Sexual Laws II

Moshe Ben-Chaim



Last week we discussed the quite interesting reason behind primary sexual prohibitions for Noachides…and what is equally true for Jews, since they are based on human psychology. God created only one human design.

We might have assumed our immediate family members – specifically parents – are forbidden sexual partners based on some “taboo”. But Judaism has no taboos…only sensible laws and principles. And to our surprise, we learned that the Torah prohibited our parents, as a direct response to Adam’s satisfaction with Eve, “created from his flesh and bones”. We then wondered why this satisfaction demands that all future husbands abandon their parents: “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. 2:21-24)

We then deduced that if man remains subjugated to parents, this would hamper the next stage of life where man expresses the unique satisfaction found only in a mate. Just as Adam felt responsible for Eve – as she was made from him – this applies today as well. Although our wives are not made from our bodies, nonetheless, we identify with our wives, and enjoy a feeling of responsibility for their well-being. By God’s plan, man is the breadwinner; “By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread” was said to man, not woman.

This independent role of responsibility is contrary to the ‘dependent’ role of son. Therefore, man must abandon the dependent son role, and take a leadership role when seeking a wife. We mentioned the Talmudic statement that it is the man who chases down a wife: indicating man’s dominance in this relationship. We now understand why abandonment of parents is a prerequisite for married life. And we finally arrive at the reason for the prohibition of sexual relations with parents: marriage to parents is the opposite of ‘abandoning’ the parent. So in fact, there is no taboo on parents. There is nothing inherently wrong with that union. It is merely due to man’s need to identify with and feel responsible for a mate, and also God’s demand that man populate the world, that makes abandoning the parent a necessity. Once again, the Talmud praised one who dreamt of intercourse with his mother or sister, as there is nothing inherently wrong with that act, as opposed to murder or stealing.


As we studied further, we learned that even those with whom our parents married are prohibited, such as a stepmother. Even our father’s sister is prohibited as a sexual partner, since one who seeks his stepmother or aunt is expressing the inability to separate from his father. Why else would he select such partners, when so many other potential partners are available? The Torah actually isolates the error in many cases, and in connection with one’s aunt, the Torah’s ridicule is “she is your father’s kin”. Meaning, one seeking marriage with his aunt is really seeking his father: expressing that he has not escaped the dependent role of son.

When ridiculing the union between one and his granddaughter, the Torah calls this “your own nakedness”. What is this strange ridicule? And what about the glaring omission of wedding one’s very daughter? Why is daughter not mentioned in the prohibited partners?

It appears that the Torah is seeking to open our eyes with these ridicules, as all of God’s Torah instructions isolate the core issues in life. God knows quite well which aspect of our psyches is at work when we deviate from Torah laws, and He knows how to describe the problem with precision. And the problem with one who weds his granddaughter is that he misunderstands the purpose of marriage.

Marriage is to populate the world, so that other members of mankind may have partners, with whom they can do the same. (This is why we are commanded to create at least one male and one female. In this manner, we populate the world with the genders necessary for others to do the same.) By marrying one’s own offspring, he is not relating to his partner to ‘reproduce’, since this partner, his granddaughter, IS his reproduction! For this reason, the ridicule of “it is your nakedness” is precise: his granddaughter is the result of his nakedness, or sexual act. She is to be his offspring, and not his partner for begetting offspring. Perhaps no mention needs to be made concerning relations with one’s daughter, since this is an even more clear case relating to offspring improperly. Rav Hai Gaon taught that the truth that there exists a God is not a command. Why not? I believe it is the same reason: God’s existence is so obvious; any command to recognize Him would belittle the obvious nature of His existence. Similarly, daughter is not expressly stated in the Torah verses to teach how obvious this prohibition is. (However, the Talmud does not leave this open-ended, and teaches the means of derivation that prohibits one’s daughter.)

We admire the Torah that does not avoid addressing any issue, regardless of the disturbing nature; be it sexual relations with one’s mother or daughter. “Truths” are God’s goal, so the Torah discusses them honestly. Similarly, King Solomon – one of the wisest men ever – openly discussed this issue.


On a related note, Maimonides records a fascinating law. (Laws of Sexual Prohibitions, 14:11)

A Noachide may not marry his mother. Now, if he converts to Judaism, the principle of “One who converts is akin to a newborn” renders his mother as truly unrelated to him. But Maimonides stops short of saying she is permitted to her son. He says, “no kin exists”, and implying something else does exist: sexual prohibition. In his next law, he continues this case stating that if his mother also converts, “there is no sexual prohibition at all”. So only when both mother and son convert, are they permitted to each other. The question is this: why in the first case is the sexual prohibition on his mother still intact, if “One who converts is akin to a newborn”? As a convert, and a newborn, his mother should be permissible, since previous family ties have been severed. She is no longer his “mother”, in a very literal sense! What more is achieved when the mother ‘also’ converts? I believe the answer lies in the distinction between two different types of sexual prohibitions.

Before we answer, we must be reminded of a distinction we made last week. There are two types of sexual prohibitions: 1) those that are borne out of family relationships (shi-are), like mothers, sisters and daughters; and 2) those created by sexual activity (ervah), such as one’s stepmother. If you study Parshas Acharei Mos, you will see God’s words vary from “shi-are” to “ervah”, depending on the sexual partner.

Now, what is the reason for the prohibition on one’s mother? It is ‘primarily’ their relationship as son and mother. However, some sexual relationships are not prohibited based on family ties, like one’s stepmother. This woman has no relation to the son. It is only through sexual relations of his father – an act – that this woman now became prohibited. To sum up, a woman can be prohibited to a man either because they are family members, or because another family member married this woman…like the stepmother case. Let’s return to our question.

Why is the convert’s mother still prohibited until she converts as well? Although the son converted, and is “akin to a newborn” there still exists some prohibition. But from where: she is no longer his mother! The answer is as follows…

As Maimonides teaches, once the son converts, there is no longer any kinship…but Maimonides did not say she is permitted. Why? Because this woman is also one with whom his father slept. So even though all family ties are severed once he converts, this is only in connection with “familial” relations: the first type mentioned above. The converted son is no longer part of his former family; she is no longer his “mother”. This alone would permit him to his former mother. However, we said that there exists another type of prohibited partner: one prohibited due to sexual relations. And this is not due to current family relationships. Therefore, even though he converted, his conversion does not abrogate the “historical event” of his father sleeping with this woman.  His leaving his family via conversion does not sever this second prohibition: his father’s “wife”. Therefore, his former mother is also prohibited to him due to a second reason: his father slept with this woman. This is not a family issue, but a prohibition generated from an event. And events are not erased due to his conversion. Conversion affects family issues alone. Similarly, his conversion does not mean he is no longer a musician, since the two are unrelated. His conversion is equally unrelated to events. Therefore, this converted son, whose former mother is yet gentile, may not marry her, since she is not only his mother, but also his father’s wife. Conversion removes her status as “mother”, but not her status as his father’s wife. However, once she converts, she too is “as one newly born” and loses all relationship to his father. The two may now marry. (However, the Rabbis prohibited this union, lest it be said that one who comes to a more sanctified religion, is permitted to more people sexually, i.e., his mother).

With Maimonides’ writings, we gain insight into God’s Torah brilliance, and His precise formulations.