The unique and radical statement Gedolah averah lishmah mimitzvah shelo lishmah appears in the Babylonian Talmud just twice, in Tractate Nazir and in a parallel text in Tractate Horayot. Scholars and commentators have suggested different interpretations of the enigmatic term averah lishmah. Legal readings tend to explicate it as “permission to perform a transgression out of a positive motive,” “rejection of one norm in favor of a loftier one,” or “violation of the law in order to preserve it.” Another reading of the term, in the spirit of Rashi and the Tosafists, takes it as a “transgression committed for the sake of a commandment” or “for the sake of God.” In this article, I will suggest that the precise meaning of the term is “transgression with good intention,” or “a sin done for its own sake,” an interpretation that takes into consideration the direct literary and gender context of this talmudic statement.

In rabbinic literature and in the thought of R. Moshe Haim Luzzatto, the concept of averah lishmah pertains to a single matter: a seductive act bordering on sexual transgression performed for the sake of the people of Israel—a role in the drama of national salvation which is assigned to women only. By examining evolving interpretations of this passage in the Talmud, we can observe the development of one type of Jewish messianic thought from its inception in rabbinic sources through its subsequent unfolding in kabbalistic literature, where the perception of male and female roles are underscored in a highly developed myth of national redemption.


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pp. 27-52
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