Masking and Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing & Identity

A book from Jewish Lights, SkyLight Paths’ sister imprint

Presents Bible stories that involve clothing in an essential way as a means of learning about the text, its characters & their interactions. Uses the garments of the Bible to show us how to shed our own layers of covering & reveal our authentic selves.

Dr. Norman J. Cohen

6 x 9, 224 pp | 978-1-58023-461-0

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Our clothes conceal our naked bodies but what do they reveal about our souls?

“Clothes assume a primary importance as a vehicle that suggests character, provides insights into a person's identity and even governs itɮ But the problem is that if Oscar Wilde is correct that 'if you give a man a mask, he will tell you the truth,' then what exactly conveys the truth? Is it the person him or herself or is it the mask, the clothing that he or she wears, that reveals deeper images of self?”

—from the Introduction

In this highly engaging look at clothing and identity in the Bible, renowned teacher and scholar Norman Cohen presents ten Bible stories that involve clothing in an essential way, as a means of learning about the text, its characters and their interactions. But he also shows us how these stories help us confront our own life dramas, our own stories, ourselves. In doing so, he once again presents the Bible as a mirror, reflecting back to us our own personalities, ambivalences, struggles and potential for growth. By helping us uncover the garments of the Bible, Cohen shows us how to shed our own layers of insulation to reveal our authentic selves.

“With eye-popping surprises on almost every page, Cohen invites us to reconsider our own disguises (and any visit to the tailor)!”

Lawrence Kushner, Emanu-El Scholar, Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco; author, I’m God; You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion and Other Disguises of the Ego

“A compassionate meditation on the human condition ... Cohen again demonstrates that Torah is the appropriate dressing to cure the ailment of Adam’s mortality.”

Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, The Jewish Theological Seminary; author, Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud

“Long have we waited for an illuminating study of the biblical mystique of clothes. Thanks now to the lively and thoughtful prose of Cohen, we wait no more.”

Phyllis Trible, Baldwin Professor of Sacred Literature, Emerita, Union Theological Seminary

“Brilliantly informative.... Holds up a mirror and prompts us to reflect on whether the world sees us as we see ourselves.”

Peter J. Rubinstein, senior rabbi, Central Synagogue, New York City

“From Scripture to Shakespeare, Cohen weaves an extended creative midrash ... covering and uncovering layers of meaning in ancient texts.”

Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams, author, The Other Talmud—The Yerushalmi: Unlocking the Secrets of The Talmud of Israel for Judaism Today

1 Divine Garments of Creation Concealing Our Nakedness, Revealing Our Inner Core (GENESIS 3)
2 Noah's Garments after the Flood Ensuring Protection or Covering Shame? (GENESIS 9)
3 The Garments of Disguise—Am I Jacob or Esau? Revealing and Concealing Identity (GENESIS 27)
4 Stripping Joseph of His Special Coat A Symbol of Power and Status, a Source of Pain and Isolation (GENESIS 37)
5 Tamar Confronts Judah Masks Can Reveal More Than They Conceal about Us (GENESIS 38)
6 Joseph and Potipharճ Wife Uncovering True Identity (GENESIS 39)
7 Aaronճ Death and the Symbolism of the Priestly Garments Vehicles of Holiness and Transformation (NUMBERS 20)
8 David Dons Saulճ Armor Wearing Our Garments, Embracing Our Own Identity (1 AND 2 SAMUEL) 9 Elijah and Elisha—Transferring the Prophetճ Mantle Passing on Authority, Wearing It in Individual Ways (1 AND 2 KINGS)
10 Esther, Mordechai, and Haman Change of Garments; Change of Identity (THE BOOK OF ESTHER) Epilogue
Suggested Further Readings


Why do you choose to focus on biblical material as filtered through the prism of the rabbinic tradition?
I believe that as we read and interpret the stories of the Bible, especially through the lens of the midrash (the process of rabbinic interpretation of the Bible), we not only learn about the biblical material and characters, but about ourselves as human beings. We confront characters at the crossroads of their lives, in life situations with which we can identify. The biblical stories are like a mirrorthey reflect back to us who we are and who we aspire to be. As we immerse ourselves in the text, we are challenged to reflect on the story of our own lives and on our relationships.

Of all the possible ways to approach the biblical material, why did you choose to write about clothing? What attracted you to this topic, which on the surface seems so unimportant to the meaning of the biblical stories?
The recognition of the symbolic power of clothing is universal; it is evident in all cultures. Clothing, indeed, is a crucial element in every human context and contact, and it often reveals much about the individual who wears it. In classic literature, clothes often assume a primary importance in conveying the nature of a character and in establishing the narrative line. We also see its symbolic importance in contemporary political life. The Bible is no different. The use of clothing is found in almost every important biblical scene, and the way garments are put on and taken off, how they are handled, and who wears them can have great significance. Simply said, they are important literary vehicles that can help us as readers plumb the depths of meaning of the biblical material for our lives.

A major metaphor of your book is that the clothes that God made for Adam and Eve before they were banished from the Garden of Eden were handed down from generation to generation, eventually to be worn by the Messiah at the end of time. Why did you use this as the thread to run through all the biblical narratives?
First, there is a rabbinic tradition that God wore seven different garments at various key stages in human history, from the Creation to the coming of the Messiah. I simply built upon that tradition, picturing the garments that Adam and Eve wore as they left the Garden being worn by all the major biblical characters. However, the metaphor has an inherent power to it. If the garments were passed down and preserved by successive generations, it forces us as readers to think about the metaphorical garments that we have been bequeathed by our parents and grandparents, whether we have preserved them, and whether they are still a part of us. Concomitantly, have we succeeded in handing down these very garments to our children, and do they recognize their beauty?

