Moral Assumptions: The Enigma of the Sexual Prohibitions

By and large, I seem to have made more mistakes than any others of whom I know, but have learned thereby to make ever swifter acknowledgment of the errors and thereafter immediately set about to deal more effectively with the truths disclosed by the acknowledgment of erroneous assumptions.”  R. Buckminster Fuller

The least questioned assumptions are often the most questionable.” Paul Broca

The Babylonian Talmud in Bava Batra 88b and Yevamot 21A teaches in the name of Rabbi Levi, ”More difficult is the Divine punishment for transgressing the Torah’s prohibitions regarding deception in weights and measures than that of the Divine punishment for transgressing the Torah’s prohibitions regarding forbidden sexual relations…”

The Talmud concludes that the basis of the more severe Divine punishment meted out for transgressing the prohibition of deception in weights and measures (Leviticus 19:35-36) is that this unethical interpersonal sin has inherent obstacles to complete and authentic repentance.  Forbidden sexual relations, though, can be atoned for completely, as these are sins conceived of as between a person and God (See Tosafot Harosh and Meiri ad loc.) and often are isolated incidences with known persons. With regards to the transgression of employing false weights and measures: while atonement from God is both necessary and possible, atonement from the individuals one has deceived and stolen from, while definitively necessary, is deemed not completely possible. Firstly, one is not capable of determining all the individuals wronged and secondly, the exact amount wrongfully gained is incalculable.  Even, as the Talmud suggests, dedicating the estimated funds wrongfully gained to the needs of the public does not quite right the wrong in the ideal way.

The Rambam in Sefer Nezikin Hilkhot Geneivah 7:12 clearly articulates the perspective that forbidden sexual relations are a matter between a person and God. He writes,  ”More difficult is the Divine punishment for transgressing the Torah’s prohibitions regarding deception in weights and measures than that of the Divine punishment for transgressing the Torah’s prohibitions regarding forbidden sexual relations for this sexual relations is between a person and God and this weights and measures is between a person and a person.”

The modern person may be perplexed in contemplating the notion that sexual prohibitions, such as adultery or incest, are perceived within the rabbinic view as  matters between a person and God. How can the rabbis see having sexual relations with another man’s wife as not being a sin that is an interpersonal violation? Is this not, as the contemporary reasoning goes, stealing another man’s wife (or infringing on his partnership, if you prefer)?

How can the rabbis consider incestuous relations between a father and his daughter or a mother and her son etc… not an interpersonal sin but rather one that is exclusively between an individual and God?

Human beings make assumptions. Religious human beings have a tendency to make moral assumptions.  We have a tendency to assume that the way that we conceive of moral reality per force is always the way it has been and should be conceived of. How could one conceive of adultery or incest as anything other than an interpersonal wrong? Perhaps it is also a Divine wrong, but to exclude the human element seems difficult. The intention of this article is to question our moral assumptions to the extent that we hold them as absolute fixtures of human reality and in so far as they are unhelpful in understanding the Biblical and Rabbinic tradition and to explore the implications of reading the Biblical text in light of its original context.

Simply said, the moral culture of Ancient Egypt and Canaanite societies, the civilizations in which Israel as a people was nurtured and among whom they lived, had a radically different view of sexual morality than we do. Based on pagan mythology and Near-Eastern socio-political philosophy, these cultures not only didn’t consider sexual relations that the Torah deemed immoral as such, but they perceived them as “The way of the Gods” or a ritual enactment of their mythic beliefs. (see The Sociology of Religion by Max Weber)

  • What we call adultery was for them at times potentially part of a fertility rite or its orgiastic aftermath, and it was inherently assumed that one would share one’s wife with another man in such a context.
  • What we call “incest” derived from the Latin “Incestus” with a general meaning of impure or unchaste was for Egyptian royalty a sanctioned and valued strategy for keeping the royal family lineage within its own exclusive circle. (see article The Labyrinth of Kinship by Jack Goody in the New Left Review)
  •  There was no moral disdain for these practices anymore than there was no moral disdain for having sex with animals as part of the same religious-magical rites. (see Beastiality section in Forbidden Sexual Behavior and Morality by Robert E.L. Masters)

