Shaya Cohen -


Why is Sex at the Core of Judaism?

Hold on! What an outrageous and ridiculous thing to say! The premise must be flawed. How does the Five Books of Moses make sex front and central?

Riddle me this, Batman: why is the first commandment given to Abraham his circumcision? Why is this a life-and-death commandment for our people – including Moses himself, whose life was endangered when he failed to circumcise his son?

The answer is that sex is, of course, really very important indeed. Focusing and channeling our sexual energies is somehow a prerequisite for channeling our spiritual energies. There is no such thing in the Torah (or in life) as “just sex.” Sex is either a Big Deal (for good or ill), or it has been cheapened, animalistically, to the point of removing the very value of a spiritual human existence.

The Torah describes and refers to deep links between idolatry and sexual immorality. This can be understood in both positive and negative ways.

Positively, there are countless references large and small: preparations for marital intimacy (the copper mirrors that were repurposed to be used for priestly washing) are the model for the preparations for the priestly service in the tabernacle. The High Priest is required to be married in order to possibly serve in his office. We are commanded to be circumcised before manhood, and regularly reminded that to connect with G-d we must similarly circumcise our hearts. I’ll spare you an exhaustive list – but it is quite extensive (details available upon request!).

Negatively, the picture is even more dramatic. The punishments and consequences for adultery and idolatry are consistently paired. Indeed, the single biggest danger the Jewish people suffered in the wilderness was when the daughters of neighboring peoples entered the camp with the explicit goal of sexually corrupting Jewish men, and to do it as flagrantly and publicly as possible. Not surprisingly, at least some of the men are seduced. G-d reacts by almost destroying the entire nation in His jealousy and wrath.

There is an odd word that is used in the text to ties both circumcision and the sexually corrupted Jewish men together – and it also connects to the protection and love that comes in a relationship with G-d. That word is Tzur. It is a strange word, because it is usually translated as “flint” or “rock,” but tzur clearly has much more symbolic value in the text than as a raw material. Indeed, in its verb form, tzur is not a rock at all, but usually refers to a belligerent act.

The Torah’s vocabulary is quite small, so when there are multiple words, they do not mean the same thing as each other. There are other words in the text that also translate as “rock.” The altar is made of ehven, just as Jacob dreams of angels on a ladder while resting his head on an ehven. Moses, on the other hand, strikes the selah instead of speaking to it. So what is a tzur?

The first time the word is used is in the dramatic and odd circumcision scene which I explain here. (Ex. 4:24). The text is simple enough: G-d threatens Moses’ life. In response, Tzippora, Moses’ wife, takes a tzur and cuts off the foreskin of her son. It is a transformational scene, separating husband and wife (in some ways, forever). And Tzippora’s action protects Moses. The tzur, which is the circumcision tool in this case, somehow provides some kind of inoculation against being destroyed by G-d.

All of this is odd, but it gets odder even as matters resolve: Consider that the father of the woman who had intercourse in the middle of the camp, the man who instructed his daughter to go and offer her body for the cause of destroying the Jewish people’s connection with G-d, was a man named “Tzur.”

This conclusion is simple enough: Tzur is both a sexually-symbolic enabler for divine protection (circumcision), as well as a sexual means to destroying our relationship with G-d (sexual immorality).

But it is also much, much more. The rock that Moses was commanded to strike, in full view of the people, was a tzur.

Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the flinty tzur. (Deut. 8:15)

The words the Torah uses tells us not that Moses struck the tzur, exactly, but that he struck into the tzur to find that liquid salvation. And out of the tzur gushed water, sustaining the nation, protecting them from thirst and death in the wilderness.

So tzur means some kind of divine protection or connection. Striking the tzur is not the only time Moses is somehow embedded in a tzur. When Moses asks to see G-d’s face, G-d’s response is that Moses would die if he saw the divine directly. Instead, Moses will be protected:

And the LORD said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the tzur. And, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the tzur and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.

The rock constrains Moses’ view, and simultaneously is a place of protection, a means of getting closer to G-d than at any other time without being destroyed.

We can think, perhaps, of tzur as a “home base” in a game of tag. When we are on base, we are afforded protection. We are in the relationship, and should cling to it. Moses’ speech late in Deuteronomy is full of references to tzur: “The Rock [tzur]! His deeds are perfect.”

But there are several other ways in which tzur is found in the Torah.

In many verses, tzur means “waging war” or “destroy.” (See examples in footnote). It is even used to describe when Aharon destroyed the intimate jewelry of the people in order to make the Golden Calf, harming both marriages (the men “ripped” the jewelry from their wives’ ears) and the peoples’ relationship with G-d at the same time. (Ex. 32:4)

On the other hand, tzur suggests embracing or renewing the relationship with the divine. For example, when we bring agricultural tithes: “You may convert them into money. Tzur the money into your hand, and take it with you to the place that the LORD your G-d has chosen.” (Deut. 14:25) In the case of tithes, the word tzur reminds us of the value of connecting with G-d. Tithing is an investment, and it sustains the tzur protection that is first created with every circumcision.

This overall impression is one of something like a protective dome around the people and our relationship with G-d – a dome that is both built with sexual fidelity, and is equally threatened by sexual infidelity. Tzur is our home base, the ways in which we build our relationship with G-d, and, with His support, defeat our enemies.

The Moabite prophet Bilaam remarked, as he surveyed the people:

As I see them from the tops of the tzurs,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations, (Num. 23:9)

The text does not say, as it might, that Bilaam sees the people from the top of a mountain. Instead it uses tzur. Bilaam is telling us that his view is outside of the bubble the people share with G-d, above and outside both the protections and rules of the Jewish relationship. He can see clearly, because he has the advantage of distance and separation.

Moses refers to G-d, several times, as tzur, translated as “The Rock.” We think we know what that means, because we have a certain understanding of what a rock is – a rock is solid and unchanging, a constant tether or anchor in an uncertain world, a refrain in a Simon and Garfunkel song. This has been a common understanding of what G-d is supposed to be for us. But this is not the Torah’s usage.

Instead, the relationship, the tzur in the Torah is inherently dynamic, living and reacting: G-d as Rock in this case is not an unchanging, unmoving, unfeeling thing, but is instead a connection and protection. We bond with G-d as we bond with our spouse: the ground surely will shift, but we seek to move together, and even transform together. This is in the final promises of the text of the Torah. Deut. 32 uses the word many times:

He fed him honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty tzur

He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the tzur of his support….

You neglected the tzur that begot you,
Forgot the God who brought you forth….

How could one have routed a thousand,
Or two put ten thousand to flight,
Unless their tzur had sold them,
The LORD had given them up?

For their tzur is not like our tzur…

He [G-d] will say: Where are their gods,
The tzur in whom they sought refuge…

Moses’ relationship with G-d (and the end of his “normal” relationship with his wife) happens with a tzur, the life-saving circumcision. In turn, Moses refers to G-d in this chapter, near the very end of his life, using that same word, referring to G-d as our protection, our refuge, while trying to illustrate that the other nations lack this kind of special relationship, a relationship built on exclusive monotheism, just as sacred and as thirsty for constant renewal as the bonds of marriage.

[An @iwe, @eliyahumasinter and @susanquinn collaboration!]

Examples not brought in the essay:

And the LORD said to me: Do not tzur the Moabites or provoke them to war.

You will then be close to the Ammonites; do not tzur them or start a fight with them.

If it does not surrender to you, but would join battle with you, you shall tzur to it;

When in your war against a city you have to tzur it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the tzured city?

Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing tzur [siegeworks] against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.

Comments are welcome!

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