When Virtue Becomes Vice

Every morning we read a chapter of the TaNaKh aloud around the breakfast table. Since the Parsha schedule takes us through the Torah every year, we use our breakfast reading as an opportunity to hear the rest of the scripture. Right now, we are in Yesheyahu (Isaiah).

Today’s chapter was 47. In it, G-d addresses Babylon, comparing it to a haughty virgin. He says he will no longer treat this virgin with respect, but instead will uncover her shame–as though she were a whore. While the topic is clearly a metaphor, metaphors reveal cultural attitudes. They inform us not only of what G-d thinks of Babylon, but also of how G-d wants us to view individual singleness.

The Torah consistently promotes moderation. Adam and Eva are told to “be fruitful and multiply,” but fruitfulness (and the behavior that causes it) are clearly supposed to be limited to the confines of marriage. Promiscuity of all kinds is discouraged. Violence, likewise, is discouraged; but certain contexts require it. Physical cleanliness is very important, but is not expected to be a permanent state. So how does moderation apply to premarital abstinence?

Babylon is compared to a virgin who has decided not to marry. She glories in her singleness, while simultaneously hiding from her own insecurities. She boasts that her decision has protected her from widowhood or suffering the loss of children (a common reality of parenthood in the ancient world). But G-d’s message to Babylon is that her efforts are of no avail. Indeed, He will punish her for her arrogance with losses of equal importance, punishing her as an idolater and as a harlot. Her refusal to bend to G-d’s destiny for her will be her downfall, and all the magic in the world can’t save her.

How does such a sweeping metaphor apply to our modern personal lives as individuals? G-d doesn’t just ask us to be obedient, He asks us to trust Him fully. Time and again in the Torah, G-d chooses to punish those (both nations and individuals) who try to hedge their bets rather than take risks. He punishes the Israelites when, out of fear, they turn to idolatry in the desert. G-d punishes Moshe for bringing water from the rock without His permission, rather than trusting in G-d to provide for His people. And the entirety of the Torah’s legal code is a set of instructions for how to live and handle relationships so that we aren’t tempted to rely on impulse and superstition to get by. We aren’t supposed to rely on prognostication for how to handle legal problems or physical needs. Instead, we are supposed to honor the traditions our forefathers pass down to us, “that we may have a long life in the Land.”

Part of trusting in G-d is being open to the richness of the human condition that He created–both the good and the bad. Not all people marry. Some people never have the opportunity, while others are called to commitments that make the fulfillment of the ketubah impossible. However, it is arrogance for an individual to choose outright never to marry, rather than allow G-d’s plan for them to unfold in due course.

Likewise, trusting in G-d’s plan requires us to be willing to take risks. While most people living in the developed world will not have the misfortune of outliving their children, marrying has never been riskier. Not only does marriage open us to the risk of widowhood and child mortality (however remote), but it opens us to the very real risk of betrayal by a spouse and the socially sanctioned breaking of the marital contract. It is very tempting for the young adults of today to say, “I will never marry, because I don’t want the risk of divorce” or, “I will never have children, because I don’t want to expose children to the same problems I had as a child.” This is all just another form of hedging one’s bets instead of trusting that G-d has a plan.

Rather than relying on magic or idols, though, this kind of risk management simply uses stagnation and consumerism as alternatives to chaos. But regardless of the form of avoidance, the avoidance itself leads to chaos. Why? Because it all boils down to avoiding dynamic relationships and active, constructive participation in society. Society needs people to trust each other, to be forward looking, and to live in hope rather than fear.

And that is where the comparison of the willful virgin to a harlot comes in. The harlot and the whoremonger divorce sexuality and reproduction, and set pleasure apart from obligation. They are the non sequitur personified. Social dead ends. The willful virgin, likewise, remains a maiden by removing herself from her social context. She is not in a phase of life that will probably give way to the next phase, but stuck in perpetual adolescence–mature enough to enter the marital state, but too naive to see the bigger picture. Regardless of her behavior towards others, her decision makes her a temptation to the men around her and a threat to their wives. And her refusal to marry on the grounds of avoiding children sows the seeds of doubt in the minds of other women as to the value of children.

And so the point boils down to a single question: Do the choices you make in your life help you remain open to G-d’s plan for you; or are you hedging your bets against the difficult situations He may place in your path?

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