It's more than just following rules; it's about how we choose to act, our intentions when we do so, and the larger spiritual impacts of our decisions. * On Rambam’s Laws of Forbidden Relations.
In the Laws of Forbidden Relations 21:1-2, Rambam provides rules and guidance about maintaining modesty and preventing inappropriate sexual conduct. Rambam draws on biblical verses to set forth rules about intimacy with the "ariyot," the class of women with whom sexual relations are prohibited under Jewish law. These prohibitions include not just sexual relations but also actions that might lead to such relations. Embracing or kissing out of desire, or deriving pleasure from physical contact with any of these women are considered transgressions of biblical commandments.
Law 2 emphasizes the extent of the prohibitions, including even non-physical interactions, such as gestures, joking around, and frivolous behavior. If it's done with the intent of deriving pleasure, prohibitions also extend to smelling her perfume, gazing at her beauty, and even to listening to her voice or observing her hair.
These laws, like much of Jewish law, aim at creating boundaries that not only prevent transgression but also discourage any behavior that might lead to transgression. As such, they are part of a broader approach to law and ethics that focuses on the importance of intention and the potential consequences of seemingly small actions.
THE SPIRITUAL MEANING OF MORALITY
To explore the spiritual depth of laws of sexual morality, let us examine sources rooted in Talmudic, Midrashic, Kabbalistic, and Chassidic wisdom, which shed light on the importance of our individual actions and the ripple effects they can create in our spiritual universe.
The Talmud (Kiddushin 30b) teaches that even a small action can tip the balance of the entire world: "If he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he for he has sentenced himself and the entire world to the scale of merit. If he transgresses one aveira (sin), woe unto him for he has sentenced himself and the entire world to the scale of liability." Here, the weight of our choices, even those seemingly small and insignificant, is emphasized. Through our actions, we have the power to shift the moral and spiritual equilibrium of not just our lives, but the world at large.
In the Midrash in Vayikra Rabbah 24:5, we read: "Wherever you find a hedge of safeguards to the words of the Torah, there the holiness is situated." This can be understood as emphasizing the sanctity of protective measures. By creating and adhering to a "hedge of safeguards," we maintain and enhance the holiness within and around us. This reaffirms Rambam's point that establishing boundaries and avoiding certain behaviors—regardless of how minor they seem—is a way of upholding and preserving sanctity.
The Zohar (II:267b), warns us: "Woe to the man who sets his eyes on that which is not fitting for him to see!" This Kabbalistic insight underscores the spiritual consequences of our actions, even those as seemingly innocuous as what we choose to look at. When we set our eyes on that which is inappropriate, we risk spiritual harm, echoing the precautions outlined by Rambam.
In Chassidus, we find a profound insight in Tanya (Chapter 27) where Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi wrote: "One who is occupied with Torah, prayer, and the performance of a mitzvah 'not for its own sake' is, at that time, united with the Divine Will." From this perspective, the intention behind our actions—whether studying Torah, praying, or performing a mitzvah—has the power to unite us with the Divine. This suggests that the prohibitions and guidelines outlined by Rambam are not just about avoiding potential pitfalls but are about cultivating an intentional, divine-focused mindset in every aspect of our lives.
To conclude, each of these sources provides a unique perspective on the shared theme of "intention and restraint." Together, they offer a holistic view that illuminates the depth of Jewish law and the spiritual rationale behind its meticulous guidelines. It's about more than just following rules; it's about how we choose to act, our intentions when we do so, and the larger spiritual impacts of our decisions. So let us embrace these lessons, engaging with Torah and mitzvot with intention, exercising restraint where needed, and striving to tip the balance of the world toward merit, for ourselves and for the world at large.