Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy. (Leviticus 19: 2)
דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם–קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
Chapter 19 of Leviticus is comparable to the Ten Commandments. Rav Hiyya explained that the reason it was to be read “unto all the congregation” is because most of the essential laws of the Torah can be derived from it. (Leviticus Rabba 24). In my humble opinion it is far superior to the Ten Commandments. As Everett Fox writes: “[It] is wide-ranging and rhetorically powerful. It extends holiness to virtually all areas of life – family, calendar, cult, business civil and criminal law, social relations, and sexuality.” (The Five Books of Moses, Everett Fox p. 600.)
What detracts from the breadth of vision however, is the emphasis in the preceding and following chapters (Leviticus 18, also read at the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, and chapter 20) which are fixated on sexual perversion of every kind.. and I mean every kind, including incest, bestiality and homosexuality.
I will argue below, that much of what the Torah detests about sexual perversion, has less to do with being puritanical and more to do with challenging God’s authority and rejecting our humanity. Stay with me…. It’s an interesting ride…
The Hebrew Bible can be summarized as a rejection of Idolatry and an embrace of the concept that God is King. No human or human-creation is divine.
In the first account in Chapter 1 of Genesis, Adam was created God-like, in the image of God, as a unitary being and as such did not need to procreate… or at least did not need a mate to procreate. God as we know… is eternal and does not need to procreate. When we first meet Adam… either does he.
In Genesis 1:27 we read: “And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.”
וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם
How does one explain the apparent contradiction of Man being created as a singular being… like God and God creating the human male and female? The Midrash cited by the classical commentators, Rashi and Ibn Ezra, explains these words in the following manner: The Adam was created as an androgynous being with two sides, male and female; moreover, these two sides were later separated in order to form two separate beings – man and woman (Genesis Rabbah 8:1). The tradition that the first human being was created as an androgynous being is also cited in the Talmud (Berochot 61a, Eruvin 18a).
How man procreates defines whether he is an earthly analog to God…or whether he, unlike God, cannot replicate Himself and is in need of an “other”.
An understanding of this premise explains the low Biblical regard of the divine right of kings and related incestual inbreeding as well as ritualistic bestiality, temple prostitution and homosexuality all of which are laid out in detail in Leviticus 18 and 20.
In this context one can understand Genesis 2:18 “And the Lord God said: It is not good that the man should be alone: I will make a help meet for him.” Rashi quotes Genesis Rabba: “So that people should not say that there are two authorities. The Holy One Blessed Be He among the heavenly beings is single, and has no mate, and the other one, among earthly beings has no mate.”
שלא יאמרו שתי רשויות הן הקב”ה יחיד בעליונים ואין לו זוג, וזה יחיד בתחתונים ואין לו זוג
The message here is that were a human who intended to have a family were to publicly stay celibate, or claim sexual self-sufficientcy and mate with a being with which he cannot biologically reproduce; such as an animal, a goddess or a human of the same sex.. he is in an ancient Near Eastern way mimicking the divine, claiming divinity and thereby challenging God.
This to my mind is the meaning of Leviticus 18-22:
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind; it is abomination.
וְאֶת-זָכָר–לֹא תִשְׁכַּב, מִשְׁכְּבֵי אִשָּׁה: תּוֹעֵבָה, הִוא
To claim that one can have a child, without the need of the other sex, is to claim divinity…. and therefore an abomination.
In Genesis, a few verses after woman has been created from Adam’s rib, the Bible writes: “And the man said: This now, bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh, to this shall be called Woman, because out of Man was this one taken.” Rashi is struck by “this now” and writes: “This teaches that Adam came to [lit. came unto – had sex with] each animal and beast in quest of a mate and he found no satisfaction in them (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 63a).
מלמד שבא אדם על כל בהמה וחיה ולא נתקררה דעתו בהם עד שבא על חוה
“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall be one flesh” Genesis 2:24 Rashi comments: “The Holy Spirit says this to forbid to the “children of Noah” unchaste behavior (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 57b)”
רוח הקודש אומרת כן,לאסור על בני נח את העריות
In other words, the source of unchaste sexual behavior (“Arayot” in Hebrew) is when a man does not leave his father and mother… sister, brother etc. but mates with them! In the ancient world, inbreeding is reproduction without the need for another being outside of one’s gene pool and is to showcase a divine union which by the laws of nature does not support procreation. It is forbidden because it challenges the Godhead.
