The Flood story in Parashat Noah is a frightening account of divine punishment. What sort of sinfulness could possibly warrant the total destruction of humanity and the world? The Torah is not specific about the particular form of waywardness, stating in broad brushstrokes:
“The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When God saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them'” (Gen. 6:11-13).
Rabbinic midrash attempts to uncover the particular nature of corruption in Noah’s generation. Rashi explains “corruption” as “sexual abomination and idolatry.” Furthermore, citing a talmudic midrash, Rashi explains the verse “all flesh had corrupted its ways” (Gen. 6:12) as an indication that “even cattle, beasts and fowl did not consort with their own species.” Finally, Rashi asserts that “wherever you find lewdness … punishment of an indiscriminate character comes upon the world killing good and bad alike.” In other words, when the ethics of sexual boundaries are broken, the floodgates of divine wrath are unleashed upon the world.
When we read these midrashim, we learn a great deal about the rabbinic commitment to sexual ethics. For the rabbis, a moral approach to sexuality constitutes the very foundation of human existence in this world. According to Midrash Rabbah, the nations of the world learned this powerful lesson from the Flood experience: “From the time that the world was punished by the Flood, all the nations resolved to ban sexual immorality” (Bereishit Rabbah 70:12).
However, the rabbis are not merely concerned with a ban on incest, adultery and bestiality. The Talmud records detailed discussions about engendering passionate and meaningful sexuality in marriage by avoiding more subtle forms of “immoral sex” (see Nedarim 20b). For example, the Talmud forbids any kind of sexual coercion in a marriage (either physical or emotional). One is forbidden to fantasize about someone else while having intercourse with one’s spouse. The Talmud also condemns marital intercourse while drunk. The Talmud discourages sexual relations after a fight. Engaging in sexual intimacy with a spouse whom one has “mentally divorced” is also considered an abomination. All of these examples demonstrate the rabbinic value of loving and mutually fulfilling sexuality. According to the rabbis, when a spouse focuses only on his or her own physical enjoyment, without embracing the emotional component of genuine intimacy, sexuality has been tainted.
Thus, the Talmud suggests that sexual immorality can arise out of selfishness or insensitivity to one’s partner. According to Torah scholar Avivah Zornberg, this is precisely the kind of sexual immorality which was rampant in the generation of the Flood. She writes, “the essential paradigmatic act of sexual sin is an act of rapacious self-assertion … essentially, this is a sexuality of cruelty, not of erotic relationship. It is a pursuit of ecstasy which necessarily excludes attention to other people” (The Beginning of Desire, p. 53).
As we read the Flood story and reflect upon God’s mass destruction of the world, the rabbis invite us to contemplate the terrible havoc wrought by sexual sin. Jewish tradition encourages us to pursue sexual lives which embody loving attention and care to our partners.
Best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.