Rabbi David Walk
This week's double reading presents us with some of the most inspiring material in our holy texts. We're told to love our fellow like ourselves and to sanctify God's name. We're implored to live lives imbued with concern for matters greater than ourselves. However, I'm foolishly going to ignore all that and discuss the long sections of limitations on partners for marital relations. I will probably live to regret this. In any case we have two long lists of potential life partners who are prohibited to us. The first list, at the end of Achrei Mot (Leviticus 18:6-23), comes right after the famous injunction to live with mitzvah performance and not to die. Some commentaries have said that the list limiting to whom one may marry appears here because it is one of three mitzvoth which are exceptions to the live for mitzvoth rule. The other two are murder and idolatry. Let's be honest, most of us aren't overly tempted to kill someone or bow to idols. So, one of our cardinal principles is to curb, if not control our sexual urges.
Why is this so important? Maimonides (1135-1204) suggests that these lists discourage promiscuity and limit sexual activity. Nachmanides (1194-1270) disagrees. He counters that these rules don't really limit anything because there are so many thousands of potential partners with whom we can have relations. He explains that this mitzvah is a mystical secret (sod), and is one of the chukim which we don't really comprehend. Historically, Maimonides is probably correct, because in the pre-modern world when women didn't circulate freely, young men mostly mingled with women on this list. For the purposes of this article we will assume that we can understand at least some of the lessons behind these precepts.
Nachmanides further suggests that in general the Torah wants to limit sexual activity to the area of procreation. He also says that child bearing with the partners on the list would be less successful, therefore they are prohibited. There is something to this opinion, because it seems that the prohibitions of relations during a woman's monthly cycle are to concentrate sexual activity on times when procreation is most likely. However, we do allow people who can't have children to get married. Someone might suggest that we believe in miracles, and that if Sarah could have children long after menopause so could others. We also require husbands to be sensitive and attentive to women's intimate needs. So, it does seem that even though it might be said that the primary reason for relations is child bearing, after all it is the first mitzvah in the Torah, it is clearly not the only reason.
I think that the text of our Bible supports my contention that sexual relations have a broader function in traditional life styles than just for replenishing the population. I say this because there are four euphemisms for sexual relations in the Torah. It would seem to me that each of these expressions indicate another aspect or type of sexual relations. In our list here in this week's Torah reading we have the expression to reveal nakedness (l'galot ervata). I believe that this phrase is reserved for promiscuous or negative relations. It is a harsh expression and suggests a physical act rather than one of love. It conjures up an impersonal deed, perhaps even violent. We also have the phrase that 'he came unto her' (bo eileho). This phrase, I believe hints at the act for the purpose of procreation, but in a positive sense, a sense of duty, obligation and mitzvah. Then there is the saying that 'he lies with her' (shachav ita). I think that this suggests more closeness and warmth. There is a sense of togetherness and mutuality. This act is done with one's wife, not to her.
Then there is the famous phrase which has become an idiom 'to know her', as in he knew her Biblically. This expression for sexual relations stands alone as the pinnacle of what we want to happen in a marriage. True knowledge of another is rare indeed. In Modern Hebrew we don't say that we know anyone. Instead we say that we recognize them (makir oto). The only individual that we have a chance to get to really know is our spouse. This term implies that we are taking the intimacy achieved with a spouse to the ultimate goal: to gain true knowledge of another human being. What do we do with this knowledge? Now, kids use their knowledge of parents (and sometimes teachers) for the purpose of manipulation. And to a certain degree that's okay. But spice (isn't that the logical plural of spouse?) are supposed to use this accumulated knowledge gained through intimacy for the purpose of ultimate fulfillment of the mitzvah of loving your fellow like yourself. The spouse is now armed with the necessary tools to truly provide the needs of the other. Usually we do this mitzvah with rough approximation of the other's requirements. Not so, the serious spouse.
In Jewish tradition we talk about the customs of shana rishona (first year of marriage). We talk about this requirement as including rejoicing together and remaining together as much as possible. There are Jewish authorities who maintain that the togetherness of shana rishona is a Torah obligation (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 582). This is based on the verse that a husband shouldn't go to war in the first year of marriage (Deuteronomy 24:5). What are we trying to accomplish? We want to observe each other to gain the information needed to please and fulfill the other. Rabbi Eric Goldman, in an article for
The important revealing isn't about nakedness or anything else so superficial. We're talking about unearthing knowledge about the other. The true revealing uncovers personality and the keys to unlock a lifetime of bliss.
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