Sexuality and the Land

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

(Rabbi Rothstein will be co-chairing a Yom Iyun on the Teachings of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein at Lincoln Square Synagogue, Sunday April 29, 9:30am-12:30pm. Keynote address by Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman. Speakers include Dr. Tovah Lichtenstein and Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein.)

Ramban to Acharei Mot: Sexuality and the Land

For Acharei Mot and Kedoshim, I cannot offer my usual attempt to select at random— in each of these parashiyot, Ramban makes comments that are both somewhat known and yet seem to me to demand repeat consideration. So we’ll see those.

Why Sexual Mores?

Ramban to Vayikra 18;6 starts from a premise few if any of us share. When the Torah tells us not to “come close (i.e., sexually)” to certain relatives, he notes that it does not say why.  I still remember the first time that casual aside brought me up short. Ramban was unsure as to why the Torah thought we should not be allowed to marry our relatives!

Today, I think most people take for granted that the Torah reflected a version of the near-universal incest taboo, so Ramban’s search for a reason reminds us this was not always obvious, at least to him.

Rambam’s View: Minimizing Sexuality

He cites the view of Rambam in Guide for the Perplexed 3;49, that the Torah strove to teach us to be less involved in our sexual sides than we tend to be. (Rambam, like many rishonim, had a more negative view of human sexuality than I am expressing here, so that his explanation of the arayot, these prohibited relationships, speaks of the Torah’s interest in having us indulge that aspect of ourselves as minimally as possible. My late teacher, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”lproposed ways we could see that issue differently, but that’s not our topic.)

Rambam justified this idea by noting that most of the women prohibited are those with whom a man will come into contact most regularly (his or his wife’s close relatives), which was the view of Ibn Ezra as well. For them, the Torah was telling us not to allow our interactions with women we see most regularly become sexual ones, because that will lead to an over-sexualized society [this is not our issue, but Rambam’s idea transfers well, albeit not as a matter of halachah, to the workplace; once that’s a venue where men and women interact regularly, I suspect Rambam would have held that we need to be sure to de-sexualize that environment completely].

Later in this comment, Ramban agrees that we are supposed to limit our sexuality, engage in it solely for the best propagation of the species. But as an explanation for arayot, it founders on the fact that the Torah punishes these relationships so severely—most of them with death or karet, excision– while allowing a man to marry as many women as he wants.

In terms of limiting sexuality, Ramban sees no obvious reason it’s worse to marry one’s daughter (which the Torah permitted for non-Jews; that fact reminds us that unless we study halachah, we cannot know what the Torah values or opposes), or two sisters (as Ya’akov did), or marry his children to each other (and keep the family land in the family) than to marry a thousand women.

I stress, before we get to his own view, that this again shows us that he has no intuitive sense it’s wrong to marry close relatives. That should remind us that that which we take for granted should not always be so, and that in looking at it more carefully, we might find more than we expect.

A Latent Sense of Genetics

He starts by saying he has no tradition as to the answer (my late teacher, Prof. Isadore Twersky, zt”ledited a volume about Ramban, in which Prof. Moshe Idel’s article was titled “We Have No Kabbalistic Tradition On This,” a reminder of Ramban’s traditionalism, his search for prior sources to fuel ideas). His own best idea is that this has to do with what he calls sodot hayetzirah davek ba-nefesh, the secrets of formation (of people) that connect with the soul, which is part of the sod ha-ibbur, a term almost universally taken to refer to reincarnation.

Which is why I bring it up. I have for years tried to publish an article arguing that sod ha-ibbur means secrets about how babies are formed, and that the soul for Ramban is more embodied than we assume. Here’s not the place to review that whole argument, but it is the place to point out that reincarnation does not serve the purpose for which Ramban here brings it up. There is no obvious reason to prohibit what we today call incest because of the workings of reincarnation (the opposite: if a pregnancy is to bring a deceased person to another life, it should be better if relatives are procreating together, as Ramban suggests regarding yibum, levirate marriage).

I think Ramban was reaching for what we today call genetics (as he did for yibum, a discussion you can look up in his commentary elsewhere). Just as today we know that marrying relatives creates problems and combines mutations in often destructive ways, Ramban (I think) was saying that something about how babies are formed goes wrong if we allow these relationships.

Two views on incest: limiting our sexuality or ensuring our best possible offspring. [I once suggested that the two different sections of the Torah that list these prohibitions, in Acharei Mot and Kedoshim might each match one of these views, but that’s for another time].

The Land of Israel Spews Out Evildoers

Verse 25 closes this list of prohibited sexual relationships with the reminder that the Canaanites’ violation of these principles defiled the land, which then vomited them out. Ramban takes that (really famously, and I’m running out of space, so I’ll do only highlights) more literally than we would have thought.

He briefly reviews his cosmology, in which Hashem delegates supervision of most of the world to mazalot, angels or stars or the like, but retains a direct connection with Israel, the Land and the people (who are therefore not as vulnerable to chance as others, which is why tradition always said, “ein mazal le-Yisrael,” there is no controlling star or power for the Jewish people).

The Land for its part therefore does not tolerate those who defile it, particularly not in worship of powers other than Hashem or sexual immorality. To Ramban, that explains the inciden in Navi where lions started eating the people imported to populate the Land after Sancheriv exiled the Northern Kingdom (II Melachim 17); the solution was for them to learn “mishpat Elokei ha-aretz, the rules of the Gd of the Land.”

Those who said that thought of Hashem as one god among many; Ramban thinks they were right that Hashem is especially the Gd of the Land of Israel.

He goes much further with this, but I do not have space to mention it all (it’s really worth reading, even more so than many of his other comments that are worth reading). He notes that Ketubbot 110b says that anyone who lives outside Israel is as if s/he has no Gd, which he here is saying is a metaphysical truth, not just an ideological one. That’s why Sifrei Eikev 43 tells us the Torah wants us to keep mitzvot outside of Israel, so that when we return, it will not be all new to us (which implies that mitzvot only fully apply in Israel).

I’ve already gone longer than I meant to, but Ramban’s picture of sexuality prohibited by the Torah gives us too rich a set of ideas to be any briefer—that it’s primarily about genetics, and that the Land of Israel is physically and metaphysically sensitive to our sins, especially worship of alien powers and sexual immorality, such that we cannot be there (long term; clearly, the Land does not spew out the first transgressors of these sins) unless we can adhere to those rules.

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