The Patterns of Life
15 mins read
Parshat Kedoshim rounds out the Torah's treatment of sexual offences by listing the consequences of engaging in the various forbidden sexual relationships outlined in Parshat Acharei Mot.
One of the major hallmarks of a "modern society" is that it stays out of people's bedrooms. What goes on behind closed doors between consenting adults is no one else's concern. But we have gone way beyond the decision not to police sexual activity. Dedication to the promotion of human rights and respect for individual choice has influenced us to positively sanction relationships that were taboo not long ago, and even to extend legal recognition to unorthodox sexual arrangements. Same sex marriages are not an unusual phenomenon. We are no longer talking about events behind closed doors.
The Torah rules regarding sexual conduct are a stark contrast to all this. These rules go way beyond setting moral standards. This week's list of penalties, capital punishment in some cases, makes it clear that in a Torah society, the social machinery of the legal system must be fully enlisted in the enforcement of sexual norms. Clearly a Torah society does not practice the rule of minding your own business. This failure to respect the right to privacy coupled with the Torah's complete intolerance of homosexual acts is one of the major factors behind the rejection of Torah values by "modern thinkers."
Let us clearly state the 'modern' position so we know what we are responding to. The argument goes something like this:
- There is no moral significance to the satisfaction of any physical urge.
- If a heterosexual person can pursue the satisfaction of his or her sexual drive with society's approval, there is no reason why someone who is a homosexual should not enjoy the identical privilege.
- The only moral principle involved in the expression of physical desires is the requirement of informed consent; we must never infringe on other people's rights in the pursuit of the satisfaction of our own desires.
- Any attempt to interfere in other people's private sexual practices is a gross violation of the basic human right to privacy.
It follows that Biblical rules restricting the free expression of sexual preferences hark back to a more primitive era of human development.
Is there a way to present the position behind the Torah injunctions regarding sexual practices that modern people can relate to?
WHO ARE WE, REALLY?
Obviously, our attitude towards sexual relationships is heavily influenced by our orientation towards our humanity in general. Logic dictates that the first step in comprehending Torah attitudes to sexual practices is to comprehend the Torah's view of the human being and how it differs from the secular modern view. As we shall see, the crux of the difference involves the proper understanding of the role played by "free will" in human development. The first question we must ask is, who are we, really?
The secular approach to understanding ourselves would have to be stated thus; we are the sum total of the drives and abilities that are programmed into our genetic package as modified by the environmental conditions of our developmental stage. In the language of science these stages are known as the genotype and phenotype respectively.
We are all familiar with the way this combination operates. All people are born with a mix of abilities and drives that is particular to them, and these are the potentials that they draw on and express in the course of their lives. As we are all born into particular families and social groups, and each such group has its own notions of the purpose of life and the activities that constitute civilized behavior, inevitably, some of our innate abilities and drives will be encouraged and developed, while others will be discouraged and repressed on the grounds that they are counter-productive and antisocial.
The "unique" mixture of the heredity and the environment to which he or she was subjected determines the personality and attitudes of each human that reaches adulthood. The use of the word "unique" is fully justified in this context; in the entire history of the world, no two human beings have ever shared precisely the same heredity and environment. It is clear that the quality of individuality that separates each human being from all others is not a product of our choices. We have zero choice about our genetic package and precious little choice about the early environment that shapes our characters.
By the time we reach early adulthood, we have been shaped by these factors that were beyond our control or choice - we have been programmed with a set of attitudes and drives that constitute the furniture of our inner world. It is only at this point, after we have reached the adult stage of our lives that we are handed the reins that guide our destiny; nearly a third of our life is over by the time we finally assume control over our own future.
It is at this point that the Torah's view of a human being begins to diverge from the secular one.
According to the Torah, this human being of early adulthood whom we have just described, unique though he may be, cannot be termed an individual in any meaningful sense. He or she is still entirely a product of creation at this point. For it is God who designs each person's unique genetic package and it is Divine Providence that shapes the parameters of the early life that shapes everyone's character.
