Incest, and Adultery, and Homosexuality, Oh My!

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

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, The Blessing of Fertility, Abominations, Coitus Interruptus, Sexual Struggles,The Unspeakable Language of Passion, Cut vs. Uncut, The Silence of Bitterness, Sex and the Holiest Day of the Year, Shifting Beds and Sex in the Sukkah,Sex…In the Beginning, A Sexual Reboot, She’s My Beautiful Sister,Kosher Incest?, How They Met, Male-Female Intercourse, The First Kiss, The Power to Transform, Onanism, Daughters-in-Law and Moshiach, Issues with the In-Laws?, The Undoing of Captivity, Shift Beds – Part II, Pharaoh’s Assimilation Policy, Passion vs. Pleasure, Loving in Reverse, Music is Female, Fecund Fluids and Revelation, Sexism in the Commandments, Divine Lust, Name Calling, Mismatched Lovers, Sex and Mirrors, The Challenge of Real Loving,Getting Undressed, The Strangers Among Us, Wet, Moist Matzah, The Anatomy of an Anchor, and Blood and Birth, Menstruation and Circumcision.

Rated PG-13

Okay, we’re finally here. We’re in the famed portion of Leviticus, Acharei-Kedoshim that dominates the discussion of biblical sexuality and prohibited sexual relationships.

This is the section that we read during the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. This is the section with the source for the traditional prohibition on homosexuality, which has gained particular notoriety recently in the national conversations regarding gay marriage, Phil Robertson and Duck Dynasty. This is the section that makes most of us feel uncomfortable to some degree: whether feelings of guilt over some past act, urge or desire; feelings of frustration that the Torah is so darn strict(!); feelings of righteous indignation either against those who dare to disrespect the law, or against the Torah for daring to enter our bedroom; or feelings of disenfranchisement, to the extent that the Torah’s imperatives seem irreconcilable with our chosen way of life.

What I’d like to do, in the following order, is: (1) break it down, in terms of the various categories of sexual prohibitions; (2) highlight some of the unique phrases used in connection with certain of the prohibitions that don’t often receive the attention that they deserve, and discuss how they might bear upon the meaning of the verse; and (3) to revisit some of our earlier discussions of sexual impropriety and incest.

The Sexual Prohibitions

The sexual prohibitions break down, generally, as follows:

  1. 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.
  2. Sex with a menstruating woman. Leviticus, 18:19.
  3. Adultery (sex with a married woman). Leviticus, 18:20.
  4. Homosexuality. Leviticus, 18:22.
  5. Bestiality. Leviticus, 18:23.

And oddly, right between the prohibition of adultery and homosexuality, is the prohibition of passing your child through the Molech-fire. Leviticus, 18:21.

Becoming Familiar with the Terms

Now, here are some of the terms that accompany the above prohibitions, ostensibly as explanations or characterizations of the act being outlawed:

  • She’er (close family),
  • Erva (nakedness),
  • Lo Tigaleh (you may not uncover),
  • Lo Tikach (you may not take in marriage),
  • Lo Tikrav (you may not approach),
  • Lo Titen Sh’chavtecha (you may not give your bedding),
  • Zima (evil counsel),
  • L’tzror (to make rivals),
  • L’tama (to become impure),
  • L’zara (carnally),
  • Mishkevei Isha (the beddings of a woman),
  • Toeiva (abomination/taboo),
  • L’rivah (to cohabit bestially)
  • Tevel (depravity and/or unnatural mixing).

It would be far too easy to dismiss all of the above variations as literary excess; not when it comes to the Torah, from which hundreds of thousands of laws and Halachot are derived from the precision of its verbiage and expression. This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive or even thorough analysis of this chapter; it is simply meant to highlight Torah’s changing expression as it moves from law to law.

So, for example, the prohibitions against incest are typically characterized by the phrase “You may not uncover his/her/their nakedness.” Is that simply a delicate way of referring to sex? Or does it mean that you’re not even allowed to see a relative naked? The Talmud suggests that a woman’s “nakedness” in this particular context is the vaginal opening, beyond her labia, and a male uncovers it by exposing it to the tip of his penis. Thus, “uncovering her nakedness” refers to a sexual act of a very specific nature.