Civilization at the time of the giving of the Torah simply did not conceive of these sexual activities as being fundamentally immoral and, as well, not specifically a wrong that one person harms another by engaging in when performed in the sanctioned contexts of that society. While this is incredible to consider, given our current moral assumptions, it will not require Einsteinian thought experiments to demonstrate, as the Biblical, Rabbinic and Midrashic sources clearly confirm, this academic understanding.

Firstly, let us turn to the Bible itself in Leviticus 18, the section of the Bible that introduces the broad range of forbidden sexual relations. We read, “God spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites, and say to them: I am God. Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan, where I will be bringing you. Do not follow [any] of their customs. Follow My laws and be careful to keep My decrees [for] I am God your Lord. Keep My decrees and laws, since it is only by keeping them that a person can [truly] live. I am God.” (The Living Torah translation, Kaplan).

The Bible then goes on to identify all forbidden sexual relations, beginning with incest, moving along to prohibitions of sex with a menstruating woman, adultery, male homosexuality, and bestiality of any kind. The Bible sternly and severely concludes the section as follows, ”Do not let yourselves be defiled by any of these acts. It was as a result of them that the nations that I am driving away before you became defiled…” It seems quite clear from the Biblical text above that these prohibited sexual customs were a way of life for the Egyptians and Canaanites. As such, they would certainly not see them as wrong in relation to the divine, but as well in their interpersonal relations, they could not conceive of any moral flaw.

Indeed the careful reader will notice that the Torah in the introductory section to this sexual code states that by keeping God’s decrees and laws, one will “Live”. Why would I assume otherwise? Why do I need to be told that I will live if I abstain from all these sexual practices? These practices were seen as the way to attaining a life of abundance and blessing and included the very fertility rites and mythic sexual enactments played out in these pagan societies, as well as their schemas for preserving their political, economic, and sexual dominance. (Regarding the latter see Dr. Jacob Milgrom’s Leviticus: A Continental Commentary pg. 195). The Torah is thus specifically saying that by obeying this new revolutionary code that does away with the “religious technologies and paradigms” of the era, that nevertheless you will truly live.

The Rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud Yoma 88b make a Derasha and interpret this word, “Live” to mean that, ”One may violate [almost] any commandment of the Torah to save a life.” The peshat, plain meaning and historical context is as I have explained.  The Bible was understood by the classical rabbis to be an interpretive text in which one can anchor Oral traditions or Rabbinic laws. The interpretive engagement, though, does not eliminate the authorial intention of the text. (See Peshat & Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis by Rabbi David Weiss Halivni Oxford University Press, Chapter 1).

Rabbinic Midrash also has sources that reflect moral assumptions contrary to our own.  In explaining the sin of the Golden Calf, the rabbis commented, ”They [Israel] only worshipped the Golden Calf in order to permit themselves forbidden sexual relations in public.” (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 63a) Why would the sin of idolatry per force lead to sexual vacuity?  The explanation is that by adopting, however superficially, the worldview that informs such worship, the moral worldview that permits a less restricted sexuality is activated and arouses no rebellion of conscience.  Nor does this worldview perceive these sexual acts in any way as an interpersonal offense.

The Midrash as well records that when the Jewish people were in Egypt, they, with the exception of the tribe of Levi, worshipped idols. (Mechilta Bo Parasha 5 and see Rambam Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 1:3)  While this Midrashic tradition does not assume Israel performed sexual sins, it asserts that the Israelites were fully immersed in the Idolatrous culture. In a related Midrashic strand the Zohar Chadash teaches that the Children of Israel sunk to the 49th level of spiritual impurity. (Parashat Yitro). It seems that it would be difficult to descend to the 49th level of Spiritual Impurity while maintaining sexual discipline and holiness. One might get as far as the 30th level but to get to the 49th in a system with only 50 levels, you might very well need to be sexually depraved. Thus it will come as no surprise when Shmuel, in the Babylonian Talmud Yoma 75a, metaphorically interprets the verse in scripture where the Israelites complain, ”We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free…” (Numbers 11:5) to be a reference to the sexual license they enjoyed in Egypt.  Sexual license that includes: adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality.