If an individual does nothing more than express the personality and actualize the attitudes he has acquired by the age of early adulthood, he or she may as well have never been born. Such a person can be viewed as human flotsam swept along by the current of the river of life that flows with God's energy, a totally inert being.
We have only to look at creation from God's point of view to appreciate the compelling logic of this. Why would God be interested in a wind-up toy that spins precisely according to the pattern He set into motion? Let us not forget that God is Omniscient! He does not have a problem seeing into the future. He has no need to run tests to determine how well the things He planned will actually perform. The logic is quite compelling. God must have put us down here to make our own choices. He gave us free will. He wants us to shape ourselves!
When we reach early adulthood, we are expected to examine the organism whose control we have assumed and correct its built in flaws. If we simply optimize the situations we encounter within the programmed responses of our given personalities there was no need to have actually lived. A calculating machine of Divine caliber could easily have figured out exactly what we would do with our lives. God expects more.
God expects us to analyze the world around us as adults, and reach some conclusions about the purpose of life. Then he expects us to employ our lives to express the conclusions we have reached through our deliberations. We are not to take either ourselves or the world as givens that we can do nothing about and go about adapting our selves to fit into it as best we can. Having reached a conclusion about the purpose of life it is our duty to employ our God given talents to reshape the world to conform with this purpose. We must change the world rather than fit into it.
In practice, changing the world means changing ourselves and influencing others to change themselves. The need to change compels the reorientation of our urges and desires. If, on reflection, their expression cannot be reconciled with the purpose of our lives we are expected to employ our capacity for free choice either to reshape them when that is possible or to restrain them entirely when it is not.
The reshaping of character is always difficult; the restraining of improper urges even more so. But a person who does not shape his life and control his desires, who merely actualizes his original character, accepting everything as a given never genuinely exercises his free will at all. In God's eyes, such a person does not exist as an individual at all, although he is no doubt a unique human package as pointed out above. For no matter how unique he may be, it was not he, but God who put together the package, and all such a human being does is to return the original package at the end of his life somewhat the worse for wear.
The Gaon of Vilna taught that the purpose of our sojourn in this world is to reshape our characters to reflect the 'tzelem elokim', the image of God that each human being was created to be. (See "Even Shlema," Introduction.) The significance of each person having been designed as a unique package is that each of us has the ability to reflect God in his or her own unique way. The events of our lives are arranged for us so that we have an opportunity to wage the very battles with ourselves that we need to fight in order to perfect the image of God that only we can be.
SATISFYING OUR BASIC URGES
Let us attempt to bring these ideas down to earth by presenting the sort of life with which we are much more familiar. Take sports for example.
Chances are fair that you, the reader, having grown up in the same cultural environment as I have, are into sports on some level. A good portion of the world's population tunes in annually to the Super Bowl. We all know perfectly intelligent people who get all worked up about their teams winning or losing. This applies to people who have never engaged in the sort of rough sport their teams play. An enormous amount of money and social resources are tied up in the professional organization of various sorts of games. Can we explain this?
The answer: we all have a built in urge to engage in fierce battle, to pursue adventures, to be the heroes who bring home the victory against enormous odds. Most of us are unable to express any of these urges in the context of our daily lives either at home or in the work place. If these natural urges remain bottled up we become bored and frustrated. The solution: identify with a team that is engaged in some form of violent sport, and express these urges vicariously.
When our team battles to victory, we feel stimulated and intensely alive, as our own urge for battle, adventure and victory is satisfied by proxy. If we place a small bet on the game and have a real stake in the outcome, it intensifies our feeling of participation and involvement and sharpens our pleasure.
This also explains the violence and aggressive sex that are the major attractions of many books and movies. The urges and feelings that we are not able to actualize, but which constitute a part of our built in life force, can be safely expressed and enjoyed in these imaginary ways.
