5754 - #27
The word to'evah - translated usually as abomination - when applied by the Torah, must mark a specific negative quality. What, though, does this term specifically signify? Many individuals refer to the use of this term in connection to the prohibitions related to homosexuality (see Vayikra 18:22 and 20:13; see Rabbi Moshe Halevi Spero, Judaism and Psychology: Halakhic Perspectives, chapter 11 for a discussion on the extent of these prohibitions) to support greater communal aversion towards the violation of these laws and stricter responses to such violators. Is this correct? Does the term to'evah indicate violations of a greater severity that should elicit such stricter responses? The connection of the word to'evah to the prohibitions of homosexuality also directs many individuals to understand this term as supporting natural or personal moral responses. To'evah, in this light, is not deemed a unique Torah category but a statement of a general moral nature; the Torah is perceived as acknowledging the response of the individual who considers this conduct offensive rather than creating a totally new category that it unilaterally teaches man. Is this understanding of the term correct? In using the term to'evah is the Torah referring to a response we should already be feeling or is it teaching us a new idea? There is no doubt that the Torah maintains a strict view towards homosexuality; relations between two men is punishable by skila, death by stoning, the severest form of execution (see T.B. Sanhedrin 54a). Yet, as I argued in "The March for Israel Parade and Halachic Decision Making", Nishma Update, June 1993, we must be careful in applying our personal moral perspectives in Torah analysis. The fact that one's personal view of homosexuality may seem to parallel an equally strict view by Torah, as evidenced by the severity of the punishment, does not mean that the Torah shares the individual's moral perspective and attitude. Similarly, care must be employed to ensure that one does not simply use, or mis-use, the term to'evah to justify a personal perspective; rather, we must attempt to understand the Torah implications of this term.
A review of the Chumash's use of the term presents a wide application that challenges classification. While specifically used in the context of homosexuality - and also used in the context of transvestite behaviour (Devarim 22:5) - all the arayot (incest/adultery) are also referred to as to'evot (Vayikra 18:29). With especially the inclusion of niddah in the arayot/to'evot classification (see, clearly, T.B. Yevamot 54b), it would seem that the natural moral perception of this term is challenged. Niddah does not elicit the same natural moral response as homosexuality yet both are to'evot - although the specific use of the term in regard to the latter cannot be ignored. This analysis would also seem to challenge any belief that to'evah is more connected to the world of mishpatim - laws that society would have, at least on some level, developed on its own - than to chukim, laws for which the reason is ultimately beyond us.
One actually finds the term applied to mitzvot that cover a wide spectrum of concerns. The use of incorrect weights and measures is a to'evah (Devarim 25:16). Non-kosher food is referred to as a to'evah (Devarim 14:3; see T.B. Avodah Zarah 66a). The gemara, in fact, implies that the very act of prohibition by G-d means that He makes an item a to'evah in our sight. And the list goes on: sacrificing an animal with a blemish (Devarim 17:1); bringing a sacrifice with the wages of prostitution (Devarim 23:19); a woman re-marrying her first husband after marriage to another (Devarim 24:4). Some would elicit a strong response naturally from some personal sense of morality; some are fully chukim. Some are between man and man; some are between man and his Creator. Some define an act; some define an object. The sole common thread is the application of the term to'evah.
The key to understanding this term may lie in an investigation of its greatest application. While found, to a large extent, in relation to sexual prohibitions, the term is found most extensively in the context of idolatry and the unacceptable behaviour of the idolatrous nations. See Devarim 7:25; 7:26; 12:31; 13:15; 17:4; 18:9; 18:12; 20:18; 27:15. Even in terms of its application in the arayotcategory, there is a connection to the fact that these acts were practised by the surrounding idolatrous nations (Vayikra 18:30). It is most interesting that the first use of the word to'evah is found in relation to the Egyptian attitude towards eating with Ivrim (i.e. Yosef's brothers): "for the Egyptians were not able to eat bread with the Jews for that was a to'evah to the Egyptians" (Bereishit 43:32). Bereishit 46:34 declares that the shepherd status of the Jews was also a to'evah to Egypt. See also Shemot 8:22. Could it be that the term to'evah is specifically used to describe one society's negative response to another society?
When all people reject a specific behaviour, there is a shared full reaction of repulsion for there is no human element in that behaviour. When one society, though, adopts a certain behaviour, we assume some reason, some human explanation that would seem to mitigate against full condemnation. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:1, for example, is compelled to explain idolatry. The fact that societies adopted this behaviour must have some reason and so Rambam writes "in the time of Enosh, mankind made a great mistake..." Idolatry was the result of faulty reasoning, a mis-perception of reality, the involvement of the human albeit incorrectly - a mistake. T.B. Nedarim 51a presents Bar Kappara's explanation of to'evah: to'eh attah bah, you are making a mistake. Our natural inclination towards a mistake is to understand; with this word, our reaction to unacceptable behaviour is softened. While there may be value in understanding, we must also be concerned that our commitment to Torah and milchemet Hashem - the battle for Torah values -maintains its strength. Perhaps, to'evah is a call. Precisely in applying this term to behaviour that other societies accept, we are reminded of our commitment to Torah and the application of its values above all else.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
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