Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Emor (Rambam)

Rambam on Sexuality

As promised, this week we shall attempt to present an overall view of Rambam’s attitude toward sexuality. This issue is appropriate both to Aharei Mot and Kedoshim, which contain the basic rules of prohibited sexual liaisons (arayot), and to Emor, in which, among other special restrictions, the priests—both regular priests and the high priest—are subject to certain limitations on whom they may marry.

For many of us, the issue of sexuality is one of the most problematic aspects of Maimonides’ thought, serving as it does as a reminder of the great gap in mentality between ourselves and the medieval world in which he lived. In brief, his approach is one which would be described today as “prudish” or “puritanical.” He saw sexuality essentially as a kind of necessary evil designed by the Creator to ensure the propagation of the species. Thus, in the chapters of Hilkhot Deot devoted to maintaining proper bodily health, he states that a man should not have sexual relations any more than absolutely necessary, and only when there are clear signs that his body is urgently crying for sexual release (thus, for example, in Deot 3.2, where the Rabad needs to remind him that a man is also obligated to satisfy his wife regularly, and must be responsive to her wishes and hints in that direction). In 4.19 he warns against the dangers of excessive sexual indulgence, giving a graphic picture of the ills likely to befall a man who engages in excessive intercourse, and concluding that “one out of a thousand” men die from causes other than excessive sexual indulgence (but cf. also 5.4-5). I suspect that there are a number of physicians in the world today, including pious Jews, who might demur from this statement.

Likewise in his discussion of the rationales for the mitzvot, in Guide for the Perplexed, he gives the general reason for the laws about sex as “to bring about a decrease of sexual intercourse and to diminish the desire for mating as far as possible, so that it should not be taken as an end, as is done by the ignorant” (Guide III.35; Pines, p. 538). Elsewhere in the Guide he cites with approval Aristotle’s stringent views on this subject. Speaking of the individual who has reached a high level of spiritual and intellectual development, he writes: By then, he will have detached his thought from, and abolished his desire for, bestial things—I mean the preference for the pleasures of eating, drinking, sexual intercourse, and, in general, of the sense of touch, with regard to which Aristotle gave a clear explanation in the Ethics, saying that this sense is a disgrace to us. How fine is what he said, and how true it is that it is a disgrace! For we have it insofar as we are animals like the other beasts, and nothing that belongs to the notion of humanity pertains to it. (Guide II.36; Pines, 371)

Elsewhere, he makes the philological observation that the Hebrew language does not even have words for the sex act, nor for the male or female sexual organs; the terms used for these things are “used in a figurative sense and by allusions,” not as their “first meaning” or primary sense (Guide III.8; I question his claim here that the primary root of the verb shegel does not refer to the sex act).

Where is all this coming from? One source is of course Aristotelianism; as we saw in the above passage, he himself quotes a passage in which Aristotle denigrates the senses, and declares the complete ascendancy of the mind over the body. A second possible source was the puritanical atmosphere in the Islamic countries where he lived: there was a rigid separation of the sexes in everyday life, far more so than in Christian Europe. Woman was widely seen as the temptress, symbolizing the body, corporeal and transient things; it is questionable whether there was much appreciation in that culture of her humanity or personality; the sex act itself was seen as a shameful surrender to a base but unavoidable drive, almost a compulsion. What are the alternative options within Jewish thought? In Jewish mysticism, particularly the Zohar, there is, alongside the well-known prohibitions, a sanctity to marital sex, especially that of Shabbat evening. The act of human union, zivug, is seen as corresponding to the supernal union of various sefirot—an element, needless to say, totally absent in Rambam’s thought.

An interesting little book from the early or mid-thirteenth century, Iggeret Hakodesh, provides a guide for performing the act of sexual union “in holiness and purity.” (The book is traditionally attributed to Nahmanides, but Chavel, even though he brings this work in his edition of Kitvei ha-Ramban, thinks it was almost certainly written by another author, possibly R. Azriel of Gerona.) The very first chapter of Iggeret ha-Kodesh opens with a strong criticism of the Rambam’s position, arguing that it is near blasphemy to say that the sense of touch is a disgrace, given that everything God created is good!

