Acharey Mot: Private Parts

April 9, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot | 1 Comment
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No man shall approach any flesh of his own flesh “to uncover nakedness”; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:6).

The phrase commonly translated as “uncover nakedness” is legillot ervah in the Hebrew.

legillot (לְגִלּותֹ) = expose, uncover, reveal. (Other forms of this verb mean “to expose oneself”, and “to be taken into captivity and exile”.)

ervah (עֶרְוָה) = nakedness of the genital area

When Adam and Eve discover they are naked in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, the Torah uses the word arumim (עֲרוּמִּים) = naked; smooth; clever. The word ervah first appears in the Torah after the Flood, when Noah gets drunk and exposes himself inside his tent. One of his sons, Cham, sees his ervah, and gets cursed.

In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God instructs Moses about underwear for the priests:

And you shall make them linen underpants to cover the flesh of their ervah; from the waist to the upper thighs they shall be. (Exodus 28:42)

In this week’s Torah portion, Acharey Mot (“After the death”), the statement “No man shall approach any flesh of hisown flesh legillot ervahis followed in Leviticus 18:7-18 by a list of the females whose ervah a man may not uncover: his mother, his father’s (other) wife, his sister or half-sister, his granddaughter, his stepsister, his father’s sister, his mother’s sister, his father’s brother’s wife, his son’s wife, his brother’s wife; his own sex partner’s daughter or granddaughter; or his partner’s sister during his partner’s lifetime. (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, pointed out that the prohibition against sex with both a woman and her daughter bans a man from sex with his own daughter.)

Many of the relationships on this list would count as incest in western society today. Others would be considered odd, but not incestuous; a single man in our society is free to marry his adult step-daughter, or the wife of any blood relative after that relative is dead or divorced. The Torah is not concerned about sex with relatives of the same “flesh” in the genetic sense.

In ancient Israel, a typical household consisted of about twenty family members and their slaves living around a common courtyard. One man was the head of the household, but other members included not only his wives and children, but also female and underage relatives of his wives, his sons’ wives and children, and any other relatives who had nowhere else to live.

Medieval commentary agreed that without strict rules about physical intimacy in such a large household, sexual desires would lead to bad outcomes. 14th-century Rabbi Yosef Ibn Kaspi worried about violence between men, as they quarreled jealously over ownership of the women in their household. But 12th-century Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (called Maimonides or Rambam) pointed out that since any man in a household could have access to any of the women, the incest rules protect women (and girls) from encroachment.

This points to a more universal interpretation. One could legitimately translate the opening line of the list this way:

No one shall approach any flesh of hisown flesh to uncover private parts; I am God. (Leviticus 18:6).

The English idiom “private parts”, like the Hebrew word ervah, is a euphemism for the genital area. But “private” also means personal, restricted to the use of a particular individual, and free from unauthorized intrusion. This week’s Torah portion makes it clear that only a woman’s own husband is authorized to uncover her private parts; all other men, even if they live in the same compound, must not intrude.

The laws in Leviticus are certainly different for men than for women. They permit a man to uncover the ervah of multiple wives and concubines, as long as none of them are on the forbidden list; while a woman belongs to only one man (unless she is a prostitute).

On the other hand, these laws grant every Israelite woman and girl a physical right to privacy that no one but her husband is allowed to violate.

I think this principle can include people of all genders, and ban all types of personal encroachments, psychological as well as physical. I feel violated when someone yells or hisses insults at me. I even feel violated when someone begins by offering advice, and then pushes too far, too long, and will not take my “no, thank you” for an answer. I belong to a community in which most members are dedicated to kindness, but sometimes forget that respecting personal boundaries is also an important virtue.

There is more than one way to violate a person’s private parts. May we all come to respect each other as individuals with the right to choose for ourselves what to uncover, and what to keep private.


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