The first reference that we find regarding the use of clothing is in the book of Genesis (2:25), regarding the first man and woman, Adam and Eve: “And both were naked, man and woman, and they were not ashamed.” After having eaten from the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the Torah (ibid. 3:7) says that “their eyes were opened, and they became aware that they were naked; they sewed fig leaves, and made aprons for themselves.”

Here we have the key to understanding the mystery of nakedness, the shame it produces, and the nature and value of modesty.

Why is it that Adam and Eve felt no shame at being naked before eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and then felt shame after having eaten from its forbidden fruits?

The following explanation is based on the commentary of Rabbi Chaim ben Attar (1696–1743), also known as the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh:

Before transgressing G‑d’s will by eating of the forbidden fruits, man had no desire for doing something that would transgress the will of his Creator. Evil, represented by the snake, was totally external to man, pressuring to invade and corrupt him.

Before partaking of the forbidden fruit, Adam’s only consideration when deciding whether or not to do something was whether it was correct or incorrect, determined by whether or not it conformed to G‑d’s will. In his consciousness, everything existed solely in order to be used to serve his Creator. It did not occur to him to consider doing something that would cause him pleasure, if was incorrect to do so. All the organs in his body were to be used solely for fulfilling the purpose for which they were created. None were cause for shame.

After violating G‑d’s will and eating the forbidden fruit, evil entered into Adam’s system and became a part of him. From that moment on, he acquired the criteria of “it feels good” and “it doesn’t feel good,” in addition to the criteria of “correct” and “incorrect.” This new perspective, the result of his weakness, produced shame in Adam, the crown of Creation, who had been created to dominate his instincts and channel them towards the service of G‑d, and not to be dominated by them like his inferior, the animal.

His reaction to this newfound reality was to cover the most intense expression of this vulnerable aspect of his being. Since then, modesty has been embedded in the human psyche.

Judaism does not consider sexuality per se to be shameful. Judaism actually considers sexuality to be holy. It is an obligation to marry and to satisfy the sexual needs of one’s spouse. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew word for marriage is kiddushin, from the root kadesh, “sanctify.” It is its expression out of place, as a result of one’s weakness, that is cause for shame. Indeed, that which has great potential for good has equal potential for the contrary.

Fire Safety

I once attended a course on fire safety. The first thing we were asked was to define the difference between “fire” and “a fire.” The answer did not take long in coming: “a fire” is fire out of control ... With controlled fire, one can accomplish great things; but once control of it is lost, it’s a whole different story.

The same holds true regarding the sexual instinct. If one controls it, he or she can sanctify it and attain through it spiritual levels greater than those attained by angels; if, however, control over it is lost, one can sink to become spiritually inferior to the animal.

It is precisely due to the great respect for this powerful—and, at the same time, fragile—facet of our humanity that Judaism has imposed so many norms of modesty and protection.

This also explains why Judaism requires a physical separation between men and women, in the synagogue as well as on other occasions. The chemistry between man and woman, in all of its manifestations, is holy and therefore is reserved for exclusive expression within the intimacy of the married couple.

In Jewish life, the holier something is, the more hidden and protected it is. Notice that the holiest object, the Torah scroll, is guarded in the synagogue’s ark behind a curtain, mirroring the way the holy ark was hidden and protected in the Tabernacle and the Holy Temples of Jerusalem. Holiness goes hand in hand with modesty.

The Jewish code of modesty in dress aims to cover that which we share with the animal, and highlight that which distinguishes us, namely our face and hands. In today’s Western world, clothing is frequently used for precisely the opposite goal—to show off our animal facets with the intention of giving them free expression and, in turn, provoking in others their animal instincts. Judaism looks to protect us against these misplaced expressions of this natural instinct, and to cultivate within us a sensitivity and aspiration to holiness.

When we dress, we all look to show off as well as to hide and protect. The question is merely which aspects do we want to share, and which aspects do we want to draw attention away from.