When discussing matters related to the ethical or religious foundation of sexual behavior, people tend to have severe differences of opinion. While up until the second half of the 20th century a more conservative approach was still prevailing, a radical change occurred in the second half of the last century. Well established norms were suddenly challenged, and often replaced by radical approaches which demanded greater “liberty” and “broadmindedness.” This provoked a major confrontation between the conservatives and those who claimed that they were modern-minded.
Since those days, we have witnessed many debates surrounding such topics as homosexuality, same-sex marriages and abortion. Both sides try to prove their point of view with learned dissertations and elaborate arguments.
But those who survey this literature have long since been convinced that such debates will lead nowhere. There is no reconciliation or any modus vivendi which will bring these camps any closer. The reason is obvious: there is no common ground that could serve as a platform for constructive discussion.
In the Mishna in Chagiga (2.1) we are confronted with several educational problems related to the esoteric world. The Mishna asks: how many people are permitted to be present when a teacher lectures on matters “beyond?” It concludes that some issues, such as the secrets of Creation (Ma’aseh Bereshith) should only be taught to one person at a time, while other metaphysical topics, such as the ones mentioned in the book of Yechezkel (the Merkava, the celestial world), should only be taught by a sage of great wisdom and also only in front of one pupil. The main reason given for these rulings is to prevent misunderstanding. When only one student at a time is present, there will be little chance that the student will misunderstand his mentor. He will be forced to listen carefully to every word the teacher speaks. There is no luxury of dozing off, and only hearing half of the lecture and drawing the wrong conclusions.
At the opening of the same Mishna we are informed that matters of “arayoth” (sexuality and its prohibitions) should not be taught to more than two students at a time. The reason for this “lenient” rule (i.e., that two students are permitted to learn simultaneously) is that both students will make sure that they hear all that is said about sexuality, since most human beings are pre-occupied with the subject. Even when the teacher is only speaking to one of them, the other one will also listen. Three, however, is seen to be a problematic number, since the other two may start a discussion among themselves, draw the wrong conclusions and permit what is forbidden or vice versa.
The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Eidels, 1555-1631), however, gives a completely different interpretation regarding the nature of rules related to sexuality. According to him, these rules are also completely mysterious and belong in the same category as Ma’aseh Bereshith, the Creation chapter, and the esoteric observations concerning the metaphysical world by the prophet Yechezkel. Just as it is impossible for the human mind to understand the foundations on which the esoteric world is founded, so it is impossible to understand why certain sexual relationships are forbidden and others are permitted. The Maharsha asks, for example, why marrying one’s sister is prohibited. He also questions why men are prohibited from marrying their living wife’s sister, but are allowed to marry the same sister after their wife has died? (Vayikra 18:18). (According to the Torah one is allowed to marry a second wife; it was the sages who forbade this in later days).
To claim that any of the prohibited relationships are fundamentally “unethical” is untenable, for the obvious reason that the children of Adam and Chava (Eve) married their brothers and sisters. In fact, it was the only way that God saw fit to increase the human species. Similarly we see that Yaacov married two sisters, something that later became prohibited (ibid). Furthermore, as is well known, these “forbidden” marriages laid the foundation stone of the Jewish people and were indispensable!
It is for this reason, says Maharsha, that one should only teach these matters to two pupils at a time so as to prevent any false explanation. The nature of the rules of sexuality is so unfathomable that two students might possibly start arguing amongst themselves while the mentor might only be concentrating on the third. They would advance all sorts of so called explanations, claim that they found the raison d’etre of the subject, and go on to permit or forbid all sorts of sexual relationships.
Maharsha’s observation is therefore of primary importance. All discussions of why certain marriages or sexual relationships are forbidden are doomed to fail! No human reasoning is able to explain them in any consistent way. It is for this reason that religious thinkers should distance themselves from giving primary reasons for these prohibitions. It would be counter-productive and dangerous. This is true when discussing homosexuality or other forbidden relationships. Although some of these relationships have been forbidden since the days of the creation of humankind, these prohibitions are still beyond human comprehension.
It is here that a difficulty arises for secular philosophy and ethics. On the basis of which rational principle should a homosexual relationship be permitted but incest forbidden? For the same reason one could ask why a normal hetero-sexual relationship is permitted and even encouraged? What, after all, are the moral grounds to permit such a relationship? Perhaps every kind of sexual activity should be forbidden and considered to be unethical. This is what the famous Danish thinker and father of Religious Existentialism Soren Kierkegaard seems to be claiming. (The Last Years – Journals, 1853-55) when he argues against marriage.
However unsavory our argument may sound, we are, at the same time, forced to ask what could be wrong from a secular perspective, with incest, fetishism, or bestiality? As long as such a relationship takes place by mutual consent, and nobody gets physically or mentally hurt, there should be no reason why these relationships should be forbidden. While several philosophers have attempted to apply rational reasons for why such acts should be prohibited by secular law, we have to conclude that no consistent and rational argument has yet been put forward which is fundamentally sound.
Arguments such as the “need for human dignity” are of little meaning, because it is unclear how one defines human dignity, and even when it is clear, it could be asked why it should be an absolute inviolable value.
