by Dr. David Sanders
“Your epidermis is showing!” My initial reaction to that childhood tease was embarrassment and a quick survey of my clothes. Once the secret was revealed, the sting of the taunt had little effect. Later in childhood I learned that skin was another surprise answer, this time to the question: “What is the largest organ of the body?” Hidden in plain sight, skin kept revealing new mysteries of life.
Our relationship with skin has a long history. Little wonder that the origin story of western civilization has Eve, and then Adam, eating forbidden fruit from the Knowledge Tree of Good and Evil and realizing they are naked. Ashamed, they cover up and hide. God counts to ten and comes seeking. Finding the couple huddled behind a bush, their bodies adorned with fig leaves, God taunts, “Who told you that your epidermis is showing?”
In the continuation of the story, after rebuke and impending banishment from Eden Garden, the narrative ends with God tailoring for Eve and Adam “clothing of skins.” Genesis 3: 21 reads: “And God made tunics of skin and clothed them.” The traditional commentaries provide various suggestions for what the clothing was made of: rabbit fur, leather, wool, linen, even snake skin—the common denominator of these interpretations is that God provided them with clothing to cover their “nakedness” on their journey beyond Eden Garden.
The thousand-year-old mystical tradition of Judaism called Kabbalah reveals that when Eve and Adam ate from the Knowledge Tree of Good and Evil they became human beings with skin. In this metaphoric interpretation of the story, God is not tailoring a Versace ensemble. God fashions for them a body; skin is their clothing. If they are now human “skin” beings, what were they before eating from the Knowledge Tree? What were they in their original form? Kabbalah refers to their primordial state as beings of light. They had no definitive shape, no boundaries; they were pure energy. In eating from the Knowledge Tree, they became distinct, defined, separate beings, clothed within a casing of skin. Light became dense and opaque, energy thickened into matter.
On their way out of Eden Garden, Eve and Adam, now in human form, did not leave with matching luggage. But they were carrying baggage, adorned in a body and weighed down by the dual masks of shame and blame. They no longer experienced oneness; neither one with each other, nor one with nature. They had acquired skin bodies and developed exclusionary self-interests. The first marital conflict (he said, she said) led to a prolonged break up. The couple reunited after they were able to untangle the knots of projected blame, relieve their feeling of shame and know each other once again in intimate connection.
As seen through the lens of Kabbalah, the story of Eve and Adam is a guide to reveal our original skin and to suggest that intimate knowing, of self and other, is the way back to Eden Garden. Many spiritual teachers and teachings would have us follow a path toward enlightenment that professes the shedding of “skin”–letting go of distinctions, finding oneness in the dissolution of boundaries; denying the existence of self altogether, untethering the soul from the body.
In the view of Kabbalah, body and soul are tethered. Our task is not to untether them; it is to untangle them if and when, like shoelaces or an anxious stomach, they become knotted up. What are we untangling? Our over-identification with our physical bodies, feelings and thoughts, our affiliations, roles, identities and selves. All of these aspects are referred to in Kabbalah as clothing or masks. Spiritual growth isn’t realized by removing our masks or a snake-like shedding of our clothes. Spiritual maturity is found in altering our relationship with the “clothing” we inhabit–the masks we wear–progressively being more comfortable in our own skin. That challenge, which is a substantial one, is the task of getting to know the different layers of the masks we wear. With awareness we come to accept that while we can change or modify our masks, we will always be clothed in skin, as Andre Berthiaume considers: “We all wear masks and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.”
The Eve and Adam myth is our story. Their challenge is our challenge. Can we progressively gain greater awareness of our masks and become more comfortable in our own skin? Can we support and embrace others as they work toward being more comfortable in their own skin? This requires us to often tolerate a modicum of discomfort as we encounter deeper layers of the masks that we and others wear. Recognizing our masks is a significant step forward to seeing self and other in a different light.
The biblical story in Genesis contains another insight. In God’s initial admonition to Eve and Adam, they are warned that if they disobey and partake of the Knowledge Tree of Good and Evil they “shall surely die.” As is clear from the story, having eaten from the Tree, they don’t die. The commentators are again of one mind: The warning was not that they would die on the spot–the consequence was they would lose their immortality or, better understood, become aware of their mortality.
The realization of mortality engenders both crisis and opportunity regarding our relationship to our body and other masks. Does the attachment to the mask of the body thicken due to our natural fears and anxiety about the dissolution of the body and self? Or does the aging of the body and the awareness that death is a natural inevitability allow us to acknowledge and accept the impermanence of our body and the dissolution of self? After all, it is just our epidermis that is showing.