Sex and the Torah: Mishpatim 2018

Exodus 21:1-24:18

What happens when the Torah speaks in a different language than we do? I’m not referring to the Hebrew in which the text is written. Rather, I’m referring to the part of our sacred tale that, mamash/really, doesn’t seem to apply to our lives in this day and age. And what does this have to do with sex?

Having just left the ecstatic experience at Mount Sinai, our text plunges us into the cold water of problematic matters of relationship: we learn rules (mishpatim) that address the relationships between the most earthly parts of our lives: between a slave and a master.  Or a father and daughter. Or oxen who gore and thieves who steal. Or someone who kills another human, either by accident or by stealth.  With 53 separate mitzvoth listed, this is such a descent into the minutiae from the heights of the theophany at Sinai!

One idea stands out for me this week: that of the role of sexual pleasure and the expectation that it is the obligation of a husband (in this hetero orientation of Torah) not just to  ‘go through the motions’ but to deeply focus on the pleasure of his partner.  We can easily expand this obligation to each of the partners, in that no one person in a relationship, hetero or otherwise,  should be treated as a sexual object.  Torah expects that we honor an obligation to our lover to pay attention to his/her pleasure and not just our own.  

We can deepen this by asking, if I am expected to approach a lover with the highest regard for their pleasure, how do I expand this into a general principle by which I aspire to live? Let us consider the concept of ‘generosity of spirit’. Generosity is, at first, a leaving off of self-centered identity and opening our hearts and minds and spirits to the needs of others.  But it doesn’t fulfill its potential unless that awareness includes the impulse to share, staying open to the reality that if I horde, I lose.

Clichés are clichés because they’re true: love isn’t love until you give it away.  More deeply, generosity of spirit asks that we become the conduit through which the shefa/the flow of the deep interconnectedness is brought into my relationships with all of Creation. 

Of course, we cannot assume that we know what another might need, hence the invitation to ask! But let us listen to what Torah is asking of us: to keeping ourselves obligated to consider what another might need. What do our friends and families need? what does the natural world need? and can we apply the same generosity to our own needs? It is when we raise the plain meaning of the  text of Torah to a higher (or deeper) analysis, and not  limit ourselves to being literal, that is when we bring the language of Torah alive and make it ring for ourselves today. 
---- Rabbi Jan