Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Sexual Prohibitions: Chukim or Mishpatim?

My recent post on Parshas Acharei Mos, The Laws of Sexual Morality: When a Mishpat Appears to be a Chok, elicited a few interesting challenges and questions (in various online forums) that I believe are worth sharing with my readers.

In my post, I briefly mentioned that, in the sixth chapter of his Shemoneh Perakim (the introduction to his commentary on Pirkei Avos), Maimonides argues for a distinction between chukim and mishpatim with regards to perfecting our character. Specifically, he argues that with regard to mishpatim, one is obligated not simply to obey the mitzva but also to work to remove the desire to commit the act in the first place, i.e. not only must one obey the laws prohibiting murder and robbery, but one must also work to eliminate from within oneself the desire to murder and steal. With regard to chukim, however, there is no obligation to eliminate the desire itself, thus, for example, while one is forbidden from eating a cheeseburger, there is nothing wrong with wanting to eat a cheeseburger.

One of my correspondents noted that, in his discussion, Maimonides specifically describes the arayos (sexual prohibitions) as chukim! The apparent reason Maimonides does so is because of the famous teaching of the Sages (Sifra, Kedoshim):
לא יאמר אדם: אי אפשי לאכול בשר בחלב, אי אפשי ללבוש שעטנז, אי אפשי לבא על הערוה,  אלא אפשי, ומה אעשה ואבי שבשמים גזר עלי.
A person should not say, "I do not wish to eat meat and milk, I do not wish to wear shaatnez, I do not wish to have relations with an erva (forbidden woman)," but rather [a person should say], "I wish to [do these acts], but what can I do? My Father in Heaven has decreed upon me [these prohibitions]."
According to Maimonides, the attitude expressed in this teaching would apply exclusively to the chukim. Thus, according to Maimonides, the inclusion of erva (sexual prohibition) in this teaching would indicate that the arayos are to be considered chukim.

The problem with this is that, in multiple locations, the Sages explicitly list the arayos among the mishpatim. Thus, for example, the Talmud (Yoma 67b) states:
ת"ר "את משפטי תעשו" - דברים שאלמלא לא נכתבו דין הוא שיכתבו. אלו הן: ע"ז, וגילוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים, וגזל, וברכת השם. "ואת חקותי תשמרו" - דברים שהשטן ועכומ"ז משיבים עליהם. ואלו הן: אכילת חזיר, ולבישת שעטנז, וחליצת יבמה, וטהרת מצורע, ושעיר המשתלח. ושמא תאמר מעשה תהו הן, ת"ל "אני ה'" - אני ה' חקקתים, אין לך רשות להרהר בהם.
Our Rabbis taught: [The Torah states,] "You shall do my judgements (mishpatim)" - These are matters that, if they had not been written [in the Torah], reason would require that they be written. These include [the prohibitions against] idolatry, sexual immorality, murder, robbery, and blasphemy. "And you shall guard my decrees (chukim)" - These are matters that the soton and the idolaters challenge [as being unreasonable]. These include [laws such as the prohibitions against] eating pig, wearing shaatnez (fabric made from wool and linen), [and the laws of] chalitza of a yevama (widowed sister-in-law who is subject to levirate mariage), the purification of a metzora ("leper"), and the goat that is sent away [as part of the Yom Kippur ritual in the Temple]. And lest you say that these are empty matters, the Torah teaches us, saying, "I am Hashem" - I, Hashem, have decreed these laws, and you do not have the right to doubt them.
 This would seem to raise an obvious difficulty with the Rambam's approach.

In fact, this problem was noted by a number of commentators (including the notes of the Yad Yosef on Ein Yaakov, Yoma 67b and in Rabbi Yosef Jacobs commentary on Shemoneh Perakim). 