In a later era, Eastern European Hasidism celebrates avodah begashmiut—the “service of God through the physical.” While the examples most frequently given pertain to food and eating, in principle this idea applies to the area of sexuality as well, and here and there one finds explicit statements to this effect.

In a totally different vein, Rav Soloveitchik, in Halakhic Man, argues a thorough-going this-worldliness: eschewing all metaphysical speculation, and sanctifying the physical things of this world as the realm for the application of the reign of the halakha—including sexuality.

I would challenge the statement in Guide II.36, regarding both sexuality and touch generally, that “nothing that belongs to the notion of humanity pertains to it.” As I have observed here in the past, sexuality is perhaps the most paradoxical area of human life, combining as it does the animal and the human: animal, in its blindly biological aspect; human, in its relational, inter-personal nature. Sex takes place with another person, meaning, another consciousness. It has a powerful potential to bind man and woman in a (hopefully) life-long union. This bond may in turn serve as the basic building block of a family, and through the family, of society and of a holy community. Moreover, most modern people would speak of sex as having an important emotional component, as a way of communicating love, expressing care through pleasuring the other, entailing emotional intimacy as well as purely physical delight. (Needless to say, all these can also be absent; the other side of the coin, the expression of the “animalistic” aspect, so to speak, is that sex can also be an arena for exploitation, deception, betrayal, and a host of other ills.) Given that it is an area of deep emotional potential, it seems clear that one is dealing with a deeply and uniquely human realm, notwithstanding the above Rambam. (One might add that there are several passages in Hazal which make it clear that the emotional dimension is of great importance. Rambam himself, in Deot 5.4, states that the act should be performed “with the will and joy of both of them; and he should speak with her kindly so that she may have a calm mind.”)

I recently saw a passage in Michael Kagan’s Holistic Haggadah (pp. 88-89), in which he quotes Rabbi Steve Wald on two paths to knowing God:

The way of the intellect, in which the mind attempts to penetrate through the layers of distraction, rising higher and higher toward the Divine throne. …. the body is understood as a vessel for the intellect, a donkey for the traveler, and as such must be carefully and properly maintained.. fed the most nutritious foods, exercised, given the necessary amount of rest and permitted a minimum amount of sexual activity to satisfy its animal desires. Without this balance the mind might lose its sharpness …

The way of love, in which the whole of one’s being—mind, body and spirit—in joined holistically in the dance with God. And this is true not only of the individual but of all of Creation. Intimacy with God is through relationships… Sexuality is part of the dance: loving intimacy with another evokes and mirrors the intimacy of the Divine with the Divine’s Creation.

Although no one in the medieval world would use this sort of language, some of the things they say are not all that different in terms of the underlying conception.

We shall now turn to what Rambam has to say about sexuality in the Yad, in his halakhic code. This comes into play in two main areas: in the broad sense, conceiving sexuality as everything that happens between man and woman, there is the whole vast realm of family law codified in Sefer Nashim (“the Book of Women”), to which we shall return another time. Secondly, in the more limited, specific sense of sexual activity and the proscriptions against improper sex, there is the lengthy treatise, Hilkhot Issurei Biah (“Laws of Forbidden Intercourse”), which forms part of Sefer Kedushah (“The Book of Holiness”). Besides the obvious strictures against incest, adultery, and the like (referred to collectively as arayot), this treatise includes the intricate and detailed laws relating to menstruation and the like; the special laws applying to kohanim; the various strictures against various kinds of contact between the sexes that might lead to serious violations; etc. As this tractate also contains the rule against intermarriage with non-Jews, Rambam chose this setting to present the line of transition between the two worlds—i.e., the laws of conversion to Judaism.

Rambam’s halakhic positions re sexuality tend to be rather strict. Specifically, there are two areas in which he classifies certain acts as being prohibited by Torah law, in contradistinction to at least some of the other rishonim (medieval authorities). One of these, the blanket prohibition of all sexual relations outside of marriage, we have discussed at length in our study of premarital sex (HY V: Vayeshev and sequels). A second area is that of kirvah: physical contact between individuals forbidden to one another, that is engaged in for purposes of pleasure and/or prone to lead to intercourse (Issurei Biah 21.1; Sefer ha-Mitzvot, lavin §353): Rambam sees this as being prohibited by dint of Torah law, whereas many others see it as Rabbinic. In practical terms, both of course see such activity as prohibited; the difference between them is on the theoretical level, and perhaps in certain marginal cases.

