Popular culture remembers Sigmund Freud as the man who believed carnal instinct drives human activity. This is certainly a caricature of a brilliant man’s substantial if controversial legacy. However inaccurate as it may be, it helps us understand a debate between Rashi and Ramban. The Torah (Lev. 19:2) commands us to be holy. We have already discussed how Rashi’s and Ramban’s disagreement over the implementation of this mandate teaches about the nature of sanctity. Another aspect of their debate deserves attention. Rashi (ad loc.) comments: “shevu perushin min ha-arayos u-min ha-aveirah.” You must distance yourself from forbidden unions and sin. What is this sin? If Rashi had intended a general reference to sin, he should have written “other sins.”

Rashi and Freud

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I. It’s All About One Thing

Popular culture remembers Sigmund Freud as the man who believed carnal instinct drives human activity. This is certainly a caricature of a brilliant man’s substantial if controversial legacy. However inaccurate as it may be, it helps us understand a debate between Rashi and Ramban.

The Torah (Lev. 19:2) commands us to be holy. We have already discussed how Rashi’s and Ramban’s disagreement over the implementation of this mandate teaches about the nature of sanctity (link). Another aspect of their debate deserves attention. Rashi (ad loc.) comments: “הוו פרושים מן העריות ומן העבירה.” You must distance yourself from forbidden unions and sin. What is this sin? If Rashi had intended a general reference to sin, he should have written “other sins.” Devek Tov suggests that it refers to what used to be called petting. The Silberman translation renders it as thoughts of sin (hirhurim of the bad kind).

In contrast, Ramban (ad loc.) sees this commandment as a general mandate to sanctify yourself in all aspects of life. To Rashi, holiness derives from libidal discipline. An area of intense temptation, it is the most difficult to control and therefore the most important. Ramban does not highlight any specific aspect of human desire. To him, all sins are equally important.

II. Precedents

We can detect both of these attitudes in rabbinic literature. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 63b) states that biblical Jews did not believe in idolatry. They only committed that cardinal sin in order to engage in forbidden unions. Of all the reasons to throw off the yoke of Torah, carnal desire was at the top.

On the other hand, the Mishnah (Avos 2:1) teaches us to be equally careful with commandments that appear more or less important because we never really know their recompense. Midrash Shmuel (ad loc.) offers two interpretations: 1) This admonition only applies to positive commandments. Based on their listed punishments, we know with certainty which sins are stricter. 2) This also applies to sins, negative commandments. We may know how earthly courts punish sins but God’s calculus is more complex.

This second interpretation meshes well with Ramban’s approach. We cannot favor any single sin, any temptation. Sanctity must manifest everywhere. No one is perfect but the path to a complete personality requires smoothing all rough patches.

III. Forbidden Unions

Perhaps we can see this debate in another disagreement between Rashi and Ramban. In the list of forbidden unions, the Torah describes sleeping with a woman and her daughter as zimah (Lev. 18:17). Following Onkelos, Rashi (ad loc.) translates that word as temptation. Ramban (ad loc.) challenges this interpretation. Why doesn’t the Torah apply the word zimah to all sins? Why aren’t forbidden foods called zimah? Rather, Ramban suggests, the words refer to an unspoken plan, a silent plot to sin.

If, as we suggested above, Rashi considers this desire to be the primary temptation, then the unique appellation of zimah is understandable. It is the height of temptation. (While the Torah only designates a specific union with this term, it seems to apply to other forbidden unions. See Lev. 19:29.) And if Ramban does not give priority to any specific temptation, then his objection to this translation of zimah is also understandable.

Perhaps we can also see Ramban’s broad view of sin in his description of its impact. The Gemara (Yoma 39a) states that eating forbidden food spiritually clouds the heart. However, I believe that Ramban assumes that this effect ensues on the violation of any prohibition (I cannot currently locate this in Ramban’s writings). No sin is unique. They all cloud the heart.

(Note that I have avoided certain words that might cause a filter to block this site)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

24 comments

  1. In an article on Jewish World Review.com(“How to be holy”), R. Berel Wein also makes note of Freudian theory, and then sees Rashi and Ramban as complementing each other(or at least bein adam lamokom and l’chaveiro in general):

    “According to the popularization of Freudian psychology it is the [carnal] drive more than anything else that is the energy source for human behavior…In effect, the Torah teaches us that[this drive]is a neutral commodity. It is rather the circumstances and structure that surround the use of this drive that determine its probity, correctness and holiness. That is the key idea that lies behind all of the commandments that appear in these chapters — discipline, sensitivity, correctness of behavior and a sense of positive purpose.

