Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Nudes in Shul

Over Yom Tov I read Aphrodite and the Rabbis: How the Jews Adapted Roman Culture to Create Judaism as We Know It. It's a fascinating book. The author describes how the cultural norms of the Roman Empire shaped early Rabbinic Judaism.

One of many interesting things he mentions is a synagogue discovered at Dura. This was a town on the border of the Roman and Persian empires. When the Persians attacked the Roman Empire, Dura was in the path of their advance. The citizens of the town piled earth against the inside of the town walls to reinforce it in preparation for the coming attack. The buildings that abutted the walls, including this synagogue, were filled with dirt. The Persians rolled over the town on their way into the Roman Empire, and the town was left abandoned.

It was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1920s. The dirt piled in the buildings along the walls millennia before had preserved them in near-perfect condition. In the synagogue, the archaeologists  discovered a mural on the walls that depicted scenes from Tanach. One interesting detail is that the Jewish Biblical figures were dressed in then-contemporary Roman fashions, while Achashverosh was painted in then-contemporary Persian fashions.

Related image

Another, particularly noteworthy detail in light of current frum mores is the panel depicting Basya pulling Moshe from the Nile. The princess is knee-deep in the water, and, quite sensibly for someone who's bathing, is nude.

Image result for dura synagogue batya

It's unclear whether the congregation who worshipped at the Dura synagogue were Rabbinic Jews. Nonetheless, they were heirs of the Jewish tradition no less than any other community of Jews of their time. And they had a painting of a nude woman on the wall of their shul. Granted, a nude with no detail, but still a nude. What would they have thought of the communities today - communities that claim to be the exclusive true heirs of the Way Judaism Has Always Been - who won't display in their publications or public spaces images of women dressed to even the most stringent standards of tznius?


  1. As Shapiro noted in Changing the Immutable Seforim had what'd be considered pritzus nowadays on their front pages.

  2. Details like these are fascinating, a direct counterpoint to the idea of how a woman's body is essentially sexual and a man can't control his urges. Shmiras eynaim obviously meant something different then. Or maybe people just had a healthier idea of sexuality and of interaction between the sexes. Maybe men didn't excuse themselves by saying "boys will be boys" or "when it comes to women, men are basically animals." Maybe men had better opinions of themselves back then. (oops, ranting again. Fairly common side effect of the times we're in right now.)

    1. I think it's more likely different cultural perceptions of nudity, especially in art. The second-class status of women and casual misogyny in traditional Jewish sources are also products of their milieu.

    2. Maybe you should post on the evil,deviant behavior prohibited by Shulchan Aruch Even Haezer 23. /s

  3. The cultural norms of the ancient Canaanites, Egyptians, Babylonians and other ancient near east cultures shaped the ancient Israelite religion that eventually evolves into 'Rabbinic' Judaism. No surprise, the Romans also influenced Judaism. Need to read the book. BTW Aphrodite may relate to Asherah the consort of El/Yahweh according to some scholars.