Sexual Immorality, Part II

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

One of the issues that all of us sex-positive people need to contend with, is stigma.

For centuries, people associated any “unusual” or “proscribed” or “excessive” sexual interests as abnormal; therefore anyone exhibiting such interests would be viewed as depraved, perverse, and a sexual deviant. In fact, to this day, many “atypical” sexual interests are dubbed “paraphilias” by the medical community, and are treated as mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. (Homosexuality used to be classified as a paraphilia, but psychiatrists and psychologists more recently changed their attitude toward homosexuality, and it is no longer considered a paraphilia.)

In other words, sexual people need to fight two simultaneous battles: We struggle with our behavior; as we endeavor to follow the rules, strive to fulfill our responsibilities, and seek to avoid transgressions. At the same time, however, we grapple with the social stigma attached to sexual “excess”. And the moral condemnation seeps into our own self-image, such that we cannot help but wonder: Am I depraved? Am I sick?

The truth is that, while society does tend to exaggerate and present an overly-simplified caricature of what it perceives as a human weakness, it is not entirely to blame for the stigmatic effect of unrestrained sexuality. Many understand the Torah’s own description of sexual transgressions as “abominations” and “depravities” to be sufficiently pejorative as to warrant moral condemnation, and to classify anybody with the desire for those transgressions as having severe character flaws.

But is it true? Is our desire for the sexually forbidden an indication of the weakness of our character? Does it truly reflect a spiritual sickness?

This week’s Parshah, Bechukosai, begins with the words: “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments…” [1] Two different words are used to refer to G-d’s instructions: “statutes” and “commandments,” which are the translations of the Hebrew words “Chukim” and “Mishpatim,” respectively.

Chukim and Mishpatim represent two very different kinds of Mitzvot. Mishpatim include those commandments that seem almost elementary. These are things that we would likely have figured out on our own, without G-d’s help, inasmuch as they are critical to a civilized society. Don’t murder. Don’t steal. Don’t kidnap. These are obvious ones. We understand the need for these.

Chukim, on the other hand, represent commandments that we don’t understand. These are Divine edicts, given by the Creator who created our capacity for understanding and rational thought, and some of the things that He wants transcends that capacity. As the great commentator Rashi states in Numbers, [2] Chukim are the kinds of laws that provoke Satan and gentiles to challenge Jews, saying “What’s the reason for this? And if you can’t understand it, why keep it?” Yet the nature of Chukim are that they are decrees the reason of which are not disclosed to human rationale. From our perspective, they may seem arbitrary — but they are nevertheless G-d’s commandments.

What’s the practical difference? Who cares if a particular commandment comes from the category of Chukim or from the category of Mishpatim?

There is, in fact, a very significant difference.

The Talmud states, quoting R’ Shimon ben Gamliel, [3] that the proper approach to sin is not to say “I don’t want to,” and to pretend that the desire is not there, but rather to say, “I do want to, but alas — G-d says that I may not.”

Maimonides, however, recognizing the inroads that Aristotelian and other Greek philosophy had made in Jewish thought at the time, incorporated some of this philosophy in his own works, and reached the following conclusion: The ultimate purpose of any type of belief system — including Torah and Judaism — is the refinement of a person’s character and soul, which leads to the closest connection with G-d. Thus, life is a continuous process of refining oneself to become that much holier and pious .[4]

This, however, would seem to contradict the Talmud’s earlier statement. After all, as a person gradually becomes more and more refined, as a person matures and develops his character, he should desire forbidden things less and less. Doesn’t this mean, then, that a person should ideally not say “I want to,” as the more he progresses, the more he should in fact not desire that which is forbidden?

Maimonides resolves this quandary by making the following logical distinction: When it comes to Mishpatim, i.e. normal and obvious moral activity, a healthy person should not desire to break the law. If he does, this reflects a weakness in his character that a lifetime of self-improvement and self-refinement should ultimately get rid of. Somebody that walks around all day truly desiring to murder his neighbor, and manages to restrain himself only because G-d prohibited murder, needs some work on his character and moral fiber.