    …But of equal importance is the correct relationship between humans and their fellow human beings. One cannot be a holy person through ritual piety and scholarship alone. Ramban advances the idea that the possibility of being obnoxious and disgusting even within the confines of the Torah, so to speak, exists…The Torah prescribes the same formula for dealing with others as it did for dealing with our innate drives as described above — patience, sensitivity, self-discipline and retention of the goal of being holy.

    …The Torah is always to be viewed as a unity, as something whole and inseparable. That is the way to embark on the road to holiness”

  2. In Hakirah Vol 6,(“ Is There a Disconnect between Torah Learning and Torah Living? And If So, How Can We Connect Them? A Focus on Middos”), R. Aharon Hersh Fried writes similar to R. Wein(pg 42):

    “Years ago I taught a parsha class in a girl’s high school. As an introduction to my lesson on parshas קדושים I asked the students to tell me what makes a person קדוש . As they listed the behaviors that lead to קדושה —davening, learning, fasting, tznius, and so on—I wrote each behavior on the board. After a few minutes I stopped and pointed out to the students that they had not mentioned even one מצוה שבין אדם לחבירו ! Most students recognized this as a valid criticism. But one actually argued with me that the omission was correct, because one does not become קדוש via מצוות שבין אדם לחבירו. Proper זהירות in such מצוות , she argued, is a result of ,קדושה but not its creator.”

    R. Fried counters that “One could cite many sources to show that מצוות בין אדם לחבירו are a necessary part of קדושה”( pg 45). When summarizing R. Wolbe’s essay “On Frumkeit” he writes “He does not consider that his violation of בין אדם לחבירו may remove him from קדושה”(pg 45) and he derives from the 4th Shoresh of Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvos, that “holiness is attained by keeping all of the commandments in the Torah, presumably including the מצוות בין אדם
    לחבירו “(pg 47).

    In Note 50(pg 46), there is a lengthy response to a reviewer of the article who noted that “Middos does not make someone holy or even Jewish—merely human”.

  3. We may know how earthly courts punish sins but God’s calculus is more complex.

    which ties in nicely to one explanation of why ein onshin min hadin- punishment is for atonement and we can’t ugerstand or extrapolate from God’s calculus of atonement.

    Of course kdarkei i wonder what led rashi and ramban to their different approaches – mesorah?dna?experience?culture?all?none?

    KT

  4. Interesting topic and treatment. I will try to stop by my usual source to see what Milgrom says about zimah later this week.

    It is not clear to me, however, why zimah — as postulated above — would apply only to a woman and her daughter and not, say, to two sisters as in the next pasuk. [Perhaps there is an academic thesis/dissertation that analyzes occurrences of each in published erotic literature???].

    In this vein, It is interesting to note Alter’s comment on Lev. 18:18

    a woman and her sister. As many interpreters have noted, this and several other prohibitions on the list are explicitly violated by figures in the national narrative of Israel: Jacob marries two sisters; Abraham claims that Sarah is his half-sister; David’s daughter Tamar appears to think it possible that her father can arrange a marriage between her and her half brother Amnon. Either these laws represent a Priestly “reform” in sexual practice, as Jacob Milgrom proposes, or certain once acceptable sexual unions had come through evolving social consensus to be regarded as taboo.

    to become rivals. This is the technical term, grounded in realism, for the condition of co-wives in polygamy. In the clause “while her sister is still alive” the words “her sister” are added for clarity.

    So, perhaps, another lesson here is that “to be holy” is not a static set of codified legal commandments, but something that evolves. And just because a great figure in our past did something, does not mean that we have the right to mimic their behavior if contemporary society no longer condones it.

  5. I think traditional Jews would differentiate between before and after Matan Torah. Although the question becomes more serious within the midrashic tradition that the Patriarchs observed the Torah. Within that midrashic mindset, a number of answers have been proposed (including by the Ramban).

  6. IH, the question of whether being holy means following a set of codified legal commandments or not seems to me to be the central point of the dispute between Rashi, who lists actual prohibitions, and the Ramban, who talks about “sanctifying yourself with that which is [otherwise] permitted to you”.

    Shades of Gray: I will soon be giving a series of classes for the Mussar Institute on the philosophical portion of the introduction R’ Shim’on Shkop wrote to his Shaarei Yosher. (Yes, that was a shameless plug. Registration is free and at Project Sinai.)