However, the two relationships that are not quite incestuous, but involve being with more than one woman from the same family — i.e., a mother and her daughter, or two sisters — have some different verbiage added. The prohibition against being with a mother and her daughter adds “you shall not take…to uncover her nakedness, they are close relatives (Sha’ara), it is evil counsel (Zima).” The prohibition against being with two sisters is that “you shall not take a woman with her sister to make [them] rivals, to uncover the nakedness of one upon the other, in her lifetime.

Note the introduction of the expression “to take [in marriage],” suggesting that the prohibition is only when a man has married one of the women — then the other is prohibited in marriage. Also note that the reason given for the prohibition against marrying two sisters suggests that uncovering one sister’s nakedness during the lifetime of the other will make them rivals, and sour their relationship. It does not mention that “they are close relatives,” or that “it is evil counsel.” Conversely, the Torah does not suggest that a mother and her daughter might become rivals by being married to the same man. Ramban explains that with sisters, the concern is truly that their natural affection for one another be preserved; with a mother and daughter, however, they are too close for a man to ever be in a relationship with both of them during his lifetime, and that he would constantly be comparing mother and daughter while he is with them. This, Ramban explains, is what meant by “evil counsel.”

When it comes to sex with a menstruating woman, the Torah adds the words: “Lo Tikrav — you may not approach (to uncover her nakedness).” Some Halachic authorities, such as Maimonides, interprets the additional words “you may not approach” as the basis for prohibiting many of the displays of affection that a couple will ordinarily show each other when she is not menstruating.

Torah changes its expression when it comes to adultery. Now, instead of using the expression “you may not reveal her nakedness,” it says “you may not give your bedding carnally, to become impure by her.” Commentaries discuss the significance of the qualification “carnally” (literally, “to seed”), some suggesting that Torah is demonstrating how strict it is by forbidding even adultery that is for a positive reproductive purpose. Obviously, from another point of view, reproductive adultery could be seen as a far more destructive act than one that does not result in children.

And what might be intended by “you may not give your bedding…to become impure by her”? Interestingly, that same expression is the one used in only one other place: with respect to bestiality between a male human and a female animal: “And with any animal, you may not give your bedding to become impure by her.” Is there some psychological significance in “giving your bedding”? What is the nature of the “impurity” that the man who engages in adultery and the man who engages in bestiality share?

“And a woman shall not stand before an animal to cohabit with it; this is depravity.” Although all of the sexual prohibitions apply equally to the female counterpart, the prohibition is typically directed at the male. This, then, is the sole instance in which the commandment cannot be directed to the male, since the male is not human. Even so, the Torah diverges from the expression “to lie with” or “to give her bedding to,” instead choosing the expression: “to stand before an animal to cohabit.” To stand? Not to lie? And the word “Tevel,” translated as either depravity or an unnatural mixture (of human and animal seed) — is it significant that “Tevel” is the very same word is used to describe produce from which the require tithing has not been taken?

Finally, the prohibition on homosexuality changes it up again. This time, the Torah says: “You shall not lie down with a male the beddings of a woman, this is an abomination/taboo.” Why did it not just say “You shall not lie with a male?” What does it mean that you shall not lie with a male “the beddings of a woman” — particularly when it is anatomically impossible to bed a male precisely as one beds a woman? In his book “Wrestling with God and Men,” Rabbi Steven Greenberg argues that this unique expression refers to the psychological subjugation of another male in the same manner as female were treated in those days. This might also explain the strange expression “v’et zachor to tishkav,” which literally means “a male you shall not lie,” as opposed to “v’im zachor to tishkav” – “with a male you shall not lie.” However, this interpretation raises and leaves open many other questions: Why does the Torah say “beddings” in the plural sense? Would Torah indirectly endorse the subjugation of females by prohibiting the subjugation of males?

Regardless, the Torah’s use of that unique expression is worthy of careful consideration, particularly as its true meaning has become more relevant than it might once have been.

Now, how about context?

What do all of these prohibitions have in common? And how does the Molech-fire ceremony fit in? This is not the place that idol worship or the prohibition against various forms of divination are discussed.

One thought (expressed by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed) is that the prohibition against incest is simply a bulwark against Torah’s larger disapproval for sexual excess. Torah prefers that sex be an act that it is performed sparingly, and so it prohibits sex with the women with whom a man is likely to be most familiar and who are constantly together with him. In doing so, Torah limits man’s sexual opportunities. It is unclear whether this would be the same rationale for the other sexual prohibitions, or why, if that were the goal, Torah couldn’t have prohibited sex altogether other than with one’s non-menstruating wife.

