Reconciling Biblical Morality with Our Own

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).

Leviticus 18 is one of two passages in the Torah (the other being Leviticus 20) that consists of sexual regulations meant to distinguish Israel from the surrounding nations and make it a holy people. Although the prohibitions in our passage have had a profound impact on Western sexual morality, its assumptions are remote from-and in some cases even abhorrent to contemporary sensibilities.

Torah Women's CommentaryFirst of all, Leviticus evaluates sexual behaviors not in terms of the emotional and relational dimensions of sexual experience that are so central to judgments about sexual morality today, but in terms of the categories of purity and pollution. The purpose of antipollution laws is to impose structure on the chaos of experience by ensuring that social and symbolic boundaries are respected and that things conform to their proper class. Leviticus 18 forbids a series of discrete behaviors that supposedly cause defilement and thus disrupt the social/religious world, but it offers no positive understanding of holy sexuality.

Second, if we look at the social order that the Levitical anti-pollution laws protect, it seems to consist of extended patriarchal families in which the honor and authority of male heads of household is the primary social value. Verses 7 and 8 do not forbid the father to sexually violate his child bur rather forbid the son to violate the sexuality of his father by committing incestuous adultery with the father’s wife.

The verses instruct the less powerful party not to dishonor the powerful by treating the wife’s sexuality simply as her husband’s possession. Some of the incest prohibitions, such as the outlawing of marriage with two sisters (v, 18), work to the benefit of women, but it is not women’s concerns and interests that animate the text. The striking absence of the most prevalent incest violation, namely that between father and daughter, makes clear that it is not the purpose of Leviticus in this case to protect the weak and defenseless.

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Judith Plaskow is a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. She is the author of the landmark work Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, and has written and edited a number of other volumes on the topics of contemporary religious thought and feminist theology.

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