    R’ Shim’on’s definition of “be holy for I Am Holy” is very much bein adam lachaveiro. From my translation:

    For everything He created and formed was according to His Will (may it be blessed), [that is] only to be good to the creations. So too His Will is that we walk in His ways. As it says “and you shall walk in His Ways” – that we, the select of what He made – should constantly hold as our purpose to sanctify our physical and spiritual powers for the good of the many, according to our abilities.

    In my opinion, this whole concept is included in Hashem’s mitzvah “Be holy, [for I am Holy].” …

    And so, it appears to my limited thought that this mitzvah includes the entire foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another. And as understood, all holiness is being set apart for an honorable purpose – which is that a person straightens his path and strives constantly to make his lifestyle dedicated to the community….

  7. I think it would be more accurate to translate rashi as “…forbidden unions and THE sin.”

  8. There is also the other relevant meaning associated with the root קדש — e.g. Deut. 23:18.

  9. At the risk of stealing Micha’s thunder, I would point out that R’ Shimon’s definition arises out of the inability to square either Rashi or Ramban’s position on Kedoshim Tihyu with the reason, Ki Kadosh Ani.

  10. Jacob — Deriving meaning from the context of the full pasuk sometimes has surprising results. Earlier this morning my wife was relaying to me that she had used מִכָּל-מְלַמְּדַי הִשְׂכַּלְתִּי (Ps. 119:99) in the sense in which it is used in Mishna Avot 4:1 in a discussion last night. But Avot’s meaning turns out to be a trickier proposition due to the context of the full pasuk. Thus, NJPS renders: “I have gained more insight than all my teachers, for Your decrees are my study”.

  11. Michael Ben Av

    Contrary to the posting, (and popular misunderstandings), the Gemara (Yoma 39a) does NOT state that eating forbidden food spiritually clouds the heart. Like the Ramban, the Gemara too simply states that “Sin spiritually clouds the heart”. The only connection to food/kashrus is the context of the verse cited as proof.

  12. Gil, unless I am mistaken, the passages in Ramban you are looking for are VaYikra 1:4 and Shaar HeGemul, where he explains that one brings a korban chatas even though he is not culpable because of the metaphysical effect on one’s soul.

  13. Shades of Gray

    RMB,

    Thank you for the Shaarei Yosher reference.

    Perhaps you can post a podcast of your classes ? RJR could review it on Hirhurim 🙂

  14. R’ Shades,
    Have you ever heard of payola which rhymes with cherry cola and Lola?
    🙂
    KT

  15. On zimahhttp://www.inn.co.il/News/News.aspx/254924

    “היהדות החרדית תעמוד בכל תוקף על המשמר שלא יכנסו לשכונתנו הקדושה אוטובוסי זימה. נהדפם מן המחנה בכל האמצעים”.

    The sin?

    “עתה הוסיפו פשע חמור על פשעיהם, לקרר אמבטי רותחת בפרצה חדשה, לקחו עצת בלעם להחטיא ההמונים הנוסעים בהחלפת נהגי האוטובוסים לנהגות נשים פרוצות למען טמא וחלל את קדושת ישראל רח”ל”.

  16. Fotheringay-Phipps

    I don’t buy any of this.

    If anything, I would say the opposite. The Ramban has a rather negative view of sexuality in general, as expressed in his writings in many places. Rashi, OTOH, comes off as surprisingly “earthy”. If anything.

    There’s no reason to read more into these rishonim than their plain words. They are disputing whether this particular requirement to be holy is about sin, based on language. Rashi notes that the word “kadosh” is frequently applied to carnal matters (e.g. “Rabbeinu Hakadosh”) and the Ramban notes that the Medrash is more focused on “perishus”, which has a broader application. That is all.

    It’s frequently a temptation to build castles in the air consisting of grand themes and the deduction of broad theological implications. It’s important to resist these temptations.

    Part III of this post is based on a mistranslation of Rashi and a distortion of the Ramban.

    Rashi does not say that “zimah” means “temptation”. He says it means “etzah”, which is better translated as “advice” (or a plan/scheme). He says the reason the Torah refers to it this way is because a person’s evil inclination advises him to sin. But the word zimah itself does not mean temptation ( e.g.”ka’asher zamam”).

    The Ramban does not just object to the singling out of “this desire” (i.e. “carnal instincts”). He objected first to the singling out of marrying a woman and her mother or daughter over other forms of forbidden unions. (He then added that it should also apply to non-libidinous sins as well.) Gil Student omitted this part of the Ramban, which did not conform to his thesis.

  17. Shades of Gray

    “The Ramban has a rather negative view of sexuality in general, as expressed in his writings in many places”

    I thought he had a “positive” view in Igeres Hakodesh.