Rambam’s overall approach is well summed-up in the final passages of Hilkhot Issurei Biah 22.18 on:

18. There is nothing in the entire Torah that is more difficult for the majority of the people to separate from, then arayot and forbidden sexual acts. Our Sages said: at the time that Israel were commanded concerning arayot, they wept and accepted this mitzvah grudgingly and with weeping. As is said, “weeping by their families” [Num 11:10] —concerning matters of family [Sifrei; Yoma 75]

A general comment: we mentioned earlier the strict puritanism of Islam. This is only partly true: early medieval Spain was a very open society. Many members of the wealthier mercantile classes and the royal entourage and courtiers, among them many Jews, spent much of their time at leisure, and in mixed company—drinking wine, feasting, listening to songs that praised wine, women and song. In brief, it was a fairly decadent society; sexual indiscretions, including between Jewish men and non-Jewish women, were not unknown (as they were also in Ashkenaz). It may be that Muslim puritanism was often a kind of whistling in the dark, trying to cope with a reality in which religious rules were as often as not observed in the breach. Maimonides’ often harsh language may have been influenced, at least in part, by this gloomy situation.

19. Our Sages said, a person desires theft and arayot and covets them. And there is no community, at any time, in which there are not those who break the laws of arayot and forbidden intercourse. Our Sages said: the majority in theft, a minority on incest, and all violate “dust” of gossip. [Bava Batra 165]

This line expresses a sober, pessimistic awareness of reality: that no matter what you do, people will be people. Compliance with even such seemingly basic laws as those against theft and sexual licentiousness is never compete. The process of inculcating a God-centered morality is a sisyphistic struggle.

20. Therefore, a person ought to suppress his Urge in this matter, and to accustom himself to great holiness and purity of thought and proper character so as to be saved from these things. And he should take care not to be alone [with strange women ], for this is the great factor [causing sin]. The great sages used to say to their students: Be careful of me, because of my daughter; be careful of me because of my daughter-in-law [Kiddushin 81]. So as to teach their students not to be embarrassed in this matter and to avoid yihud [i.e., being alone with other women].

21. And he should likewise accustom himself to distance himself from frivolity and drunkenness and from lustful words, for these are great causes [of sin] and are considered as degrees of licentiousness. And he should not live without a wife, for this custom leads to great purity.

This last sentence expresses a typically Jewish view, diametrically opposed to that of Christianity: namely, that holiness is attained through marriage, not via abstinence. The assumption is that if one finds satisfaction with one’s wife, there will be no need to lust for other women, whereas the bachelor is liable to be constantly thinking about sex. Underlying this is a sober, realistic skepticism about man’s ability to completely repress his instincts, as the Church tried to do. As I once commented here, the Jewish approach is action-oriented; it does not expect people to exert thought control. Note the attitude, common a generation or two ago, in which young couples during courtship were allowed to neck and kiss, but were expected to refrain from actual sexual relations through the exercise of “self-control.” This approach was rejected out-of-hand by the halakhah as unreasonable and unlivable—and, one suspects, was as often as not observed in the breach.

But more than all this they said, he should turn himself and his thoughts to words of Torah and expand his mind with wisdom. For thoughts of arayot do not predominant save in a heart that is bereft of wisdom. And concerning wisdom it says: “a lovely hind, a graceful doe, let her caresses fill you at all times with delight, be infatuated always with her love” [Prov 5:19]

He speaks here of wisdom, both as a refuge and as an alternative to preoccupation with sexual needs (he offers similar advice in 21.19). There is a good deal of truth in what he says: idleness, boredom, lack of serious interests that engage all of a person’s faculties, that give life meaning, will inevitably lead a person to seek distractions and immediate pleasures—and sex is one of those that is often most readily available. Hazal said, “If you encounter that dastardly one [i.e., the Evil Urge], drag him to the Study House.” The only question here is whether Wisdom is a surefire remedy, or whether under certain circumstances, even the person living an interesting and fulfilling life may find sexual thoughts intruding, uninvited, into the interstices of his life.