Ramban argues that the theme here is really about reproduction. Torah has little interest in sexual liaisons that are completely devoid of fecundity, or that would endanger the child. Thus, Ramban explains that, with few exceptions (such as Amram marrying his aunt Yocheved), the offspring of incest are unhealthy, and hence incest should not be permitted. Similarly, sex with a menstruating woman, homosexuality and bestiality are incapable of producing offspring, and are therefore forbidden. Perhaps that also explains the inclusion of the prohibition against passing one’s offspring through the Molech-fire — which Ramban understands to be a practice that would result in the actual death of the child — as this entire section is about children.

However there are additional context clues that we should consider.

Immediately prior to the sexual prohibitions, G-d says: “Like the practice of the land of Egypt, in which you dwelled, you shall not do, and like the practice of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, you shall not do, and you shall not follow their statutes. [Rather,] you shall fulfill My ordinances and observe My statutes, to follow them.” Leviticus,18:3-4. Then, immediately following the sexual prohibitions, G-d concludes: “You shall not defile yourselves by any of these things, for the nations, whom I am sending away from before you, have defiled themselves with all these things. And the land became defiled, and I visited its sin upon it, and the land vomited out its inhabitants.” Leviticus, 18:24-25.

These verses suggest that, above and beyond any rational reason behind the forbidden relationships, they are G-d’s decrees. He doesn’t like them, and (both the Egyptians and) the Canaanites were displaced from their land as a result. Accordingly, G-d issues a warning to His people: “Like it or lump it, these things bother me, they bother the Land of Israel, and they are the reason that Israel’s former inhabitants deserve what’s coming to them. So don’t do them.”

Kabbalah always puts another perspective on these things.

Kabbalah explains that, as we are created in G-d’s image, just as we have various characteristics and attributes, so too does G-d manifest Himself with corresponding characteristics and attributes. They include, for example: a Divine “intellect”, comprised of Wisdom and Understanding; a Divine set of “emotions”, including Kindness, Strength, Beauty, Victory, Splendor and Foundation; and G-d’s Kingship, embodying His expressive tools of thought and speech.

And just as the collective Jewish body is comprised of males and females, each of whom is either a father, mother, sister or brother, Kabbalah explains that each of the above levels has a gender and a role: Wisdom and Understanding are the father and mother, respectively. The six emotional attributes are the son. Kingship is the daughter. Within that context, Kabbalah explains the extraordinary nature of the Divine manifestation when Wisdom interacts with and flows directly into Kingship; or more common, when the six emotional attributes flow into Kingship, or when Understanding flows into the emotional attributes. Using their prescribed gender-roles, these loft forms of Divine revelation involve the union of Father and Daughter, or Brother and Sister, or Mother and Son.

This is why, Kabbalah explains, the prohibited sexual relationships are called “Gilui Arayot” – “the uncovering of the nakedness.” This is because by engaging in them down here, in our physical and corporeal world, we are actually uncovering the Divine body and unions, importing those lofty and timeless spiritual unions into our temporal existence. But they are not meant to reproduced in our world; they are too lofty, too powerful, too intense for our world to incorporate healthily, and so they manifest only as a forbidden taboo, with troubled offspring. Kabbalah gives the example of a flesh-and-blood king revealing himself to the lowliest of peasants. Not only would the peasant fail to appreciate the experience, but it would result in a shameful and humiliating experience for the king. Or, to use another analogy, consider how we try to shield our children from sexuality when they are young. Despite how wonderful and powerful sex is, we know that it is too intense and powerful an experience for an immature psyche to be able to assimilate and appreciate. This, then, is the spiritual reason behind the sexual prohibitions, and the reason that they are collectively referred to as the “Uncovering of Nakedness.”

Which doesn’t keep us from wanting to indulge in them, of course. Which is why, as we discussed here, the sages tried appealing to G-d to remove the urge for prohibited sexual relationships from us. They found, however, that our sexual impulses don’t discriminate between “good” sex or “bad” sex — we simply like sex. Thus they realized that there was no way to excise just the urge for prohibited sexual experiences without removing the urge for sex altogether, which would negatively impact our drive to reproduce. They were, however, successful in weakening the urge for incest, so that many of you who are reading this are probably scratching your heads, thinking: “Incest? Gross!”

Before then, however, and even now, in the spiritual cosmos, incest is celebrated as one of the most profoundly intimate and powerful of Divine unions.