Naked Before God

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Sukkot arrived. Amidst our marital difficulties, but trying to keep face with our friends and the community, my spouse and I had organized, like we have in the past, a simchat beit hashoevah in our sukkah during one of the nights of Chol Hamoed. The evening is usually full of music, the presence of lots of good friends and acquaintances, plenty of jabbering and joking around, a short dvar Torah, and obviously lots of alcohol.

As the night went on and people were more inebriated, inhibitions were dropping and I wanted to use this context to try and get a bit more intimate with my wife. Forget about sex, we had barely touched in more than two months, sometimes moving awkwardly in the kitchen or other parts of the house to avoid any physical contact. We managed to hold hands and hug a little but nothing went further than that, even after she told me she was drunk off her ass. It was around midnight and she told me the world was spinning around her and that it was probably time for bed. There were still many people around and I told her that she should go lie down and I would take care of cleaning up with some friends once the party was officially over.

Having been somewhat aroused sexually from touching her, I was reminded of my naked Yom Kippur experience. I looked around the sukkah and spotted my friend Jake, who himself was quite intoxicated. Jake had had a colorful religious past, having tried out a few religions before converting to Judaism. He was always on the lookout for new, innovative and somewhat controversial ways of furthering his God connection. With the spirit in the air of letting down one’s guard, I decided I was going to tell Jake about my nude experience. He was sitting by himself at the edge of the sukkah, beer in hand. I scooted a chair up to him and opened up in conversation:

“Hey Jake, can I tell you something?”

“Ya, sure.”

“Well, you know we are always talking about prophecy and finding ways of bringing it back? Well, I think I’m on to something.”

I went through an explanation of the ideas that led me to my nude experience and then blurted out, nervously,

“I took my clothes off and stood naked in front of God on Yom Kippur in my backyard.”

I was waiting for the look of shock or surprise. I mean, we’d been to the mikvah together and in the presence of other nude men doing something quasi-religious. Yet ritual dunking is one thing. This was something entirely different, or so I thought. Praying while naked, on Yom Kippur, to God? I mean, it sounds somewhat controversial or possibly pagan, doesn’t it?

Jake listened and kept looking straight ahead, wearing a million dollar poker face. He wasn’t moved, startled or even stunned. After taking a gulp of beer, he turned to me and said,

“So you did like King Saul?”

Huh? What the heck was he talking about? I said,

“Say what? What on Earth are you referring to?”

He then replied suavely that the Bible recounts how Saul prophesied with the prophets, removing his clothes and wandering around naked day and night while speaking the word of God. Now I was in shock. Did the Bible really recount such a story? He confirmed it again and said, “Go look it up.” The conversation ended there. Soon the last of the revelers were leaving the sukkah and it was time to clean up.

The next day I took out the books of Samuel and looked up the story Jake was referring to. My eyes almost jumped out of their sockets as I read the following:

22 Then went he also to Ramah, and came to the great cistern that is in Secu; and he asked and said: ‘Where are Samuel and David?’ And one said: ‘Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah.’ 23 And he went thither to Naioth in Ramah; and the spirit of God came upon him also, and he went on, and prophesied, until he came to Naioth in Ramah. 24 And he also stripped off his clothes, and he also prophesied before Samuel, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say: ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’” (I Samuel Chapter 19, Verses 22-24, Machon Mamre translation)

King Saul walked around naked for a whole day speaking the word of God. This is actually recorded in the Bible. “Fascinating,” I thought to myself, “when you prophesy in front of the Lord, you get naked.” This is implied in the text since verse 24 suggests that Saul undressed like the other prophets who were engaged in prophecy. So I was onto something…talking to God naked, just like the prophets used to do. I then had to see what the commentators had to say about this.

Many biblical commentators try to interpret the above text as not meaning literally what it says. Some (1) understand the phrase “stripped off his clothes” as meaning that Saul removed his royal clothes to look more like a commoner and “lay down naked” as being either a euphemism for insanity or in reference to lacking his royal clothes. Other biblical commentators (2), however, understand the verse more literally and suggest that when prophecy comes, a person’s physicality, like his emotions or feelings, may become temporarily annulled, leading him to unclothe and think nothing of it. In other words, the act of removing one’s ego from oneself to become a vessel for divine inspiration may lead one to take one’s clothes off in a moment of ecstatic transcendental freedom.

Since coming to this realization and seeing what my friend Jake pointed out to me, I’ve now made this a yearly ritual on Yom Kippur. Whereas I haven’t yet achieved any prophecy, the actual act of getting naked on such a holy day, when pleasures such as sexual intercourse are forbidden, has helped me try to focus on the idea of letting go of inhibitions and being honest with myself about who I am and what I want to become. Now, I’m not exactly advocating that we should start having group nudity sessions on Yom Kippur in order to open up a conversation with God, even though the verses mentioned above seem to suggest that all the prophets along with Saul were prophesying naked. For many people, mental exercises visualizing the removal of layers of clothing will probably suffice. However, there is something substantially more tangible and tactile about actually removing your clothes and getting in the nude. To me at least, the physical removal of layers and barriers, symbolized by the clothes, enables one to access deeper truths about oneself.

In Judaism, sex rites are usually ascribed to pagan cultures and worship. Even though prophesying naked isn’t exactly a sex rite, it seems to suggest that the exposure of the naked flesh and sex organs to the elements somehow heightens the spiritual senses. Just as ancient warriors would grow their hair long before battle to heighten their awareness, it could be that removing your clothes, literally, allows the body a heightened awareness of spirituality. And we have a source for this in the Bible. Maybe this is one of the reasons orthodox Jewish practice mandates that sex be experienced unclothed, in an attempt to heighten the spiritual sensation of the sex act? If you’re like me and live in a climate hot enough that being outside in the nude around Yom Kippur isn’t a frigid experience, then maybe you should think about disrobing in front of God this year as the gates of judgment are closing, asking yourself, who am I really and what do I want to become?

Footnotes

1. For example Rashi, Metzudot David, Dvar Shmuel and Rabbeinu Yishaya.

2. Such as Radak and Ralbag.

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  • ProudHubby

    That was refreshingly honest, sincere and insightful! Thanks for posting!