It is interesting to note the metaphorical use of the verse with which he concludes. In its original context, it refers to a real woman; the word dadeha, translated here as “caresses,” has definite erotic overtones (see the use of its cognates in Song of Songs). Chapter 5 of Proverbs speak of the dangers and temptations involved in following the loose woman, and advises the young man addressed to “Drink water from your own cistern…. Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth.” The message is clear: the best way to overcome sexual temptation is through a solid, fulfilling marriage based on fidelity (as in the first part of §21, above). (Incidentally, the phrase used here, “a lovely hind, a graceful doe,” is sometimes used as an honorific preceding the bride’s name in the Ketubah).

It is also interesting that here, as in several of the passages quoted in recent weeks, Rambam is particularly fond of quoting proof texts from the wisdom books of Solomon, i.e., Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Kohelet). Solomon was his ideal embodiment of wisdom. mentioned also in the Guide. One might say that there are three “heroes” or archetypal figures who loom large in the Yad: Abraham, the ideal “lover of God” (Teshuvah 10); Moses, the archetypal prophet (Yesodei ha-Torah 7-8 and elsewhere); and Solomon, the ideal hakham.

How Does One Rejoice on Holidays?

The second major theme of this week’s Torah portion—following the codex of laws pertaining to the kohanim—is the cycle of festivals of the Jewish year, a major component of Jewish life. Samson Raphael Hirsch once said, “the calendar is the catechism of the Jew”—that is, we do not so much have a fixed, agreed body of beliefs and dogmas (notwithstanding Rambam’s thirteen principles), but the basic ideas of Judaism are expressed by implication through the round of the year. Appropriately enough, this reading always comes during the period of Sefirat ha-Omer—that is, more or less midway between two of the three pilgrimage holidays, Pesah and Shavuot.

Rambam, as mentioned on previous occasions, devotes one of the fourteen books of the Yad to the periodic observances of Jewish life: that is, the weekly cycle of Shabbat, and the annual cycle of festivals and other commemorative days. Within that book, an important treatise devoted to Hilkhot Yom Tov: the general laws common to the observance of all the holidays, over and above the specific mitzvot such as the Passover Seder, the shofar of Rosh Hashana, or the Sukkah, that mark specific ones. Following the laws of prohibited labor on festival days, and the differences in that respect between them and the Shabbat, the second half of Chapter 6 is devoted to the obligation to rejoice on festivals:

17. The seven days of Passover and the eight days of the Festival [he-Hag; i.e. Sukkot], together with all the other festival days, it is forbidden to fast or to deliver eulogies. And a person is required to be joyful and good-hearted on them—he and his sons and his wife and the other members of his household and all their entourage, as is said, “you shall rejoice in your festival” [Deut 16:14]. Even though the rejoicing referred to here means to bring a peace–offering to the Temple, as explained in the laws of Hagiggah, it also includes rejoicing himself and his sons and his household, each one as is appropriate.

He begins here with a negative definition, that one is to refrain from sad or melancholy activities, a rule that applies to all days that are even slightly joyful. Second, it is interesting that he gives a subjective, psychological definition of rejoicing, i.e., that one should be “joyful and good-hearted,” without specifying any concrete action. He goes on to state that, even though the Torah obligation of “rejoicing” entails bringing specify offerings to the Temple, there is a broader, more internal obligation that is applicable everywhere. Interestingly, this subjective definition of ”joyfulness” is later contrasted to hilarity and riotous behavior.

18. How so? [He rejoices] the children by giving them toasted grains, nuts and sweets; the women, he buys clothing and jewelry commensurate with his wealth; and the men eat meat and drink wine, for there is no joy without meat, and there is no joy without wine.