    “ Rambam was wrong in Moreh ha-Nevukhim, when he praised Aristotle for defining the sense of touch as shameful to us. Heaven forbid! (‘halilah, halilah!’) The Greek’s statement was untrue, containing a veiled trace of unbelief (‘minut’). Had the Greek Aher believed that the world was created as an act of (Divine) will he would not have spoken the way he did.”(translation from article in Orthodox Forum’s Gender Relationship by Aby Lerner)

  18. Fotheringay-Phipps

    There is considerable doubt as to whether Igeres Hakodesh was written by the Ramban, based – in part – on the fact that the sentiments expressed there do not seem to jibe with the Ramban’s attitudes expressed in his other writings.

  19. Shades of Gray

    FP,

    I saw now that R. Chavel discusses it(R. A Lichtenstein mentions this in his essay). I suppose if you want to discuss further the Ramban l’shitaso(as well as RGS, l’shitaso) you can see the Ramban on lashon hakodesh and in Kedoshim discussed here:

    http://www.aishdas.org/mesukim/5764/kiSisa.pdf

  20. I timed out before Shabbat, but better late than never. Here’s Milgrom on Zimma, FWIW:

    depravity, zimma. The root zmm is rendered by rsn ‘bridle, restrain’ in Aramaic. Hence the meaning “suppressed thought, plot,” mostly evil (Shadal; cg. Tg. Onk., Ramban). It connotes (neutral) purpose (Job 17:11), evil purpose (Deut 19:19; Isa 32:7; Pss 26:10; 37:12; Prov 24:9), and unchastity (Judg 20:6; Jer 13:27; Hos 6:9-10; Job 31:11; cf CD 8:6-7; 11QT 66:15 [= Lev 18:13, 14]), but in H (18:17; 19:29; 20:14) and Ezekiel (22:11; 23:55), the meaning is only sexual (Paran 1983:179).

    This condemnatory term is not a legal basis for incest; similarly to eba (22bB); tebel (23bB). They deter because they are shameful. The shame culture that Daube (1969) found in Deuteronomy also prevails in H (see NOTE on 20:12ba).

    Two rationales sa ara and zimma are specified perhaps because there are two prohibitions, but the terms apply to both; note that the mother and daughter prohibition (20:14) is also called zimma (Schwartz 1987: 100). The reason is apparent. The wife’s mother, daughter, and granddaughter live in the addressee’s household. Hence he can easily find an opportunity – that is, scheme (zmm — to take advantage of them. The most likely scenario, however, is that he has plotted (zamam with both women to accept a ménage a trios arrangement (see NOTE on 20:14; also 19:29).

  21. Corrected formatting for last para:

    Two rationales sa ara and zimma are specified perhaps because there are two prohibitions, but the terms apply to both; note that the mother and daughter prohibition (20:14) is also called zimma (Schwartz 1987: 100). The reason is apparent. The wife’s mother, daughter, and granddaughter live in the addressee’s household. Hence he can easily find an opportunity – that is, scheme (zmm — to take advantage of them. The most likely scenario, however, is that he has plotted (zamam with both women to accept a ménage a trios arrangement (see NOTE on 20:14; also 19:29).

  22. Laurie Offenthaler

    Some points I have pondered: Did anyone think about the fact that Freud had a following among the orthodox Jewish community in Vienna, and that he discussed with Breuer the case of Bertha Pappenheim, who was inclined to attribute some of her issues to being born from the intermarriage of a Hungarian Jew to a yekke? Bertha was a feminist, but apparently remained quite orthodox, and in her last years was somehow connected to the Beth Jacob schools…. Freud also had some rabbonische yichus

  23. FP wrote:

    “The Ramban has a rather negative view of sexuality in general, as expressed in his writings in many places”

    Are you referring to Igereres HaKadosh, which may or not have been authored by the Ramban, but which is noteworthy for its rejection of the view of sexuality suggested by Rambam in MN and the Yad?

  24. My hirhurim: 1. you wrote, in explaining Rashi through Freud: “An area of intense temptation, it is the most difficult to control and therefore the most important”. I actually believe Freud meant something much deeper, see Civilization and its Discontents p.77 and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where the libido is actually and expansive and unifying force which takes expression in the libido. See my blog at http://psychologyandtorah.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/freuds-eros-in-torah/ for even further depth.
    2. you add that Rashi’s interpretation of zima can be understood in the same light. I don’t understand: since when is sleeping with a woman and her daughter the height of libidinal temptation?

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