Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Vayeshev (Mitzvot)

For further teachings on this parasha, see the archives below, for December 2005.

Adultery and Betrayal : “And I would sin before God”

This parasha is filled with several unsavory stories, displaying human beings at their worst—including violence, fraternal treachery, ingratitude (Pharaoh’s cup bearer), and rapacious sexuality. In terms of concrete mitzvot, we find here a clear inference of the forbidden nature of adultery. When Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, he refuses her by citing two distinct reasons: (1) “my master knows nothing in this household that he has not entrusted to me… and has withheld from me naught but yourself, being his wife; how then can I do such a great wrong?!“ (i.e., it would be a violation of the trust placed in him: an almost Japanese ethic of duty stemming from the particularities of human relations); (2) “and I would sin to God” (39:8-9). The name used here for God is Elohim, which as a rule relates to the universal, objective principle of lawfulness in universe: God as Creator, Lawgiver and Judge. The notion of God here, as opposed to the unique name HWYH, is “natural,” non-covenantal, to use Soloveitchik’s language, the implication being that certain basic sexual norms are innate to the human conscience and to all human societies.

This idea is perhaps even more explicit in the story of Abraham and Sarah and Abimelech, in Gen 20:1-18. In explaining to Abimelech why he felt he had to resort to the subterfuge of saying that Sarah was his sister, Avraham says: “Because I said, there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me for my wife” (20:11). Again, in the Sodom story, while there is no specific reference to sinning before God, there is a general sense of good and evil. When the mob surrounds Lot’s house, demanding that he send out the men who have come to him “that we may know them,” he replies, “My brethren, be not wicked” (19:7)—as if to say, a certain standard of decency and sexual behavior is self-evident.

Finally—and here I’m going out on something of a limb—the phrase elohim also appears in a sexual context in Gen 6:1-2, but in a different way: in the story of b’nei elohim who snatch up the “daughters of men.” One might say that their sin is one of hubris, a certain sexual “expansiveness,” as if they felt themselves as if they were indeed “sons of gods” in the sense of being allowed to transcend ordinary bounds, not subject to the same rules as ordinary people. I once had a friend who boasted of having bedded 300 women during his hippie years, as if this “accomplishment” made him into a kind of minor god of virility.

Underlying all this lies the basic idea of a certain innate, universal sexual code, incumbent upon all human beings as such. The concept, as I see it, is that human sexual/reproductive power is part of the Divine force operating within the universe; that Elohim, besides being Law Giver, is the creator of our sexuality, and that this somehow calls for a kind of reverence and modesty. The Noachide code, a kind of Jewish natural law (I discuss this at length in HYV: Noah=Noah [Rambam]), contains inter alia a rudimentary code of sexual norms. R. Akiva, quoted in Sanhedrin 58a, infers this from Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother (that is, bond sexually outside of the family—the basic incest laws); and cleave (i.e., to a woman and not to another man, with whom there can be no true ‘cleaving’) to his wife (and not to another man’s wife; that is, monogamy as a kind of natural state) and they become one flesh (ruling out bestiality).” This midrash hangs the different rules to the various phrases of the verse expounded, but is really based on moral insights that come from a certain understanding of the human condition per se.

But the laws of sexuality are arranged in a two-tiered scheme. Later in the Torah, two entire chapters (Leviticus 18 & 20—in Aharei Mot & Kedoshim) are devoted to the admonitions and sanctions involved in the incest code, as tied to the specific sanctity of the people of Israel. Thus, the laws of sexuality are, on one level, based on reason, on common decency, even on a practical need to preserve social order against the explosive potential inherent in sexual licentiousness. But on another level, there is a theological, covenantal, even metaphysical dimension, somehow related to the specific notion of the holiness of the Jewish family and the Jewish people.

* * * * *

Last Shabbat I attended a feminist-oriented synagogue, where the Devar Torah focused upon the actions of the “nameless woman portrayed in this portion in demonic terms”: i.e., Potiphar’s wife. The speaker referred to the midrash in Gen. Rab. 85:2 quoted by Rashi at the beginning of our chapter, stating that just as Tamar was justified, performing her action (disguising herself as a harlot to seduce her father-in-law/ would-be-levir Judah) for the sake of Heaven, so too was Potiphar’s wife, who had been told by the astrologers that she would have offspring with Joseph—and she thought this referred to a child rather than a grandchild (which, assuming the identity of Potiphar and Poti-phera, named as father of Josaph’s wife Osnat in Gen 41:45, is plausible).

I must admit that I found this whole approach rather troubling: (a) With all due respect to the midrash mentioned, the whole concept of determinism overriding halakhah is exceedingly problematical—especially in the sexual area. Today, everyone is fond of quoting Mei Shiloah, who justifies Zimri ben Salu and Kozbi bat Tzur rather than Pinhas, the subtext being a “liberal” sexual agenda; (b) Today’s feminist agenda often seems to hold that the woman must be found to be in the right, in all cases and at whatever cost. As an aside, I should mention that, if this chapter “demonizes” Mrs. Potiphar, Torah and Nakh are filled with criticism of men who are driven to do immoral things by sheer lust—beginning with the back-to-back incidents of David and Bath-sheba, and Amnon and Tamar, in 1 Sam 11-13; (c) I would be particularly reluctant to promulgate such a message in our own day, in which sexual permissiveness is de rigeur (unlike, e.g., Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, the great 19th century adulterous heroines who are shown as tragic figures, adulterers and adulteresses are often the heroes of popular media, who show them in a sympathetic, human light. This is an interesting subject for study).

Finally, one must reiterate that a simple reading of the text suggests that Potiphar’s wife was driven by old fashioned desire (the immediately preceding verse, 39:6, notes that Joseph was attractive in both face and figure), not be some misguided wish to realize the plan of divinely-guided destiny. Note also the manner in which, after repeated refusals, she simply grabs his garments; nor are her actions explained in terms of the desire to have his child, as was Tamar’s frustration, which is clearly articulated. Moreover, the phrase ויעזוב בגדו בידה וינס ויצא החוצה, “and he left his garment in her hand and fled and went outside”—suggestive of a violent sexual assault—is repeated no less than four times (vv. 12, 13, 15, 18), making it something of a leit-motif. Finally, there are other lines of interpretation pointing in the other direction: e.g., Maimonides’ portrait of Joseph as a hero of natural self-control of impulses (Shemonah Perakim); and the midrash in which Joseph sees his father’s image before his eyes at the critical moment (Gen. Rab. 67.7=b. Sotah 36b; quoted by Rashi on v. 11).


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