Distinction and Obligation

This week’s double portion, Aharei Mot and Kedoshim, begins with a litany of seemingly unrelated laws. The proscriptions include sexual conduct (“Let no woman lend herself to a beast to mate with it”), agricultural practices (“You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed”) and scapegoating (“He who set the Azazel-goat free shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; after that he may re-enter the camp”).

The portion goes on to detail some of the Torah’s biggest hits: the injunction against male homosexual practice and the commandments to leave fields’ corners un-gleaned for the poor and the wanderer, observe an annual day of atonement and love the stranger. While the historical significance of this latter set of laws is understood, those mentioned earlier emit a whiff of musty old age when put to the test of contemporary legal conceptions. What the portion’s laws show us, however, is that their regulatory ambition itself may be more significant than their content.

During God’s recitation of these laws to Moses, the Israelites were in the second year of their 40-year sojourn through the desert, en route to the Promised Land. Their exodus was a crash course in turning a loose band of 600,000 freed slaves into a people with national consciousness. The story of how they built a national identity different from the one they left behind is told in and between the lines about physical hardships, new religious practices and, as the portion indicates, hundreds of new prohibitions.

The coupling of reminders to “not copy the practices of the land of Egypt” with the litany of rules and regulations — many of them sexual — suggests that notions of community and identity are as contingent on the conception of separateness as on the nuts and bolts of those distinctions. The imperative to be distinguished from the people of Egypt is given in the plural (“ta-asu”), whereas individual commandments are variably singular and plural. This alternating focus on the individual and the collective builds up an emphasis on the need of each individual to conform to the group standard. We see that Israel’s eponymous “struggle with God” is fundamentally a struggle to build community with individuals whose desires may be in conflict with each other’s and with the new social directives.

Of Leviticus 18’s 24 sexual prohibitions, 22 are about varying degrees of incest, which scholars say was a regular practice of the Egyptian royals. Chapter 20’s reiteration of the prohibitions is paired with their punishments, which range from excommunication to death by roasting (“they shall be burnt by fire,” Leviticus 20:14). Many commentaries on Leviticus’s sexual prohibitions stop at remarking on the aptness of its legislation against incest in a time of the Israelites’ expansion, but there’s more going on.

First of all, the letter of the law is not explicitly about reproductive sex. The operative phrase warns against “uncovering nakedness” (“lo tigaleh”), and also appears in Exodus 20:23 to refer to wearing modest attire in sacred places. The specificity of “do not uncover the nakedness,” as opposed to “do not know” or “do not lie with” suggests that the prohibitions are concerned less with viable reproduction, as is often suggested, than with the consciousness of the law’s intent to modify behavior. Most important to this reading of the portion is the psychological effect of these laws on the nascent nation. Prohibitions against “uncovering nakedness” with a man’s brother’s or father’s wives, or with a wife’s sister “who is her rival” — as well as those regarding agriculture and sacrifices — are about accepting that one’s allegiance to God and nation delimit one’s choices, sexual and otherwise.

Nowadays, though most offenders of the Torah’s 613 laws don’t fear divine retribution, the specter of societal judgment looms. The prohibitions of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim seem directed toward the business of identity-shaping rather than actual regulation. So while you won’t get law-abiding credit for sowing your field with two kinds of seeds as you carry on with your sister-in-law, I read this week’s double as implying that the law is successful, in part, if you’re wracked with guilt over breaking it.

Ilana Sichel is the editor of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.

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Distinction and Obligation

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