Physical Modesty in Judaism: A Response by Rabbi Gershon Winkler

By | Sep 08, 2008

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein

In our current issue, we printed a letter from a reader who was curious about Rabbi Gershon Winkler’s response to our Ask the Rabbis question (Who Cares What Women Wear [Or Don’t Wear]?) in the July/August issue. Here is his response in its entirety:

Reader’s question: “I would like to know, in a precise citation, where in his writings ‘Rav Moshe Feinstein boldly pointed out that there is no Torah injunction against nudity,’ and precisely in what context this statement was allegedly made.”

Rabbi’s response: I translate below the pertinent excerpts from Rav Moshe Feinstein’s response regarding nudity. The question was brought to him in the context of a man whose skin rash made it uncomfortable for him to wear clothing, and to pray clothed, etc. In permitting the man to not be clothed, Rav Feinstein raises the question whether nudity is prohibited by the Torah altogether. And I quote:

“[The concept of being dressed out of respect to God ]—for His glory fills the whole earth—applies only during prayer, when one ought to be properly attired as one would in the presence of dignitaries. But if it is not during the time of prayer, then, although one is still in the presence of God, one does not need to be dressed in clothing at all, and it would be then sufficient to use any kind of wrapping to cover those parts of the body which are customarily covered, and this is because the whole issue of meticulousness around dress is based solely on social standards alone, which vary from place to place and from time to time. And so, barring the social factor, there are no particular requirements regarding the wearing of clothing.

“But the fact that we cover certain parts of our bodies irregardless of whether it is cold or hot, is evident that we consider those parts as shameful when they are exposed, and for this reason it is shameful to stand around without a covering, not for social reason [since it is in private] but out of respect to God…But if sitting totally nude in one’s house is not felt as shameful, then it should not be considered as such and one may sit thus in the privacy of one’s house even without any covering at all upon those parts…

“Therefore, the issue of tzniyut (modesty) that is taught by our sages concerning the proper conduct in the bathroom [to uncover only as little as necessary to empty one’s bowels {Talmud, B’rachot 63)] is only a matter of modesty for the individual and perhaps it is to accustom the person to modest conduct in general…These things are only pleasant customs and pious modes of conduct…” (Source: Igro’t Moshe, Yorah Dey’ah, Vol. 3, No. 47:3).

In yet another response on the subject, he writes:

“Regarding the issue of tzniyut, that people go around entirely dressed—it is not a result of any of the prohibitions in the Torah. Rather, it is a careful and exalted practice to be attired even in private…However, if it is uncomfortable because of the heat or for some other reason, then one may go about [unclothed] and there is not even a question of pious conduct in such an instance…and God Knows of your discomfort…And the standard [of tzniyut] is dependent upon what it is that makes one ashamed when standing before people, each place according to its custom…And in pressing situations, it is even permitted to pray [unclothed], for [nudity] does not interfere…” (Source: Ig’ro’t Moshe, Yorah Dey’ah, Vol. 3, No. 68:4).

One will even find in the ancient writ of the Mishnah the nonchalant mention of how our women would sit in the nude baking. The Mishnah simply states that women are permitted to be nude while performing the sacred ritual of Challah while making bread (Source: Mishnah, Challah 2:3).

Regrettably, we Jews have been so thoroughly influenced over the centuries by the predominant Christian culture and its wide array of taboos that we have traded in our sensuousness and appreciation of the body for morals and values unknown to our ancestors, and clearly not in God’s original blueprint for the world, for the first humans created by the Holy One were, after all, nude.

I do teach from Rav Feinstein’s other lessons and from the lessons of myriad other rabbis throughout the ages whose rich wisdom I teach selectively no less or more than did they themselves, electing to teach aspects of varieties of teachers and schools, not just one view. This was cause for the 12th-century Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud’s critique of Maimonides’ codification of Jewish law: “Why should I go along with what the master chose to select from among the many opinions and discussions and conclusions in the Talmud—when I do not know his arguments for selecting those as opposed to others?” (Ra’avad in his introduction to Mishnah Torah L’HaRambam).

We as a people need to go back to our aboriginal roots, our very rich and living sources and not become petrified, locked in, to any one particular body of wisdom. We need to teach our people—and this I do fervently—ALL the opinions of our sages, not just the ones that suit our agenda regardless of our denominational affiliation.

This is why I choose to remain non-denominational and un-associated.

The only movement I believe in, is the bowel movement. All others have done little for us but divide us. Case in point: the recent ruling by the Israeli rabbinate pulling the rug from under people who were halachically converted and claiming even Orthodox conversions as invalid unless done by them and them alone.

And yes, I too have an agenda: to show disenfranchised Jewish women and men (which make up a good 75% of Jews today) that the Torah has many faces, many avenues, many paths, and enough for everyone to find the one that fits them best. We were once a people of twelve tribes, not one. And each of our ways must be honored rather than dismissed.

I honor those who feel the Torah forbids nudity and I honor those who feel the Torah allows it. Each must respect the needs of their respective community, but they must not go around telling us there is only one law for all of us on any given issue. There are many opinions on every issue. And it has always been that way.


Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Thousand Oaks, California

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

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