To resolve the difficulty, they cite the commentary of the Maharsha on the passge in Yoma in which the Maharsha argues that the categorization of the arayos as mishpatim only applies to those arayos that are also forbidden to non-Jews as part of the Noahide laws. (See Maimonides, Hil. Melachim 9:5.) Thus, the general category of arayos would actually include both mishpatim and chukim, and when Maimonides refers to arayos as being chukim, he is only referring to those sexual prohibitions that apply only to Jews. Thus, following the Maimonides' approach in Shemoneh Perakim, a perfected individual would have no desire for adultery or homosexuality, which are forbidden to all mankind, but he may well have desire for his wife when she is a state of niddah, which is a purely Jewish prohibition.

While we see from this that the classification of the sexual prohibitions as mishpatim is not absolute (i.e. some sexual prohibitions would qualify as chukim, at least according to Maimonides), the basic idea that the sexual prohibitions are a mishpat is not really a matter of dispute.

A number of correspondents challenged the classification of the sexual prohibitions as mishpatim based on the fact that, as many sources teach us, the desire for forbidden sexual relations is among the most powerful and ubiquitous of all sinful desires. I have to admit to having difficulty following this argument. The fact that something is self-evidently immoral does not mean that the desire for it is unnatural or abnormal. There are many self-evident prohibitions that people naturally desire, and it can (and is supposed to) take great effort and self-discipline to bring such desires under our control.

In a related, though far more extreme vein, one correspondent argued emphatically that all of the sexual prohibitions are chukim because, "they only make sense if one accepts the Torah's belief system," and that without that belief system there is no rational reason to accept the idea that there might be something wrong with "loving and making another person feel good."

I believe this approach is erroneous on several counts. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that idolatry and blasphemy are themselves considered mishpatim would seem to indicate that accepting the Torah's belief system, or at least certain basic elements of that system, is itself a self-evident obligation. It certainly demonstrates that there are certain basic spiritual concepts that are understood to be intrinsically self-evident and do not require revelation. It, therefore, cannot be argued that any law that is based on the Torah's belief system is inherently a chok without fundamentally redefining the meaning of the term.

With specific regard to sexual morality, my correspondent argued that, absent a revelation to the contrary, there is no rational basis for viewing sexual relations as anything more than "loving and making another person feel good." In my opinion, this claim, which goes far beyond simply rejecting the specific sexual restrictions of the Torah, is self-evidently absurd, even from a purely materialist point of view. Sexuality is one of the most powerful human drives and desires, touching upon the most elementary aspects of our psyche. Thus, even in the most sexually decadent societies, there is a recognition that sexual behavior is much more than just a pleasurable activity that one does with close friends and loved ones, like sharing a meal or playing a game.

What often happens in such societies, however, is that people obscure the specific significance of the immoral sexual behavior by describing the immorality in non-sexual terms. Thus, for example, the immorality of adultery will be described as "betrayal", implying that it wasn't the sex itself that was the problem. Of course, if sex really were just a pleasurable activity, then adultery would be no more of a betrayal than a married woman sharing lunch with a coworker. The reason we see it as a betrayal is precisely because we recognize that sexuality involves a level and form of connection between people that goes far beyond that of simple love and friendship.

Similarly, rape is seen as one of the worse possible crimes that a person can commit, and the victims of rape are recognized as having suffered in a unique manner, fundamentally distinct from the victims of other violent crimes. However, if sex were truly nothing more than a pleasurable activity, like eating a candy bar, then it would be hard to explain why rape is so bad. Obviously, it is immoral and unethical to use violence or the threat of violence to force people to do anything against their will, but if someone was running around forcing people to eat donuts, I don't think we would see him as the moral equivalent of a serial rapist. Once again, we intuitively recognize that sex involves something more than just physical pleasure, and that forcing someone to engage in sexual relations against their will is a form of aggression that is fundamentally different from ordinary violence.

The point of the above is that we intuitively recognize that sexuality is much more than simply a physical act of pleasure, and, as such, we also recognize that there are moral restrictions on sexual behavior that are unique to sexuality. Thus, an objective assessment of human reality will tell us that some kinds of restrictions on sexual behavior are morally necessary. As I said earlier, this would be true even from a purely materialist point of view. Once one recognizes that a human being is more than just a physical body, then the idea that sexuality is nothing more than a physical act of pleasure which ought to be free and unrestricted is absurd. This would be true even if we had no Torah and no revelation of any kind.

