The Enterprise of Walking Naked


By David Curzon

Published March 05, 2004, issue of March 05, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

What are we to make of the long descriptions of the High Priest’s ceremonial garments in this week’s portion? The garments include a breastplate, a robe, a fringed tunic, a headdress and a sash and an ephod, or long tunic, and each is described in detail. The robe, for example, is to have embroidered pomegranates “of blue, purple and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around” (Exodus 28:33). These “holy garments” are to be worn “for dignity and adornment.”

George Herbert (1593-1633) has written a poem, “Aaron,” which is based on the High Priest’s headdress, breastplate and robe:

Holinesse on the head,Light and perfections on the breast,Harmonious bells below, raising the deadTo lead them unto life and rest:Thus are true Aarons drest.

Herbert immediately applies all this to himself in an anguish of introspective comparison:

Profanenesse in my head,Defects and darknesse in my breast,A noise of passions ringing me for deadUnto a place where is no rest:Poore priest thus am I drest.

And this, to come back to my opening question, is one way of making use of the descriptions in Exodus 28. But it’s a bit of a stretch, and probably was a stretch even for an Anglican priest of the early 17th century like George Herbert. The descriptions of the High Priest’s garments prompted quite different thoughts in myself.

One of the central impulses of the last century or two has been to strip away human pretensions. Our entire planet is an almost infinitely small part of the known universe; we not only evolved from the primordial slime but our DNA turns out to be not very different to that of an earthworm and virtually identical to that of a chimpanzee; our leaders are not all-knowing and wise and the few kings and queens and princes and princesses left for our contemplation now rarely bother to dress up in royal costumes. The intellectual and social developments that led to this state of affairs make it difficult for us to be in awe of, or even attribute a special dignity to, a person in office, let alone in robes of office.

The felt necessity of these developments, and the concomitant loss, was one of the problems that preoccupied William Butler Yeats. In an early collection of his poetry, published in 1893, Yeats, talking of the old Irish heroes and heroines and fairies and other ancient folk, says,

I cast my heart into my rhymes,That you, in the dim coming times,May know how my heart went with themAfter the red-rose-bordered hem.

But not too long into the dim coming times of the new century, even before the First World War, Yeats was informing his readers that although he had previously “made my song a coat/ Covered with old embroideries” he was now casting it off,

For there’s more enterpriseIn walking naked.

In spite of this resolve, however, Yeats tells us in his last collection of poems that

Players and the painted stage took all my loveAnd not those things that they were emblems of.

Why couldn’t he shake this absorption with artifact and show? He gives the best answer in an early poem, “The Mask.” When the subsidiary speaker in the poem asks the protagonist to take off his mask, this is the response:

It was the mask engaged your mind,And after set your heart to beat,Not what’s behind.

And the subsequent request to see what is behind the mask for the sake of the truth, gets this response:

O no, my dear, let all that be;What matter, so there is but fireIn you, in me?

The robes of the High Priest engaged the minds of those who watched him perform his functions, and helped keep the fire of their awe and belief burning in them. Ancient Israel was not dedicated to the proposition that there’s more enterprise in walking naked, and its beliefs had hems embroidered with blue, purple and crimson pomegranates and hung with golden bells. But we, who live in the dim times that have come, have to believe whatever we believe without the support of embroidery.

David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Will Lubavitcher Rabbi Moshe Wiener be the next Met Council CEO?
  • Angelina Jolie changed everything — but not just for the better:
  • Prime Suspect? Prime Minister.
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.