Rambam on Sexual Sin

[cross-posted to Reshimu]

Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 2:9

“Repentance and Yom Kippur only atone for sins between man and God, such as eating forbidden foods, engaging in forbidden sexual relations, and the like. Sins between man and his fellow, however, like if one injures, curses, steals, etc. from his friend, he is not forgiven until he pays his fellow what he owes him and appeases him…”

That Rambam includes prohibited sexual relations in the category of ‘Between Man and God’ is jarring. If one cheats on a spouse, is a pedophile, or commits rape it is only between man and God? There is no victimization in these cases? There are definitely cases, such as between consenting adults, where indeed there is no sin toward a fellow human being. On the contrary, the parties involved might even think that the other is ‘doing such a mitzvah!’ Perhaps Rambam takes his cue from King David who confesses his sexual sin with Batsheva by saying before God, “I have sinned against You alone, and have done what is evil in Your eyes (Tehillim 51:6)”. Yet, the parable that Natan the Prophets confronts David with sure seems to imply that the sin was against Uriah. I’m really not sure what to make of this Psalm; granted, there wasn’t much David could do for Uriah at that point, and granted that Chaza”l jumped through hoops to make David’s sin technically permissible although still morally reprehensible (as clearly evidenced by his confession!). In my opinion, however, these justifications do not sufficiently clear God’s Messiah from having done wrong by his fellow human being.

One might suggest that there are two aspects of sexual sin – one against God and one against man. Fair enough. It’s possible. I’m not satisfied with that answer because a) there are many prohibitions ‘between man and his fellow’ which could have fallen into both categories, and b) Rambam uses sexual sin as a paradigmatic example of ‘bein Adam la-makom’. Is there a shortage of prohibitions of the ‘between man and God’ type? Shouldn’t idolatry make that list?

To add a bit of fuel to the fire, Rambam makes a well-known distinction in the sixth chapter of ‘Shemoneh Prakim’, his introduction to his commentary on Tractate Avot. He notes, on one hand, that the philosophers say that it is better to do good because one is naturally inclined toward doing good than to do good because one forces himself to do good. On the other hand, Our Sages said that one need not reduce his appetite for sin. Rather one should refrain from sin because it is the decree of God. Rambam resolves this issue by saying that each refers to a different category of mitzvot: those which are ‘mefursamot’ (which I, not knowing the original Arabic and basing it on context, would translate as ‘conventional’) and would naturally be arrived at by every society and correspond to widespread definitions of good and evil, and those which are ‘shim’iyot’ and would not be considered evil had the Torah not prohibited them.

The list of ‘widespread’ mitzvot includes the prohibitions against stealing, murder, battery, and overcharging. The other list includes shaatnez, prohibited foods, and – you guessed it – prohibited sexual relations. Once again, the inclusion of sexual relations on this list seems very jarring. Here, though, he’s quoting from an earlier source (my edition doesn’t give the reference, but I found a variant in the Yalkut Shimoni on Kedoshim, 626). Once again, one can make the case that certain sexual sins are not forbidden because of a need to maintain society the same way that, say, theft must be prohibited. It’s somewhat chilling to think that Rambam would say that it’s ok to look around and think ‘efshi ve-efshi, but God said no’.

These two examples lead me to the conclusion that Rambam had a dramatically different sexual ethic than we do. He treats it very impersonally, like it’s a biological fact and need and not a function of erotic love. The problem with cheating on a spouse is that God said no – and it remains between man and God. For the Rambam, it’s not a significant en1ugh c1mponent of the human relationship for it to warrant categorization as ‘Between Man and Man’ or for it to be acknowledged as a norm that all societies recognize. The closest that I’ve seen the Rambam coming to a description of Eros is in Yesodei Ha-Torah 2:2, and there he talks about the love of God.

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