The sages indicate that the severity of Divine punishment for engaging in false weights and measures is harsher than that of engaging in illicit sexual relationships due to pragmatic concerns regarding the feasibility of repentance. The Talmud teaches, “[For] These [sexual sins,] repentance is possible, [for] these [weights and measures sins,] repentance is not possible,”(Yevamot 21a & Bava Batra 88b). The Rambam, in his Halakhic codex, however, offers instead the reasoning that, “For this [Forbidden Sexual Relations] is between a person and God and this [Weights and Measures] is between a person and a person.” (Sefer Nezikin Hilkhot Geneivah 7:12. Emphasis added). What the sages said was quite specific to the particular sin of weights and measures. Why the broad generalization pinpointing the interpersonal class of sins as a whole? His generalization implies that the category of interpersonal commandments is treated more severely than the category of those between a person and God.

I will offer two explanations: First, it has been observed by the Talmudic sages that there is a distortion of mind that takes place within the psyche of many a religious individual who somehow is highly reverential and devotional to God but not necessarily so, and sometimes inversely so, in relation to their fellow human beings. (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 23a) The Rambam is seeking to educate us that this is backwards. We do not hurt God by our lack of observance. We do however hurt ourselves, as well as others, by sinning interpersonally. Secondly, to err in God’s demands for us in our relationship to Him is understandable, as these are commandments that seek to raise us from the domain of a human being to a holy being and we are after all human. However, to fail in the domain of the interpersonal is to fail at being a human being itself and this is something that is a far worse desecration of God’s name than anything else. It is one thing for a Jew or Jewess to have a gap in the realm of the holy but to be severely distorted and lacking as a human being is intolerable.

It would be wise to end with a little known but highly relevant Midrash based on the verses in scripture that read, ”You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in meteryard, in weight, or in measure. Just balances, just weights, a just efa, and a just hin, shall you have: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”(Leviticus 19:35-36) The Midrash teaches, “‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt’ on this condition I took you out of the land of Egypt on the condition that you accept upon yourself the commandment of just weights and measures…” (Sifra Parashat Kedoshim 8:10). According to this Midrash, the redemption from Egypt was conditional on the commitment to interpersonal business ethics. Strangely, there is no mention of Shabbat, Kashrut, Family Purity, and Sacrifices…How can this be explained? According to some scholars of the ancient Near East, Pagan religion concerned itself primarily with religious cult in the specific sense of care of the Gods. People worshipped Gods to secure a variety of needs.  Ethics were not a fundamental part of these religions and ethics made its way into the Greco Roman world primarily via philosophy. (see Lecture 2 From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity by Professor Bart D. Ehrman University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). It would seem that in the view of the rabbis, the Torah is coming to fuse worship of God with interpersonal ethics. This can also explain why the two are commonly presented together, as we find in Parashat Kedoshim, where sacrificial law (Leviticus 19:5-8) is immediately followed by agricultural laws concerning the poor (Leviticus 19:9-11). The Torah has a dual focus. Individuals who focus on the worship of God to the neglect of their fellows are essentially more Pagan than Orthodox.

May we merit an integration of humanity and holiness that reflects positively on the Divine Image in which we were created and the path of Torah we have been chosen to live.


About Rabbi Zecharyah Goldman

Rabbi Zecharyah Tzvi Goldman is the founder and rabbinic administrator of the EarthKosher Kosher Certification Agency. He is also the founder and director of the Institute for Halakhic Conversion. He is the author of a broad range of books, essays and articles covering a diverse arena of Torah including: Halakha, Kabbalah, Chassidut and Aggada. A Lifelong student of Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology he currently studies Torah and Chinese Internal Martial Arts and lives with his wife Ora and 3 children in Boulder, Colorado.

