The Union between Sexuality and Religion

(Originally published in:

Sexuality and religion are as closely interconnected as David and Jonathan. This remarkable observation arises from the publication Door het vlees stroomt het verlangen, the newly translated selection of poems by the celebrated Hebrew female poet, Chava Pinchas-Cohen. Human affairs, religion, and the act of pastry baking are all tainted by eroticism.

In 1955, Chava Pinchas-Cohen was born to a Jewish family of Bulgarian immigrants, who left the European continent in the immediate aftermath of the second World War, to seek a new life in the recently proclaimed state of Israel. Chava was the first member of the family to be born in the newly adopted country. Today, she lives in Jerusalem with her four daughters. Her experiences, the state of Israel, Judaism, eroticism, and the Tenach are remarkably woven together in the tapestry of her work. The current volume, which comprises a broad selection of her poems translated for the first time into Dutch, offers an excellent introduction to the poet’s themes and poetics.


The concept of eroticism makes up the connection that binds her total body of lyrical work. According to Pinchas-Cohen, the fibres that constitute any living organism, a grain of sand, and even the infinitesimal living particles of our universe are all permeated by an undeniably erotic quality. Whether this is an exact physical observation does not concern her; Chava’s only concern lies in the representation of this truth through pure and lyrical poetry.


As a matter of fact, sexuality resides deep within ourselves, she claims. Precisely the task of searching for her identity, her origins, and the inmost feelings of self, she, as an artist, has relentlessly taken upon herself. “Eroticism can be seen as a research of sorts. A self-examination in order to find that metaphysical quality which hides behind our corporeality.”



A remarkably quality that characterizes Chava’s poetry is the combination between sexuality and religion. In the Tenach both concepts are intrinsically related to each other, she claims. Although Solomon’s Song of Songs, a dithyramb to love and sexuality, offers a famous example of this interrelation, the whole of the Tenach and the Bible are pervaded by the notion of sexuality, which is frequently characterized as a considerable aspect of human existence.


To illuminate the unrestrained practice of Biblical storytelling, Chava points out the horrible  scene from 2 Samuel 13, where King David’s son Amnon rapes his sister Tamar. “In Hebrew, the act of Tamar nursing her simulating brother and baking pastry for him is represented by undeniably sensual and erotic language. Immediately following the description of the loving Tamar, the Tenach openly mentions the terrible facts of the brother tempting and ultimately raping his own sister. This truthfulness is remarkable. I love the contrast between both scenes. This is what characterizes the whole human experience.”


Pinchas-Cohen defines this frankness about sexual matters as an inheritance from her Hebrew ancestors. “In the Christian tradition of the West, dealing with the erotic aspects of life has been severely inhibited from the start. Tracing the intrinsic relation between sexuality and religion has been frequently deemed blasphemous. To me, this inhibition is awkward, especially if you regard this problem in the light of the Bible’s candour and straightforwardness as to these matters.”    



Despite the fact that a great number of poets have expressed various objections to the translation of their work, Chava Pinchas-Cohen experiences no difficulties with her translated poetry. According to her, Hebrew is a rich language, which contains ambivalence, ambiguity, and – last but not least – an erotic quality. Whether this linguistic ambivalence and richness can be literally transposed to another language, is beside the point. In her eyes, the linguistic intercourse produces an enormous enrichment. “Following Derrida’s treatment of the instability of language, linguistic meaning is never fixed, since it only functions within a system of signs. Exploring other languages tends to redefine the limits as well as the possibilities that mark out my own language.”


Nonetheless, Pinchas-Cohen recognizes that some problems may arise in the process. For example, in Northern climates, people have developed a great variety of denominators for the concept of snow, while in modern Hebrew there only exists three equivalents for it. “The Hebrew language contains words and concepts that are nowhere to be found in other languages, and vice versa. Language has its limitations and is immediately bound to culture.”


This cultural association also applies to one’s image of God. The fact that the mental image of God must be regarded as closely connected to language, Chava found out while she visited Kraków, Poland. “In Poland, the concept of God includes principally female connotations,  due to a dominant glorification of the Holy Mary. In Germany, on the other hand, the male connotations pertaining to the image of God are more dominant. This only shows the restrictedness of any cross-cultural translation. The memoir Lost in Translation by Eva Hoffman, a Jewish-American writer who was actually born in Kraków and emigrated with her family to Canada in the late 1950s, offers a wonderful insight in these issues.


The Dutch translator of Chava’s poetry, Yael Moshe, confirms the practical dilemmas of translating the complexity of the original Hebrew into another language. “When alliterations, rhyme or metre are significant in the original Hebrew text, I endeavour to create Dutch equivalents for them. But a literal translation of the emotional value that lies secured in the original Hebrew poetry is a downright impossibility.”


Take for instance the Hebrew emoena, which literally means faith. In Hebrew, ‘faith,’ ‘art’ (omanoet), and ‘motherhood’ (imahoet) are intricately related; all three contain a similar sound and share the same etymological origin. In the Dutch language, this particular association is missing.


Pinchas-Cohen entirely rejects the claim that modern Hebrew, as a reemployment of an apparently dead language, is an artificial language. “On the contrary, Hebrew is very much alive and, what is more, a very rich language. Since it derives from a large tradition, a great amount of its signifiers indicate a whole variety of linguistic and semantic contexts. On the other hand, this enormous richness can turn against you. Since writing poetry is a very precise and accurate creative process, the ambivalence of language must be managed in order to arrive at a more exact poetry and to avoid a possible alienation of my audience.  



According to Chava, writing poetry is an individual and at times lonely affair. “I always have to start over again. There is nothing I can rely on. This makes the creative process sometimes very hard, especially when my audience expects certain things from me. I enjoy the occasional presentation of my poetry through interviews and lectures. But back in Israel, I have to face again the lonely task of writing poetry.”


For Chava, writing poetry is like having a baby. “Pregnancy is an erotic affair. It is not like, ‘whoops, yet another baby!’ No, having children involves a mythical and erotic development. In a similar way, a poem requires time to develop.


A Good Reason

Pinchas-Cohen states to experience God as an important existence in her life. The Almighty  is to her not an abstract concept, but instead someone who resides within her. “He is an everyday reality for me. I frequently have conversations with Him. They are at times horrible, sometimes full of peace. As a matter of course, even I do have my doubts. I sometimes ask myself which are God’s intentions as to His inscrutable ways. The fact that He does know, I regard as His own macabre sort of humour.”


The tragic lot of her late husband, the loss of whom Pinchas-Cohen does not want to discuss, severely shook up her  religious life. Also Holocaust questions can sometimes torment her, but she is not afraid of losing her faith. “No, I am not afraid to lose it, because If I ever do, I am sure I will have had a good reason for losing it.” 



Chava Pinchas-Cohen is the first Israeli female poet to be translated into Dutch. Yael Moshe, a twenty-six year old Dutch female student in Hebrew, set out to translate 48 poems out of the complete poetry of Pinchas-Cohen, collected and introduced by Yaniv Hagbi, who teaches in Hebrew literature at the University of Amsterdam. Door het vlees stroomt het verlangen was recently published by Amphora Books. Pinchas-Cohen visited the Netherlands to attend the publication.




“Door het vlees stroomt het verlangen,” Chava Pinchas-Cohen, translated by Yael Moshe, collected and introduced by Yaniv Hagbi. Amphora Books, 2009. ISBN 978–90–6446–057–9


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