Love Compresses the Flesh

Susanna and the Elders, Peter Paul Rubens, Date: 1609 – 1610.

Are some subjects off-limits in the arts? That is, are some objects suitable for painting, for example, and others not? What about literature? Is Oscar Wilde right when he says in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Is that all? Are there things that should not be written, no matter how well composed they are? What about other areas? Consider one in which the answer might seem obvious, religion. Are there topics inappropriate for religious discussion, unacceptable for spiritual guidance? Are there Sacred issues, and others that are Profane, too profane for ethical use? Is there any overlap?

Peter Paul Reubens (d. 1640), the Flemish Baroque painter, is noted for often painting what we might describe today as “full-bodied” human figures. It is such a common characteristic of his style that a term exists to describe it, Rubenesque. Here is the term’s definition from Merriam-Webster.

Ru·ben·esque \ˌrü-bə-ˈnesk\ adj (1913)    : of, relating to, or suggestive of the painter Rubens or his works; esp : plump or rounded usu. in a pleasing or attractive way

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.
Rubens and His Wife, Fernando Botero, Date: 1965.

Fernando Botero (b. 1932) is a Columbian painter. Like Reubens, he has a distinctive style. All of his figures are large. His unique style is called “boterismo.” It seemed particularly apt to have a painting by Botero of Reubens and his wife in this post.

The reason I bring up these two painters particularly noted for their painting of fleshy figures is because of a discussion I read recently in the Talmud, Bava Metzia, 84a. Here is the record of the conversation, as found in Hebrew/English on the website Sefaria. (Bold type represents the translation of the Hebrew text; the non-bold type, explanatory comments. Note that the Hebrew text is read from right to left.)

Well! How could this story possibly provide spiritual advice, soul guidance? In the Talmud text, immediately following the one above, the sages ask why the rabbis even reply to the woman’s question. They cite as a reason the rabbis should have kept silent a biblical verse: Answer not a fool according to his folly. (Proverbs 26:4). But then they provide an answer. “To permit no stigma upon their children.” A woman’s children from an adulterous relationship have a problematic status in Judaism. The rabbis respond to the woman to defend their wives’ honor and the honor of their children. And we learn this lesson from an earthy discussion: Sometimes, it is necessary to answer a fool.

I want to focus for a moment on the last words, “Love compresses the flesh.” There are no comments on these words in the text. One’s imagination is free to come up with what they might mean in the given context. However, Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, and author of the Tanya, does discuss the phrase. In Chapter 49 of the Tanya, Shneur Zalman, also known as the Alter Rebbe, interprets the phrase to mean that during worship, worshipers must diminish themselves, compress themselves. He says, “…nothing should get in the way, personally or circumstantially–neither the body nor the Soul, finances or family.” (trans. Chaim Miller). When praying, we diminish ourselves to make room for God. We compress or suppress our needs. Our love for God squeezes our flesh.

What a distance we have come! From what looked at first glance as an unseemly discussion, we moved to defending the honor of one’s spouse and children and ended with an understanding of how we should pray. What initially appeared to be an inappropriate topic for spiritual guidance turned out to be a spiritual cornucopia!

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

2 thoughts

  1. That’s a wonderful painting!

    As to the question at the start of this blog post, it’s an interesting one. To some extent the question of what may be considered too immoral to write is a question of taste and cultural expectations (I think that shows clearly in the changing subject matter of literature over the years) while there’s also the question of what is the writer’s point of view on the topic? A writer may feel the need to report on immoral things but the writing would only be immoral if it came from the immoral viewpoint (if that makes sense).

    Liked by 2 people

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