And when he eats and drinks, a person is obligated to feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and the other unfortunate poor. But one who locks the gate of his courtyard and eats and drinks—he and his sons and his wife—and does not provide food and drink to the poor and the bitter-hearted: this is not a rejoicing in of mitzvah, but a rejoicing of his belly. And concerning such like, it is said: “[they shall not please him with] their sacrifices; their bread is like that of mourners, all who eat it are defiled, for their bread is for themselves alone” [Hos 9:4]. And such a celebration is a disgrace to them, as is said: “and I shall spread filth upon your faces, the filth of your festival offerings” [Mal 2:3]. Outside of the Temple, the central mitzvah of simhat yom tov, “rejoicing in the festival,” is feasting: eating and drinking. Again, as human beings, we are not expected to be like angels, to engage in a purely spiritual, ethereal kind of joy; our rejoicing is first of all a physical rejoicing: tables laden with meat and wine and other good things.

A few days before Yom ha-Atzmaut, there was a symposium at my synagogue about the meaning of the holiday. An earnest young man raised some questions about “How do we make it into a holiday with religious meaning?,” expressing his disappointment that the most prominent feature of the day is that just about everybody goes out to the parks and makes a mangel (barbecue) and eats. Someone else answered that this is in fact a healthy, normal thing: people rejoice in their country’s independence in the natural, earthy way that human beings celebrate.

Together with that, there is also an ethical dimension—to share one’s holiday bounty with the poor and lonely and misfortunate. But that too is conceived first and foremost in concrete physical terms: by physical sharing.

19. Even though eating and drinking on the appointed times is a positive commandment, he should not eat and drink the entire day, but rather the rule is as follows: In the morning all the people rise early and go to the synagogues and study houses and say the prayers and read the Torah portion on the theme of the day, and they return to their homes and eat. Then they go to the study houses to read [Scripture] and study [Oral Torah] until mid-day. And after mid-day they pray Minhah, and return to their homes, where they eat and drink the rest of the day until the evening.

This passage is based upon an interesting Talmudic sugya at Beitzah 15b, concerned with the tension between the spiritual and corporeal elements of the festival days. The conclusion reached is that “It is half for yourselves and half for God.” Rambam gives this concrete expression, setting up a schedule in which the day is literally divided in half: the morning hours for prayer and study, the afternoon for feasting. The first meal, after Morning Prayers, is a kind of kiddush, or “functional eating”—a smallish breakfast so they will have strength to concentrate on studying Torah without hunger pangs. The real eating for simhat yom tov begins after mid-day. It is difficult to imagine spending an entire half-day at the table. One must imagine something like the custom of the French people, who have multiple–course meals spread over many hours, with breaks between courses for drinking, conversation ,etc. By the way, we find a similar description in the tradition for the seven days of feasting—the week-long celebration of a wedding—at which all day long is in theory spent in feasting.

20. When a person eats and drinks on the festivals, he should not be drawn into wine and laughter and frivolity, saying that whoever does these things more thereby augments the commandment of rejoicing. For excessive drunkenness and laughter and frivolity are not joyfulness, but hilarity and foolishness; and we are not commanded to engage in hilarity and foolishness, but in joy in which there is service of the Creator of All. As is said, “because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and good-heartedness with abundance of everything…” [Deut 28:47]. You may infer from this, that [Divine] service is with joy. And it is impossible to serve God, through either hilarity or frivolity or drunkenness.

21. The Court is required to appoint officials during the festivals, who go about and look in the gardens and orchards and by the rivers, to assure that men and women do not gather to eat and drink there, and come to sin. And they should also warn the entire people regarding this thing, that men and woman should not mingle in their homes to rejoice. And they should not be drawn after wine, lest they come to sin.

Once again, there is a great concern here with sexual modesty. This description almost sounds like the Mishmeret Tzeniut, the “Modesty Patrol” of today’s Haredi community, used to enforce the norm of separation of the sexes in their neighborhoods. Rambam’s operating assumption is that any sexually mixed gathering is liable to end up as an orgy. Apparently, strict separation of this type was the norm in Muslim society. Does this mean that even nuclear family units did not eat together? I find it interesting that consistently, throughout the above five halakhot, whenever he describes a family unit, Rambam says “he, his sons, his wife…” or even “he and his sons and all his household.” His wife is not next to him. The implication is that a man’s sons, and not his wife, were his most important companions in everyday life, and on Yom Tov.


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