כה וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים, הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וְלֹא, יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ.
25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.
-Genesis 2: 25
The body is beautiful.
The body as an expression of art, of pain, of suffering, of feeling, the body in and of itself, flawed, scarred, dull, lustrous, the body in whatever form it exists...is beautiful.
It is with the body that we experience pain and pleasure, with the body that we live our lives, that we focus upon the mundane and the holy; it is the body that we sanctify to God, the body we afflict when we seek atonement, the body that is our conduit for life, the body that houses our spirit and our soul.
So how can it be that I hear those who do not treat the body with respect, who giggle and smirk when we speak of the body, who laugh behind closed doors? How can someone term the body "disgusting," how can someone attempt to strip the body of its sensuality, its raw sexuality? How can someone seek to make the body less than what it is, to ascribe to it a morality and code that it cannot own? How can the body in and of itself be sinful? What is the body if not beautiful?
On Sunday the Honors Program at Stern took various students to see a ballet. It was a ballet at the New York City Center, a ballet performed by the American Ballet Theatre company. Only women were taken to see this ballet- students of Stern College for Women. Only members of the Honors Program.
And yet people called it "disgusting."
And why was it disgusting? Because, in its first act, called Clear, it featured male ballerinas, men dressed in tan leggings and bare-chested, men who leapt and stepped across the stage with the grace of an angel and the command of a master. These men are strong, muscular, handsome; they can whirl ballerinas as though they weigh little or nothing, can strike poses and contort their bodies, can dance and perform with no thought to the audience, exhibiting only the sheer joy, the beauty that they find within their art.
But they were men in tan leggings. And they were bare-chested.
And hence, according to some, disgusting.
And I cannot see it. How can you not admire these men, men who have mastered such precise control over their muscles, their bodies, men who are masters of an art that requires more skill and thought than perhaps any other sport? Everything must be precised, timed; there is so much trust in ballet- to spin, to whirl, to fall, to be thrown, to catch the one who is falling- one misstep, and your partner has fallen, perhaps to the ground, perhaps injuring himself or herself.
And do I tell you that I appreciated the act only for the clear beauty described by their dancing? Of course not! No! I do not lie. I appreciated it for exactly what the act was meant to convey, and what was demonstrated by the final dance between the principle male ballerina and the principle female balerina, the sensuality that enveloped them, the chemistry that flickered between them, the elements and their battle against the young couple, as the day darkened into night. The female ballerina was exquisite, her entire body suggesting vulnerability; the eerie grace of her limbs, the phantom aura about her, the idea of passion suggested but not fulfilled. This is beauty, and it is an art- it evokes feelings in people; it tells a story. Ballet is a response to but also a dialogue with music; it serves to heighten and evoke emotions within us.
So why must these men, by virtue of their attire, be termed disgusting?
Why, because they are sexual beings, sexual creatures. And how is the young Jewish girl to relate to such a spectacle? Of course, as is most prevalent, it must be with revulsion and disgust, expressing disgust with the human body and all that it encompasses. And where does this disgust come from? Perhaps from what the young Jewish girl cannot see as anything but a brazen display of flesh, and an appalling lack of shame. Where is their shame? Why aren't these men insecure, why don't they try to cover themselves, to hide their bodies and who they are?
Why, simply because they are not. They are not ashamed. As ballerinas, as ballet dancers, artists, and principles, their body is their tool, sculpted as their weapon, their instrument, their dramatic performance. Others play upon instruments, others perform upon external objects. They, on the other hand, express themselves with their every step- their every move- the wave of a hand, the point of a toe, the matching of steps to music. The body is theirs, their weapon, their tool, theirs to expose to vulnerability and simultaneously to hold as strong. The body is beautiful.
And I was not ashamed for them.
The other acts saw changes in costume; the YU audience particularly liked the third act (I did, too) titled In the Upstairs Room. There, the men were wearing red shirts and black and white striped flowing trousers, not as molded to their forms.
Today, while in the Bait Midrash, I heard Stern girls whispering and laughing together about niddah. They used the words "disgusting," liberally; one sentence I overheard was one girl's exclamation that once you understand the euphemisms used in the Gemara to describe nidda "it's all disgusting!" And they continued in this vein, mockingly mentioning the "ankle metaphor" in the text, and so on and so forth.
