Sexual Immorality

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing 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.

Rated PG-13

In this week’s Parshah of Acharei-Mot, we once again visit the famous section of Leviticus dealing with sexual immorality. The prohibitions in this section include, in the following order:

  • Incest: mother, step-mother (father’s wife), sister, granddaughter, aunt, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, a mother and her daughter or a grandmother and her granddaughter, and two sisters. Leviticus, 18:6-18.
  • Sex with a menstruating woman. Leviticus, 18:19.
  • Adultery (sex with a married woman). Leviticus, 18:20.
  • Male homosexuality. Leviticus, 18:22.
  • Bestiality. Leviticus, 18:23.
  • However, I’m not sure that describing violations of these commandments as sexual “immorality” is necessarily appropriate.

    When we think of sexual immorality, what generally comes to mind? Rape? Molestation? Adultery? The immorality present in these three examples is actually not inherently sexual in nature. Rape and molestation are immoral because the rapist is physically robbing someone else of their freedom, of their choice, of their autonomy over their own body. The sex itself, under other circumstances, might have been mutually pleasurable; but the act of one person taking that pleasure by force, or from someone with insufficient capacity to consent, is immoral.

    Adultery too. We view adultery as immoral because it is cheating. It is stealing from one’s spouse what he or she views as proprietary: your sex, your body, your affections. Those belong to me — yet you have given them to someone else. In fact, biblically, adultery could only be committed with a married woman, as a married woman “belongs” to her husband, whereas a married man does not “belong” to his wife in the same legal sense (for reasons that go beyond the scope of this essay). Adultery hurts others (as we discussed here).

    Thus, when we refer to sexual immorality, we tend to refer to an act that causes harm to another — that happens to be committed in a sexual way.

    But how about incest?

    This one is a little harder. Sure, there is the psychological question as to whether a child of any age is capable of informed consent when it comes to a parent; but this would not explain why sex among siblings, aunts and nephews, uncles and nieces, or in-laws would be prohibited. There is also a scientific basis for the proposition that the offspring of incestuous relationships are at greater risk of emerging deformed, and thus incest bears some risk of harm to the unborn child. But would this explain incestuous relationships between infertile partners, or involving participants who are passed childbearing age?

    So, while we certainly regard incest as sexually immoral, is it actually immoral for any other reason than that the Torah forbids it, and the prohibition has become so deeply ingrained in society that it is incapable of viewing incest any other way?

    All of humanity arose from the sexual relations among Adam and Eve’s children. The nations of Ammon and Moav arose as a result of Lot’s daughters taking it upon themselves to sleep with their father.

    Perhaps most significantly, our greatest, most lionized leaders — Moses, Aaron and Miriam — were the children of Amram and Yocheved, aunt and nephew. One can only imagine that when G-d said: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister,”[1] Moses may have blanched, glancing uncomfortably at his siblings. That discomfort would only have increased when G-d later commanded that “a mamzer [i.e. the offspring of any of these forbidden relationships] shall not enter the assembly of the Lord.”[2]

    Could it be that Moses’ parents had simply “missed” the inherent immorality of their union? Or is it that such a union did not become immoral until G-d prohibited it in the Torah?

    Interestingly, the commentaries have a fascinating take on the prohibition of incest. Several, such as Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed, and Ibn Ezra, suggest that G-d wished to both curb our sexual impulses, and to focus them on procreation. Thus, He prohibited sexual relationships with those with whom are most available, i.e. the members of our family. This would then force us to go outside of our family to have sex with strangers, with whom we would need to build and cultivate a relationship. Thus, our sexual opportunities would be vastly limited, and we wouldn’t be spending all our days rutting.

    Viewed in this light, there is nothing inherently wrong with incest; the prohibition is simply a means to curb our sexual appetites by prohibiting the liaisons that are most readily available.

