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What Do Your Taboos Say About You?

I fear that today’s political environment has made all open enquiry and freedom of speech the ultimate taboo. We have become openly reactive against any idea we do not already agree with, any thought or language that contradicts the “acceptable” norms – like the “N” word.

At the same time, popular culture is destroying the classic Judeo-Christian taboos, the actions that are found entirely unacceptable within society. Even in our hyper-permissive world today, I would like to think that there remain some taboos that most people reflexively recoil from: incest, bestiality, child pornography, and cannibalism come to mind. I might be wrong about all of these.

Because while we often think of things that are taboo as somehow baked into the human psyche, we should know better. Every documented primitive people has, at one time or another, eaten other people. Ancient Egyptian royalty married within the nuclear family. The Greeks loved their boys – and their goats. Even researching the prevalence of bestiality for this post made me wish I had not. Some are really shocking.

I do not think this is a topic we should shy away from, even though my gut clenches at the thought of man-boy “love”, bestiality, or child sacrifice.

Given that taboos can be quite different between cultures, it seems to me that what a culture finds to be taboo tells us a great deal about that specific society. For example, in the first use of this word (toeva) the Torah tells us that the Egyptians found it taboo to break bread with non-Egyptians. Refusing to mingle with outsiders is a form of self-love or at least self-affirmation. The corollary is that the culture rejects other ways of thinking, other ways of looking at the world. Which might help us understand why Ancient Egypt was consistently an insular country, content to gaze inward instead of colonizing or reaching outward to the rest of the Mediterranean.

Torah taboo subjects are centered on sexual misconduct. The word is first used to describe homosexuality, a form of self-love. Homsexuality starts with the premise that men are beautiful, and then copulating with other men as extensions of that perception. It is no surprise that the Greeks were all about the homoerotic: they thought gods looked like men, after all. So it is only natural to worship and fornicate with other men, the physical exemplars of all the world.

Homosexuality is more than this, of course. Homosexuality keeps us within a comfort zone: it is much harder to forge a relationship with an unrelated woman than with another man. Torah Judaism contrasts sharply against all the principles of the ancient pagan world. So the Torah goes on (Lev 18) to include incest, bestiality and child sacrifice, adultery and idolatry among those things labeled taboo. All of these things interfere with a relationship with G-d, a relationship that is built from marriage: a man loyal to a woman who challenges him, a “helpmate to oppose him.” (Gen. 2:19)

In a nutshell: Egypt’s taboos are things that allow for intellectual challenge or diversity to what you already are. Judaism is not afraid of other ideas or cultures, but we are definitely repulsed by the actions that leads away us from a full connection to our Creator.

What are the taboos that will still be around in a decade or two? Right now it seems that everything we use to reject is becoming acceptable, and then rapidly transforms into compulsory behavior. There is always a cost. Will normal love, marriage, and having kids become taboo? Have they already?

[an @iwe and @blessedblacksmith production]

Comments are welcome!