Monday, January 26, 2009

Jewish Thoughts On Sex In Marriage

I've often thought that one of the biggest losses for Christianity is it's separation from it's Jewish roots regarding sexuality in marriage. Rabbi Schmuley Boteach has written a couple of very good books on sexuality in marriage. His insights fit well with what scientists have recently noted regarding the sexual responses of men and women. The following snippets are from two interviews with Rabbi Boteach. The first comment is an introduction to this internet conversation, and other parts come from this interview.

"All ancient texts warn man that the female seductresses would try to steal his innocence and his purity of character. Of course, today everyone would laugh at that stereotype, and argue that it is men who are predatory, and women who are going off sex. (Not everyone. I can think of a few places where this view still dominates.)

I contend that the main reason for this is that for a woman sex is a fully-integrated experience of body, mind and soul, and since they are now being asked to separate those entities sex is becoming boring to them. They're now seeing hugging, cuddling, romantic walks as real acts of love, and sex is really a physiological, biological endeavour. (Separating acts of love from sexuality does not work well for women's sexuality and the fact it's happening is not a healthy sign.)

You write that your emphasis is on eroticism, not sex. What's the difference?

Eroticism need not be something sexual. Eroticism is, rather, an electric curiosity for life. It is a desire to pull back the hood of existence and uncover its engine. To live erotically is to peel back the superficial layers and discover the essence in all that we experience. It is to rise above boredom and to always be engaged by life.

We have so vulgarized the erotic today that cheap, flimsy, boring porn passes for the erotic. Nothing could be further from the truth. The erotic is a magnetic desire to know our spouse in the deepest possible way. Superficial, fleshy knowledge is the most unsatisfying substitute.

The mikveh -- two weeks of forced separation, then a "honeymoon" once a month -- is lauded in the Orthodox community as a way to keep a marriage fresh. Does this still work?

What the laws of mikveh and Jewish family purity introduce is the concept of the forbidden and the sinful into a marriage. The forbidden is what creates erotic excitement. The problem is that marriage is all too legal. One of the reasons that people have affairs is the excitement of the sinful. Therefore, the idea that a husband and wife become forbidden to each other for a few days of each month is one of the most revolutionary ideas in the history of relationships, and demonstrates ingenious insight into the psychology of the erotic on the part of the Torah. (I love that notion that marriage is all too legal. Too often we really do view marriage as a series of contractual obligations-including sex-rather than a living breathing relationship which is deepened by sex.)

How does the outlook on sex differ in Judaism than in other religions?

Judaism has a very positive view of sex, referring to it as knowledge. Sex in Judaism is the essence of marriage because it brings forth our deepest emotions, unlike conversation or shopping. G-d designed for us to be lovers, not music or museum lovers.

Yes, but is it not true that in orthodox Judaism sex is thought of only as a vehicle to procreate?

Absolutely not. That's Catholicism. In Judaism, the purpose of sex is to sew two strangers together as one flesh.

When does G-d enter into the equation about sex and relationships?

I think America wants us to return to a more sacred sexuality. One based on sex as the union of souls, the rendering of two strangers into bone of one bone and flesh of one flesh. In that sense, G-d and spirituality are essential to the orchestration of two halves as one indivisible whole. The casual sexual culture we have created has actually killed off sex. The vulgarization and instant availability of sex has paradoxically led to a loss of desire. One of out of three marriages is platonic. The rest of the married couples who have sex do so, on average, for seven minutes at a time, which includes the time he spends begging. Clearly, for sex to regain its potency it must first regain its sacredness.
Page 36: "Even Sigmund Freud ... was unable to answer the simple question of what it is that a woman wants." You can answer this?

