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Permissiveness in Ancient and Modern Garb

Harav Yehuda Amital



In memory of Rabbi Moshe Furst z”l

Niftar 17 Tammuz 5771

Dedicated by his family


Translated by Kaeren Fish



Judaism and permissiveness represents two opposite poles, and this can be established without the need for learned debate. The question I wish to address may be formulated as follows: Is there some contact or connection, on the level of ideas, between the theoretical foundations of permissiveness and Judaism?


I shall not discuss Western culture or Western morality – I simply know little about them. I am familiar with Western culture only to the extent that I come into contact with it through all sorts of marginal phenomena, in my day-to-day contact with the variety of matters that come my way. I must also acknowledge that I have not read about the ideology of permissiveness. I am aware of it only through what I read in the newspaper or through my contacts with all kinds of people in Jerusalem who declare themselves to be supporters of this approach. And yes, I understand that any trend that manages to seize control of people and capture their hearts, does so by virtue of its moral charm. If I were to seek the charm of permissiveness, which has helped it win over so many people, I find myself asking: is there not perhaps some connection, at the most fundamental, theoretical level, between Judaism and the idea of permissiveness, before it develops and becomes distorted?


Perhaps this will be better understood if I frame my words in terms of Chazal’s interpretation of a prophetic verse. The Gemara teaches:


Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina said: What is the meaning of the verse, “I shall remove his blood from his mouth, and his detestable things from between his teeth, and he, too, shall be a remnant for our God, and shall be like a chief in Yehuda, and Ekron – like the Yevusi” (Zekharia 9:7)? “I shall remove his blood from his mouth” – this refers to their house of high places; “and his detestable things from between his teeth” – this refers to their house of revelations [Rashi – “These were centers of idolatry”]. “And he too shall be a remnant for our God” – these are the synagogues and batei midrash in Edom. “And shall be like a chief in Yehuda, and Ekron – like the Yevusi” – these are the theaters and circuses in Edom, which are destined to have chiefs of Yehuda teach Torah publicly in them. (Megilla 6a)


After God removes the idolatry from these places, they will serve as centers for Torah study. The Gemara is talking about a beit midrash in the physical sense. Rav Kook also speaks about batei midrash of non-Jews in the sense of schools of thought. There are spiritual groups among the gentiles which today have their mouths full of blood and detestable things, but when these are removed, they too will be able to enter the realm of Judaism. It is from this perspective that I wish to address permissiveness and ask whether, if we “remove its blood from its mouth and its detestable things from between its teeth,” we might not perhaps find some connection between it and Judaism, and if anything would remain of it that might serve Judaism.


I emphasize once again that I have not studied the philosophy of permissiveness, I am not familiar with Herbert Marcuse’s works, and so on. However, it seems to me that there are two ideas that may be viewed as its moral foundation.


One idea is man’s freedom from all social bonds. Freedom, according to this view, means the denial of society’s power to impose authority on people. Society imposes its authority in all sorts of ways: most commonly through the law, via legislation, the executive branch, and the police. However, there exist unwritten laws, which are actually far more powerful than those recorded in the law books. There is social pressure: society makes demands of people and limits them in certain ways, as a reflection of social mores. Here society exploits a certain weakness in people, called “shame.” Owing to this shame, a person places limitations on himself – but these arise from social pressure. Permissive or libertarian approaches come to say that shame has no place. A person must be free and uninhibited. In our reality, man is subjugated, he is a slave to society, to all kinds of social conventions, and he feels shame. This fact – this weakness – is exploited. Thus, man is limited and enslaved, and he must be liberated.  The idea of freedom is a captivating one, and can certainly ignite people’s hearts.


The second idea is the “sanctity” of permissiveness – if we may use the word in this context. What I mean by this is that, according to this view, everything that is natural is good and beautiful and proper. This is the only criterion for such moral judgment.