Conversely, Chukim, which are not obvious, and which don’t reflect “normal” moral activity, one is expected to want to transgress — but is also expected to rein his desires in, because G-d has so decreed.

So the question is: Are sexual prohibitions Chukim or Mishpatim?

Are they sexual encounters that we shouldn’t be desiring in the first place? Or are they super-rational decrees that we are expected to desire, but also expected to avoid out of obedience to G-d’s commandments?

Some sexual laws appear to be obvious, such as adultery. As we discussed previously, though, the obvious wrong in adultery has little to do with sexuality — it has more to do with stealing from another. In fact, though, this “obvious wrong” actually depends upon a social more that awards a husband with possession over his wife’s body and sexuality. Once upon a time, adultery was a far more “obvious” crime than it is today, in a culture where in which far fewer couples get married, and far more couples engage in open relationships and other such non-possessive arrangements. Indeed, the fact that, according to Torah law, a husband doesn’t commit adultery unless it is with a married woman — because his body and sexuality does not belong to his wife in the same way that hers belongs to him — tells us that the laws of adultery may not be “obvious” at all based upon modern standards.

The prohibition against incest, too, is not as obvious as it may feel. Cain, Abel and Seth engaged in incest to propagate humanity. Abraham married his sister — which was okay because she was only his sister on his father’s side, not his mother’s. Lot had sex with his two daughters. Jacob married his first cousins, who were sisters. Moses’ father, Amram, married his aunt. As we discussed here, there was a later historical shift at which point incest became more of a taboo; and it is only relatively recently that scientists have come up with a physical basis for discouraging incestuous unions.

And then how about “Thou shalt not covet,” the prohibition against sex with a menstruating woman, the non-explicit prohibition against masturbation, and other such sexual restrictions? These seem to be directly contrary to our natural inclination. We are sexual creatures, with strong sexual impulses and desires, and an active imagination to boost. Are the Torah’s sexual constraints intended to be moral condemnations, or are they simply G-d’s commandments, in which He asks us to override our natural impulses?

Maimonides himself lists sexual immorality in the category of Chukim. This is consistent with the Talmud, which, after its main quote, goes on to cite specific examples, including: “One should not say ‘I don’t want to to have sexual relations with a forbidden partner’.”

However, elsewhere in the Talmud [5] it states that Mishpatim include such prohibitions as idol worship, sexual immorality, murder, theft and blasphemy.

Perhaps the resolution to this apparent contradiction is that sexual commandments can be both Chukim and Mishpatim. In several places, [6] Maimonides makes an interesting point about Chukim: Just because Chukim transcend human reasoning, doesn’t mean that they don’t have a reason; nor does it mean that the Divine rationale will never be within our grasp. We are thus encouraged to constantly strive to comprehend the meaning of the Mitzvot classified as Chukim as well, as we may ultimately find ourselves in a sufficiently enlightened state to appreciate the reasoning behind those cryptic commandments. Indeed, it is said of King Solomon that his wisdom was such that he was able to discover the reasoning behind every one of the Mitzvot — including Chukim — except for the laws involving the Red Heifer. [7] So we know it can be done.

Thus, perhaps the sexual prohibitions start out as Chukim; but it is incumbent upon us to study those laws — and our own sexuality — to see if we can discern the reasons behind G-d’s restrictions. And then, as understanding dawns, these commandments become Mishpatim — commandments which are obvious to us — at which point it is G-d’s expectation that our character, urges and desires evolve accordingly, so that we may live with peace of intellectual integrity, and be one of heart and mind.

Shabbat Shalom!

Works Cited

[1] Leviticus, 26:3.

[2] 19:2.

[3] Sifra, Leviticus, Kedoshim.

[4] See Maimonides, Shmona P’rakim, 6.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Yuma 67b

[6] Mishnah Torah, in both Hilchot Me’ilah and Hilchot T’murah.

[7] Numbers, Chapter 19.