Naked and Ashamed

What’s so funny about nudity in Judaism? LABA Fellow Charles Gershman digs in.

I can’t remember how many times I dreamt this, but it happened at least once and I’ve never forgotten: in this dream, I am in my grade school, walking around in a very public place, and I realize suddenly I have no pants on. I don’t know where they went or how this happened, but it’s terrifying, and I’m full of shame, and I have to hide.

Why is nudity so shameful?

In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve become aware of their nakedness only after they have sinned by eating the forbidden fruit: “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Scouring the internet, I’ve realized that different rabbis say different things, but a common idea is that following this sin—the Original Sin, per Augustine Christine doctrine—we no longer need a serpent to tempt us to do bad things, because temptation can come from within. And because nudity can lead to sexual temptation, the norm has become for us to cover ourselves with clothes.

Where does comedy come in?

Accidental nudity is hilarious. There are a million “fail” videos on YouTube where a groomsman’s pants fall down during a wedding ceremony. Here’s an example, around 1:00. As I was in my dream, this groomsman must have been mortified. To the rest of us, this is comedic gold.

As a graduate student in dramatic writing at NYU, I took a comedy class with Charlie Rubin, the founder of the department’s TV writing division and a writer on Seinfeld and a number of other successful sitcoms. Charlie’s theory is that shame is the driving force behind comedy. The ashamed person suffers grievously, while the rest of us laugh.

Maybe this is why “fail” videos are so funny. I spend an embarrassing number of hours watching fail videos on YouTube. Videos like this one.

There may be another kind of nudity going on in these videos. RuPaul likes to say that “we’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” (Click here for more on that.)

We tend to walk the earth as dignified adults, clothing ourselves in professional accomplishment or manicured appearance or political performance. When we let these masks slip—especially by mistake—we completely surprise those who are used to seeing us in a certain way. The newscaster who jokes around while not realizing she’s on air or the jogger who professes expertise at running on snowy streets, then slips and falls—they are making appearances at their most ashamed, most vulnerable, most exposed moments. Their pain is our utter delight.

I’ve been searching for points of intersection between nudity and comedy in Judaism, for my LABA Fellowship project. My biggest lesson so far is that these intersections are hard to find.

Humor is a beloved component of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. Mark Horowitz wrote in a 2017 New York Times review of a book on Jewish comedy:

“There are plenty of theories to explain Jewish humor — most devised by Jews. Saul Bellow, channeling his inner Kierkegaard, thought Jewish humor combined ‘laughter and trembling.’ Freud believed Jewish humor was a defense mechanism: a form of sublimated aggression that lets victims of persecution safely cope with their condition. Or as Mel Brooks put it: ‘If they’re laughing, how can they bludgeon you to death?’”

The Talmud itself is full of humor. However, Simon Holloway points to several instances where rabbis caution against too much mirth and laughter. For example, “Rabbi Simon ben Yohai rules that one is forbidden to fill one’s mouth with laughter in this world.”

Nudity is also the subject of differing opinions in Judaism. It is linked with shame in a number of several biblical episodes. Among these is the story of the curse of Ham in Genesis: Noah is drunk and lying in his tent, and his son Ham commits a shameful act in seeing his father drunk and naked. This causes Noah to curse Ham’s son, Canaan. Exactly how Ham transgressed and why Noah cursed Canaan has been the subject of thousands of years of debate.

And Judaism has traditionally emphasized modesty in appearance.

But Judaism sometimes gives a positive spin on nudity—for example, in the ritual bath, the mikvah. (Read a wonderful article by Deborah A. Beverly in Tablet Magazine here.)

And Judaism is in many ways sex-positive—so long as the sex is not extramarital.

Given Judaism’s complex relationships with nudity and with comedy—and the ways both are inherently connected to shame—I am excited to continue digging. I’ll be presenting a play later this year called “A Poetics of Nudity According to the Rabbis.” I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.