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  • If Polonius is correct in saying that “the apparel oft proclaims the man,” when have you noticed that clothes reveal an individual’s identity, position, status, or desires?
  • On the other hand, can you also think of examples when clothing masked a person’s true identity?

Chapter 1

  • The midrash suggests that the garments God made for Adam and Eve when they left the Garden of Eden were fashioned from the skin shed by the serpent. What can you learn from the notion that the very object that reminded them of their sin, their frailty, can be used to cover and protect them, thereby ensuring their survival?
  • Do you yourself carry reminders of past actions of which you are not proud but which can serve as goads to change?

Chapter 2

  • Noah is described as living in the tension between his higher self, represented by the Divine garments from Eden which he wore, and his primitive self, represented by his uncovering himself in a drunken stupor. In what way does this resonate with your own ambivalences? How can we hold out a picture of what we can be even as we live with our failures and shortcomings?
  • Witnessing their father’s nakedness, his imperfection, had a lasting impact on Noah’s sons. What impact did your parents’ less-than-stellar actions have on you? How did you respond when you witnessed or became aware of your parents’ shortcomings?

Chapter 3

  • The garments of Eden are pictured as being passed down from generation to generation. What “garments” were you bequeathed from your parents and grandparentsand have you preserved them?
  • Have your children made the “garments” you strove to give them a part of themselves or are they hidden away in the closet never to be worn?
  • Does the midrash about Esau wearing his special garments when he served his father, Isaac, resonate with you? What were your feelings when you were the caregiver to your parent or to someone else whom you love?

Chapter 4

  • Who might be the Joseph in your family? Why?
  • Joseph’s coat resulted in his brothers hating him. What “garments” have individuals in your family worn that have caused tensions in your family?
  • Sometimes the garments that we wear mask our vulnerability, as it may have in Joseph’s case. Have you ever donned a mask to camouflage difficult feelings on your part?

Chapter 5

  • Tamar disguised herself in order to appear “other” than who she was. When have you encountered individuals who are facile in donning masks to appear caring, sincere, present, though this may be studied and purposeful?
  • In what ways can you identify with Tamar and what she must have felt as she sat alone and vulnerable on the road to Timnah waiting for Judah to pass by? Judah came to recognize himself because of Tamar. Have you have been forced to see yourself more clearly due to another person?

Chapter 6

  • According to several midrashim, it was Joseph’s ego and vanity that got him in trouble with Zuleika (Mrs. Potiphar). Do you recall an instance when you were the cause of trouble for yourself?
  • When accosted by Zuleika, Joseph leaves the tattered coat in Zuleika’s hands; he finally does abandon the mask (the coat which symbolizes his ego and boastfulness) that he wore. What enabled him to do that?
  • Have you ever struggled to let go of a “mask” that you wore, an aspect of yourself which may have become deeply ingrained?

Chapter 7

  • The tradition suggests that when the Israelites encountered the High Priest in the Sanctuary wearing his white priestly garments, God’s Presence rested upon him. Have you ever felt God’s Presence when you were in a worship setting?
  • The priest’s sacred garments could not be worn outside the Sanctuary because their holiness had to be preserved. Have we today lost a sense of the sacred as we seem to be more casual about ritual?
  • When Moses saw Aaron handing over his high-priestly role and core identity to his two sons, he lamented that his own sons did not follow in his footsteps. To what extent have your children embraced that which is meaningful to you, your values, your life commitments?

Chapter 8

  • King Saul desperately grabbed hold of the prophet Samuel’s garment when he told the king that God had rejected his kingship. Have you ever “grasped at straws” to hold on to a relationship following your own inability to live up to the expectations of the other?
  • David refused to wear Saul’s armor when he went out to fight Goliath since it did not fit him. Have you ever attempted to assume a role that didn’t fit you or, did you, like David, realize that the “clothes” didn’t fit who you were?

Chapter 9

  • Prophets wore distinctive garments which enabled the people to identify them. What are the “garments” that contemporary leaders wear that make them stand out? What are the distinct traits that leaders must possess?
  • The transferring of the prophet’s mantle was the way a successor was inaugurated (Elijah passed his garment to Elisha) and it guaranteed his success. In what ways must today’s leader ensure the smooth transition of leadership and help the new leader succeed?

Chapter 10

  • Esther was reticent to go to the court of King Ahasuerus, reveal her Jewish identity, and speak on behalf of her persecuted people. Can you identify with Esther’s anxiety? Were you ever afraid to confront power and authority, to stand up for what you believe, even when important issues were involved?
  • Initially, Mordechai refused to dress in royal garb; he was not comfortable donning garments of royalty. Have you ever felt uncomfortable assuming a particular role, wearing “garments” to which you are unaccustomed?
  • Mordechai’s sudden change of role forces us to think about how we adjusted to changes in our lives and positions. When you have experienced such changes, have you felt deserving or capable of your newly acquired status?


  • What were the most important insights you gained from the book?
  • What did you learn about the Bible and midrash and their relevance to your life?
  • Which citations drawn from classic literature or examples from modern life did you find most enlightening?
  • How did the metaphor of clothing work as a means of gaining entree into the meaning of the biblical text?