The point I made in my post is that the concept of mishpatim teaches us that these laws are such that we ought to be able to recognize their necessity even without such a revelation. With regard to the sexual prohibitions, this means that we ought to be able to recognize on our own why these forms of sexual behavior are immoral. If it happens that we cannot, this tells us that, on some level, our capacity for rational thought has been corrupted.

This brings me to a point that was raised by another correspondent with regard to the teaching of the Sifra that I quoted, in which the Sages appear to be promoting worldly ignorance:
"To walk in them" - Make them primary and not secondary.
"To walk in them" - Your discourse should be exclusively in them and you shall not intermingle other worldly matters with them.
A person should not say, "I have studied the wisdom of Israel, [and now] I shall study the wisdom of the nations of the world," for the Torah says, "To walk in them" - you are not authorized to take leave from them.
In fact, the same issue concerned me as well when I was initially writing the post. At first glance, the language of the Sifra does seem to imply that one should absolutely avoid studying anything other than Torah. However, as we know from other sources, the approach of the Sages (throughout the generations) to worldly knowledge is far more complex than simple negation.

Exactly how to approach the study of secular knowledge in practical terms is obviously complex, and has been a matter of debate throughout the generations. However, the basic points are not in dispute. Torah must be seen as absolutely primary. This is the basic point made by the Sifra. A Jew must focus his primary attention and energy on the study of Torah, and he should not equate other studies to Torah study. 

The point I make in my post is that I believe that the reason the Torah stresses this topic at this particular point is because it is precisely the fact that we do allow foreign ideas to enter our minds on a level that is functionally equivalent to Torah that causes our thought processes to become distorted so that we are no longer able to recognize truths that are supposed to be self-evident.

As a general rule, this doesn't happen consciously, by which I mean that people usually don't deliberately choose to adopt foreign ways of thought instead of Torah, but rather these ideas enter our minds from the surrounding environment precisely because we don't already have the Torah principles firmly in place. (The principle that "nature abhors a vacuum" is far more true in psychology than it is in physics.)

This is why I conclude the post by saying that, to the degree that the basic mores and principles of the surrounding culture are in conflict with the Torah, it is that much more important to emphasize the study of Torah.

I would like to thank the various people who engaged in these discussions with me and I hope that they will continue to do so in the future.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Acharei Mos-Kedoshim - The Laws of Sexual Morality: When a Mishpat Appears to be a Chok

The latter portion of parshas Acharei Mos is a list of the various sexual prohibitions. Before it begins the list, the Torah provides an introductory paragraph (Leviticus 18:1-5), which, in five brief sentences, covers several significant themes:
וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר: דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם אני ה' אלקיכם: כמעשה ארץ מצרים אשר ישבתם בה לא תעשו וכמעשה ארץ כנען אשר אני מביא אתכם שמה לא תעשו ובחקתיהם לא תלכו: את משפטי תעשו ואת חקתי תשמרו ללכת בהם אני ה' אלקיכם: ושמרתם את חקתי ואת משפטי אשר יעשה אתם האדם וחי בהם אני ה':
And God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: I am Hashem your God. You shall not do the actions of the land of Egypt, in which you lived, and you shall not do the actions of the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you, and you shall not walk in their ways. My laws (mishpatim) you shall do, and My decrees (chukim) you shall keep, to walk in them; I am Hashem your God. You shall keep My decrees and My laws, for a man shall do them and live by them, I am God.
While we can readily understand why the Torah would stress the importance of not imitating the ways of the Egyptians and Canaanite nations in its introduction to the sexual prohibitions, there are a number of less obvious themes stressed in this paragraph which require explanation.

Perhaps the most obvious is the repeated emphasis on the identity of God as the Commander of these laws. This, of course, is one of the most basic themes of the entire Torah, but why would it require special emphasis at this point?

