Shabbat Kedoshim: About sex

May 5, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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The part of the Torah we read this week, Kedoshim,  contains more moral and ethical laws than any other part of the Torah, that you will be familiar with.

Love your Neighbor, be kind to the poor and the stranger, respect your elders, do not cheat, lie, steal, or rob, do not gossip, or tell tales, come the laws of sex. Who one can have sex with and whom one can’t, who marry and who not. Why is the subject brought up here?

When the Torah forbids in general, it uses different words that express disapproval. The trouble is that it is almost impossible to know how to translate these words into a foreign language. This is why every translation of many words in the Bible is different.  And is even harder to know what they are meant to convey even in Hebrew because so many words can have different meanings, even opposites.

For example, the word Kadosh usually means holy. But it also means profane. Havdalah means to separate oneself from others, to differentiate in a good sense, but also in a bad sense, to rebel.  Nowhere is this ambiguity more obvious than this week in talking about sex.

The most common word used to express disapproval in the Torah is Toevah which is used for a range of negative acts or ceremonies. It is not necessarily worse than all the other words. But the word itself can connote desire in a good sense as well as bad. Other words are used to express disapproval in the context of forbidden sex. Tevel is negative, but it can also mean to purify. Zima can be something unacceptable but it can also mean to initiate something positiveand Hesed can mean both a negative emotion and on the other hand kindness and charity.

Why specifically, in matters of sex are so many ambiguous words used?  I suggest it is precisely because sex is so powerful, crucial, and overwhelming, it dominates so much of human life and society. It is one of the major sources of pleasure and crime. It is a basic instinct that can lead to incest that so many societies have encouraged. In the Torah, there is no separate word for incest. All sex is included under one rubric of something that needs controlling.

Think of rape, sexual abuse, white slave trade, war crimes, all the events of sexual misconduct that recur in every society in every religion and probably always have. Think of how for so long women have been and still are treated inhumanely and are subject to so much exploitation.  It’s not surprising that when it comes to sex so many of these words of disapproval are thrown together. But the one I think encapsulates this ambiguity best is Hesed, kindness

So often when people have sex, they are abusing their position. They may be pretending to be kind,  generous, and supportive, swearing to love but really wanting only selfish passing pleasure. They may claim Hesed kindness as a motive, but in reality, it is self-indulgence.

I don’t think that we are inherently evil, but I do think there are so many different powerful emotions, circumstances, and temptations that many of us give in to them and sometimes we try to justify ourselves by saying our intentions are good when in fact we know they are not. To be kind to someone who is lonely or feels unappreciated.

This I think is the point that the Torah is making. Not to delude oneself into thinking one is being kind to somebody when in fact you may be breaking up a marriage, destroying a relationship, abusing a child that you injure, or ending up traumatized for life. And yet tell yourself you mean well.

Sex is good and wonderful. Nothing is intrinsically bad. It all depends on how and where you do it, the time, the place, and the person. Above all, don’t fool yourself.

Leviticus 19-21

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