Yes, I am a man deeply in touch with his feminine side. A woman wants to be the one and only, she wants priority and exclusivity in the life of her man. She wants to feel unique, distinguished, and special in a relationship. And any man who makes her feel that way is a man who will win her heart.
I wrote this in The Kosher Sutra, only to see it corroborated in this week's New York Times Magazine cover story about female sexuality. It reinforces the main points of The Kosher Sutra and is a remarkable corroboration of the book's entire approach to sexuality. The essence of the article is that female sexuality is triggered not by the body but the mind, particularly by demonstrations of desire on the part of a man. The book charts the principal mental conditions that stimulate erotic desire in women and men and which the article says have been corroborated in clinical tests.

Do you think Judaism is a sexist religion?

No, Judaism is a deeply feminine religion. It believes that the feminine nurturing model is the way all people should live. Our great men throughout the ages were feminine figures, teachers, scholars, rather than warriors. (This is such true a statement about the intrinsic feminine nature of Judaism--- in spite of all the patriarchal language. Jesus is not a product of a macho culture no matter how His life is spun. He was a nurturer in the classic mold of Jewish prophets. I often wonder how much anti semitism is really based in rejection of this feminism.)

Does pre-marital sex lessen the chances of being happily married?

I think so. It makes us more objective about sex. A man should not be able to answer whether or not his wife is good in bed. Only, whether or not he enjoys sex with her. Men and women today are far too great experts in sex. We are becoming far too objective.

Why is being objective about sex not good?

Is it good to be objective about your children? There are those areas of life which are fundamentally subjective. Sex, is one of the those areas. It’s about putting ourselves on autopilot, behaving instinctually, not evaluating each other's performance. (Way too many marriages have sexually floundered on this rock.)

You apparently have many non-Jews who come to you for counseling about the physical parts of marriage. They feel comfortable talking about intimacy with a bearded, Chasidic-trained rabbi?

They are looking for help. People are in a lot of personal anguish. They will take it from whatever wise source they can find. And Judaism has the wisest advice to offer on relationships, even if it comes in the form of a bearded, yarmulke wearing, tzitzis-twirling Rabbi.

From your stories, you sound like the perfect husband -- wise, sensitive, passionate. Would Mrs. Boteach agree?

Most definitely not. She is good, wise, beautiful, and, above all else, long-suffering. (She has to have a great sense of humor to go along with long-suffering.)


Rabbi Boteach really does have some important wisdom to impart to Christians, especially at this time. Sexuality in marriage, if we're going to see marriage as a life long relationship, must first and foremost be about bonding and not procreation. What's the point of having children if the relationship itself is unsustainable? Sex should first and foremost be the language of knowledge-- knowledge of the other person on a deep and profound level.

Nothing we as humans do exposes us to another the same way sex does, or should. When we objectify sex to it's constituent biological parts we deny it's unifying sacredness. It may be that objectifying sexuality is seen to somehow lesson our vulnerability, but that's an illusion.

The objectification of sex is not just a problem for secular society, it's also an inherent problem in Catholic teaching. In many ways their individual treatment of sexuality is opposite sides of the same coin. In one case anything goes, in the other case practically nothing goes, but both take a very subjective human behavior and try to make it objective. There's really very little difference between rating one's self good in bed from either a gymnastics or sin point of view.

Rabbi Boteach also agrees with the Jewish Orthodox position on birth control. It's permissible after a couple have had a son and daughter, or if the woman has other issues which preclude effective parenting or birthing. Condoms are not permissible under any circumstances. There's some food for though in this position as well, both pro and con. It seems to me though that it is more compassionate and realistic than the Catholic position.

One last personal thought, it seems to me that if sexual expression is to be expressed as a sacred sharing between two people, we need to go back to Jewish concepts of sexuality in marriage---no matter how feminine that may be. Mutual nurturing is a better frame of mind in which to engage in sexuality. Especially if that sexuality is to be personally meaningful and relationally deepening.



  1. Wow! I can comply with the article except I'm not married. I'm aiming towards it though. I'm a semi-practicing catholic and I've been dating a tradition-practicing jewish man.

    It's been a new experience on the physical intimacy level with him versus a catholic raised man. It's been more about discovering each other mentally and sexually than to simply practice sex. That's all I have time to write.

  2. Marriage sucks with a Catholic man. That is all I have to say for now.