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Shabbat Acharei Mot

Forbidden Sex - Leviticus Chapter 16:1-18:30

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen


Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

The Torah this week gives a list of forbidden sexual relations. And prefaces them with the statement “ Do not copy the practices of the Egyptians amongst whom you lived and do not follow the practices of the Canaanites you are going to live amongst, do not follow their laws or behavior” ( Leviticus 18). The aim of establishing a new nation with new laws and values was to try to be better human beings. Just because many around us behave one way, does not mean we all have to descend to the lowest common denominator. 

Sexual depravity, like violence, was the natural state of the pagan world, with temple prostitution and human sacrifice going hand-in-hand. Even in the Bible, some of the greatest men allowed their sexual urges to make fools and sinners of themselves. The Israelites, fresh out of Sinai, faced Moabite pagan seductresses who were more effective than soldiers. 

Despite all that, in Judaism, sex is regarded as something wonderful, positive, and a gift of God. Provided of course one accepts the limitations and disciplines that the Torah teaches are necessary to fully appreciate its sanctity. However, the uniqueness of sexual attraction is such that the Torah uses many more words of disapproval when it comes to sex than any other area of human behavior. Erva, Tumah, Toeva, Zima, Tevel, Arriri,Katza, Avon. Which shows the significance of the issue rather than hiding it behind euphemisms. Sex is the strongest and most easily betrayed emotion.

We live in a pagan world where sex has become a pervasive, trivial release of human urges, no more significant than a sneeze. Men, women, and children are abused sexually in the most barbaric and inconceivable ways. It is wonderful but it is addictive and instantaneous gratification.  It is like any addiction. And even in the strictest of religions, the tendency to exploit and sexually abuse women has time and again proved to be more powerful than the strongest of taboos and strictest of laws. The almost universal availability of pornography at the click of a Google search is a blight on our civilization. It is always hard to balance the needs and wishes of the individual with the community.

When a society seems to be losing its sense of sexual values, it is natural that some, want to hold the line and preserve a comfort zone. We create fences around the law. Don’t touch what you cannot have. Most societies go through cycles of permissiveness. And then they react by falling back on standards that once worked (even if the circumstances were entirely different). Tradition then can argue that voluntary forms of abstinence enhance relationships and find medical or utilitarian reasons for what is forbidden. 

In liberal societies, we believe in choices and freedoms. Where choice trumps everything except compulsion. People are free to make choices provided of course they do not interfere with others. 

Orthodoxy has had to reconcile ancient laws we read in the Torah with the recognition of change. Yet in Talmudic times there was recognition of different bodies and sexual identities. Their way of dealing with them was by accepting differences either genetic or societal. And expecting them to marry their own kind. 

If some communities have simply abandoned taboos and ignored the laws, they do not like in principle. Others have come a long way in modulating their stances on different sexual standards and preferences as personal decisions, while staying loyal to the old traditions. To avoid invading privacy on a range of issues from adultery to multi-sexuality. It has tried to adapt to civil society without sacrificing tradition. Instead of changing the law, it preserves it as a principle of separation, distinction, and self-control. Different models deal caringly with those who choose to make their own decisions. Citizens have to accept the law of the land on any such issues but what they do in private is their choice. Be it strict or lenient.  

Some choose instead to change the law. Two models. Two choices. Those who fear that society has permitted too much are still subject in public to the law of the land. But they are fortunate in a free society that they can religiously preserve their own differences or standards.

Almost every aspect of human life has its variations and options. It is up to us which kind of society we wish to live in. We are both fortunate and challenged by having choices.

Shabbat Shalom



Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.


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