Friday, April 27, 2007

The Marital Prohibitions

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.


David Guttmann said...

Very well said. it also explains why sexual promiscuity is anathema to growth in metaphysical thought where an impartial and well balanced persona is required for arriving at opinions, unbiased by personal physical needs and preferences.

Shabbat Shalom.

Gggino said...

Very interesting. Just wondering if you had any thoughts on the Ramban's opinion. Where does he state this, I would like to check it out.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Start with the Ramban on Leviticus 18:6. In the Torat Hayim edition from Mosad Harav Kook, footnote 68 cites additional sources in which Ramban's view is elaborated.

I have thoughts on the Ramban that I will hopefully share in a future post!

Anonymous said...

How does the Rambam account for the issur of homosexuality?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

With regard to the prohibitions of homosexuality and bestiality, the Rambam and Ramban agree: the reason behind them is that the sexual activity is not part of a relationship of qedusha, i.e., a relationship that could lead to the establishment of a home and family. It is sexual and/or romantic pleasure that does not serve as a vehicle to something higher. See the Ramban mentioned in my previous comment who states this explicitly.

Anonymous said...

Then shouldn't a relationship between a man and a woman who are unable to have chidlren together for whatever reason also be forbidden?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

The difference is that a homosexual or bestial relationship is inherently outside of the realm of procreation and family. A heterosexual relationship is the form of relationship that is designed for the purpose of creating a household. It is true that in particular cases one member of a couple may be incapable of having children. However, Torah legislation is framed in terms of universal concepts and general categories.

In reality, marriage to a woman who cannot bear children does pose halachic problems as well. We are grateful for the advances in fertility technology that have made this less and less of a problem in recent times.

Anonymous said...

"However, Torah legislation is framed in terms of universal concepts and general categories."

Can you expand on this? I associate "Torah legislation" with an obsession with details.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Can you expand on this? I associate "Torah legislation" with an obsession with details.

I was basing myself on the Rambam, who explains that, as a legal system designed for an entire nation, it is inevitable that the halacha will not serve the best interests of all people all of the time. Its principles and guidelines are set up in such a way as to offer the greatest number of people maximum benefit.

Torah Law is not obsessed with detail any more than any other field of knowledge. In any discipline, there are data and there are theoretical principles that account for the data. The essence of the system is its theoretical structure, but the completeness of that structure is measured by the extent to which it explains and integrates particulars. Discussion of "details" is always in the context of either clarifying, applying or challenging broad principles.

Anonymous said...

Thank You

Anonymous said...

"What the Rambam really means.."

and what evidence is there that this is what the rambam really means??

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Anonymous, you raise a valid, very general, methodological point. When we study the great thinkers of the past, we must be prepared to read between the lines of their work. This is especially true for people like Rambam and Ibn Ezra who write in a concise style about certain matters. When there is an obvious problem with an explanation given by a great thinker, we reach into our own storehouse of knowledge and experience, reflect upon it, and see if we can grasp the intent of that thinker. For an analogue in the secular world, think of Aristotle's Categories; they are practically unintelligible unless you make the effort to carefully reflect on his assertions in light of your own experience. At that point, his ideas become clear and very compelling.

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