And this- more than what was said of the ballet- appalled me. Because how could you speak so of your own body? You are women, you are women; how could you call yourselves disgusting? This terminology is so wrong, so incorrect in context. One of the most fascinating aspects of Gemara is how calmly everything is discussed, from the laws dealing with the dead to the most intimate aspects of the body (albeit, sometimes, through the use of euphamisms.) The scholars felt no need to hush or talk in silent whispers when it came to the body- everything was frank, open, honest; everything that the Torah mentioned was up for discussion. Zav, zavah, niddah- the secretions of the body, nudity, prayer and nudity, emissions and the like, were all subjects for debate and analysis.
And here, too, there was no need for shame.
So why this secret shame? Why this urge to label the body as "disgusting," to try to hide it away, to shrink at the thought of the body as having the ability to give pleasure, to view the body as beautiful? Not only do people malign the body, call it names it does not deserve, ascribe adjectives to it that it has not warranted, but they even associate it with that which they see as perverse or wrong- reference with a sneer the "bodily pleasures," try to do away with it in its entirety.
Perhaps it is as simple as the fact that the body as an entity is outside the typical Jewish girl's realm of experience. So much of her life has been devoted to an understanding of (ideally) or an obsession with (unhappily) modesty, that is likely her notion of the body is totally skewed. The body is something which must be covered, something which has the ability to force men to lap at her skirts slavishly like dogs, something which must be hidden away- in other words, at the heart of the matter, women are made to be ashamed of their sexuality.
This is not only accomplished through tznius, I am certain, but simply with most Orthodox family's refraining to discuss the body as beautiful, instead considering it secret, hidden- something which cannot be brought out in public. The body, you see, gives pleasure- sexual pleasure, most specifically. And of course, in most people's minds, sexual pleasure immediately denotes sin. And hence the body must be sinful. Or so a good number of people think.
And I have to wonder why this correlation, why we have adopted Puritanism into Orthodoxy. It is understood that one sanctifies the body by keeping it separate, by obeying certain laws (mikvah especially) to keep it holy; it is understood by most in Orthodox circles that the body is to be shared only when one is married. But why have we made the further judgement, why have we now termed the body in and of itself "disgusting?" Why degrade the body? Simply because it has the ability to bring sexual pleasure? And since when is sexual pleasure a sin! If taken outside the bounds of marriage, the Torah cautions, it may then be a sin- but surely this pleasure in and of itself is not sinful! Surely the body in and of itself is not disgusting!
It saddens me to think that there are women who grow up ashamed of their bodies, not because they are physically malformed or concerned about their weight, or God forbid, suffering from an eating disorder, but simply because they have been brought up to think the body is in and of itself sinful, and an appreciation of the body must mean that one is sinful as well. To connect the body to sin, to connect pleasure with that which is disgusting- why is this necessary? Are we so afraid?
Is the only way to slake one's lust to instill revulsion and disgust with the object of one's lust? Is that really what we believe today?
I hope not...
because it would be a sad society that did not recognize the beauty of the body, in and of itself, that flesh which is us and sustains us, on the biological and internal level of the organs that keep us functioning, and on the physical level of beauty. The Torah itself mentions the physical traits of various men and women in the Torah (Sarah, Joseph, Esther and so on) and does not do so apologetically. This is a character description; their beauty is a part of them- and may even be important in further description of the characters (particularly seen by Joseph, also seen by literal interpretation of the Book of Esther.) In fact, beauty almost always plays a major role in the story (why did Jacob prefer Rachel to Esther? why was Sarah taken from Abraham and given to Pharoah?)
Why, then, have we decided that the body, beautiful as it is, is linked to sin? Why must the body be sinful; why must such ugly adjectives be forced upon such a beautiful creation?
God created man- with a body and a soul. God created man with a body that has the ability to give pleasure. God even sanctified this pleasure and this body. God, therefore, cannot believe that the body is in and of itself disgusting or ugly.
It is only the thoughts that dwell in the minds of those who fear the body...(and I do not say those made uncomfortable by the body, for that is different) that allows them to malign it in this fashion, to term it "disgusting" or laugh at that which they don't understand. These thoughts are of their own creation, probably demonstrative of their own repressed lusts and desires, urgings and leanings which they have been told are sinful. In retaliation, they take it out on the stimulus- the body.
And it is unfair. Unfair to the body, the beautiful body, our bodies in all their shapes and forms.
For the body has done nothing. The body merely is.
It is we who impress desires upon it, ascribe thoughts and leanings to it, tendencies. We who demean it and try to force it to be evil and bad when it is not.
If the body is disgusting, it is we who have made it so.
To me, therefore, the body can only be beautiful.