Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
“And Adam called names to all the animals, the birds of heaven, and to all the beast of the field; but to Adam, he could not find one to assist aside him. And God caused a deep sleep to come upon Adam, and he dreamt; and He took one of his sides, and closed it with flesh in its place. And God built that side which He took from Adam into a woman and He brought her to Adam. And Adam said, ‘This time, bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; to this one will be called woman [isha] for from man [ish] was this taken.’ Therefore, man will abandon his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” (Gen. 2:20-24)
Talmud Sanhedrin derives many laws from the last verse “Therefore, man will abandon his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh.” From the words “man will abandon his father and mother” Rabbi Eliezer derived that man must not marry his father’s sister or his mother’s sister…this is the expression of his “abandonment” of his parents: he does not cleave to their relatives. Rabbi Akiva derived that one must not marry his mother or his father’s wife (stepmother). The question of course, is what damage exists in marrying one’s aunt. The question is compounded by the praises Talmud Brachos 57a gives to one who dreams of sexual intercourse with his mother or sister. There, the Talmud states that if one has such dreams, he should anticipate understanding and wisdom respectively. However, how can one act be simultaneously prohibited and praised? (Other derivations are this: “and cleave to his wife” and not his friend’s wife. “And they shall be one flesh”: i.e., he shall mate only with humans and not commit bestiality: a union where the two types of flesh cannot combine to create “one flesh.”)
What is learned from the word “therefore” (“therefore man shall leave…”)? It appears that “since” man said “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh”, such an identification with his new wife demands that man “therefore” abandon his parents, with regards to selecting a mate. But what is the connection between finding a mate created from his bones and flesh, and abandoning his parents?
We must also note that although most laws were not commanded to Noachides, sexual prohibitions were commanded to them, and were prohibited even before Torah. What then is so severe regarding certain sexual unions that even the first generations of mankind received their prohibitions?
In the Torah (Lev. 18:6-30) God delineates the prohibited sexual unions. Some verses state the reason why we are commanded not to “uncover the nakedness” of specific, prohibited partners. The reason given for the father and mother is “it is your mother, do not uncover her nakedness.” For the wife of your father, “it is the nakedness of your father.” For one’s granddaughter, the reason is “it is your nakedness.” But when citing the sister of your father or mother, the reason given is that they are both “kin” of your parents. This case is not a “nakedness” issue. Why not? To review, only regarding parents, the spouse of parents, or grandchildren, is there a term “it is so and so’s nakedness.” But in connection with one’s aunt, this phrase is absent. In this latter case, the term “shi-ayre” or “kin” is used. What then is the difference between “shi-ayre” regarding an aunt, and uncovering one’s nakedness stated only regarding parents or grandchildren? But a most glaring omission is one’s child as a sexual partner. Although the Talmud teaches how children are derived as prohibited, we can ask why a child is not expressly stated.
Let’s take this last question first. It is apparent that the Torah treats one’s aunt differently. Although a prohibited partner, she is not prohibited based on sexual activity, since she is prohibited even if never married. Conversely, a father’s wife is considered “a father’s nakedness,” since he had intercourse with this woman. Therefore, his son may not ever marry her, even after the father’s death. The reason: one may not uncover his father’s nakedness. This means that God saw it fit that man not have sex with his father’s sexual partner. Such a union between a son and his father’s partner is an expression of the son’s desire to draw close to his father’s sexuality. Such boundaries must be strictly enforced, and never crossed. The father is not to be viewed in any sexual category by his son. Psychologists are aware that all humans possess attraction to both sexes, some more than others. This is the reason behind homosexuality as well. So, the Torah’s identification as this being “a father’s nakedness” teaches the underlying motivation that seeks an outlet, yet must remain under control. I also believe that if a son has intercourse with his father’s partner—even after his father died—the son thereby identifies with his father on an equal footing, which reduces the necessary image of “authority” a father must hold in his son’s mind. This authority role is so vital to our perfection; God included the law of honoring parents in the Ten Commandments in the first five addressing laws between man and God. For honoring parents brings us to honoring the Ultimate Authority. Through this single prohibition, we understand some of the gravity behind the sexual laws.
In general, the Rabbis teach that we must not seek to satisfy the sexual unless necessary. Our lot is to strive towards greater understanding of God’s wisdom through creation, and His Torah. In this area we will find the greatest enjoyment, in the greatest duration. In stark contrast, physical drives have short life spans, which meet with pain when we overindulge. And this is by design, as a means to deter us from seeking a hedonistic lifestyle. In the very last verse in this section, God spells out the flaw in all of the sexual prohibitions: “And you shall watch my guard, not to do from the abominable statutes that are performed before you, and you shall not become impure with them, I am God your God” (Lev. 18:30). Ibn Ezra teaches that these sexual deviations contaminate one’s soul. They are not physical impurities, but contaminations of our souls (ibid 18:24). This “impurity” is in proportion to our physical engagements. The Rabbis taught: “There is a small limb in man, if he satisfies it, it increases its hunger; if he starves it, it becomes satisfied.” Following lusts creates more lust, and removes our attention from wisdom; retraining our lusts diminishes their drive.
