What’s so bad about incest? If two consenting adults want to enter an intimate relationship with one another, why should the fact that they happen to be blood relatives matter? It’s not currently a cause celebre amongst opponents of religious influence on secular law, but theoretically there’s a strong argument to be made. In some countries, in fact, there are no laws against incest, unless a minor is involved. Apparently, Canaan and Mitzrayim were countries like that, and the Torah’s opposition to this state of affairs is fierce.
Some will explain the Torah’s legislation regarding forbidden sexual relationships in general in terms of “property rights” that men had over women. A man is forbidden from sleeping with his daughter in law because she is “his son’s”, likewise, his sister-in-law is “his brother’s”. It’s true that these formulations exist in the Torah, and that these laws are almost exclusively addressed to men, but that theory doesn’t fit the whole story, or even most of it. For example, adultery is not expressed here as a sin against the woman’s husband; and incestuous adultery with one’s mother is expressed specifically in terms of a person’s relationship with his mother. Similarly for a sister and an aunt, the problem the Torah presents is because- “she’s your sister” or “she’s your aunt”, not in terms of other men who own them. So why is this problematic?
Today is an auspicious day to write about relationships because today is Yom HaMeyuchas. Yom HaMeyuchas is a day whose sole merit lies in the “friends” it has, the joyous day of Rosh Chodesh before, and the three preparatory days for Shavuot after. It’s a gem of an overlooked holiday celebrating a day that has nothing to brag about except for the fine neighbors it keeps- its “yichus”.
To be fair, Yom HaMeyuchas didn’t exactly choose it’s ‘yichus’. But then again, neither do we. Our distance from or proximity to our relatives is not something we get to choose, with one very important relationship being the notable exception, and perhaps this is the beginning of the answer to our question. The phrase you’ll find on Hebrew wedding invitations to refer to bride and groom is ‘bechirat libo’ and ‘bechirat liba’. The essence of marriage is the creation of a covenantal, existential relationship with the ‘other’. The ‘continuation of our flesh’, as the Torah terms relatives, is too close to truly be an ‘other’ and too close to truly be a choice. You must choose your life’s partner. You can’t choose your family. And never the twain shall meet.
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