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Purim and the Challenge of Human Sexuality by Gidon Rothstein

February 24, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Tanach

At a crucial moment of the Megillah named after her, Ester tells Mordechai that she will go and speak to Ahashverosh uninvited, asks him to pray for her, and closes by saying, וכאשר אבדתי אבדתי, when I am lost, I am lost.  Megillah 15a puts a twist on this phrase that brings it in line with its assumption earlier (on 13a) that the two were married.  Until that point, the Gemara notes, she had been coerced into the marriage with Ahashverosh, and was therefore still permitted to remain Mordechai’s wife. From that point on, when she was going to go willingly to Ahashverosh—an encounter the Gemara assumes would involve a sexual component—she would be lost to Mordechai.

That Gemara works off the Mishnah in Sotah 27b that says that a willing adulteress is אסורה לבעל ולבועל, is prohibited from ever marrying the cuckolded husband or the man with whom she committed adultery.  I find both the halachah itself and its application to the Megillah fascinating because of the extent to which many today try to deny the hard questions that sexuality necessarily raises in any society.  Hazal here have assumed that the relationship between Mordechai and Ester—both of them paragons of virtue—became and remained sexual for much of the Megillah. 

The halachah in Sotah tells us that adultery (and, I suspect, other sexual improprieties) leave a stain or residue that cannot be removed no matter how sincerely the sinners repent.  It is not that we are suspicious of the motives of a husband and wife who wish to remain married after she strays, it is that we are not allowed to let them do so.  [A practical note: I believe poskim will often allow a husband to refuse to believe his wife’s confessions of adultery, circumventing this halachah and allowing them to remain married. If the husband himself witnessed the adultery, however, I believe there is little room for a leniency, despite our preference for keeping marriages together.]

What strikes me about this and similar halachot is the frankness with which halachah recognized the question and challenge of sexuality in any society.  While those in the Western world who advocate for liberalizing sexual mores have often claimed that sexuality is a private matter between two consenting adults, with no necessary spillover into the public arena, events and current rhetoric prove otherwise.  The question for societies, then, is not whether sexuality is important, but in what ways it will matter, and how the society will try to shape those ways.

The Underrecognized Centrality of Wrongful Sexuality As a Break With Service of God

In halachah, the laws that seek to regulate our sexuality are often thought of as being restricted to those known as tseniut, and even those are often seen as limited to technical questions of women’s dress—pants or not, hair covering or not, how much of the hair, etc.  Important as those halachic questions are, they do not take proper note of the seriousness the Torah applies not to those questions, but to the underlying one of how to create a Jewish people sanctified by its sexuality.

To make that point, I note that of the thirty-six commandments the Mishnah lists as incurring כרת (excision by God) fifteen—over 40%– are sexual, as are similar percentages of the transgressions that incur stoning and burning.  As much as any category, in other words, wrongful sexuality dominates the ways in which Jews can stray so far from God that the response would have to be among the most severe we know of.

This also explains the odd, and often glossed-over, inclusion of עריות among the sins for which a Jew must give his or her life rather than yield to external coercion to transgress.  We understand why idolatry would be in that list, since it so fully contradicts the relationship with God, and murder, since it contradicts our basic humanity, but what about עריות makes it so significant?

A similar question might plausibly be raised in the context in which the Torah lists these prohibitions. After the list, the Torah warns us that we should avoid these sins, sins the nations who inhabited the Land before us committed, lest the Land of Israel spew us out as it did to them (Vayikra 18;28).  As Ramban notes, the verse certainly seems to speak of a metaphysical connection between our sexual propriety and the Land’s willingness to tolerate our presence.

These examples should lead us to consider the more detailed issues of tsniut in a different light.  While some of them may be simple matters of halachah, the question at the root of all of them is how we create a society that is fully sanctified in its sexuality.  Since men and women interacting will inevitably bring up such issues on at least some occasions, each society necessarily makes choices about how it balances the advantage of members of both genders participating and contributing freely to that society against the dangers of such mixing leading to sexual improprieties.

Segregated Societies: Not Just for Fundamentalists

At one extreme, we have the approach that stresses caution, seeking to segregate society as much as possible, in the hopes that reducing the interactions between the genders would also free it of the challenges laid out here.  I should note that the general choice in such societies has been to restrict women’s movement and actions, but the reasoning would be the same were we to see a society that tried to hide its men away.

While today we identify such extremes with fundamentalist societies, whether Islamic or Jewish, two points seem worth noting.  First, Rambam inhabited such a society.  In his discussion of the kinds of clothing a husband must supply his wife, Rambam notes [Laws of Marriage 13:11] that a wealthy man must give his wife clothing to go to her father’s house, to a house of mourning or a party, “to do kindnesses for her friends and relatives…for she is not a prisoner who cannot leave…and the husband should prevent his wife from [leaving home excessively]…only about once or twice a month as necessary…”  Note that Rambam did not think he was being strict; in fact, his point was that it would be wrong to be overly strict with a woman, chaining her to her household, that a husband should recognize her need to go out occasionally.

It Doesn’t Work

The other interesting point is that even with what I think most of us today would see as an overly strict attitude towards women’s involvement in society, the specter of wrongful sexuality was still relevant.  Rambam nowhere indicates that the various laws about adultery were no longer a worry in his time; in fact, in the Moreh Nevuchim, he makes clear that he understands various mitsvot, and not just those directly on the issue, as being geared towards helping people restrain themselves sexually.

The lesson of Rambam’s concerns is that sexuality is not a soluble problem, it is an intractable one, one each society in history has to weigh and balance to find the right application in the particular sets of circumstances.  Halachah sets some clear parameters, but beyond those we as Jews are obligated to consider how, when, and where we must act or legislate to come as close as possible to a society that puts sexuality in the only place where it is legitimate—in the marital bedroom, where a husband and wife engage in it as part of furthering their relationship.

To give one pertinent example: the Gemara (Kiddushin 30a) was clearly in favor of young marriage for exactly this reason, that it would give an outlet for sexual energies early on enough to offer some self-control.  We today see significant disadvantages to such marriages, but have not yet, in my experience, found a way around the central problem it presents, avoiding the sexual improprieties that can come with lengthy periods of being single.  If we recall that when unmarried women do not go to mikveh, any sexual activity, even without full intercourse, is likely a violation of a Torah law—and that actual intercourse is a violation of a karet prohibition—we begin to recognize the scope of the challenge that we currently have no means of meeting.

That circumstances forced a woman like Ester to act sexually wrongly, necessary as it was, and to bear the consequences of permanent separation from her husband, is a tragic undercurrent of the Megillah, an example of the sacrifices our greatest heroes have made and always have to make to allow the rest of us the kinds of salvation we saw on Purim, and hope to see again in the coming days.  As we celebrate that salvation, in the times in which we live, it would seem to me worthwhile to consider again how we can meet the challenges she was forced to meet, and to produce a society that is kadosh in the sense that Rashi on Chumash understands it, a society that grapples with and succeeds at placing sexuality solely where it belongs, in the marital bedroom.

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