Photo Credit: Asher Shwartz

In Numbers 24:5, Bilaam blesses the Jewish people: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.” The Rabbis understand him to be praising the Jews for ensuring that the openings of their respective tents did not face each other, thus preserving modesty. Soon after, the Rabbis depict Bilaam as inverting his blessing by sending Midianite seductresses out to tempt the Jews into sexual exhibitionism. Bilaam does this because he understands that Jewish modesty is like Samson’s hair: shorn of this virtue, we lose our superpowers and become vulnerable.

Why did G-d use Bilaam to bless the Jews, if by doing so He enabled Bilaam to learn how best to attack us?

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Imagine pre-snake Adam and Eve walking into the Jewish camp. They would not praise the Jews for their modesty, and they would have no idea why the tents’ openings did not face each other. For Bilaam to praise the Jews’ virtue, even in the context of his deep and unremitting hatred, he had to be capable of understanding that modesty was a relevant evaluative category.

What would it take for Bilaam to have this capacity?

Unlike the prelapsarian original couple, he would have to be conscious of his own sexuality, and experientially aware that sexuality could be associated with shame.

He might nonetheless choose exhibitionism for himself, and for his culture. He might decide that sexual shame is the root of neurosis and dedicate himself to its cultural eradication. But he would understand what he was eradicating.

My tentative suggestion is that the Torah teaches us here that there is a value in making our moral premises intelligible even to our enemies; this is part of our mission to be the light of the nations.I want to be clear that this value is not pragmatic, and that we are not safer, or less likely to be hated, if we are understood. Like Bilaam, the world may use its understanding of our virtue to learn how best to undermine us.

It is simply part of our job to enable as much as we can of humanity to make informed moral choices.

I suggest further that perhaps we can understand the Seven Noachide Commandments as intended not to provide a formal code of behavior, but rather to identify a set of moral premises. Perhaps our mission is particularly to make those premises universally intelligible.

Making premises intelligible is not accomplished through rational argumentation. Rational arguments depend on mutually intelligible

premises. For example: The prohibition against eating flesh taken from live animals may make sense only to those who have the capacity to empathize with animals, or at least to believe via analogy to their own experience that animals have a self that can feel pain. With those givens, we can argue as to whether causing pain in this way is justified, or whether we should prohibit the meat rather than the action of obtaining it. But that argument makes no sense to someone who sees no resemblance between animals and ourselves, or is generally incapable of empathy.

One core premise of Torah – let us identify it with the Noachide commandment against forbidden sexual relationships, or arayot—that is no longer intelligible to many Americans is that sexuality can be evaluated in nonutilitarian terms, i.e. that a sexual act can be wrong even if no one gets hurt. Sexual morality has been superseded by sexual ethics. Conversations on topics such as chastity, masturbation, sexual orientation, and adultery are wholly changed from what they were even two decades ago, and tracts from back then can seem less contemporary than prehistoric cave art.

There are many reasons that traditional rationales in the area of sexuality have moved rapidly from self-evident to unintelligible. They include the practical severing of the link between intimacy and procreation, and exposure to powerful personal narratives of suffering. We have a great deal of religious work to do before we can hope to craft a compelling message in this area for those who start from different premises.

What we can do in the interim is to live lives that inspire admiration and that make much better sense when framed in terms of those premises. When the intelligibility of our premises erodes, when the society we live in reacts to our premises with bewilderment, every halakhically committed community needs to ask itself: Have our lives inspired admiration, and if not, why? Have we lived in accordance with our premises, or have we self-contradicted in ways that make it impossible for anyone to understand them without cynicism?

To put it as bluntly as I can: Instead of cursing the darkness of the internet, let us light candles of compassion and integrity. A world in which newsfeeds yield more stories about Orthodox Jews going lifnim mishurat hadin than about violating dina demalkhuta will be much more open to our critiques and responsive to our needs.

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