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  1. As usual, a well thought out and erudite article. I have a comment and a question.
    My comment is that even though in general the sexual laws may be traditionally characterized as being between man and G-d, I would assume that if some people get hurt because of the interaction of two consenting adults, then it would involve an interpersonal transgression.
    My question: In contrast to the reference of remembering the fish as referring to sexual license, there are also explicit rabbinical statements-in fact one coming from this week's parsha, Emor, about the anomaly that only one Jewish woman was guilty of sexual indiscretion in Egypt. If both references are held, then is the conclusion that primarily the Jewish men were promiscuous? (If so, this would explain the Shem MiShmuel's point that only Jewish male firstborn need redemption because the females were much more clearly unlike the Egyptian females, and didn't need such an act of grace to be saved)

    • Likhvod Morah Yehudis Marbetzet Torah Be'Yisrael,

      Our Rabbis understanding of Forbidden Sexual Relations (Giluy Arayot) as being Bein Adam Lamakom I believe reflects their insight (which I was simply elucidating) that at the time of the giving of the Torah this is how they were viewed. It is a very interesting question given that from a modern perspective and I believe there is evidence that even from a later Biblical & Rabbinic perspective (David & BatSheva & the analogy he was confronted with and also the Aggadic teaching Al Tikri Morasha Ela Morusa…) some of these sexual prohibitions have a very interpersonal dimension whether they would also be classified as Ben Adam Lechaveiro. I tend to believe that this is an example where even the classical rabbis would accept the notion of a paradigm shift and allow for the recognition of an additional layer of sin in the trespass of these prohibitions.

      One reviewer of the article pointed out that from her view point it can be argued that violating someone sexually for example incest could be more damaging and less able to repair than sinning against another in weights and measures. This is also an example of how our perspective has changed in the sense that the incest that the Torah seemed concerned with is firstly much more broader than how we typically our exposed to it and I also sense that the context was often different.

      Regarding the strand of Midrash you reference (Mechilta Bo Parasha 5) I believe it is of the view that the Israelites as a whole managed to maintain their sexual purity despite being steeped in idolatry and that this was not particular to women. I tend not to see Hassidic teachings as helpful in understanding the historical layer of Peshat and as well do not feel a need to reconcile conflicting Midrashim (Zohar & Mechilta) as I tend to see Midrash as analogous to the interpretation of art and literature where there is no one truth but many different perspectives on a given piece and different people will resonate or find useful different vantage points.

      For example Rabbi Moshe David Valle the Talmid Muvhak of the Ramchal (who thought he was Mashiach ben David see Tishby's Messianic Mystics) offers an explanation for Pidyon Haben that we do Pidyon Haben to protect our firstborn sons as the Sitra Achra is still coming after them for what was done to the Bechor's of Egypt. On a Peshat level it would seem that the first born held a special social status and the killing of the first born was decimating the political/economic elite of Egypt and we redeem our political/economic elite (Latet lo Pi Shnayim and would have been the Kohanim etc..) in appreciation of our being saved. This is the general thematic explanation in the Torah ki ger hayita be'artzo, ki ger hayita be'eretz mitzrayim, mi bait avadim etc…

      For me the most interesting discovery in writing this piece is this notion that Paganism in its focus on the cult did not involve ethics. I trust that there were ethical laws within these societies but these were rooted in the political governing of the society. Perhaps, in the governmental sphere certain sexual prohibitions were prohibited. Its hard for me to believe that ancient societies tolerated adultery for example. But I am also open to believing that there were special "religious" circumstances were all the forbidden sexual prohibitions were institutionalized. The Torah seems to be fusing ethics as a fundamental and integral element of religion and this insight could serve as a general solution to the splicing of ritual and ethical laws together as the medium is the message.

      Bikhvod Rav