Another theme that is strongly emphasized is the division of mitzvos into the categories of mishpatim and chukim - i.e. laws that, even if God had not commanded them, we would have needed to establish on our own, and laws which we only know by virtue of Divine revelation. According to the Sages (Yoma 67b and Sifra here), the laws of sexual morality are counted among the mishpatim - the laws accessible to reason - and there doesn't appear to be any obvious reason why the Torah should specifically emphasize this theme at this particular point.

I believe the Torah is actually making an extremely important point in this passage, and one that is of particular relevance to us today. The ultimate authority of all the mitzvos is the fact that they are commanded to us by God. Even though we are often able to recognize the necessity of a given mitzva based on our own understanding, we must never lose sight of the fact that the authority of the mitzvos does not depend on our comprehension of their purpose.

The categories of mishpatim and chukim are categories that exist only from a human perspective. Those laws which we are capable of comprehending are mishpatim, and those laws which we are not capable of comprehending are chukim. From God's perspective, however, there is obviously no such division.

Of course, as with all things, the ability to comprehend the mitzvos will vary from person to person. A mitzva that might be self-evident to one person may well be a total mystery to another. Perhaps even more importantly, mitzvos that might seem self-evident in one culture may be utterly incomprehensible in another.

While this can be seen in many areas, in no area is this more clear than when it comes to sexual morality. As we all know, different cultures often have radically different views on this subject. Moreover, as we have seen in the last century, even within a specific culture attitudes towards sexual morality can undergo radical change in a remarkably short period of time.

The Torah therefore goes out of its way to emphasize, in introducing these laws, that we must never forget Who gave us these laws, and that His laws are not dependent on our comprehension, and they do not change depending on the norms of the people around us. Whether we see these laws - or any specific aspect of these laws - as a mishpat or as a chok, we remain fully obligated to obey them.

To take this a step further, I believe there is an even deeper message in these passages. In the fourth verse of the introduction, the Torah tells us, "את משפטי תעשו ואת חקתי תשמרו ללכת בהם" - "My laws you shall do, and My decrees you shall keep, to walk in them." The words, "to walk in them," appear to be unnecessary and superfluous. The Sages (Sifra here, also cited by Rashi) explain that these words are actually referring to Torah study:
ללכת בהם עשם עיקר ואל תעשם טפלה. ללכת בהם שלא יהא משאך ומתנך אלא בהם שלא תערב בהם דברים אחרים בעולם. שלא תאמר למדתי חכמת ישראל אלמוד חכמת אומות העולם תלמוד לומר ללכת בהם אינך ראשי ליפטר מתוכן
"To walk in them" - Make them primary and not secondary.
"To walk in them" - Your discourse should be exclusively in them and you shall not intermingle other worldly matters with them.
A person should not say, "I have studied the wisdom of Israel, [and now] I shall study the wisdom of the nations of the world," for the Torah says, "To walk in them" - you are not authorized to take leave from them.
The Sages understand these words to be teaching us of the importance and primacy of Torah study, and, in particular, of the importance of not intermingling and equating the study of worldly knowledge or foreign wisdom with the Torah. While this is certainly an important basic concept, once again we have to explain why the Torah chose to stress this topic at this particular point.

To answer this question, I believe we need to return to our previous discussion on the categories of chok and mishpat. Based on what we said above - that the categories of mishpatim and chukim only exist from a human perspective, and that different people will often have very different perspectives on whether a given law is a mishpat or a chok - one might come to the conclusion that the distinction between mishpatim and chukim is entirely subjective. After all, as we just pointed out, there is no real difference between a chok and a mishpat. In either case, our obligation is the same. (Although there may be a difference with regards to perfecting our character, as Maimonides explains in chapter six of his Shemoneh Perakim.)

Nevertheless, the Torah strongly implies that these are actually objective categories. The Torah specifically refers to certain laws as mishpatim and others as chukim. Similarly, the Sages list specific commandments in each category (although there is no comprehensive list categorizing all of the mitzvos). This tells us that mishpatim are not simply those mitzvos that we happen to understand, but those mitzvos that a properly thinking human being will recognize as necessary. If the Torah and Sages categorize a given mitzva as a mishpat, then it is an error to categorize as as a chok, even if we find it incomprehensible. The fact that we find the mitzva incomprehensible, even though the Torah and the Sages say that it is a mishpat, indicates that, on some level, we are not thinking properly.