WHAT ABOUT THE POINT
The rationale is pretty clear, but let us consider the rationale of the rationale. Why do we not see it as a waste of time to entertain ourselves with the sublimated expressions of our more violent desires? Once again we all know the answer. What other point is there to life than the expression of our urges and desires? As secular beings, what else do we have to live for?
It is only the expression and satisfaction of our basic urges and desires that gives us the feeling of being alive; it makes perfect sense to spend our lives in the pursuit of the expression of our basic drives - whether through fantasy or in actuality. Of course it is best to satisfy a desire in the world of actuality; but even the expression of desires that can be expressed only in fantasy is vastly entertaining and worth the time and investment. It also gives you the feeling of being alive.
Once again we are dealing with the concept of the purpose of life but this time we are standing at the precipice of a great divide. If we take ourselves and the world as givens, life as a whole has no purpose. We are born, we have children and we die. They are born they will have children and they will also die. Each is a unique package, granted, but so what? The universe has produced this uniqueness and it will shortly fade back into the stellar dust.
But while life may not have a purpose it is still impossible to live a purposeless life! Everyone with the gift of human intelligence must do something meaningful with their time here on earth or they will go utterly mad. But what can we possibly accomplish if we are merely playing out who we are?
The answer; use your life to express yourself. After all each person is unique; no one else has the same given inputs and character traits as you do. If you spend your life expressing as many of them as you can without causing any injury to others you will have had as purposeful a life as it is possible to have under the circumstances.
In fact, given such an order of things, preventing a person from expressing a basic urge can almost be defined as a moral wrong. No one has the possibility to invest life with inherent purpose anyway; all that we can do is live purposefully. If I stop you from doing even that because I define your urges as somehow wrong I empty your life of meaning. This amounts to spiritual murder in a sense. The expression of basic urges and characters is all we have to live for and therefore the satisfaction of an urge almost takes on the dimensions of a spiritual quest.
PLEASURE AS A TOOL
The Torah's attitude to the satisfaction of physical urges is profoundly different; the appreciation of the difference lies at the heart of understanding our Torah portion.
The Torah teaches us to pursue holiness rather than sensation. Instead of becoming intensely involved and identifying with our urges, we must detach ourselves and learn to regard them as tools. The word kadosh, meaning "holiness", also means separation and detachment. Our urges are not who we are, but merely a part of our built in programs. As we have pointed out, the built in program is definitely not who we are; we are only the sum total of the things we accomplish through our own choices.
"God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy for I, the Lord, Your God am holy." (Leviticus 19:1-2)
Separate yourselves from illicit sexual practices and from transgressions; wherever you find a barrier against sexual crimes you find holiness.
According to Jewish thought, God implanted our urges to enable us to accomplish the things we must do as human beings effectively. Our urge for adventure is the engine that drives us to experiment with new ideas; our desire for victory helps us tackle an unresponsive universe and bend it to our will.
Our basic desires are all tools we can harness in the pursuit of perfection. They constitute the engine that powers the human machine in the pursuit of the goals that our minds judge to be worthy of pursuit. Our urges are not there to be exploited or to provide gratification; they are there to be harnessed. They are means, not ends.
The drive for sexual gratification is perhaps the most powerful of all our urges. Even the most superficial glance around our culture amply attests to the great drawing power of this urge. It is the basic tool of all advertisement. We cannot even sell Coca Cola without the help of scantily clad young people with perfect figures who look like they are having the time of their lives drinking Coke. The pursuit of romance is the most common topic that all cultural phenomena address, whether it be plays, movies, books, songs or television programs. If you subtracted all the cultural phenomena that surround this single human urge, most of the trappings of our world would simply vanish.
This is hardly surprising. We human beings are obsessed with life and living, and the sexual urge is the fundamental expression of the life force.
THE QUEST FOR LIFE
We have now reached the crux of this essay. The Torah is also concerned with the pursuit of life.
