Today’s daf continues to discuss the relationship between the physical and the holy, and in particular whether the former precludes performance of the latter. The rabbis want to know: Can one pray while burping and yawning? How about sneezing? Can one recite the Shema in close proximity to a naked body?
This prompts the rabbis to engage in a lengthy discussion about what constitutes nakedness. The word they use is erva (ערוה, pronounced AIR-vah), which can mean nakedness, but can also refer to the sexual organs specifically or to lewdness in general.
Rabbi Yitzhak makes the claim that even a handbreadth of a woman’s body is erva, seeming to suggest that even a small exposure of the body can be perceived as sexual. Other rabbis make additional statements along these lines. Rav Ḥisda says that a woman’s exposed leg is erva. Shmuel says a woman singing is erva. Rav Sheshet says a woman’s hair is erva. Even looking at a woman’s finger, according to Rav Sheshet, is akin to staring at her genitals.
The Talmud is an authoritative cultural voice, so these claims have a double function of being both descriptive and prescriptive. Statements about a woman’s nakedness both describe a reality and create one, objectifying and sexualizing almost every physical aspect of a person’s body — and maybe specifically a woman’s body. Even that which that could be used for spiritual elevation, a woman’s singing voice, is reduced to a single dimension: Erva!
But as so often happens in the Talmud, the same page makes what seems like the very opposite claim. Shmuel, who himself takes part in the previous conversation, says that one can recite the Shema while lying next to someone naked in bed. The Talmud elaborates: Even exposed buttocks aren’t a problem. Even your sexual partner isn’t a problem.
Today’s daf reflects two important cultural assumptions: one which automatically connects the body to sexuality and another which claims that there is an inherent contradiction between sexuality and holiness.
The claims about erva reflect the assumption that a body, and maybe particularly a woman’s body, is inherently sexual and thus at odds with the human quest for holiness. But Shmuel’s voice invites us to imagine a different, more organic and more holistic connection between sexuality and holiness, one which insists that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.