So how did the next generation procreate with such a small gene pool? The most straightforward response, is that just as Adam had no choice but to mate with Eve.. who was after all, flesh of his flesh… so too Cain had to mate with a sister.
In Leviticus 20:17 the Bible writes: “And if a man shall take his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, and see her nakedness, and she see his nakedness, it is a shameful thing (Hebrew: “Chesed).
וְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-יִקַּח אֶת-אֲחֹתוֹ בַּת-אָבִיו אוֹ בַת-אִמּוֹ וְרָאָה אֶת-עֶרְוָתָהּ וְהִיא-תִרְאֶה אֶת-עֶרְוָתוֹ, חֶסֶד הוּא–וְנִכְרְתוּ, לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי עַמָּם; עֶרְוַת אֲחֹתוֹ גִּלָּה, עֲוֹנוֹ יִשָּׂא
Rashi comments: it is a disgraceful act: The Aramaic term for “disgrace” is חִסוּדָא. – [see Onkelos on Gen. 34:14] Its Midrashic interpretation, however, is: If you [object and] say, “But Cain married his sister!” [the answer is:] the Omnipresent [in permitting this marriage,] performed an act of kindness (חֶסֶד), to build His world through him, as it is said: “the world is built on kindness (חֶסֶד) ” (Ps. 89:3). – [Torath Kohanim 20:116] Olam Chesed Yibaneh
לשון ארמי חרפה (בראשית לד יד) חסודא. ומדרשו אם תאמר קין נשא אחותו, חסד עשה המקום לבנות עולמו ממנו, שנאמר (תהלים פט ג) עולם חסד יבנה
One wonders… whether both explanations complement each other… “the world is built on shame….
In any case, the biblical premise remains… inbreeding is a rejection of God and a rejection of God’s role as man’s only ruler. Royals want to mix and re-mix their blood to protect their superior “blue” blood and to justify the subjugation of the commoner and stranger. God wants us, wherever possible, to leave our father and mother and create our bloodline with our fellow human commoners.
The biblical laws are talking about procreation… not love and relationships….
Returning with this new understanding of the sexual tension between Divine Royal inbreeding on the one hand and the alternative of leaving one’s gene pool and loving the “other”.. we can now make sense of the exhausting descriptions and proscriptions against prohibited sexual activity in Leviticus 18 -20…
The Biblical sense of Kedusha-Holiness is truly lyrical. God exhorts his people not to try to be holy like He is holy in the Ancient Near Eastern sense that man should compete with God by appointing human gods as leaders, and by building castes and tribes excluded from a holy blood lineage. Rather the Biblical invitation to be Holy as God is Holy is to act like God, in his most human form… Mah hu rachum, af ata rachum… Just as He is merciful, so shall you be merciful (Tractate Shabbat 133b and Rambam, Hilchot Dayot) … The seamless transistions between the ethical and ritual is an invitation to imitate God… Just as He is merciful and embraces the stranger and the common wage earner and just as He is honorable in business dealings.. so should you too …. It is a rejection of the stratification of divine rulers and common subjects.
The implications for the contemporary discussion regarding same sex marriage and the Hebrew Bible are many.
As for as I’m concerned the message is simple.
It’s not good for a human to be alone…. Not only because we need the love of another, but because living alone is a challenge to the Divine and therefore a rejection of our humanity.
לֹא-טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ
It is also pretty clear to me that our personal world is built both on kindness and shame. Undeserved kindness provided to us and shame born of the crooked timber of humanity… the world is built on Hesed.
עולם חסד יבנה
To claim that we are a world unto ourselves is not only selfish but it is a challenge to God and a denial of our humanity.
The illicit relationships listed in Leviticus have less to do with perverse sexual morays and everything to do with challenging God’s divinity and denying our own humanity.
You shall not lie alone…..