The failure to be able to properly recognize a mishpat as a mishpat is therefore indicative of a more basic flaw in our mental and spiritual state. As a general rule, the primary cause of such a flaw is the influence of our surrounding environment. As Maimondes writes (Hil. Deos 6:1), "it is the way of human nature for a person to be drawn, in his thoughts and deeds, after his neighbors and friends, and to behave in the manner of the people of his country."

It is for this reason that, specifically with regard to this topic, where the influence of the surrounding culture is particularly powerful, that the Torah emphasizes the importance of studying Torah - pure Torah - for it is only in this way that we can hope to overcome the influence of the surrounding culture so that we can recognize the self-evident immorality of behavior that, in the surrounding society, is seen as perfectly innocuous or even virtuous.

From this we can see that, as important as Torah study always is, to the degree that the surrounding environment becomes morally corrupt, especially with regard to sexual immorality, the more important it is for a Jew to focus on studying Torah with exclusive focus. I once heard in the name of Rav Yitzchak Hutner that in previous generations, a yeshiva was like the mishkan (Tabernacle) in the Jewish camp in the wilderness, for the entire community was a place of holiness and fear of God, and the yeshiva was simply a place of exceptional holiness. In our generation, however, Rav Hutner said that the yeshiva is like Noah's ark, for the outside world is flooded with explicit immorality, and the only place of shelter is within the walls of the yeshiva.

We live today in a time of extraordinary challenge for a Jew, in which the outside world appears to beckon welcomingly, but in which even our most basic morals and beliefs are often viewed with disdain and even condemnation. It can be extraordinarily difficult to avoid adopting many of the basic attitudes of the surrounding culture. It is all too common to find that even Jews who are fully observant have nevertheless internalized many of these basic attitudes, and often feel subtly embarrassed or ashamed of the teachings of the Torah. It is precisely for this reason that, in our generation, it is particularly important for us to stress and support Torah study.

UPDATE: I address some of these topics further in a follow-up post: The Sexual Prohibitions: Chukim or Mishpatim?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tazria-Metzora - The Message of Tzaraas

The main subject in the parshios of Tazria-Metzora is tzaraas, in its various forms. (Tzaraas is often mistranslated as leprosy, however, in reality, it bears no resemblance to any known skin disease, and was a purely supernatural affliction.) The Sages (Talmud, Arachin 15b) teach us that the most common reason for tzaraas is the sin of lashon hara - harmful speech. (There are several different prohibitions that fall under the general category of lashon hara.)

The basic message of the affliction of tzaraas is to teach us the severity of the sin of lashon hara, for, as Maimonides writes in his conclusion to the laws of tzaraas (Hil. Tumas Tzaraas 16:10), the sin of lashon hara will eventually lead to mocking the sages, the prophets, the Torah, and ultimately even to denying the existence of God. God therefore provided us with this unique physical manifestation of punishment for this sin to emphasize the great importance of this matter.

The Zohar (Vayikra 46b) tells us that the ultimate cause of tzaraas is that, through sin, man causes himself to be separated from his spiritual Source. In kabbalistic terminology, his neshama - Divine "breath" or "soul" - leaves him. When the Jewish people are on a sufficiently high level (Ramban, Leviticus 13:47), this departure can manifest itself physically in the form of tzaraas. (This may explain why tzaraas manifests as white spots, indicating the departure of the soul, which is symbolically associated with blood (Leviticus 17:11).) This is especially true for sins involving speech, for, as the Zohar and many other sources teach us, the power of speech is deeply connected to the neshama - "soul" - and, thus, all else being equal, sins involving speech are particularly harmful.

