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.
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)