Kosher Incest?

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Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

That’s some pretty impressive progeny – and from an act that violated one of the greatest of taboos. What’s up with that?

And yet, the tale of Lot’s incest is peppered with nuances suggesting that, like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, the whole thing was a divinely-orchestrated sex-fest.

For one thing, where did they get wine from? They were in a cave in the mountains. Did they simply happen upon a vineyard, harvest the grapes, squeeze them, and allow them to ferment? The verses suggest that they were rushed out of their house at the last moment, and almost certainly didn’t have either time or the presence of mind to grab the wineskin among the precious few belongings they would have taken with them. Rather, as Rashi states, “wine was made available to them in the cave, to make it possible for two nations to emerge from them.” In other words, G-d performed a rare miracle in order to facilitate this incest.

An even more interesting statement is made by R’ Chiya bar Avin, in the name of R’ Yehoshua ben Karcha, in the Babylonian Talmud, Nazir (23b): “One should always be eager to fulfill a mitzvah – for in the merit of the single night that the eldest daughter preceded the younger daughter, she produced four generations of Jewish royalty.” Now the incest is being treated as a mitzvah, and the eldest daughter as rewarded for her eagerness to be the first!

Interestingly, this is not the only – or even the first – example of divinely-condoned incest. In Leviticus (20:17), there is an interesting verse that states: “And a man who takes his sister, whether his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and he sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness it is a ‘Chesed‘, and they shall be cut off before the eyes of the members of their people; he uncovered his sister’s nakedness; he shall bear his sin.”

What does a “Chesed” mean in this context? Rashi mentioned two interpretations. One is that “Chesed” is related to an Aramaic word that means disgraceful. Its Midrashic interpretation, however, is: If you say, “But Cain married his sister!” the answer is: the Omnipresent, in permitting this marriage, performed an act of kindness (“Chesed“), to build His world through him, as it is said: “the world is built on kindness.” A similar sentiment is expressed in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin (58b), indicating that G-d made an exception to the no-incest rule to allow Cain and Abel to impregnate their twin sisters.

But the plot thickens.

Both Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya refer warmly to Lot’s daughters as “modest” girls, for whom sexual initiation was quite out of character. This is why neither of the girls had the courage or brazenness to ask Lot directly to have sex with them, and they could only bring themselves to do it by rendering him unconscious. “Well,” you may say,”mightn’t that be simply because incest is forbidden, and his daughters assumed that Lot would never agreed to it?” No. The same passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, referenced above, states that a non-Jew, under Noahide law, is permitted to have sexual intercourse with his daughter. Thus, Lot would not have been prohibited from acquiescing to his daughters’ requests for intimacy (although there was certainly a social taboo against father-daughter incest in place at the time. See Rashi on Genesis. 20:1).

But, if that’s the case, then why was it necessary for Cain and Abel to have sexual intercourse with their sisters, which is prohibited even under Noahide law? Instead, couldn’t Adam have had intercourse with his daughters without violating any laws at all? Yet, as the Talmud explains, that is precisely the nature of the “kindness” that G-d bestowed: he instructed Adam to stand down, and to permit Cain to marry his sister, so that Cain would not be excluded from sexual pleasure and reproduction. (And because that would really be the only way for the human race to continue to propagate after Adam’s death.)

But couldn’t G-d just create a new woman from someone’s rib? Isn’t he playing fast and loose with one of the greatest of taboos?

Kabbalistically speaking, incest actually mirrors an extremely lofty and profound spiritual union; a union of two aspects of G-d’s character that are so powerful and close, and the joining of them so intense, that our corporeal world simply does not possess the wherewithal to house or host the physical manifestation of that union. At least not through it’s officially-approved channels. No. There are many divine revelations that are too overwhelming for the world to absorb in the normal course. Yes, these revelations are sometimes critical to G-d’s ultimate plan for the world. In such an event, G-d arranges for that transcendent revelation to manifest itself in the world through a backdoor, as it were. It comes in from backstage, out of the darkness, condemned, prohibited, a taboo. Because even in its manifestation in our world, there is the sense that something is not right; this thing doesn’t belong here.

And that is why our greatest leaders and kings – and indeed, the righteous Moshiach himself – are born from these highly questionable liaisons. Moshiach comes from King David who comes from Ruth, who comes from Moab. In several weeks, we will undoubtedly explore the tale of Tamar, and her seduction of Judah, her father-in-law. That union resulted in Peretz – another direct ancestor of King David. For the greatest revelations are like those lights that are so bright that they are blinding, so bright that they appear dark. These have no other way of penetrating our world than by entering through the dark alleyways of taboos and prohibited relationships. Someday, however, our eyes will undoubtedly adjust to the dark to the point that we will no longer be blind to the brilliance that has always occupied the shadows of our world.

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