do that which *they* see fit to do against the law. Incidentally, the same Hebrew verb for straying is used to describe the spies that Moses sent (Numbers 13) to report on the land of Canaan before the nation’s arrival; the same spies that were strayed by the sight of their eyes and reported back lies to Moses.
Even when the Talmud (Avoda Zara 20b) prohibits a man from “gazing upon a woman, even if she is unmarried”, the source the Talmud bases this prohibition on is from the verse “and you shall guard yourself against any evil matter” (Deuteronomy 23:10). The nature of the prohibition is almost certainly not biblical, as the verse in context serves as an introductory statement to 16 laws Israelite soldiers must observe on the battle field. Incidentally, not one of the prohibitions listed in Deuteronomy 23 lists gazing upon women. A view of some Sages that assumes that anyone who passes, yes, passes by a woman laundering by the river “has no portion in the world to come” (Berakhot 61a). What is grossly misunderstood about this statement is its context and subjectivity. Laundering in ancient times was seen as a provocative and arousing activity by men, as it is until today in many parts of the Middle East. It is often due to careless and anachronistic readings of of statements like this that leads one to simply “give up” on this internal “struggle”, leading one Jewish sectarian leader to famously state: “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For You shut up the kingdom of the heavens before men. For you neither enter, nor even do you allow those who are entering to go in.” If it is the Sages that ingeniously regulated where our eyes should wander, they surely would have included a sense of subjectivity when regulating this matter. Indeed, the Talmud records (Ketubot 17a) that R. Aḥa would carry the bride of the wedding ceremony on his shoulders and dance, to which the Sages inquired: “may we do similarly?” To which R. Aḥa rightfully, yet humorously responds: “you may, only if she is like a log to you.”
Leaving all my views aside, I would like to make clear that I am in no way advocating for free gazing and vile daydreaming of women in any way. As is the case with most ritual law, these are matters between an individual and his creator. Let no man intrude into actions of one’s ritual life. However, I have presented the reader with the word of God and the word of men. As mentioned above, there are overlaps between the two, and the truth usually lies somewhere in between both extremes. I humbly believe that the approach of R. Yom Tov Asevilli (1250-1330) takes the best medium regarding matters of immodest appearance: “all [restrictions] are relative to the mind of those that fear God. And this is the law; that all [restrictions] are subjective to what one knows about himself. If [he sees] it is proper to distance himself from temptation, he should do so” (Commentary to Qiddushin 81b). Let no man tell his fellow what is and is not tempting. “Let the Lord judge between you and I”, and no two men have the same blood temperature in matters of lust. May honesty with one’s self and fear of our creator serve as the ultimate compass for all matters of self-tribulation and challenge.