The article below is from Rabbi Riskin’s book Vayikra: Sacrifice, Sanctity & Silence, part of his Torah Lights series of commentaries on the weekly parsha, published by Maggid and available for purchase here.

Parshat Kedoshim: Marriage as a Loving Friendship in Sanctified Purity

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson credit

“And you shall not let any of your seed pass through (the fire) to Moloch, neither shall you profane the name of your God, I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:21)

The great Talmudic sage Rav Yehuda (in the name of Rav) applies the commandment “love your neighbor as [you love] yourself” to the relationship of husband and wife, the closest and most proximate of neighbors. Indeed, one of the seven blessings under the nuptial canopy even refers to the couple as “re’im ahuvim” or “beloved (loving) friends.”

But the marriage ceremony itself, one of the most exalted and simplistically stunning in our liturgy, raises a number of problematic issues. The initial blessing of betrothal declares:

“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, commanded us regarding forbidden sexual relationships, prohibited us from sexual relations with our fiancé and has permitted us those to whom we are married by means of the nuptial canopy and the betrothal sanctification. Blessed are You Who sanctifies His nation Israel by means of the nuptial canopy and betrothal sanctification.”

What makes this formulation so strikingly different from every other blessing over a commandment is that it mentions what is forbidden as a prelude to what it permitted. Why? Would it not have been sufficient for the blessing to have spoken only about the positive, without mentioning the negative?

Moreover, there are an additional seven blessings recited under the nuptial canopy which go far beyond the loving relationship of the couple about to be wed; one blessing brings us all the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (“cause these loving [and beloved] friends to joyfully rejoice just as You caused Your creations to rejoice in the Garden of Eden”), and the final blessing brings us forward to the future period of redemption (“May there soon be heard in the Cities of Judea and in the broad spaces of Jerusalem the sound of rejoicing and the sound of happiness, the sound of grooms and the sound of brides.”)

What has a marriage ceremony to do with a national history spanning incalculable centuries from ancient past to anticipated future?

The answer is to be found in the seemingly problematic structure of the three main chapters in the Torah portion of Kedoshim and part of the previous portion of Acharei Mot. Chapter 18 of the book of Leviticus (the concluding chapter of Acharei Mot) deals with forbidden sexual relationships, beginning with incest and concluding with sacrificing one’s child to the idol, Moloch, and the prohibition against homosexuality; chapter 19, which opens the portion of Kedoshim, starts with the commandment to revere one’s parents and then catalogues scores of laws dealing with interpersonal relationships, including loving one’s neighbor as one loves oneself. And then, in chapter 20, the Bible returns to the catalogue of forbidden sexual relationships, beginning with the prohibition of sacrificing one’s child to the idol, Moloch. Why not have all the forbidden sexual relationships in one place? Why the seeming interruption with chapter 19?

What is equally strange and disturbing is that the initial introduction to the laws of forbidden sexual relationships (at the beginning of chapter 18) is the verse: “You shall observe My decrees and My statutes which a human being shall do and live by them…” (Lev. 18:5). Our Talmudic sages deduce from the command “You shall…live by them” that when push comes to shove, the Jew must generally transgress a commandment rather than forfeit his life; the value of a human life stands above the commands of the Torah (Yoma 85a, b). However, the sole exceptions to this rule are the three most stringent prohibitions of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. Hence, if a Jew is ordered to commit an act of incest or adultery or else he will be murdered, he may not invoke the usual “You shall…live by them” and commit the forbidden act, but rather he must choose to die rather than to transgress. If this is the case, then how can we understand the command “You shall… live by them” placed as the introduction to the laws of sexual immorality? These are specifically the prohibitions for which a person must be willing to lay down his life.

Rashi explains that this injunction “You shall live by them” refers to the world to come, because if you will suggest that it refers to this world, eventually (everyone in this world) dies (Rashi, Lev. 18:5). If I might alter Rashi’s words a little without removing his fundamental idea, I would suggest that it refers to life in its historical dimension, to the ability of the individual Jew to participate as a link in the great and eternal chain of Jewish historic being. The family is the bedrock of the nation, and it is specifically the laws of sexual morality which guarantee Jewish preservation and continuity physically as well as spiritually. An individual destroys his seeds of continuity if he sacrifices his child to Moloch, or if he defies the familial faithfulness by adultery. In the most profound sense, Judaism will only continue to live eternally if the laws of sexual immorality are seen as so sacrosanct that they even stand above the value of preserving a human life. Therefore, the laws of interpersonal human relationships, the necessary bedrock of a well-ordered and continuing society, must be preceded and followed by the stringent rules against sexual immorality; only then will we truly live as an eternal historic nation.

Thus the Bible, in its very chapter sequence, expresses one of the essential and amazing paradoxes of Jewish life. If the Jewish nation wishes to live as a distinct historical entity whose mission is to perfect society and redeem the world, they must first and foremost conform to the laws of family sanctity and the prohibition of sexual immorality – and this is Leviticus, chapter 18. Then come the fundamental principles of interhuman relationships, beginning with proper reverence for parents and including the love one must feel for one’s spouse, not forgetting the prohibitions against jealousy and the commandments concerning tithes and charity for those who do not have their own property or means of livelihood – and this is chapter 19. The Bible then finds it necessary to return to the laws of sexual morality, the very actions which cause us to lose the succeeding generations, if not physically then certainly spiritually (as certain as giving our children over to Moloch), but this time including the capital punishments, the very antithesis of the introductory “You shall live by them,” for those who actually transgress – and this is chapter 20.

The structure and lesson of the biblical form is exquisitely maintained in the precise formulation of the marital blessings, the couple (and eventual family) representing the fundamental key to Jewish survival and eternity. The Almighty has forbidden certain sexual relationships; only if and when we maintain these prohibitions shall we have earned the unique honor of having been sanctified by means of the nuptial canopy and betrothal sanctification. And the reward for living such a sanctified life is that it enables us to live eternally as a link in the golden chain of the Jewish historical continuum – with memories which go back to the Garden of Eden and visions of anticipation which go forward to the ultimate redemption. The marriage canopy bears both the responsibility and the glory of Jewish eternity, past and future.

Shabbat Shalom

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