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Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. The views reflected in his columns represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.
In this week’s Torah portion, Matot, we find the Israelites fulfilling G-d’s command to take revenge on the Midianites for the role that they played in seducing the Israelites “in the incident of Peor and in the incident of Cozbi their sister, the daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was slain on the day of the plague [that had come] because of Peor.” Numbers, 25:18.
The Israelites killed every male, and took as spoils all of their possessions, and took as captives all of the women and the small children. When Moses discovered that the Midianite women had been left alive, however, he was angered. Heatedly, he exclaimed: “They were the same ones who were involved with the children of Israel on Balaam’s advice to betray the Lord over the incident of Peor, resulting in a plague among the congregation of the Lord!” He therefore commanded the Israelites to “kill every male child, and every woman who can lie intimately with a man you shall kill. And all the young girls who have no experience of intimate relations with a man, you may keep alive for yourselves.” Numbers, 31:14-18.
This is a very uncomfortable passage – to the credit of our evolved sensibilities, which are horrified by what we perceive to be gratuitous killing, particularly of innocent people, particularly of women, and particularly of children. However I would like to focus on a different point altogether.
In the culture of war, as it existed in that era, female captives were often used by their captors for sex. Indeed, the Torah portion of Ki Teitzei begins with an attempt to regulate the sexual relationship that an Israelite soldier might have with his female captive. Deuteronomy, 21:10-14. It thus stands to reason that the Israelites would ultimately end up having sex with at least some of the surviving female captives.
Yet the very reason that Moses commanded that the Midianite women be killed was because they had sex with the Israelites; and not only those that actually had sex, but even those who were simply sexually mature at the time.
So how can a free Midianite woman’s sex with an Israelite, on the one hand, incur the death penalty, whereas a captive Midianite woman’s sex with an Israelite, on the other hand, does not?
The obvious answer lies in the motive behind the use of sex. The Midianite women were not condemned because they sought pleasure with the Israelite men; they were condemned because their motive in seducing the Israelites was more sinister – they used sex as a tool to manipulate the Israelites to abandon G-d and worship the idol known as “Ba’al Peor.” They used sex for the purpose of undermining the integrity of the Jewish nation. This misuse of sex, this non-sexual motive, Moses could not tolerate, and he ordered their death. (And why were the Midianite men condemned to death? Because they had so little respect for their wives and daughters that they were willing to to sell their bodies and their sexuality for merely the hope of destroying the Israelite nation).
Sex is a powerful act and vehicle; and, like all powerful things, is made all the worse when it is abused. Our motives in having sex should be good ones, healthy ones, productive ones. Giving each other pleasure. Expressing our love. Bringing the next generation into existence. Sex should not be used destructively, however: to topple a person, to manipulate, to gain power.
Maimonides, quoting from the Talmud states: “Our Sages forbade a person from engaging in relations with his wife while his heart is focused on another woman. He should not engage in relations while intoxicated, nor while quarreling, nor out of hatred. He should not engage in relations with her against her will when she is afraid of him… He should not engage in relations [with his wife] after he made the decision to divorce her.” Mishneh Torah, Isurei Biah, 21:12. In all of these examples, the husband’s motive in having sex is not to enhance the marital relationship; it is intended to serve his own selfish purposes – and that the Torah does not permit.
Indeed, in the Tanya, R’ Schneur Zalman of Liadi quotes from the Zohar that “the essential factor is to conduct oneself in a holy manner during sexual union.” He explains that our sexual thoughts and motives during the time of sexual intercourse form a “garment” that will clothe the new soul that our sexual congress brings into the world; and that that garment will constitute the channel and portal through which that child will interact with G-d and the world throughout his/her lifetime. Think pure, loving, pleasureful thoughts, and that the garment will be one of light, enhancing your child’s journey through life.
The abuse of sexual power is and results in tragedy. Sex with the right motives, however, is a wonderful and magical thing.