"I call heaven and earth today to bear witness against you: I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse. Choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring - to love the Lord your God, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days ..." (Deut. 30:19-20)
"But you who cling to the Lord your God - you are all alive today." (Deut. 4:)
The point of separation between Torah culture and secular culture is not over the value of life. Life is the supreme value in both systems. The point to ponder is the nature of life: What is life? Where does it come from?
A Roman noblewoman asked Rabbi Yosi ben Chalafta: "In how many days did God create the world?" He answered her, "In six days, as it is written, for in six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them (Exodus 20:11)." She asked, "And what does He do each day since then?" The Rabbi answered, "He arranges matches between couples, and makes this one wealthy and this one poor." She said, "I can also do that! I have many male and female slaves. I will pair them tonight. What He has been doing since creation, I can do in a few minutes." The Rabbi said, "What seems so easy in your eyes is as difficult in the eyes of God as the splitting of the sea, as it is written, God settles the solitary into a family, He releases those bound in fetters (Psalms 68:7)."
At this point Rabbi Yosi took his leave and departed. The woman went and lined up a thousand male slaves opposite a thousand female slaves and ordered that so and so should marry such and such. She matched them all in a single night. The next day they came before her: one had a scratch in his eye, another a gash in his head a third a broken foot. This one declared, 'I don't want to live with her', and the other one stated, 'I cannot live with him'.
She summoned Rabbi Yosi and declared, "I am ready to testify that your God is true and the Torah is true, and whatever you told me was well spoken." He told her, "God pairs them against their will and it still works. He ties a collar on this one at one end of the earth and mates him with that one at the other end of the earth, as it is written: God settles the solitary into a family, He releases those bound in fetters. The significance of the fetters is that the one who is unhappy cries and the one who is happy breaks out in song [but they both submit to God's arrangements]. (Tanchuma, Ki Tisa, 5)
While every act of intimacy makes the corpuscles race through the blood stream and brings with it some gratification and a surge of life, this is all physical. As physical beings, we begin to die the moment we are born. The pursuit of the satisfaction of the physical urge is not to be confused with the pursuit of life. The Torah considers such a pursuit the dance of death.
Life is the joining of body to spirit, of attaining a connection to the soul and to God. Not all sexual unions connect one to the soul. It takes God - who knows the spiritual input required by the world at any particular time - to figure out which sort of union is capable of producing the right sort of spiritual connection. He considers this such as important an endeavor as the six days of creation. It rivals the creation process in its complexity and importance.
The creation of life is the true business of human beings. We are placed in the world to choose life so that 'we might live, we and our offspring'. Our sexual urge is the tool that we were given to ensure that we do not ignore this most important of our human tasks. But the urge is a tool, nothing more. Its satisfaction is not the end but the means.
As always, it is our own actions that inspire Divine intervention in our lives. As the Nefesh Hachaim [Gate 1] points out:
"God is your Guardian, your protective shadow at your right hand." (Psalms 121:5)
God acts as a shadow that copies the reactions of the one who casts it. If we smile then so does He. If we connect to Him through our actions, He is there at our right hand as our Guardian.
The Torah teaches us how to partake of the physical world and at the same time separate ourselves from the purely physical and connect ourselves to the spiritual in all our physical endeavors. As the pursuit of the life force is our most powerful urge and, therefore, our most obsessive occupation as a species, the connection of the life force itself to spirituality is the most important connection that we ever make in the course of our lives. It is the proper pursuit of the life force itself that holds the key to holiness and allows us to transcend physicality. It is to guide us properly in this area that the laws of sexual relations are written in the Torah.
It is perfectly true that in terms of the mere satisfaction of a physical urge, there is no real difference in how one goes about it, as long as it injures no one. But as usual, a lot more is at stake.
As Jews we must pursue true life. We must not spend our days in the pursuit of physical sensations that temporarily distract us from the certain knowledge of our imminent demise.