The by turns famous and infamous list of forbidden sexual unions in Leviticus 18 of parashat Acharei Mot stands in the middle of two texts that form a sort of introduction and conclusion. The introduction and conclusion share similar themes, telling the Israelites that they should not act like the ways of Egypt or Canaan nor follow their rules. Instead, it is God’s laws and rules that should be observed. While God’s law is the life of humankind, the ways of Egypt and Canaan cause a kind of deep contamination of ritual impurity (tumah) and cause a vomiting out of the people by the land. The introduction and conclusion that sandwich the list warn against following the practices and rules of Egypt and Canaan and threaten terrible punishments for following the ways of the past and those of the future, of the Other both familiar and as yet unknown.
Some scholars argue that the list, also known as the arayot, is not native to its context, suggesting that someone had written the list and another scribe or editor had added the introduction and conclusion to the essay from elsewhere. The list itself generally warns us about what is deemed too close, primarily banning endogamous relations and incest. The introduction and conclusion, meanwhile, locate this list of prohibitions in the desert. How do we know that we are in the desert? We are told that we should not follow the practices of the Egyptians, where we were settled, nor of the Canaanites, whence the Divine is bringing us. We are necessarily then in a place of in-between, neither here nor there, wandering in the wilderness.
Scholars often suggest that the rules of Leviticus 18 consist of a scribal exercise, writing and rewriting, drafting and editing varying combinations of sexual transgressions. Rabbinic midrashim have a rather different perspective on these laws. Instead of a theoretical legal exercise they see them as a response to real-world issues in the community. Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael teaches that the Israelites lived in incestuous couples, openly and without shame, until these unions were banned by this decree in the desert. Midrash Torat Cohanim (Sifra) likewise states that God foresaw that the Israelites would need to be severed from these relationships and that is why Leviticus 18 exists. It follows that had the Israelites never engaged in these relationships, Leviticus 18 would never have come to life. This midrash, however, interprets these forbidden relationships not as those that are too near, but rather those that are deemed too far: the exogamous unions of intermarriage. These exegetes thus acknowledge that communal norms change and that changing laws affect both individuals and groups. That each midrashic work interprets these relationships differently, one as incestuous and the other as intermarriages, further demonstrates how the understanding of these laws can be diverse, even in the same time period.
The revelation of this list occurs in a particular moment in time in the desert. Numbers 11:10 uses an odd turn of phrase, stating that Moses hears the people crying in their families. The Israelites are overwhelmed with a desire for food other than manna, for the fish and vegetables and fruit they had in Egypt. Their complaints over the monoculture of manna cause Moses to lose the will to live and are met with a gluttonous feast of rotten quail followed by mass deaths. For the midrashim, the people were crying not over food but over these severed familial connections. They were crying each at the opening of their own tent, forced to adjust to the reality that what had moments ago been normative and acceptable, was now suddenly rendered forbidden by divine decree. This moment of tears in the desert is in a place of betwixt and between. Neither in Egypt, nor in Canaan, it is the experience of being lost in the midst of a journey, separated from all that is familiar, in the depths of a painful transformative process full of grief and hope.
Midrash Torat Cohanim tells us that there are two types of laws, those that we would have logically determined ourselves even without revelation (theft, incest, idolatry, cursing the Divine and murder) and another second type. These, it seems, would never have been dreamt of by humanity had the Divine not revealed them. What are these sorts of rules? The prohibitions against eating pork and against wearing mixed fabrics (wearing kilayim), the ritual for releasing the yevamah from her levirate marriage with her late husband’s brother-in-law (chalitsah), purifying the metsora (leper) and the sending away of the scapegoat to atone for the sins of the community (se’ir hamishtaleach).
These rules are the divine Other within, the heaven-sent that stems neither from human logic nor understanding and might be rejected by both. The midrash further explains that the other nations of the world argue against and refute these seemingly non-sensical rules. Not only that, but the evil inclination, the yetser harah, which is a voice within the self, argues against them. Both the far away and the near, the Other and the self, oppose them. Torat Cohanim concludes that since God rendered these rules, ‘you are not permitted to refute them’ even as it acknowledges this ongoing process of internal refutation. Perhaps, like manna, these rules have a quality of the divine realm; at once precious, necessary for survival, unknowable and unsatisfying. It is remarkable for a modern reader to hear the voice of an exegete, likely hailing from the 3rd century CE, openly acknowledge the inner Jewish critic as well as the dismissals of the Other. As the exegete concluded, “there is still hope for the evil inclination to murmur and say, their ways are nicer than ours, that is why scripture says, ‘and you shall guard them, and you shall do them, for She is your wisdom and your understanding’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
Dr Laliv Clenman LBC Senior Lecturer in Rabbinic Literature
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.