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Masking and Unmasking Ourselves

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Masking and Unmasking Ourselves

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Masking and Unmasking Ourselves
Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing & Identity
By Dr. Norman J. Cohen
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2012, 196 pages
ISBN: 978-1-58023-461-0

Reviewed by Israel Drazin - July 12, 2012

Authors frequently reveal much about the characters in their books, their attitudes and intentions, their strengths and faults, by describing the clothes they are wearing. Clothing is nonverbal communication. As Polonius advises his son in Shakespeare's Hamlet, "The apparel oft proclaims the man." The Bible uses clothing in the same way. Dr. Norman J. Cohen shows how this is done by discussing ten different paradigmatic biblical episodes involving clothes, thereby revealing the deeper meaning of the tales.

Cohen, for example, tells the significance of Adam and Eve's nakedness, the figs they donned, and the clothing that God prepared especially for them; Noah's drunken nakedness after his and his family's traumatic experience during the flooding of the earth, his youngest son's rushing from the scene, and his two other sons covering him without peeking at their father's naked body; Jacob disguising himself in his brother Esau's clothes to steal his brother's blessing from their father Isaac; Jacob presenting his son Joseph with a special cloak and Joseph's brothers tearing the cloak and smearing it with blood to fool Jacob into thinking Joseph was ripped apart and murdered by a wild beast; Tamar fooling Joseph's brother Judah with clothing; Potiphar's wife lying about Joseph's attempted rape by using his cloak; Moses stripping his brother Aaron of his priestly garments when Aaron was about to die; David refusing to wear King Saul's war garments and later tearing Saul's coat; the prophet Elisha donning the prophet Elijah's mantle when he assumed Elijah's role; and Esther, Mordechai, and Haman changing garments and identities.

Cohen's relies on how the ancient Midrashim explain the stories. (Midrashim were not meant to be taken literally, but are parables designed to capture the attention of the general public with fantastical stories and using the stories to teach moral behavior.) An example is the clothing that God, according to some Midrashim, made for Adam. This was a unique garment made, according to one Midrashic version, from the skin of the fish Leviathan; it had the beautiful smell of the Garden of Eden. It was passed on to Noah, then Abraham, and then Isaac. Isaac gave it to his son Esau. This was the garment that Jacob put on when he deceived his father Isaac. Esau always donned this special, beautiful, ancient garment when he met with his father; and the rabbis admitted that no one showed greater love for his father than Esau. This was the same garment that Jacob later gave to his son Joseph.

Besides using the Midrashic understanding of the biblical tales to reveal the stories' deeper meanings, Cohen shows how many cultures use clothing to express certain feelings, such as tearing clothes is a sign of mourning, and he also uses the stories to teach readers how they can better understand and improve themselves.

Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of eighteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House. His website is

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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