The Torah of life also within marriage


A HAREDI wedding in Bnei Brak (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A HAREDI wedding in Bnei Brak
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
This Shabbat, we will be reading two Torah portions that are usually read together – Aharei Mot and Kedoshim. The joining of these two portions stems from their similar content. Kedoshim is to some extent a direct continuation of Aharei Mot. For example, the punishment for “gilui arayot” (literally meaning ‘uncovering of nakedness’ but referring to forbidden sexual behaviors) is written in Kedoshim, while the warnings against these acts are written in Aharei Mot.
The list of prohibitions regarding gilui arayot begins with the following verse that directs us to a correct understanding of the Torah’s commandments in general and these prohibitions specifically: “You shall observe My statutes and My ordinances, which a man shall do and live by them” (Leviticus 18:5).
The Torah is not a system of cultural ceremonies and religious rituals. It is a Torah of life. The Torah wishes to direct a person to a life of significance, of rich and profound content. By keeping the commandments of the Torah, a person becomes “alive” in the full sense of the word.
Our sages inferred from this verse that a situation that is life-threatening (pikuah nefesh) overrides all the commandments of the Torah, with the exception of three severe prohibitions – idol worship, indecent sexual behavior and murder. A person in danger, even if there is a chance that the situation is lifethreatening, is obligated to desecrate Shabbat, eat on Yom Kippur, etc. This is not a leniency of a specific stream in Judaism, but rather an indisputable Jewish law. For example, the greatest rabbis encourage sick people to eat on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. One of the prohibitions of gilui arayot is the prohibition of marrying two sisters: “And you shall not take a woman with her sister [in marriage] as a bundle” (Leviticus 18, 18). A man cannot marry two sisters while they are alive, though if his wife dies, he is permitted to marry her sister.
In many cultures, marrying two women was a prevalent custom. The Torah, though it does not encourage such a lifestyle, does not manifestly forbid it. Only about 1,000 years ago, polygamy was officially prohibited by the greatest sage of Germany at the time, Rabbi Gershom, called “The Light of the Exile.” But this was in reference to two women who were strangers to one another. If the two women were sisters, it was forbidden in the strictest sense. Why? When we analyze the Torah carefully, in many cases we can discover how it implies the reasons behind the commandments. In this case as well, the word “bundle” is enlightening. When a man and woman marry each other, the marriage is an individualpersonal act between one specific character and another. The willingness to commit to a shared life is based on a relationship of shared love, and therefore in marriage blessings, the bride and groom are referred to as “loving friends.” However, if a man marries two sisters, he cannot express his love for either of them; he is married to their family, not to them.
The term “bundle” refers to the fact that rather than a woman being a person in her own right, chosen through love by her partner, she becomes a part of a “package deal,” part of a “bundle.” Seemingly, a man marrying two sisters does not take his wife by the hand and lead her to the wedding canopy. It’s more like taking a large sack with a bundle of two women lacking their own individual identities. Judaism does not see marriage this way. The Torah describes marital relationships like this: “…a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2, 24).
Indeed, the Torah is a Torah of life. The Torah directs us how to live, how to design life in the best way possible, through acts focused on God as well as those focused on our fellow man – in marriage, education of our children, respect for our parents and proper social relationships. 
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.