The Ghosts of Boyfriends Past

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 last year’s column for this week’s Parshah, Emor, we discussed the Torah’s insistence that the members of the priesthood, the Kohanim, be physically perfect, without blemish or disability, in order for them to serve in the Holy Temple.

However, there are other restrictions that the Torah imposes on Kohanim — specifically with respect to whom they may marry.

They shall not marry a woman who is a prostitute or who is desecrated, and they shall not marry a woman who is divorced from her husband for he [the Kohen] is holy to his G-d. [1]

Add to that the restrictions on the High Priest — the Kohen Gadol — who may not even marry a widow.

A widow, a divorcee, a woman who is desecrated, or a prostitute — he shall not marry any of these. Only a virgin of his people may he take as a wife. [2]

A few questions:

  1. What are these graduating levels of holiness — ordinary Israelites, Kohanim, and then the High Priest? For example, an ordinary Israelite — even the holiest among them — may marry a prostitute, whereas a Kohen cannot. A Kohen may marry a widow, whereas the High Priest may not.
  2. Obviously, a divorced woman cannot be in the same category as a prostitute. I get why a prostitute might offend the higher standard of holiness of a Kohen — who “is holy to his G-d”; but what’s wrong with a divorcee?
  3. Are these rules, which are requirements for Kohanim, nevertheless suggestions for ordinary Israelites? Should we understand that, even though the rest of us are not bound by these rules, they are nevertheless indicative a higher level of holiness to which we should all aspire?

It certainly seems significant that, when a Kohen marries, there is nobody alive that has been intimate with his wife. Nobody else in existence can claim to have carnal knowledge of her, other than her new husband. In this sense, it seems that “a prostitute” is perhaps not listed as a pejorative; rather, a prostitute falls into the same category as a divorced woman in the sense that she has a sexual past that predates her marriage with her husband — and chances are that the men with whom she had been intimate are still alive. In the case of a widow, on the other hand, while she herself may have memories of intimacy with another man, and may yet live with the ghosts of her late husband, there is no living person that has any claim on her.

Even this would not do for the High Priest’s wife, however, who must have never been intimate with a man at all. In other words, it is not enough that there be nobody alive who has known her sexually; she herself must present a sexual blank slate, with her first intimacy to be shared with her esteemed husband.

For ordinary Israelites, on the other hand — as extraordinary as they might be — there are no concerns regarding the “Ghosts of Boyfriends Past.” They may freely marry prostitutes and divorced women, for their mission in this world will in no way be hampered by the sexual history of their wives.

Indeed, we could scarcely find a better example than Joshua, Moses’s successor, who led the Israelites into the Promised Land. Joshua’s wife was none other than extremely popular and high-priced escort, Rahab. She was the consort of princes and kings; in fact, the Talmud states that “there was no leader or prince that was not intimate with Rahab.” [3] She is described in the Talmud as one the four most beautiful women in the world, whose very name would inspired lust in anyone who had been so fortunate as to have been intimate with her. [4]

After the Israelites conquered Jericho, however, Rahab abandoned her profession, famously declaring: “Master of the Universe! I have sinned with three things — with my eyes, my thighs, and my stomach. By the merit of three things, however, pardon me — the rope, the window, and the wall [when I endangered myself by lowering the rope for the Israelite spies from the window in the wall[5] .” [6] She converted to Judaism and married Joshua .[7]

Clearly, then, our most esteemed and holy leader, Joshua, who was second only to Moses himself, was able to marry the most famous prostitute of all. Countless world leaders had the most intimate knowledge of Joshua’s wife, and indeed, would continue to just after her by just uttering her name. She brought to her marital bed the experience of thousands of sexual encounters and prior lovers.

Guys, can you even imagine what that might be like? I imagine that some guys are threatened by their wives’ sexual history. Others are fascinated by it.

I have chatted with some of my family members regarding their experience with divorce. After some time passes, and the issues that caused the divorced fade in memory, does a woman recall the intimacy with her ex-husband? Does a man compare sex with his new wife to sex with his ex? How does it feel to know that there is an ex-spouse out there who knows your body and sexual temperament as intimately as your new spouse does?

