Acharai Mot-Kedoshim


Rabbi Bernie Fox


Torah and Contemporary Attitudes toward Sexuality


The nakedness of your father, and the nakedness of your mother, you shall not uncover. She is your mother.  You shall not uncover her nakedness.  (Sefer VaYikra 18:7)


And the man who lies with his father's wife – he has uncovered his father's nakedness.  Both of them shall surely be put to death.  Their blood shall be upon them.  (Sefer VaYikra 20:11)

1.  The Torah divides its discussion of sexual prohibitions into two parts

This week's Torah reading is composed to two Torah sections – Acharai Mot and Kedoshim.  These sections deal with a variety of mitzvot.  However, one set of commandments is actually repeated in both parshiyot – sections.   The prohibitions against incest and other forms of sexual misconduct are recorded in Parshat Acharai Mot and then repeated in Parshat Kedoshim

There is a difference in the treatments of these prohibitions in the two parshiyot.  In the first iteration the prohibitions are enumerated.  In the second iteration the consequences or punishments are identified.  This difference is demonstrated in the above passages.  The first is from Acharai Mot.  It states the prohibition against an incestuous relationship with one's mother.  The second passage, from Kedoshim indicates the punishment for the violation.[1]

In short, the two discussions are not identical or repetitive.  Each deals with slightly different aspects of the prohibitions.  However, it is notable that the discussion of the prohibitions is divided between the two parshiyot.  What is the message communicated by this two part presentation?


Like the actions of the Land of Egypt, wherein you dwelt, you shall not do. And like the actions of the Land of Canaan, to where I bring you, you shall not do.  Neither shall you walk in their statutes.  My ordinances you shall do, and My statutes you shall keep, to walk in them.  I am Hashem your G-d.  You shall therefore keep My statutes, and My ordinances, which if a man do so, he shall live by them.  I am HaShem.  (Sefer VaYikra 18:3-5)

Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am Hashem your G-d.  And keep My statutes, and do them. I am Hashem who sanctifies you.  (Sefer VaYikra 20:7-8)

2. Sexual conduct and sanctity
Each of these discussions is preceded by an introduction.  The first set of passages above is the introduction to the discussion in Parshat Acharai Mot.  Two points are made in these passages.  First, the Torah explains that we are not to adopt the degenerate behaviors that were common in Egypt and in Cana'an.  Rather, we should be faithful to the laws of the Torah. Second, the observance of the Torah's commandments will bring us life.

The second set of passages above is regarded by Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno as an introduction to the discussion of sexual morality in Parshat Kedoshim.[2]  The passages introduce a term and element that was not previously mentioned in the relation to sexual morality.  The passages focus on sanctity.  They assert that sexual morality is fundamental to our sanctity. [3]


You shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations;  neither the citizen or the stranger that sojourns among you—for all these abominations were done by the men of the land, that were before you, and the land is defiled – that the land not vomit you out also, when you defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.  (Sefer VaYikra 18:26-28)

You shall keep all My statutes, and all Mine ordinances, and do them, that the land, to where I bring you to dwell therein, not vomit you out.  And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation, which I am casting out before you; for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.  (Sefer VaYikra 20:22-23)

3.  The guidelines of sexual conduct apply to all humanity

The discussion in Parshat Kedoshim suggests that the Torah's prohibitions against incest are an expression of the sanctity of Bnai Yisrael.   In other words, our sanctity requires that we observe these restrictions and conduct ourselves at a higher standard.

However, there are two problems with this conclusion.  First, the prohibitions outlined in these two parshiyot are paralleled by a similar set of prohibitions included in the seven commandments that apply to all of humanity.  All descendants of Noach are subject to these commandments.  Although, the sexual prohibitions that are included in the commandment to humanity are not identical to or as extensive as those for Bnai Yisrael, they are similar.[4]  This suggests that the expectation that Bnai Yisrael adhere to some standard of sexual morality is not solely a consequence of the sanctity of the nation.  All humanity is subject to a code of sexual conduct. 

Second, the conclusion that this expectation is not a consequence solely of our sanctity as Bnai Yisrael is supported by the treatment of the sexual prohibitions in these two parshiyot. Both discussions are followed by a set of concluding passages. In both instances Bnai Yisrael are admonished to observe these commandments.  Also, both sets state that the Land of Israel will not tolerate sexual immorality.  Degenerate behavior will result in expulsion from the land. 

The first set of passages above is from Acharai Mot.  These passages explicitly link the expulsion of the nations of Cana'an from the land to their sexual degeneracy.  The second set of passages is from Kedoshim.  Also, in these passages the connection between the expulsion of the nations and their degeneracy is clearly implied. 

The expulsion of the nations of Cana'an from the land demonstrates the severity of these prohibitions for all humanity.  The Land of Israel will not tolerate the disregard of the commandments and no distinction is made between Bnai Yisrael and other nations.  This establishes that sexual morality is not only a consequence of the sanctity of Bnai Yisrsel.  The expectation of sexual morality stems from a more basic source.  This basis applies equally to all humanity.  




