Body, Soul, and How We Put them Together

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Acharei Mot

The Torah introduces the list of prohibited liaisons with a general verse, 18;6, banning a man from approaching any she’er besaro, close relative, to uncover nakedness, a way to refer to the essential marital act. HaKetav VeHaKabbalah records Rambam’s reason, from Moreh Nevuchim, for why the Torah prohibited these relationships, even within marriage, although he credits it to Sforno, because he has taken much of his language.

Society Should Not Become Saturated with Promiscuity

He says people generally marry for pleasure, they tend to fixate and fantasize on the physical pleasures of marriage, and family members are very present in life. Were it permissible, the tendency to excessive focus would be exacerbated, people would spend all their time in this kind of physical pleasure, the world would be filled with orgiastic activity.

This is all found in Rambam, too, who made an important point and insufficiently heeded point about all human societies: the urge to sexuality is strong (for men and women, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah takes for granted), and the prohibitions on relations with relatives is a way to rein it in, by making off limits the prospective partners most commonly present in one’s life.

[A nice parallel from our times is where workplaces ban office romances. For many reasons, but including that employers don’t want that clouding the work environment. It reminds us such urges are a part of most people’s lives, necessitating some set of strategies to be sure it not dominate us. Ramban correctly notes the insufficiency of the rules for the goal, because there are opportunities for excess even without relatives. Rambam might have answered that the Torah was making a point, taking the easiest path to promiscuity off the table, not safeguarding it completely.]

The Pleasure Is in the Start

He has a last line from Sforno I do not remember from Rambam, nor found in a quick search. The Torah chose the phrase le-galot ervah, to uncover nakedness, because in most cases people intend the pleasure of the uncovering. I’m not sure I know what he means, but I hear it along the lines of mayim genuvim yumtaku, stolen waters are sweet. We might think the excitement is about the full act or its culmination, when it is really the start many people find most exciting, the gilui ervah. Everything from there is just playing out what was started.

And it needs to be reined in, channeled, limited to its proper forum, marriage with a suitable partner.

Conquering Our Animal Sides

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch links chapter eighteen ofVaYikrato the preceding one, despite their seemingly different foci. Chapter seventeen had laid out the prohibition against offering sacrifices outside the Temple, not eating blood, covering the blood of birds and domesticated animals slaughtered for food, and the ritual status of those who touch the carcass of a bird not killed in the way to make it kosher.

Where our chapter focuses on illicit involvements. The link, says R. Hirsch, comes from the animalistic side of ourselves underlying all of these. We want food, especially meat, where the Torah looked to teach us self- control, to indulge the desire in a way that upholds human dignity.

The strongest such impulse is sexual, and ethical control (his phrase) of this passion is the foundation of all human flowering, personal, social, or political. Another expression of an idea Western society has, sadly, abandoned, that what feels good isn’t always right or acceptable, part of being properly human is knowing when and what to rein in.

How To Afflict a Soul

We’ve spent enough time on the danger of descent and spiritual deterioration; let’s look at how we can advance spiritually. VaYikra 16;29 commands te’anu et nafshoteichem, to afflict our souls, on Yom Kippur. The verb inui indicates any bodily suffering brought on by hard effort, says Malbim, for example, with the Egyptians having made an effort le-ma’an anoto be-sivlotam, in order to oppress them in their burdens, Shemot 1;11.

Hard journeys do it, hunger does it, as do other physical deprivations. The verse can’t mean any version of producing such bodily suffering, Malbim points out, because the verse explicitly rules out all melachah, let alone hard labor. Were inui to be the feeling after all hard effort, melachah would already be included.

To answer, he cites Yoma 74b, which focuses on the Torah having linked inui to mleachah. The latter is a prohibition of avoidance, a requirement to refrain from creative acts. Inui, too, should be a shev ve’al ta’aseh, fulfilled with self-restraint, with not acting.

Second, Malbim adduces many verses to show that inui nefesh in Scripture means not to eat or drink, it being an inui because food and drink sustain the soul in the body. Happens to be that the Gemara agrees, as do passages in Sifra Malbim quotes, to explain why we think of the prohibition of eating and drinking on Yom Kippur as the central form/version of afflicting our souls, by denying the soul what keeps it within the body.

[Malbim does not tell us why the Torah would focus on this for Yom Kippur. More notable, here, this an example of one of his central aims in his commentary, to show that the correct reading of the text, on its own terms, often matches what Chazal said.]

The Atonement of Deliberate or Unwitting Sin

Acharei Mot discusses kapparat ha-kodesh, cleansing or atoning the Mishkan/Mikdash, on Yom Kippur. In chapter four, the Torah laid out two other sin offerings whose blood is brought into the Mishkan/Mikdash building, if the High Priest or Jewish people as a whole commit a serious sin.

R. David Zvi Hoffmann picks up on a key detail in the Yom Kippur service, the blood being brought into theKodesh Kodoshim, the Holy of Holies, the inner room of the building. He attributes the extra element to this sacrifice atoning for willful sins, unusual for sacrifices, heightening the need for atonement.

One reason the comment caught my eye.

What Shapes Our Lives

The other, which I will not reproduce here, is the academic framing he gives. He refers us to the magazine of Wissenschaft des Judenthums for 1876, then a series of journal articles on this topic, in some of which he wrote to oppose theories of other scholars.

It’s a reminder that Torah scholars are often affected by their times in ways we don’t stop to appreciate. I think we do pay attention to how the substance of a Torah scholar’s views might be shaped, more or less, by the currents of his era.

R. Hoffmann here shows us a more “meta” influence of his time, how his focus, and maybe way of addressing it, was rooted in what was going on around him. It’s similar to how I was struck when I realized that R. Yitzchak Herzog, the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Palestine and then Israel, dealt with thousands ofagunahcases, women whose husbands were missing and presumed dead, because of the Holocaust and War of Independence. Many of those cases leave no trace in his writings, but certainly took time, effort, and were part of what made him who he was.

R. David Zvi Hoffmann considers the way atonement works for deliberate and unwitting sins, in an unusually academic framework for a Torah commentator.

Two downs, two ups: The Torah bans many marital relationships to help us not spend too much of our time or energy on the sexual; with other prohibitions, did so for other appetites as well, promiscuity still topping the list, and then, more positively, gave us the inuyim of Yom Kippur to help with our atonement, food and drink, as well as sacrifices to atone for even willful sins of the past year.

About Gidon Rothstein

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