The responses that I received varied. From one, I understood that he was simply relieved to be married to his current spouse, and that his relief eclipsed any other feelings that he might otherwise have had. But from another, I learned that there is indeed a feeling of vulnerability knowing that there are multiple men that can lay claim (current or historic) to her intimacy. And yet another shared with me that there is indeed a kind of wistful memory — not regret, and not quite nostalgia, but an emotionally-significant memory, nonetheless — of intimacy with his ex-wife.

This past experience, however — with all of its distractions and significances — posed no issue for Joshua. Rahab would, however, have been disqualified from marrying a Kohen.

From this we can conclude then, that the restrictions on whom a Kohen may marry are Kohen-specific; they are not suggestions or aspirational goals for ordinary Israelites.

This is further bolstered by the fact that the verses containing these marital restrictions are embedded in a set of rules limiting the family members whom a Kohen may bury. A Kohen may not be involved in the burial of extended family, for example, or a married sister. A Kohen Gadol may not be involved in the burial of anyone at all.

This is because a burial causes its participants to become ritually impure. For the rest of us, this impurity is a necessary fact of life — and indeed, a Mitzvah, as there is no greater Mitzvah than escorting our dead with honor and respect to their final resting place. We bury our deceased, we mourn their passing, and then (in Temple times) we would go through the purification process. Kohanim, however, because of their unique purity requirements, are forbidden to allow themselves to become impure. Kohanim are unique, with a unique mission in this world. It is the Kohen, and no other, who is charged with examining a potential leper, and determining whether to proclaim him/her impure. Theirs is referred to as “the covenant of peace,”[8] recognizing the spiritual harmony effected by Kohanim through their meticulous care to maintain spiritual purity.

I had read on a website maintained by Breslov chassidim, that the unique resonance of the souls of Kohanim singularly enable them to annul the negative spiritual energies corrupted by sin. The effectiveness of the Kohen in gaining atonement for the nation is dependent upon his ability to activate his priestly spiritual energies, the energies associated with peace. Therefore, he must always be spiritually connected to peace and love.

When a couple weds, their souls merge into one. Divorce, conversely, is an act of separation; a rending of those souls. The negative spiritual energies created by the separation and bitterness of divorce attaches itself to the woman’s soul, embedded there for the rest of her life. The website offers the following explanation as to why this negative energy attaches itself to the woman’s soul, whereas a Kohen himself may get divorced without consequence: Unlike a man, in order for a woman to accomplish her vital role in serving G-d and perfecting the world, G-d gives her a soul that is capable of acting as a reservoir of many kinds of spiritual energies. The She’lah HaKodesh says that the spiritual energies that a woman absorbs remain with her for the rest of her life — including the negative spiritual energies of divorce. The masculine soul, conversely, although receptive to spiritual energies, does not have the feminine soul’s potent ability to incubate and absorb; consequently, a man does not retain the spiritual energies of created by divorce.

Thus, a priest is forbidden to marry a divorcee, for the negative energies attached to her soul will dilute his priestly powers when their souls merge, which in turn would compromise his innate ability to effect spiritual healing and atonement for the nation.

Certain aspects of the above explanation resonate with me, such as the idea that women absorb spiritual energies more deeply than men. This would also explain why a Kohen may not remarry his own divorcee — which would not otherwise be explained that “ghosts of boyfriends past” theory offered above. However, this suggests that the prohibition against a Kohen marrying a prostitute is for an entirely different reason than the one that prohibits him from marrying a divorcee — and the few major commentaries that address this suggest that both prohibitions are cut from the same cloth.

Perhaps they are both true. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of commentary on these verses, and so we are left to our own speculations, suppositions and conclusions.

What is clear, however, for the rest of us, is that even though our souls may not be designed to have the same delicate spiritual receptors as those of Kohanim, our sexuality and relationships have profound reverberations in both the spiritual realms and our mental and emotional existence.

Works Cited

[1] Leviticus, 21:7.

[2] Leviticus, 21:14.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Zevachim 116a.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 15a.

[5] Joshua, 2.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Zevachim 116a-b.

[7] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 14b.

[8] Numbers, 25:12.