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   by Jacob Solomon

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'You shall perform my judgments and observe my statutes… I am G-d… You shall keep my statutes and judgments… and live by (literally 'live within') them: I am G-d' (18: 4-5)

These words form part of the long introduction to the main content of the chapter - the prohibitions of forbidden sexual relationships - including incest, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality. What is the reason for the heavy, repeated emphasis on statutes and judgments? Why does the text not just get on with listing the prohibited physical relationships? And why does this lengthy preamble text end with the unique expression that you should 'live within' the statutes and judgments - a unique expression in the Torah?

The traditional distinction between a 'chok' (statute) and a 'mishpat' (judgment) is as follows. A 'chok' is a Torah-ordained law which has no logical basis. The classic example is the ritual purification process using the ashes of the red heifer. Another case may well be the laws of Kashrut - one may be a very healthy non-Jew and eat bacon. A 'mishpat', by contrast, is a law which makes sense and would very likely be part of civilization even if the Torah did not ordain it. These would include the prohibitions of theft and deception, and the requirements to support those in need.

Physical relationships have two important aspects. Firstly, they are the focus of a basic and powerful drives within normal, healthy people - Torah-loyal Jews very much included. Secondly, the degree of permissiveness towards sexual relationships outside marriage varies from historical period to period, and from culture to culture. As the Torah implies (18:3), the Egyptians and Canaanites were permissive. We also know from extra-Biblical sources that the Mesopotamian codes (with which Abraham was probably familiar) treated adultery more leniently than the Torah. That contrasts with fundamentalist Islam and Christianity (typified by Victorian attitudes). Then again, Western society became more sexually permissive in the pre-AIDS era, partly because of the availability of birth control and facilities to treat venereal diseases. And so on…

Thus for example, a person in Victorian England would regard adultery and homosexuality as 'immoral' 'disgusting' 'dirty'. A person growing up in the same place a century later might say 'so what, so long as it does not harm anyone else'. That might be illustrated by the decriminalization of homosexuality and its being promoted as an 'alternative' life style. It might also be accepted in many circles that it is better that a woman who is unhappily married enjoys a discreet relationship on the side, rather than allow her suffering to break up the family.

But the Torah - the G-d revealed key to the Creation - says that the Creation in general and the Holy Land in particular are not built to accommodate such behavior: 'that the Land shall not spew you out, as it spewed out the other nations that preceded you'. Unlike other offences, such as those as theft and murder, attitudes towards physical relationships vary. Thus in some societies, the Torah code on physical relationships is 'mishpat' - logical, something a 'normal' 'right-thinking' member of society will readily agree to. In other settings - especially in those whose 'isms' come and go, extra-marital relationships and homosexuality may be condoned, and given tacit understanding. Why not 'have a good time' if you are not harming anyone else - if you take the right 'precautions'?

So the Torah castigates adultery and homosexuality - calling the latter 'an abomination'. That might be a 'mishpat' within some societies, and a 'chok' in others. But whilst Torah accepts that forbidden physical relations will be viewed as 'chukim' in some situations and 'mishpatim' in others, its standards are absolute. However society views them, they are forbidden.

Perhaps one reason the Torah forbids incestuous, extra-marital, and homosexual relationships is because of the words 'live by them'. The prohibitions of the above relationships safeguard the essence of the force required to nurture life… the happy, socially well-functioning, family… Indeed, the family, rather than the synagogue, is the primary driving force of Torah values and tradition…

Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.

Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site:

Also by Jacob Solomon:
From the Prophets on the Haftara

Test Yourself - Questions and Answers


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