    Nachmanides, however, firmly disagrees with this rationale. After all, could not have Torah simply required monogamy to achieve the same result? Why prohibit incest, while permitting a man to marry a thousand wives? Moreover, Nachmanides points out that, in theory, the very best match for the daughter of a worthy family would be her older brother from the same worthy family. And didn’t Yocheved marry her nephew, Amram, and bear three beautiful children who became spiritual giants who changed the course of history? What rational basis would Torah have to deprive the world of the ability to bear such offspring? And why the consequences for such offspring be so harsh – forbidding a mamzer from marrying into the community — if there was nothing inherently wrong with what his or her parents did?

    Consequently, Nachmanides concludes that the relationships forbidden in the Parshah are prohibited simply because G-d said so, for reasons that are neither disclosed, nor readily apparent.[3]

    So is incest sexually “immoral”?

    How about male homosexuality?

    Male homosexuality — assuming two consenting adults — causes no harm, and does not rob anyone of anything. Rashi skips this prohibition altogether, offering no explanation for it at all.

    Nachmanides explain that both homosexuality and bestiality involve sexual acts that are incapable of procreation — which is a major component of Torah’s attitude toward sex. But in this regard, homosexuality would be similar to having sex with a menstruating woman. Sex with one’s menstruating wife is expressly forbidden — but is it sexually immoral? Moreover, the rationale of non-procreative sex only takes us so far. Again, Torah does not prohibit sex among infertile people, or among partners who are past the age of childbearing. Torah also does not (at least openly) prohibit masturbation. Thus, it doesn’t seem that the non-procreative nature of homosexual sex, menstrual sex, or bestiality is a sufficient rationale to justify these prohibitions.

    Sure, we could find additional reasons unique to each: Bestiality involves sex with an animal that is incapable of giving consent (although I have never understood why an animal’s consent is apparently not required to neuter it, whereas its consent is required to allow it to mount a human).

    Homosexuality has broad cultural effects, with consequences to the family unit (not to say that heterosexual couples have been performing admirably in that area). Menstrual sex would interfere with a very beneficial period of physical separation between husband and wife once a month (although this benefit is not available when a woman is post-menopause or pregnant), and at a time when a woman is actually in the opposite of a procreative state. And so on and so forth.

    However, the fact that all of these different prohibited relationships are lumped together — the procreative ones with the non-procreative ones, the incestuous ones with the non-incestuous ones, the faithful ones with the unfaithful ones[4] — suggests that there is a common theme or reason that transcends human notions of morality.

    This is emphasized by the fact that these prohibited relationships appear just after G-d says: “like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shalt not do”[5]; and are immediately followed by: “You shall not defile yourselves by any of these things, for the nations, who I am sending away from before you, have defiled themselves with these things. And the land became defiled, and I visited its sin upon it, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But as for you…let the land not vomit you out for having defiled it, as it vomited out the nation that preceded you.”[6]

    These words regarding the sentiments and reactions of the land of what would later be remained Israel, are not merely a poetic exercise in anthromorphology. This tells us that there is something about the enumerated prohibitions that are absolutely antithetical to sustained life on that particular sliver of land, and that G-d, wishing His people to thrive and prosper in that land, cautions them against repeating the same behaviors that resulted in the Canaanites’ expulsion.

    Perhaps it is as Nachmanides states, that the prohibited sexual relationships are simply Divine decrees, based upon G-d’s behind-the-scenes preternatural knowledge of forces, causes and effects that are not apparent to human intellect.[7]

    Why does this matter? What difference does it make whether there are rational reasons behind these prohibitions, or only supernatural ones? For the answer to this question, stay tuned for Sexual Immorality, Part II!

    Works Cited

    [1] Leviticus, 18:12.

    [2] Deuteronomy, 23:3

    [3] Ramban, Leviticus, 18:6.

    [4] And then, oddly, in the middle of the sexual prohibitions — right in between the prohibition against adultery and the prohibition against homosexuality — is the prohibition against passing one’s offspring between the fires of Molech (Leviticus, 18:21). This, too, suggests a common denominator that transcends sexual immorality.

    [5] Leviticus, 18:3.

    [6] Leviticus, 18:24-28.
    [7] As we discussed here and here, Jewish mysticism provides some insight as to the nature of the forbidden sexual relationships.