If there is any single principle of Judeo-Christian belief, it might be this: You must always try to rise above your basest desires. We might rephrase it as “don’t be an animal,” or “always try to grow,” or “love your neighbor as yourself,” but they are all different aspects of the same core ideals: that we are meant to be responsible for our decisions, and that our lives should be lived for more than our own short-term pleasure.
As free agents, we are thus meant to be as libertarian as possible – without being libertines. This is not easy today, in an age that validates – and indeed demands that others applaud – every choice we make that is “true to ourselves.” And being “true to ourselves” really means aspiring to unadulterated narcissism.
Today, in the era of birth control and abortions, the classic practical reasons to not merely follow our urges (like the unwanted pregnancy that comes from extra-marital relations) are no longer relevant. Sex no longer comes with consequences – no obvious visible ones, anyway. So, the argument goes, we can shed all those silly old rules.
But what if the Torah was not written to achieve purely utilitarian ends? What if there is a bigger picture, one that remains relevant even if babies are no longer born out of wedlock, or even if society has agreed that “consenting adults” should be encouraged to pursue consequence-free promiscuity?
Tonight, I came across a perspective in the Torah that I had not comprehended before, and which may shed some light on the other results of putting our desires first.
The Torah has a word, zona, that is translated as a “harlot” or in verb form, as “lust” or “desire.”
It should be noted that in the text, zona does not necessarily suggest a woman who sells sex (though Judah thinks Tamar is a zona and contracts with her in Gen. 38). Zona is first used when Shechem takes Dinah, and her brothers take revenge, explaining to their father: “Should our sister be treated like a harlot/zona?” (Gen. 34:31) In this first use of the word, Dinah’s comparison to a zona suggests that she is treated as a loose woman, as someone who has either surrendered to her own desires, or those of the man. In other words, a zona is not in control of herself or of her situation.
When you make someone else feel powerless, you are destroying their ability to have holy relationships. Dinah’s opinions are not recorded after she was raped, because they were irrelevant at that point: she had lost her agency, and was permanently scarred by the rape, as victims often are.
Telling someone else “you are a victim” is indeed a crime similar to rape: it removes that person’s ability to consciously be in control of her own life. This is the catastrophe – and evil – of modern liberalism.
Seen in this light, the Torah’s injunctions against being governed by lust are meant to empower people to be in control of themselves, to govern their animal instincts and not the other way around. This is the commandment of the fringes (which men – not women – wear):
That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of G-d and observe them, so that you do not follow after your heart and after your eyes that lead your zona.
When we look down at our own bodies, we are meant to be jolted back toward what we should be thinking about. We are supposed to use our minds to control our bodies, not the other way around. Because when we allow desire to guide our thoughts, then we are down the path toward a form of lust that leads us far away from a connection with G-d.
The Torah describes zona as not merely physical lust, but also the desire to worship external gods, the gods who never demand that you change or grow or accept responsibility:
I will cut off from among their people both that person and all who zona in going zona after Molech. And if any person turns to ghosts and familiar spirits and goes zona after them, I will set My face against that person, whom I will cut off from among the people.” (Lev. 20:5-6)
This kind of zona is about spiritual desire toward natural deities, worshipping natural forces, and it is integrally linked with celebrating our own unfettered lusts:
You must not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for they will zona after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and invite you, and you will eat of their sacrifices. And when you take [wives into your households] from among their daughters for your sons, their daughters will zona after their gods and will cause your sons to zona after their gods. (Ex. 34:15-16)
While Israel was staying at Shittim, the menfolk profaned themselves by zona with the Moabite women, who invited the menfolk to the sacrifices for their god. The menfolk partook of them and worshiped that god. (Num 25:1-2)
Note the connection between sexual attraction and the slippery slope into paganism. It sounds awfully familiar to us today: the sexual liberation of America was followed with growing pagan earth-worship. Once we accept that it is our nature, not our conscious morality, that is in charge of our lives, then we end up honoring and worshipping nature. Hedonism and paganism go hand in hand.
Indeed, the Greek ideal of Pan, a goat deity even makes an appearance in the Torah: “So that they may no more offer their sacrifices to the goats after whom they zona.” (Lev. 17:7) The goat-god Pan stood for reckless abandonment of mature responsibilities in favor of emulating an animal pursuing his pleasures in nature.
So to be Jewish means to always try to be better than our desires, and to see narcissism and hedonism as antithetical to all that is good and holy. We must always try to build people up, not diminish them: “Do not degrade your daughter and make her a zona, lest the land fall into zona and the land be filled with depravity.” (Lev. 19:30) When we succumb to our animal selves, we preclude having real relationships. This, my brother points out, is why the Torah forbids offering the price of a zona to G-d: a zona is a false relationship, a soul-sucking proxy in place of a real human connection.
Dinah was considered as a zona because, once raped, she no longer believed that she had agency and free will. A person who sees themselves as a helpless victim, as the inevitable collateral damage of more powerful forces, has endangered their ability to connect with G-d. The Torah’s use of this word makes this explicit: zona means a loss of faith, a loss of confidence that we are meant to be capable of making our own decisions and bearing the consequences for our actions. When the people do not believe that they can, with G-d’s help, conquer the land, when they lose courage in the face of unfavorable odds, G-d accuses them of behaving like people who give in to zona behavior – behavior in which we are governed by our animal instincts and not our relationship to G-d, where we are managed by fear and not faith.
While your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your zona, until all of your corpses are [buried] in the wilderness. (Num 14:33)
Seen this way, zona is the precisely the opposite of the behavior needed in order to connect with G-d.
This people will thereupon go zona after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. (Deut. 31:17-18)
When people decide to be “true to themselves,” and pursue their lustful urges, they then become governed by those lusts, and they become helpless victims. Once a person concedes that they are not in charge of their own lives, then they instinctively seek to appease the great natural deities who control the fates of mere mortals, devolving directly into classical paganism. The consequences of applauding whatever “consenting adults choose,” is that our world becomes corrupted as well; people turn to worship Mother Earth in all its forms, and abandon what the Torah tells us should be the real purpose of our lives: bettering people, building holy relationships, and creating a loving and supportive society.