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May 1, 2012 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Acharei Mot (mostly, though this is a double portion w/Kedoshim)

This week’s Torah portion is full of laws about sex (Lev. 18) and Nachmanides has some interesting (if out of the mainstream) ideas.

He begins by saying that these laws are part of the general proposition that we should distance ourselves of heathen abominations.  He asserts, for example, that “the Egyptians were addicted to carnality, in all forms of the forbidden relationships, and with males and cattle.”  This statement seems to have little Scriptural support; the best Nachmanides can do is cite a statement from Ezekiel that the Egyptians are “great of flesh… whose flesh is as the flesh of asses.”  It seems to me that this statement is just an example of the general human tendency to dehumanize our enemies by ascribing some sort of sexual beastliness to them. 

In fact, a recent Internet hoax did the same thing to Egyptians, accusing them of trying to legalize necrophilia.  Why did this hoax have legs?  Probably because lots of Americans and British fear Muslims, and are eager to leap at any excuse to show that they are a lower form of life.  (Admittedly, violent Islamic extremism provides a much better rationale for these fears- but accusing  puritanical Muslim extremists of being too sexually active makes about as much sense as accusing Ron Paul of being a warmonger).  Similarly, Nazi propagandists liked to accuse Jews of being sexual offenders lusting after Aryan women.

Nachmanides goes on to set forth his general theory of sex: “sexual intercourse is held distant and in contempt in the Torah unless it is for the preservation of the human species, and therefore where there can be no offspring [such as in pederasty or carnal intercourse with beasts] it is forbidden.”  (Commentary to 18:6).    In keeping with this view, he is utterly mystified by the prohibition on incest, since from the standpoint of procreation a son/daughter or a father/daughter relationship makes perfect sense.  He concludes that we “have no tradition as to [the reason for] this prohibition …there is in this matter one of the secrets of creation.”  

I don’t think Nachmanides would fit in to the modern Jewish mainstream on either issue.  The assumption that sex is only for procreation may make sense in the Catholic world, but I’m not sure how widely shared it is in Judaism.  Certainly I’ve never read any suggestion that menopausal women shouldn’t have sex!   And I think most Jews today would say that incest is so obviously bad as to be prohibited by the Noahide laws applicable to all humans.

So what’s my takeaway point?  For most of this year, I’ve thought that Nachmanides is a little more sensible than the more widely-quoted Rashi.   But one difference between Judaism and some other religions is that we don’t believe any particular sage is infallible, even Nachmanides.


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