Now, regarding an aunt, we are prohibited—not due to a sexual relation—but because she is closely related by lineage. This is the other manner in which we might cross the boundaries, by seeking a partner who is close to our parent through lineage, not via intercourse.
Now, let’s address the Torah verse. Why did the Torah state that man must “therefore” leave his parents? We said this principle came on the heels of Adam realizing great satisfaction with Eve, now that she was “bone of his bones, and flesh of his flesh.” He identified with Eve; he viewed her as “part” of himself…something he could not achieve in connection with any other animal. No other being was created from Adam’s body. This is significant. We thereby learn that man’s sexual satisfaction is not simply physical. Similarly, man’s appetite is not simply physical. Man was first punished to eat the same food as his donkey, but he could not do so due to the loss of his self-image in sharing his donkey’s eating bin. Therefore, God said, “by the sweat of your brow eat bread.” God gave man back some dignity, as man feels accomplishment in working to create his food. Man needs ego satisfaction. He needs the “sweat of his brow.”
Man also needs identification with his mate, if he is to be satisfied sexually and psychologically. This explains why many men are not attracted to women who are an “easy catch.” But if they have to conquer her, if she plays the “hard to get” game…the man feels satisfaction, which adds to his sexual relationship with this conquered woman. This also works well to satisfy the female need of a male “security” image, mimicking her image of her father.
Therefore, Adam’s response upon meeting Eve is understood, as he required some sense of identity. She was made literally “from” him. But why does the Torah immediately step in and say. “therefore” man must leave his parents and cleave to his wife? Let’s put the question this way: in what capacity does man relate to his parents? They are “authority” figures? Since this is so, man is caught in a dilemma: on the one had, he is a subservient being—to his parents. On the other, he wishes to “conquer” and identify with his mate. The two cannot coexist. Therefore, as soon as Adam expressed satisfaction in the woman coming from him, he must abandon the subservience of childhood, and become a master. God desires the population of new generations. Perhaps this is why the Talmud describes the husband as a “baal,” an owner of his wife. But this means he owns “rights” to her, not her person. In some sense, man is satisfied when he chases and catches a wife, as the Talmud says as well, “it is the manner of the male to pursues the female” (not the inverse). This is not chauvinistic, but realistic. God granted different drives to each gender. We now appreciate why Adam’s exclaim at his satisfaction in a being he identifies with, is immediately followed by the edict that he leaves his prior status of subservient child. He now enters the role of master, which demands that he abandons the servitude role under his parents.
One last question was regarding the praises Talmud Brachos gives to one who dreams of sexual intercourse with his mother or sister. How is this praiseworthy, if such acts are prohibited? The answer is in the praises. Why is one to anticipate wisdom? I believe this type of person is praised, since he is not crippled by societal norms. He thinks freely, and feels freely. He senses the very natural desire for the first female figures experienced in his youth. It is only taboo that generates feelings of disgust and repression for desiring a sister or mother. For if one had a sister he never knew, and met her 30 years later unbeknown to him as his sibling, he may very well feel attracted, and desire to marry her. So if someone dreams of intercourse with his sister or mother, he is simply expressing natural feelings, and is so unrepressed, that the Rabbis teach based on King Solomon’s words, that this unrepressed mind will definitely realize great wisdom. He is praised for his unbridled mind. Of course the act is prohibited, but the fact that such a person has a free enough mind to embrace deep emotions, is truly a credit to the person. So although the act might be prohibited, the acceptance of his own underlying motives without taboo is praiseworthy.
We have learned, “All who add, subtract.” This is said in reference to Eve who told the serpent that she could not eat or “touch” the forbidden fruit. That cunning serpent pushed Eve into the tree, causing her to touch the fruit. When Eve saw nothing happened after touching the fruit, (which God never prohibited) she then ate it. She added a prohibition, thereby causing her downfall. Our freethinking individual never added taboos from society, and thereby, kept his mind open, which leads to wisdom.
In summary, the sexual prohibitions are derived from how God created Adam and Eve. The creation and inceptional encounter of the first man and woman is a blueprint for all mankind. From that couple, we learn man’s relationship to his parents and spouse. From them, we learn that sexual laws equally bind Noachides. All mankind requires them. These laws help man extricate himself from his initial subservient state under his parents, towards a life where he becomes independent, and the only authority is God. Man’s ego demands him to abandon a life as a child, where he can express mastery over the world and his family, and serve God using his free mind. If man were to remain a child, parents would obscure his view of, and appreciation for God. But without parents, man would never learn the concept of “authority,” which he must eventually transfer onto God. God’s plan is perfect.