Concerning the first principle, that of freedom, Judaism teaches:


“…For the Children of Israel are My slaves” (Vayikra 25:55) – [meaning,] My slaves, and not the slaves of [other mortal] slaves. (Bava Metzi’a 10a)


Does the Torah mean by this that people cannot exert authority over one another, and that we can therefore proceed hand in hand with the idea of permissiveness and anarchism? Indeed, one might argue, no person can impose prohibitions on someone else. Society, too, cannot impose prohibitions. There is only one Source of prohibition, and that is God Himself. No one else. Where there is no faith, the conclusion that beckons is permissiveness. But where there is faith, one has to accept the yoke of Heaven.


Do these ideas lead humanity in the direction of recognizing and accepting the yoke of Heaven, since no other limitations exist in the world? Or does Judaism oppose this very perception?


It would seem that all of Judaism declares that human society can, in fact, impose authority over people. Torah is not built on the destruction of human society:


Were there no Torah, we could learn modesty from the cat, marital fidelity from the dove, [the prohibition against] stealing from the ant. (Eruvin 100b)


In other words, mankind would arrive at limitations and prohibitions even if there were no Torah. Concerning Ammon and Moav we are told,


No Ammonite or Moabite shall enter God’s congregation; even to their tenth generation they shall not enter into God’s congregation, forever; because they did not meet you with bread and water… (Devarim 23:4-5).


What evil did they do? The seven Noahide laws include no obligation to meet travelers with bread and water! Indeed, there is no such Divine command, but there is a natural human feeling – and this itself is binding. A nation that does not accept upon itself human norms, is destined for eternal shame.


Chazal emphasize that there is something that precedes fear of Heaven and fear of sin, and that is the sense of shame:


Jerusalem was destroyed because they had no shame before one another, as it is written (Yirmiyahu 6:15): “They shall be put to shame for committing abomination, but they are not at all ashamed, nor do they know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among the fallen; at the time that I punish them, they shall stumble, says God.” (Shabbat 119b)


It is taught: “And in order that His fear be upon your faces” (Shemot 20:16) – this is [the sense of] shame. “Lest you sin” – this teaches that shame leads a person to fear of sin. Our Sages therefore said: It is a good sign in a person that he has shame. Others said: Any person who has shame will not easily come to sin, and anyone who has no shame – this tells us that his forefathers did not stand at Mount Sinai. (Nedarim 20a)


What compels man to accept social conventions and the limitations that they impose, is the sense of shame. “May it be God’s will that your fear of Heaven be like your fear of mortals” (Berakhot 28b) – this was Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's last wish for his students. It is this principle against which the war of permissiveness and libertinism is waged. The Torah recognizes that man bears the image of God, and what human society demands is therefore somehow binding. From this perspective, we may say that permissiveness is entirely, in the words of the Gemara in Megilla, “blood” and “detestable things.” “Let nothing of that which was consigned to destruction remain in your hand” (Devarim 13:18) – we have no common language with the ideology of permissiveness.


As to the second point, the idea that everything that is natural is permitted, let us quote a famous midrash: “The wicked Turnus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, ‘Which actions are better – those of God, or those of man?’” (Tanchuma, Tazria). The Maharal explains: “For Turnus Rufus was convinced that human actions are inferior to the works of nature, which represent the actions of God” (Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 2). Rabbi Akiva answered, “The actions of man [are greater]!” A debate developed between them, and ultimately Turnus Rufus addressed the question of circumcision: “Why do you [Jews] circumcise?” Rabbi Akiva answered, “I knew that this is what you were really asking about, and therefore I said at the outset that man’s actions are more becoming than those of God.” To prove his point, Rabbi Akiva brought him sheaves of wheat, and baked cakes, and asked which he preferred. Turnus Rufus understood the analogy, but returned to the question of circumcision: If circumcision represents the perfection of the body, then why is man not born circumcised? To this Rabbi Akiva responds that just as the physical birth is not complete until the umbilical cord is cut, so the spiritual process likewise requires a human act. 


