The arayot, or sexual prohibitions of the Torah, feature prominently in this week's double parasha. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Jewish 'take' on sexual restrictions is the way in which they are conceptualized by the early commentaries. It never occurred to our great Rabbis that we should be stricken with horror at the very prospect of incest or homosexuality. On the contrary, not only Ibn Ezra and Rambam, but even the Ramban asks why the Torah forbids these activities. The implicit premise of their analyses is that the Torah is a system of wisdom, not a set of taboos. It may be true that we have a natural aversion to certain forms of sexual expression, but this is of no significance to the Torah whatsoever.
The Rambam famously explains the incest restrictions from a practical standpoint. We grow up in close proximity to our relatives and spend a great deal of time with them throughout our lives. Were sexual relationships among siblings or between parents and children allowed, the constant availability of these individuals to us would encourage excessive involvement in sensual pleasure. The Ibn Ezra likewise adopts this explanation of the laws.
Nachmanides objects vigorously to the Rambam's analysis on several grounds. He points out that a man's wife lives with her husband and is regularly available to him as well, yet the Torah sets few limits on intimacy within the framework of marriage. Moreover, the Torah allows a man to take numerous wives, which would seem to defeat the whole purpose of minimizing access to sensual pleasure.
The Ramban therefore rejects the notion that the basis for the incest prohibition is related to diminishing the extent of a person's pursuit of instinctual gratification. Instead, he explains the incest restrictions from the perspective of Qabbalah. According to the Qabbalistic tradition, the children of certain marital unions are spiritually defective. These problematic relationships are the ones barred by the Torah.
The position of Maimonides, however, demands our consideration. How would he respond to the challenges levelled against him by Nachmanides?
I believe that the Rambam's understanding of the harmful nature of incest reveals his profound grasp of human psychology. When a person is growing up, it is important for him or her to experience home and family life as something safe and non-threatening. The household environment must be a forum for learning, exploration and development. If a child were to be viewed by his or her own relatives as a sexual object, or were to view his or her relatives as potential sexual partners, the whole structure and focus of family life would be undermined.
Modern literature on sexual abuse and incest fully supports this idea. Homes in which siblings and/or children and parents engage in physically intimate activities with one another are never healthy homes. Parents cease acting in the roles of teacher and mentor and are transformed into predators. Children are treated not as helpless creatures in need of nurturing and guidance but as tools for the personal gratification of more powerful adults. The results are profoundly disturbing; being raised in such a household never fails to scar an individual for life.
A family is supposed to serve as an educational resource and a wellspring of inspiration for its children, preparing them for a healthy existence in the "real world". An incestuous family dynamic moves in the opposite direction. Its energies are occupied with its own immediate satisfaction rather than any transcendent objective or ideal . Members of such a family become steeped in the selfish pursuit of instinctual pleasure - and the youngsters reared in this environment internalize these values, lacking the maturity to "rise above" them.
Anna Freud, in her book Psychoanalysis for Teachers and Parents, discusses this problem at length. She cites one instance in which, from earliest youth, a particular young boy's sexual interests were never allowed to be frustrated. He experienced unlimited gratification whenever he wanted it. The situation evolved over time to the point that, as a teenager and well into his adult years, the "child" maintained an exclusive sexual relationship with his mother.
Anna Freud observed that many people might expect this person to be very happy and productive - after all, he was provided with unlimited, unrestricted sensual pleasure throughout his formative years, and never had to experience the pain or frustration most people endure. However, the opposite turned out to be the case. The boy never developed emotional or intellectual maturity - he was totally stagnant as a human being. He was not capable of succeeding in school or contributing to society. His life was a tragic failure.
This is a perfect example of what the Rambam is saying about incest. Sexuality cannot be a part of the home environment of a youngster. If interactions with relatives cross the boundary of what is appropriate, a child will have great difficulty developing into a mature, sensitive and intellectually attuned human being in the future.
Thus, the Rambam was not simply suggesting that incestuous relationships would allow for too much sexual activity. It is not a matter of quantity alone, as Nachmanides rightly observed in his critique. What the Rambam really means is that incestuous behavior - precisely because it occurs within the confines of a family and cannot be regulated or controlled - stands in the way of the development of a child's personality, and derails the holy objective for which Jewish households are established.