Today’s daf has a discussion which may seem particularly strange to modern readers – a discussion about when and how a man can expose himself publicly. It opens with Rabbi Zeira’s report about Rabbi Abbahu’s bathing practices.
Rabbi Zeira said: I saw that Rabbi Abbahu [while he was bathing] placed his hands over his genitals [for the sake of modesty].
The Talmud here insists that a man must not expose himself to others in public settings, an insistence that modern readers can certainly appreciate. And this is true both in mixed gender spaces such as rivers, and all-male spaces such as some public baths. Later on in the discussion, the Talmud raises a challenge to this view:
Didn’t Rabbi Abba say that Rav Huna said that Rav said: Anyone who places his hands over his genitals is as if he denies the covenant of our father Abraham?
Abraham was the first person commanded to perform the ritual of circumcision, which was meant to be a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham’s family. The Talmud thus raises a concern that covering oneself may be understood as rejecting that unbreakable covenant. So how to balance a commitment to religious expression and standards of public decency? The Gemara offers a fascinating compromise.
This is not difficult, as there is room to distinguish and say that this [the prohibition on covering one’s genitals], is when he is descending [into a river or public bath, and there is no one in front of him]. That [the permission to cover oneself] is when he is emerging [from the river or public bath, and is facing people].
In other words, when other people are present (such as, when one emerges from the bath), a modest impulse is appropriate. But when people are not directly looking and modesty is less obviously necessary, covering the genitals might be understood as a rejection of the sign of the covenant written into the flesh of Jewish men.
The Gemara then offers three cases of how rabbis dealt with this tension:
This is what Rava did: He bent over [when naked, so his genitals were not visible]. Rabbi Zeira would stand upright [presumably because of his concern about rejecting the covenant of Abraham]. When the Sages of the school of Rav Ashi descended [into the river or public bath] they stood upright [as no one was in front of them]. When they emerged, they bent over.
In this situation, there is a real conflict between modest behavior and affirming the Abrahamic covenant. The rabbis could easily have said that their religious commitment to the covenant overrode concerns about public exposure. They could have also easily said that concerns about public exposure overrode their public affirmation of the covenant, or come up with other ways of publicly affirming the covenant. But instead, they do neither. They find ways to affirm their commitment to the covenant while upholding public modes of modesty. They use creative thinking — and creative body postures! — to respect their relationship to God and their relationships with themselves and other human beings. And they also accept a plurality of approaches to the problem. And isn’t that a model for us all?