So says the Bible. In fact, we read it over Passover, in the Song of Songs (AKA Song of Solomon):
You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride… How delightful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much more pleasing is your love than wine… You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain. (4:9-12)
I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride… Listen! My beloved is knocking:“Open to me, my sister, my darling…” (5:1-2)
Now, you might be thinking, “But SoS is an allegory!” True enough; no one thinks that the unnamed female protagonist (let’s call her She) actually has two fawns (7:4) or grape clusters (7:8) strapped to her chest. However, the author does choose to use “sister” as a synonym for “beloved.”
A few more hints in the text flesh out the picture. 1:6 states: “My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!” So she has maternal brothers, but apparently no maternal sister, as in 6:9: “My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, unique to her mother, flawless to her that bore her.” She says of the male protagonist, “O that you were like a brother to me, who nursed at my mother’s breasts! If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.” In other words, if they shared a mother and not just a father, their kisses would be innocent and familial; but since they do not, their interactions are erotic and romantic.
The unusual configuration of Torah readings this year (which won’t recur until 2035) means that we read SoS on the Sabbath between the regular portions of Aharei Mot and Kedoshim. They have quite a different view of sororal love, respectively:
You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born abroad… You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister. (Lev. 18:9, 11)
If a man takes his sister, a daughter of his father or a daughter of his mother, and sees her nakedness, and she sees his nakedness, it is a hesed, and they shall be cut off in the sight of their people; he has uncovered his sister’s nakedness, he shall be subject to punishment. (20:7)
This seems pretty clear and unambiguous (if not redundant), except of course for the use of the word hesed, usually translated as kindness (or lovingkindness, but not that type of loving), but here carrying some pejorative connotation. Granted, it’s a bit jarring to slip SoS between these two passages. But maybe it’s a cultural thing; after all, sibling marriages were common in ancient Egypt and other societies. Certainly, the Jewish nation, founded by Abraham and Sarah, would never–
Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Besides, she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife. And when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘This is the hesed you must do me: at every place to which we come, say of me, He is my brother.'” (Gen. 20:11-13)
OK, OK, but that’s because of the vagaries of matrilineal descent in Jewish law. Certainly we would never countenance marrying one’s full sister, unless–
Come and hear! Why did not Adam marry his daughter?So that Cain should marry his sister, as it is written, “For I said, the world shall be built up by hesed” (Psalms 89:3). But otherwise, she would have been forbidden? Once, however that it was permitted, it remained so. (Sanhedrin 58b)
Well, sure, historically, but once we get past Abraham, Jews start marrying their cousins, like decent folk, not their sis–
“And they took Dinah from the house of Shechem” (34:26)… R. Huna says: she was saying, “But I, where can I take my shame?” (II Sam. 13:13), until Simeon vowed to her that he would marry her. Thus it says, “The sons of Simeon were… and Saul the son of a Canaanite woman” (46:10) Dinah was the “Canaanite woman,” because her behavior was like that of the Canaanites, says R. Judah. (Gen. Rabbah 80:11).
That would be Simeon, one of the twelve tribes of Israel, marrying his full sister Dinah. And fathering a kid with her. Hmmm…
Now, my point with all of this is not to advocate on behalf of incest. It is to point out how complex sexual morality is. We usually assume that the answer to the question “What is the Torah’s view on sleeping with one’s sister?” is pretty straightforward. It certainly is halakhically (see Shabbat 145b); but when the question is how we think about it, the path gets a little winding and muddy.
That’s why it so galls me when people trot out a simplistic view of human sexuality through the lens of the Torah, as David Benkof did in his piece last week. While I respect his personal choices, his portrayal of the Torah’s view on the matter leads him to portray the Midrashic idea of Adam being created as a Siamese hermaphrodite as the simple meaning of the text (see Berakhot 61a). Furthermore, it leads him to invoke one reading of 2:24 as the model for marriage, even though the rest of Genesis depicts many other variations on this theme. Then he adds to this the anatomical argument, even though such an approach would lend far more legitimacy to polyandry than to polygyny.
The Jewish concept of sexuality, like so many other things, has evolved over time. We should not pretend that we are still in Eden. Instead, we should use the halakhic tools at our disposal to welcome all who wish to study and pray with us. It’s hesed, you know.