We are therefore forced to conclude that when secular law forbids certain sexual acts, it borrows values from a system which is alien to its own philosophy. The secular understanding of sexual morality does not make any sense unless one admits that it is founded on religious premises. Religious thinkers, however, should not forget, as Maharsha pointed out, that religious philosophy is also unable to provide an explanation for these laws.
These prohibitions cannot be the result of rational deduction or ethical contemplation, but must be rooted in a “will” which is external to man. Either one accepts this external will or one rejects it. Once one rejects such an external will, there can be no distinction made between matters such as homosexuality and incest and, as such, both relationships should be permitted.
Therefore, it would be possible to demonstrate in favor of every form of sexual relationship or object to all of them, including the sexual relationship of husband and wife. Consequently it will be possible that, in the future, voices will be heard asking for the acceptance of marriages which are now considered to be incest and the secular community will be hard pressed to find reasons to forbid it. By allowing an official parade in favor of homosexuality (which is not the goal of the Jerusalem parade!) we must realize that we open the door to other similar parades with which a large section of the secular community at this moment will be most uncomfortable but in years to come, may consider fully acceptable.
One is reminded of the words of Professor E. S. Waterhouse: “A parasite is an independent organism, but its existence is none the less dependent upon its host. If the host perishes, the parasite perishes with it. Using the term in the scientific, and not in an offensive way, may not morality which is not dependent of religion be parasitic upon the religious system within which it has grown up? Surely the question of morality independent of religion cannot be settled by reference to individuals whose moral life began in a community saturated with ideas of religion. (“The Religious Basis of Morality”)
Richard Livingstone in “Education for a World Adrift” adds: “We have inherited good habits and habits persist almost indefinitely, if there is nothing to destroy them. A plant may continue in apparent health for some time after its roots have been cut, but its days are numbered.”
It is, therefore, abundantly clear that certain moral foundations of secular society ultimately depend on religious values. It is time that secular thinkers become honest enough do admit this, while religious philosophers must stop offering reasons which stay completely unsatisfactory.
Still, it is most important that the (ultra) orthodox community becomes aware of the fact that homosexuals cannot just be condemned. Many of them are people of great integrity and deep religiosity. Some are even orthodox. They require our friendship and support and calling them names is in fact violating God’s name. While homosexuality is definitely prohibited by the Torah, the question still stays to whom this prohibition applies. Perhaps it was only meant for heterosexual people but not for genuine homosexuals.
Judaism has since long recognized that there are situations where it is beyond the capacity of man to control his sexual or emotional desires.
Still one should never forget that the prohibition of homosexuality can only be understood in religious terms. Either we accept it as a “higher will” or we do not. At the same time it is preposterous to claim that those who oppose homosexuality as an alternative life style are outmoded. As long as we do not even know why incest is forbidden, and a hetero relationship is permitted, such observations are meaningless.
 Obviously one could argue that only hetero relationships are able to generate children but this is not a primary reason why homosexuality should be forbidden since in according to Jewish Law husband and wife are obligated to have sexual relations even when they can’t, or no longer can, have children and intercourse is only seen as an act of deep love.
 See however Thoughts to Ponder 369 (www.cardozoacademy.org/) where I have argued that by secular moral standards nearly all human acts which involve the slightest moral problem should be forbidden such as the killing of an insect and the cutting of a flower. This would lead to a much more strict life style than what nearly any religion would ever suggest.
 There is by now a fast literature on all this. See Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm in Encyclopedia Judaica, Year book, 1974: Judaism and the Modern Attitude to Homosexuality, p194-205. Also: Chaim Rapoport: Judaism and Homosexuality. An Authentic Orthodox View, Vallentine Mitchell, London Portland, 2004, to which I wrote an approbation. Both works are by now a little dated.
I’m religious and I follow the Torah, but it really bothers me when people who apparently don’t know anything at all about secular ethics and morality say that it has deficits that it really doesn’t, or takes positions that it really doesn’t, and so on.
With all due respect, Rabbi Cardozo, I think you need to read up on the principles of the development of secular ethics before you opine that secular ethics can’t prohibit certain sexual relationships, or condone others. Generally, secular ethics tend to be built around the human principles of altruism and fairness, which are basically hardwired into higher primates (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_inequity_aversion#Clarification_through_experiment ). There is also a well-developed science of morality (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_of_morality) which uses scientific inquiry (the scientific method) to ask why certain behaviours lead to good outcomes, and certain behaviours lead to bad outcomes, and how we define behaviours and good/bad outcomes, and so on. And that is also how we know that animals have altruism and a sense of fairness, and so on.
One of the tenets that follows naturally from all of that is harm reduction (harm = violation of fairness or altruism, or physical/mental injury). So you can prohibit incest secularly because it either causes harm directly (since many incestuous relationships consist of sexual assault by a relative with more power over a relative with less power, like a father raping his daughter, or an older uncle molesting his nephew), and you can prohibit bestiality, because animals cannot consent (violation of fairness and autonomy = harm), and because performing sexual acts on animals may cause them physical harm. You can also prohibit adult-child relationships because they inevitably cause major harm — physically and/or mentally — to the child.
You can also write an affirmative defence of same-sex relationships between two consenting adults, because it’s not harmful to either of the participants, there’s no power imbalance (so it’s fair), and it doesn’t cause any indirect harm to society.
I generally enjoy your articles, but you are way off base here.