They shall not take a woman that is a harlot, or profaned.  Neither shall they take a woman put away from her husband; for he is holy unto his G-d.  (Sefer VaYikra 21:7)


4.  Personal sanctity engenders an expectation of sexual morality

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik ZtÓl suggests that the imperative of sexual morality derives from two sources.  One is identified in Parshat Kedoshim.  This is the sanctity of Bnai Yisrsel.  This sanctity engenders an obligation of sexual morality.  Rav Soloveitchik points out that the relationship between human sanctity and sexual morality is expressed in the above passage. The passage enjoins a Kohen – a priest – from sexual relations not applicable to other Jews.  Among these is a prohibition against marrying a divorcee.  The commentaries discuss the reasons for this prohibition.  However, the passage provides its own explanation.  It is an expression of the higher sanctity of the Kohen.  In other words, the greater sanctity of the Kohen does not express itself in an obligation to pray more often or to perform additional acts of charity.  It is expressed specifically through sexual prohibitions unique to the Kohen.  This confirms the relationship between sanctity and sexual conduct.[5]




And G-d created man in His own image, in the image of G-d created He him.  Male and female He created them.  (Sefer Beresheit 1:27)


5. Sexual conduct and human dignity

There is a second source from which the imperative of sexual morality derives. Rav Soloveitchik describes this source as basic human dignity.  According to the Torah, a human being is not a mere organic creature.  Every human being is created in Hashem's image. This separates the human being from all other creations.  Our embodiment of this image demands that we conduct ourselves and treat one another with respect.  One element of basic human dignity is sexual conduct. 

Rav Soloveitchik explains that the code of sexual morality that Hashem gave to all of humanity is based upon human dignity.  The behaviors prohibited by this code of sexual conduct are antithetical to human dignity.  They denigrate the human being and defile the divine image that resides in every human being.

Based on this analysis, we can understand the reason that the prohibitions included in Bnai Yisrael's code of sexual conduct are more extensive than those which apply to the entirety of humanity.  Every human being is expected to act in a manner that preserves human dignity and respects the divine image with which the human being is endowed.  This expectation produces a code of sexual conduct that is applicable to all.  These prohibitions apply also to Bnai Yisrael.  However, Bnai Yisrael are enjoined to observe additional prohibitions engendered by the sanctity that Hashem bestowed upon the nation.  Therefore, Bnai Yisrael are enjoined from a more extensive list of relationships. 

Now, we understand the Torah's comment that the nations of Cana'an were expelled from the land because of their rejection of any code of sexual morality.  A basic code of sexual conduct is imposed on all humanity.  Its rejection defiles the human being's divine image.  The nations of Cana'an violated these laws and they were punished with expulsion from the land.[6]

Rav Soloveitchik's analysis explains the introduction of the concept of sanctity into the discussion of sexual morality in Kedoshim.  Each presentation focuses upon one of the two sources of the imperative.  The first, in Acharai Mot describes the prohibitions as an expression of human dignity.  Therefore, this initial discussion does not include references to the sanctity of Bnai Yisrael.  Instead, we are admonished to observe these commandments because they give us life.  In other words, they apply to all living human beings.  They are an expression our fundamental humanity.  The second discussion in Kedoshim introduces the second source of the imperative – our sanctity as Bnai Yisrael.  The division of the discussion between two parshiyot is designed to emphasize that sexual morality is a response to two considerations – basic human dignity and the sanctity of Bnai Yisrael.

6.  Contemporary notions and dilemmas regarding sexual conduct

Our contemporary society struggles with sexuality.  It is clear that somehow popular culture has arrived at a juncture at which sexuality has been degraded and perverted.  Increasingly, women are denigrated and treated as mere objects of sexual interest.  Facebook cannot keep up with the inappropriate posts that appear daily.  Of course, this treatment is an offense against women. However, it reflects also upon the total lack of dignity of those who engage in it. 

Cultural gurus offer various suggestions to explain how we arrived at this juncture.  Perhaps, we came to this place because popular culture has cheapened and vulgarized sexuality.  Abstinence is regarded as a quaint, old-fashioned or even primitive value.  Adultery is regarded as an unfortunate but acceptable human shortcoming.  Many other traditional boundaries are questioned. Their rationale is criticized.

Perhaps, our contemporary society thinks too much of itself in imagining that it can abandon the commandments given to it and yet retain its dignity.  Does the abandonment of these commandments transform sexuality from being a foundation for intimacy between two loving individuals into a mere act of animal instinct?  Does that transformation inevitably denigrate the participants and undermine their human dignity?  If so, the offensive treatment of women is a foreseeable outcome of the disintegration of sexual ethics. 

[1] The second passage does not specifically discuss incest with one's mother.  Instead, the subject of the incest is the wife of the violator's father.  The Sages explain that nonetheless, the passage is intended to also include incest between mother and son.

[2] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer VaYikra, 20:7.

[3] Other commentators disagree with Sforno.  They maintain that these passages are not an introduction to the passages that follow and deal with sexual ethics.  Instead, the passages close the previous discussion dealing with idolatrous practices.  However, it is difficult to contest Sforno's basic contention that proper sexual conduct is fundamental to sanctity.  The entire parasha is dedicated to the discussion of sanctity.  The parasha opens and ends with the theme of sanctity.  Inclusion of the discussion of sexual morality in this parasha confirms Sforno's basic contention.

[4] Six relationships are prohibited for all of humanity.  These include one's mother and maternal sister, adultery, and bestiality.

[5] Rav Soloveitchik makes the point that the Kohen's prohibitions are unique in nature.  They cannot be compared to those assigned to all of Bnai Yisrael.  The Kohen's prohibitions are not applicable to others.  It would be absurd for another person to adopt these prohibitions.  Even if that person is a great learned and righteous Sage, his adoption of such prohibitions would be ridiculous.  This is because there is no inherent defect in those prohibited to the Kohen.  As explained, the commentators offer various explanations for the prohibitions.  They all generally acknowledge that these prohibitions do not stem from a defect in the prohibited person.

[6] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Recorded Lecture on Acharai Mot, Kedoshim, and Emor, part 2.