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Unintended Violations Of Decorum

My text is Leviticus 23:19, “And for a sin offering you shall sacrifice one male goat.”

A sin offering was needed to atone for an unintended violation of ritual practice.

Even though it was unintended, such a violation of norms creates a tear, a rip, in the social fabric that has to be repaired by means of an act of atonement, in this case by the ritual slaughtering of a goat. Notice that the sacrifice is not trivial but also not too onerous. It is an intermediate level of sacrifice.

How is this relevant to us? To see the applicability of the rule in Leviticus to historical circumstances such as our own in which the ancient Israelite sacrificial cult doesn’t exist, the details of the cult have to be understood as special cases of general principles. The rabbinic technique for doing this is known as binyan av, the construction of a general principle from a special case.

Many general principles can of course be imputed from any one special case. I’m going to impute this broad generalization as the version of the rule applicable to our own society:

An unintended violation of decorum requires for expiation an act of atonement that has the character of a sacrifice.

What do I mean by decorum? There is an implicit decorum that governs all social interactions not governed by law or other formality. So our general rule states that a violation of the implicit decorum, the implicit rules, of a friendship or a marriage or an affair, for example, even if the violation is unintended, requires for expiation an act with the character of a sacrifice. This is by no means an obvious or trivial proposition.

In fact, the rule is a deep one; it governs behavior not only in humans but also in primates and, even deeper, in social mammals such as elephants or wolves or wild dogs. In the case of wild dogs the unintended violation of a rule of the pack is expiated by grovelling behavior by the offender before the pack leader. Grovelling behavior in humans, and to all appearances in dogs too, is felt as, and is seen as, a sacrifice of dignity, and so fulfills the requirements of the rule. In fact, a sacrifice of dignity is the main manner in which this rule manifests itself in human behavior.

How can we illustrate the application of the rule in friendships, affairs and marriages? I’ll take my example from the Kama Sutra, which is a book of advice written by the sages of ancient India around 1,500 years ago.

The Kama Sutra is famous in the West for the content of its first few chapters. But it covers all aspects of emotional relationships between men and women. It has a section addressed to men on how to choose a wife, and many chapters addressed to women on how to deal with men. Among these is a small chapter titled “Lovers’ Quarrels.”

Here is one of the situations in it: Your lover — the man, since this chapter is addressed to women — has, at the climax of passion, cried out the name of some other woman.

That’s the situation which the sages felt was likely to give rise to a lover’s quarrel. It fulfils both conditions of the sin offering — it is unintended, and a violation of decorum.

Here is what the Kama Sutra advises. I have changed the form of the material and made it into a poem with four beats to the line, and some assonance and internal rhyming. But the details of the advice are unchanged.

Civilized Advice (from the Kama Sutra)

If your lover has, at the climax of passion,

moaned a name that is not your own,

you will, of course, fill with fury

and hurl at the churl the gifts he gave you.

Smash some, perhaps. Collapse in anger.

And, when he’s on his knees imploring forgiveness,

rise up, storm to the door, and stand there


Do not cross the threshold.

“Do not cross the threshold” is, to my mind, the epitome of civilized advice. It’s clear from this brief example that the general rule I derived from Leviticus was governing behavior between lovers in India 1,500 years ago. The man is expected to go down on his knees and grovel, sacrificing his dignity with barely a moment’s hesitation. However, it is also clear from their advice that the Indian Sages considered there to be limits to what could be milked out of the hapless male’s inadvertent mistake. “Do not cross the threshold” tells the offended lady not to go too far, physically and metaphorically. A sacrifice of dignity and some presents that are not negligible but not too large, an intermediate level of sacrifice, is sufficient in their judgment to atone for an unintended violation of decorum. As it is said in Leviticus 23:19, “For a sin offering you shall sacrifice one male goat.”

David Curzon is a contributing editor of the Forward.

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