The lesson to be learned here is that nature does not contain its own completion or perfection. Nature in itself is “uncircumcised,” as it were, so long as it is not civilized by human hands. Its raw state is a distortion of its potential. There is no sanctity in nature as it is. Nature is elevated and sanctified when it is acted upon by man. Man can fulfill his natural needs only through self-restraint and guidance in the proper direction.


To my mind, the modern ideology of permissiveness contains nothing new. It is a very old idea; it has always existed. It is the idea of Ba’al Pe’or. How did pagan idolaters worship Ba’al Pe’or? Chazal teach:


A certain ruler came from the sea country in order to worship Pe’or. He said to them, “Bring me an ox, which we offer to him, or a ram.”  They said to him: We have no need for that. (Yalkut Shimoni, Balak 24)


To this king it was obvious that any worship of a god must include sacrifice. However, the priests of Pe’or pointed out his mistake: the whole essence of the worship of Pe’or was against sacrifice. Rashi (Bamidbar 24:3) offers the following astounding description:


[It was called] ‘Pe’or’ because they would open (po’arin) their anus before it, and excrete; this was its form of service.


Indeed, this is a manner of service that certainly represented a “return to nature,” to all that is ugly in it, to its waste and refuse, to the lowest parts of the soul. This was the manner of service of Pe’or! And this was, in fact, permissiveness in its original incarnation. There is no need for sacrifice; do everything, without restraint.


 The Rambam, in explaining the requirement that the kohanim wear pants to cover their private parts, writes:


We already know about the service of Pe’or, in ancient times, which involved sexual immorality. For this reason God commanded that the kohanim wear breeches “to cover the flesh of their nakedness” (Shemot 28:42) during their service, and that even so they should not ascend to the altar using steps, “that your nakedness not be revealed upon it” (Shemot 20:22). (Guide of the Perplexed III:45).


Why, in addressing this subject, does Rambam start off by mentioning Pe'or? Is it not clear that sexual immorality in and of itself is wrong? The answer is that the struggle against one's inclinations is, in principle, straightforward. The Torah’s main message is not aimed at someone who recognizes that he must fight against his base inclinations, but finds himself submitting to them out of weakness. Rather, the Torah is opposed mainly to the ideology that permits the satisfaction of every lust, the ideology of permissiveness. Judaism's struggle is against Pe'or, against physical nakedness and spiritual stripping. And yet we see Jews serving Pe'or in its modern incarnation.


Moshe’s burial symbolizes this ongoing war against Pe'or: “And He buried him the valley, in the land of Moav, facing the House of Pe'or” (Devarim 34:6). The kabbalists discuss this extensively, teaching that there is an ongoing conflict between Moshe and Pe'or.  They are opposites. Concerning this we are taught, "You shall detest it completely and abhor it completely, for it is an abomination" (Devarim 7:26). We therefore have no common language with the advocates of permissiveness. It is an ideology of lawlessness, the same old idolatry of Ba'al Pe'or dressed in modern garb.


We must therefore keep in mind that all the many expressions of permissiveness that we encounter, even when they appear in civilized form – all have profound ramifications. Anyone who understands even a little about the psychology of the unconscious knows that it is impossible to free oneself of its influence and effects. Every expression of identification – even if the person does not identify with libertinism in principle, but imitates those who do, in terms of his external appearance – is ultimately permitting it entry into his consciousness.


There are sloppy appearances, and there are phenomena that encourage sloppy living. One might ask: what importance is there to appearance, when one may go about freely, dressed as one wishes? But when this is accompanied by an attitude of defiance, a war on social conventions, then it becomes idolatry. This is something that we must fight against. All of Judaism is about boundaries, and I find no excuse or justification for permissiveness and its trappings.


(This sicha first appeared in Alon Shevut 73, Adar 5739 [1979].)

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