Minutes of Torah
At the end of parashat Acharei Mot and the latter half of parashat Kedoshim, (we read a double Torah portion on a few weeks of the year, in order to be able to get through the Torah cycle in some years that are not ‘leap years’) are full of examples of sins that are judged by God to be an abhorrence, a perversion, or a depravity. Most of the sins listed are examples of sexual relationships which are out of bounds from the Torah’s perspective, including incestuous relationships, bestiality, and many others (including the one that appears to prohibit sex between men – or maybe not; but that’s for a different Dvar Torah). Here are just a few examples from Chapter 18 from the Book of Leviticus:
“The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or daughter of your mother, whether she was born at home, or born abroad, their nakedness you shall not uncover.”
“Do not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter; nor shall you marry her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness: they are her kindred; it is depravity.“
The Torah then lays out the following consequences for these sins:
“Do not defile yourselves in any of those ways, for it is by such that the nations that I am casting out before you defiled themselves.”
In reviewing the list of all of the sexual prohibitions, they seem to be ‘no-brainers’, as in “Who would have thought that any of these sexual practices could be permitted and why do we need to have a list of prohibitions – Doesn’t everybody know that these are ‘unnatural’ sex acts”? And thus, why the need to list them?
As I pondered Torah’s need to list the prohibited sexual practices, I reflected on Torah’s prohibition of practices that I thought might seem to be self-evident. Last year, Yuval Hariri, an Israeli academic, wrote a book Homo Sapiens: A Short History of Humankind. (I strongly recommend the book, and it has virtually nothing to do with Judaism – Harari is a decidedly secular Jew; and was highly recommended by the curators of the Smithsonian exhibit that visited Norwich this past winter.) Among other things he explained what ‘natural sex’ for humans encompasses: Any sexual act that a human being can perform. In other words, there is nothing that should ever be labeled as an ‘unnatural’ human sex act. And if ‘natural’ vs. ‘unnatural’ is supposed to be the dividing line, then no sexual practices should be prohibited.
So why does Torah prohibit these sexual practices? One answer is that for God, these are “an abhorrence, a perversion, or a depravity.”
But why would God wish to restrict our pursuit of these ‘natural sex’ pleasures? Aren’t we taught that as Jews, we are commanded to use and benefit from all aspects of God’s Creation, and if so, why prohibit these particular sexual acts, and not others.
Although some commentators seek to justify these prohibitions individually, as a group there does not appear to be a unifying theme if we focus on the substance of the prohibitions. That’s looking at the prohibitions from the human perspective. But if we focus on the Divine perspective of these specific sexual acts that are being prohibited, perhaps there is no unifying substantive theme that serves to prohibit these acts — but not the hundreds of others that could be articulated.
Perhaps it has nothing to do with the substance of the prohibited acts. Perhaps just like kashrut, this is another example of Torah asking us to restrain ourselves artificially so that we do not act like animals. To be sure, we have a ‘reptilian brain’, i.e., a brain that reacts instinctively both positively and negatively to stimuli and is not unlike an animal’s response. But we also have a ‘human brain’ that allows for the construction of arbitrary walls through which we artificially demonstrate that we are better than animals. That even though each one of the listed prohibited sexual practices is indeed ‘natural’, we avoid them to show that as humans, we can listen to the word of God even if it is contrary to normal human desires. In this way, we can celebrate our ‘human-hood’ and the gift of ‘free will’ that God extended to humans alone in God’s Creation.
And that serves to distinguish us from our fellow animals.