“Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, ‘I am the Lord your G-d: Do not follow the ways of Egypt where you once lived, nor of Canaan where I will be bringing you’” (Vayikra 18:1-2). With this verse, the Torah introduces what we might call Jewish sexual ethics. The parameters of incest, the laws of family purity, the prohibitions of adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality are all mentioned here. What does all this have to do with Egypt and Canaan?
While the Oral Law is, by definition, the exclusive domain of the Jewish people, the Bible itself, has long been shared with Jew and non-Jew alike. Its call for justice and freedom for all mankind, its demand for personal responsibility, concern for the dignity of the aged, and the introduction of a day of rest—to name just a few examples—has served as the basis for Western thought and morality.
A Jew faithful to the entire corpus of Torah understands that the prohibition of murder encompasses a prohibition against publicly embarrassing another; that the command not to steal also forbids misleading others; and that a day of rest does not allow simple activities like lighting a fire or watering a lawn. Yet that does not preclude us from joining with our non-Jewish brethren in respecting the sanctity of life, or attempting to preserve our environment. While the enlightenment brought about a decline in the influence of religion in general, its basic tenets still inform much of our views of right and wrong. Murder, lying, cheating, and corporate fraud are universally accepted as wrong in the Western world (although individuals may not live up to these ideals), even as they are not necessarily recognized as such throughout the rest of the world. Religion is still a major force even in the “secular” West.
Nowhere is the divide between a secular lifestyle and a religious worldview (or even between Judaism and other religions) more pronounced than in the area of human sexuality. We proclaim this difference in our teachings of abstinence and discipline as we observe the laws of family purity, not only before but even after marriage. These are principles that are ridiculed by many in the enlightened world. The Jewish notion that expressions of sexuality are to be kept private—that even public discussions of such must be conducted with extreme caution and discretion—are concepts foreign to the average person. Even the fact that we view sexual intimacy as holy (and a religious obligation, no less!) runs counter both to the hedonistic culture of today and the views of the Catholic church.
Yet our greatest disagreement, I believe, lies in the fact that secular culture views sex as a private matter between two consenting adults, of no possible relevance to the society around them. There is almost a wall separating our private and public lives. While on a practical level, Judaism does not advocate investigating the private lives of others, the values we live by in private can impact hugely upon the moral values of society at large. One cannot and should not attempt to divorce our private activities from our public persona. Judaism has long understood that our behaviour in public is often no more than a reflection of our private mores.
“But you shall not cause the land to vomit you out when you defile it” (Vayikra 12:28). The Torah warns us that sins committed in private have public repercussions. In fact, our hold on the land of Israel is dependent on how we conduct ourselves when no one is watching. “Whoever desecrates the name of Heaven in secret, they will exact punishment from him in public” (Pirkei Avot 3:5).
G-d took us out of Egypt and brought us to the land of Canaan to be a “holy nation”. To attain such holiness, we must maintain our ways of thinking and behaviour, even when this puts us at odds with the dominant culture. If we fail to do so, there is no reason for us to have a land of our own. As we celebrate the exodus from Egypt, let us make sure we merit an arrival in the Promised Land.