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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated. For more Double Mitzvahs by Sender Rozesz, check out A Woman’s Vow, Sexual Motive, Choose Your Own Spouse, The Post-Honeymoon Journey,A Wise and Understanding People, and The Blessing of Fertility.
There is a very provocative word that accompanies some of the Torah‘s negative commandments. This is a word that is frequently highlighted by both “bible-thumpers,” in emphasizing the importance of a particular proscription, as well as “progressives,” in mocking the Torah’s perceived antiquated values.
The word is “To’eiva,” most commonly translated as “abomination.”
Merriam-Webster defines abomination as “something that causes disgust or hatred.” That’s a fairly strong feeling. It denotes more than casual disinterest, or even dislike; it evokes “disgust” or “hatred.” Hatred is referred to throughout the Torah as “Sina“; so that leaves “disgust” as the most likely feeling associated with the word “To’eiva.”
What does that even mean, in the context of G-d’s feelings? G-d, who has created humankind, with all of its varied tastes and proclivities. If someone has an urge to do something, where did that urge come from? Is it not, ultimately, a divine creation? For an omniscient and omnipresent G-d, can there really be something in His own world that “disgusts” Him? Is there some kink that G-d Himself is too narrow-minded to countenance?
And is there any relationship between what G-d finds “disgusting” or “hateful” and things that we might intuitively consider “beyond the pale”?
Those opposed to homosexual behavior will frequently tout Leviticus, 18:26, in which a male is enjoined from “laying with another man as with a woman,” such an act being described as a To’eiva. However, one often walks away with a sense that it is actually their own disgust that drives their condemnation – not G-d’s. The truth is, that there are many acts that G-d refers to as “To’eivot“; many of which you may find surprising, as they may not even trigger your disgust-O-meter. For example:
In addition to the above examples, we find an interesting use of a derivative of “To’eiva ” in Deuteronomy, 23:8. There, the Jewish people are admonished “Lo Teta’eiv Adomi…Lo Teta’eiv Mitzri” – you must not despise an Edomite, for he is your brother; you must not despise an Egyptian, for you were stranger in his land.” Note how in that case, the translation of the same word switches from “abomination” to “despise”? A fluctuating definition is usually a clue that the true meaning may be missed.
Whatever To’eiva really means, the above should make clear that it doesn’t necessarily mean something that offends our sensibilities.
How about drinking blood? Can you tell – without peeking, and pretending that you never watched True Blood – whether drinking blood qualifies as a To’eiva ?
Let’s examine the first time the word To’eiva appears in the Torah.
In Genesis, 43:32, Joseph, unbeknownst to his eleven brothers, has become the viceroy of Egypt in a famine-plagued Middle East, and has stockpiled enough grain to supply Egypt and the neighboring countries with food. Joseph’s brothers journey from the Land of Canaan to Egypt to purchase grain, and end up being invited to Joseph’s palace for dinner. The verse states: “They served him [Joseph] separately, and them [the brothers] separately, and the Egyptians who were eating with him separately, for the Egyptians could not eat a meal together with the Hebrews, since this was an abomination [To’eiva] for the Egyptians.”
Why was it an “abomination” for the Egyptians to eat with Hebrews? Was there anything inherently revolting about them? Surely Joseph’s brothers had washed behind their ears and dabbed themselves with cologne? And wasn’t Joseph himself a Hebrew, a fact known to all of Egypt?
Yet the abomination wasn’t because there was anything intuitively disgusting about the Hebrews. It was because the cultural divide between the Egyptians and the Hebrews was so vast, the line delineating their two worlds so pronounced, that crossing that boundary created a visceral reaction for the Egyptians. Indeed, animals that the Egyptians worshipped as gods, the Hebrews ate for dinner. The gulf between the two cultures was simply so wide that it did not permit social mingling.
The same word is repeated later in Genesis, 46:34, in the context of Joseph assuring his newly-emigrated brothers that if they want to be left alone, and avoid being drafted into the Egyptian army, they need only tell Pharaoh that they are shepherds, “for all shepherds are abhorrent [To’avat] to the Egyptians. This, too, is a feature of the shepherds’ vastly removed social status, inasmuch as their career was one in which they were constantly focused on the mundane mortality of livestock – the very same animals that the Egyptians regarded as gods. This cultural barrier created a taboo, a wall.
In fact, “taboo” would seem to be a far superior translation of To’eiva than “abomination.” A taboo is either a prohibition or a strongly-inculpated aversion to an action based upon the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake. Not every prohibition or distasteful action achieves “taboo” status; it is a label reserved for those things that define our culture, that separate our world from the world of those who engage in such conduct.
I might even suggest that the modern word taboo may have its etymological roots in the word To’eiva. In Hebrew letters, To’eiva consists of the root letters: Tav (the equivalent of the letter “T”), Ayin (the equivalent of the letter “A”), and Vet or Bet (the equivalent of the letter “B”). Thus, the root of the word To’eiva is “T-A-B.” It’s certainly an interesting coincidence.
And it is a much better fit. G-d gives us rules, commandments, advice, and encouragement; but He also lets us know His lines, His boundaries, His barriers that are not to be crossed. Not because there is anything inherently disgusting about what is on the other side, but because the other side represents another universe, another dimension, that is so at odds with our own, that G-d doesn’t want us to visit. Idol worship is one such other universe, and is an easy one to understand. It’s not that the urge to worship idols is somehow revolting, something that G-d cannot stomach; it’s that worshipping a being other than G-d is antithetical to the universe that G-d created for us to live in. That “other world” is taboo – a To’eiva.
The same is true of non-kosher food, sex with a menstruating woman, or remarrying a divorced woman who had been remarried in the interim. In all of those examples, the word “Tuma,” or “impurity” is used. There is nothing physically unclean about it. Spiritual impurity simply represents a force that is inconsistent with the architecture of G-d’s world. (Notably, non-kosher animals are only “impure” when it comes to eating them; they are not impure with respect to riding them, or other uses.)
In fact, Torah‘s use of the word To’eiva is really what provides us with the contours of G-d’s world. He calls something a “To’eiva” when it is just beyond the edge, just beyond the border. Like marking a territory by putting flags in places just beyond the boundary to indicate the shape and the parameters of the area within. These are not simply things that G-d doesn’t want us to do; these are things that actually help to define the kind of world G-d is aiming for. They are the taboos that triangulate our moral position in the cosmos.
We shouldn’t be surprised then, that many of the “abominations” mentioned in the Torah involve sexual situations. Sex is the most profound form of connection, the most potent source of energy in G-d’s world. In fact, the Kabbalah explains that the reason incestuous relationships are prohibited is not because G-d finds them revolting; it is rather because they represent so intense and powerful a connection that they simply don’t fit within the delicate design of our world – they would overwhelm the carefully constructed balances that G-d built for us. They are unions that belong to another universe, across the chasm, beyond the borders of our own world and the particular purpose for which it was created. They are taboos, and the ultimate “culture-clash” with our world, which, by using the word “To’eiva,” we are given an opportunity to better understand.