It is no accident that Vladimir Putin went to great lengths to advertise his manly prowess in all things: strongmen invariably attract followers of both sexes, while, like a pack of hyenas, our society tears apart men who show the slightest weakness.
We have an analogous response to women, of course. Women who project great sexual potency play the pivotal roles in the creation – and destruction – of families and societies. In the ancient world, many thousands of “Ashtarte” figurines have been unearthed, symbols of great sexual power and fertility.
It is thus no surprise that symbols of both male and female sexual potency are instinctively attractive to native peoples the world over. And it is similarly no surprise that the Torah rails against these very symbols:
You shall not set up an Ashera pole beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make, or erect a stone obelisk [phallic symbol]; for such the LORD your God detests.
That is predictable enough: Judaism does not celebrate sexual potency in the public square. What intrigues me is why this verse immediately follows verses on an entirely-different topic:
You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
What does pursuing justice have to do with mixing the worship of sexuality with a relationship with G-d?
I think the answer is highly relevant today, in this hyper-sexualized LGBTQ+ world where everyone obsesses about their sexual identity, putting their sexual desires above all other qualities: if we value people by their sexual potency, then there can be no justice.
A society that revels in sexual power also celebrates the loss of control associated with uncontrollable desire, of giving in to animalistic lust. Justice cannot be served when our faculties are overwhelmed by our more basic urges. If you become a slave to your desires, you cannot be holy. You serve only those desires, and you are manifestly unable to serve other people.
Since no two people share the same magnitude of desire and attractiveness, making favoritism on the basis of sex appeal is nothing more or less than “Sight Makes Right.” Neither the immature nor the old can reproduce, so if we think that sexual power is a valid metric of human worth, then both the very young and the old must be considered inferior to those who are vibrant and fecund. So, too, would be a widow, who as a result of her circumstances may be in no position to procreate.
This is antithetical to the Torah. If we value life because each living person hosts a soul on loan from G-d, then it means we must seek to appreciate every human, whatever their age or infirmity. The Torah insists that it is our relationship to each other and to our Creator that makes us who we are – not our sexuality or ability to make offspring.
The elements of the tabernacle, the mishkan, are object lessons in how to be holy. And the tabernacle contains some suggestive imagery – the two angels reaching for each other above the ark of the convenant. But this imagery – which reflects both male and female desire for the other, as well as the desire between G-d and mankind – is not animalistic, or even about reproduction. The two angels are yearning for each other, desiring to become close, to become whole.
Real intimacy is meant to be holy, but mere intercourse does not require any non-physical connection at all. Judaism seeks to create and promote relationships; reproduction can be a happy byproduct of such relationships, but our sexual desires or success are not the measure of a holy society. And prioritizing the metrics of sex makes it impossible to create and sustain a truly just society.
[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]