The Chofetz Chaim
Based on this, tzaraas is an indication that one has lost his connection with God, that his sin has caused him to lose a basic aspect of his status as a human being. The Talmud (Pesachim 118) states that anyone who speaks lashon hara "it is fitting to cast him to the dogs." The Chofetz Chaim (R' Yisrael Meir Kagan, d.1933) explains ('ספר שמירת הלשון, שער הזכירה, פרק ח) that this teaches us that the sin of lashon hara causes a person to lose his status as a proper human being, making him even lower than a dog. For, as the Maharal explains, at the time of the exodus from Egypt, the dogs held their tongues from barking at the Jewish people (Exodus 11:7), but this person, whom God has graced with intelligence and understanding, cannot control his tongue.

In his discussion of tzaraas (Mitzva 169), the Sefer HaChinuch (14th century) writes that the basic message of tzaraas was to convey the message that God watches over all of man's deeds and that nothing happens without His will. Thus, even though tzaraas appeared to be a physical ailment, the afflicted person was to recognize that it was not a natural occurrence, but a punishment for his sins. Tzaraas was therefore to be "treated" exclusively by the kohanim; the same priests who are responsible for bringing atonement to the Jewish people through their performance of the Temple service. This was to reinforce in the sinner's mind the reality that God is fully aware of our actions and that nothing happens without His will.

While this is certainly an important lesson for us to learn, one might ask why this lesson would be of particular significance with regard to the sin of lashon hara, which, as we said earlier, is the most common reason why a person was afflicted with tzaraas. Perhaps the answer is that, like many sins between man and his fellow, the sin of lashon hara is actually rooted in a dysfunctional relationship with God. As the Chofetz Chaim writes ('ספר שמירת הלשון, שער התבונה, פרק ט), one of the main reasons we are tempted to speak lashon hara is because we feel that someone has harmed us, and we are tempted to strike back at him through lashon hara. However, the Chofetz Chaim continues, when we have proper bitachon (trust in God) we recognize that no other person can truly harm us. (This is also the explanation provided by the Sefer HaChinuch for the prohibition against revenge (Mitzva 241).)

In addition, it is common for baalei lashon hara (those who regularly engage in speaking lashon hara) to imagine that they are actually serving an important social function, for, by publicizing the misdeeds of others, they believe they are actually helping the community and fighting evil and injustice. In fact, within limitations, this argument is correct! The laws of lashon hara do provide for a number of exceptions when there is a beneficial purpose in conveying the information. However, while such exceptions certainly exist (and they should certainly be utilized when appropriate), they do not provide a blanket heter (dispensation) to publicize every misdeed, and certainly not every accusation or rumor of a misdeed, just so that people should be aware of the "issue" or "problem". The Chofetz Chaim (םפר חפץ חיים, הל' לשון הרע, י:יד) very emphatically stresses that it is all too easy to fall into the sin of lashon hara if one relies on these exceptions without careful attention to all the rules that apply. (This topic is briefly summarized here.)

It is certainly possible that diligent attention to the laws of lashon hara may occasionally result in someone "getting away" with doing bad things, and even harming others. The same could be said of many legal principles, such as evidentiary requirements, or concepts such as the obligation to judge others favorably. Every ethical or legal system has to find a balance between respecting the rights and dignity of those who are accused of misdeeds, and the rights and dignity of possible victims or of the community as a whole. The Torah provides us with such a balance, given to us by God, and we are obligated to respect those boundaries even when we imagine that it would be better, in a given case, to go beyond them.

It is here that bitachon plays a role. If we believe that, ultimately, God runs the world, then we recognize that, in the final analysis, it is God who punishes the wicked, and protects the innocent. While we certainly have an obligation to do whatever we can to fight against evil and injustice, our ability to do so is restricted by the ethical principles taught in the Torah. To go beyond those ethical principles is a basic violation of the principle of bitachon.

Thus, we can see how the lesson of bitachon - trust in God - which is rooted in our recognition that God runs the world and is aware of everything that takes place in the world - is particularly important for one who speaks lashon hara. Indeed, this brings us back to our earlier point, that the sin of lashon hara causes a separation between the sinner and God. As we have discussed previously, an important concept in Jewish  thought is that our thoughts create our spiritual reality. Thus, the sinner's failure to recognize God's presence in this world and His involvement in our lives, which lead him to the sin of lashon hara, is itself the root cause of his separation from God.