Love, Orthodox Style: A Rabbi’s Kosher Sex Manual

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Love, Orthodox Style: A Rabbi's Kosher Sex Manual  


Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy  
by Shmuley Boteach  
(Doubleday, hardcover, 1999; 224 pages)  

Okay, word association: I say “love,” you think sex. I say “lust,” you definitely think sex. I say “park bench,” and you still think sex (tawdry sex, you little scamp, but sex all the same). Then I say “kosher.”


You think deli, you think brisket, you think of someone’s bubbe making chicken soup. But you do not think sex. You may even think pork, but not sex. You just don’t.


Well Shmuley Boteach does.


Nu? And who’s this Shmuley? He’s a rabbi, a thirty-two-year-old American-born Lubavitcher (an

orthodox branch of Judaism) living with his wife and six kids in England, where he’s rabbi to the students at Oxford University and a director of the L’Chaim Society. He also used to deliver sermons once or twice a month at a London synagogue — but he stopped doing that last year amid controversy over the British release of his sixth book, Kosher Sex.


That’s right: the book, now out Stateside as well, is called Kosher Sex, which is your first clue to the hubbub surrounding Boteach. Clue two: it’s not a book of dirty Jewish jokes — it’s an honest-to-Yahweh sex guide, and Boteach, who facetiously refers to himself as “Rabbi Dr. Love,” is an unrepentant sex counselor who spends much of his time and considerable energy offering guidance on the subject to members of his flock. This is not your everyday, run-of-the-shul rabbi.


But perhaps strangest of all is how conventional — blindingly so, really — Boteach’s views turn out to be. In fact, in 284 jokey pages, strewn with quotes by the likes of Woody Allen and Oscar Wilde, Boteach says a lot about the role of sex in a relationship, but virtually nothing that would be characterized as truly radical by a secular listener. He says that sex should not be taboo; rather, it’s a fundamentally important, celebratory and essentially blessed part of married (and only married) life. And, as with dinner, “kosher” is defined as much by your approach and preparations as it is by the event itself:

A Jew is commanded to eat kosher food (prepared according to biblical guidelines) because it is this kind of food that serves to elevate the human condition to a higher spiritual plane and to draw him closer to God. [Just as] a human does not stick his head into a trough the way that a horse would, he does not and should not copulate the way animals do. Intimate sex done right elevates what can be an indulgent, animalistic human practice to a higher plane, where we realize the full glory of being human.


I know a meal “done right” when I see it, but I couldn’t tell you if my sex life is of the trough or the glorious human feast variety. Until I read Kosher Sex, that is. Boteach expounds at length on the act of marital sex, assigning “kosher” or “un-kosher” status to everything from condoms to cunnilingus. (See table in pop-up window.)


Kosher sex is not just about procreation, according to Boteach; nor is it just recreation. Nor, for that matter, is it just for Jews — Boteach quips that “even for the uncircumcised, kosher sex

is a cut above.” But Kosher Sex is a Jewish book, and it’s informed by a very Jewish inclination toward pragmatism and moderation. “There are three possibilities as to what sex is about — pleasure, procreation or oneness,” Boteach writes. “Judaism, believing that the path to holiness is always found in the ‘golden middle,’ rejects the far-right extreme of sex as only for babies. Neither does Judaism embrace the extreme secular view that sex is for fun and pleasure. Rather, Judaism says that the purpose of sex is to synthesize and orchestrate two strangers together as one. Sex is the ultimate bonding process.” In essence, lovemaking is God’s way of making love bloom — and everything from the foreplay to the post-coital cuddle is, or should be, holy. It should draw you closer to God. For all the hoopla, this randy rebbe is positively wholesome. So why the ruckus?


“People just aren’t used to rabbis writing about subjects like this,” Boteach told me from his car phone during a recent promo stop in Los Angeles. (People aren’t used to rabbis chatting on Nokias from the corner of Olympic and La Brea either, but that’s another story.) “They’re not used to clergymen advocating being imaginative in bed, or sex toys.”


Perhaps he’s ri— wait, did he say sex toys?


Yeah, I forgot to mention that. Shmuley B is not entirely conventional. After all, you don’t expect an orthodox rabbi to weigh in so matter-of-factly on such issues as pornography as a sex aid (Un-kosher, since it replaces a couple’s sex life with something alien — for this reason, home sex videos are not quite as un-kosher); masturbation (A “thief of love,” it’s profoundly un-kosher, as is anything that lessens sexual dependency on the partner); fellatio (Unlike the biblically prohibited onanism, the purpose of fellatio is not to destroy the male seed. Verdict? Kosher!); and, yes, sex toys (Kosher, since they help keep the sex life interesting). Heck, my rabbi’s reform and I’m betting he’s never even heard of sex toys.


Yet for these issues and every other one he deals with, Boteach bases his analysis in rabbinical and biblical precedents. Sure, the bit about oral sex seems pretty bold coming from a guy with a long beard and a yarmulke, but is it really?


“Traditionally and historically it’s not revolutionary at all,” Boteach said. “Traditionally, rabbis gave a lot of advice, not just about marriage but about intimate details of people’s sex lives. If you look in the Talmud, there’s a phenomenal amount of the most explicit advice.” He points out that both the Talmud and the great thirteenth-century Jewish scholar Nachmanides declared that a woman’s sexual needs exceed those of a man. In fact, Boteach writes that “the Torah actually obligates a man to pleasure his wife to the point where she reaches sexual climax before him. For a man to have sex with his wife without affording her pleasure is an abuse.”


And it’s all straight out of the Good Book. “[The Bible] says that every man is responsible for providing his wife with shelter, food and clothing, and sexual pleasure,” Boteach said. “In Hebrew, it’s called onah.” Indeed, Exodus 21:10 refers specifically to a woman’s “conjugal rights” within a marriage. The passage begins by describing the proper procedure for a man to follow if he wants to take a slave for a wife — more specifically, the slave girl’s rights if the man takes a second wife (polygamy was sanctified back then): “If [the man] takes him another wife, [the slave girl’s] food, her raiment [clothing], and her conjugal rights shall he not diminish.” In other words, if a man’s slave wife is entitled to a little sumthin’ sumthin’, it goes without saying that

the man’s other wives are entitled, too. Alright then, I’m only going to ask this one more time: If Rabbi Boteach really does have all his biblical ducks in a row, why do so many of his fellow rabbis have their knickers in a twist?


“The explanation I would give is that Judaism has embraced a false dualism,” he said. “One of the main distinguishing characteristics between Judaism and all the other religions of the world is that Judaism was never a dualist faith. It never divided the world between the body and the soul, God and the Devil, Earth and Heaven. Christianity was different, it embraced Greek dualism, which basically subdivided the world into its spiritual and material components. But I think having been immersed in a Christian world for two thousand years, although Jews continue to practice Judaism, they also think Christian. So they’ve embraced this whole thing about [how] sex is dirty, and you shouldn’t talk about it.”


So I guess that’s really all it is: the rabbis don’t quibble with Boteach’s biblical backing; they’re just mad that he’s talking about sex in the first place. And so damned loudly, too — on Politically Incorrect, at a Kosher Sex Salon in L.A., even in Playboy. I suppose you could make a case that that in itself is a mitzvah. But I’d hardly call it audacious — not the way Boteach goes about it. When the rabbi says that “the real, underlying reason we seek sex is not physical pleasure, but emotional intimacy; we do not seek mere orgasms, but, rather, the incredible proximity of another warm human being,” is he really telling us anything we don’t know?


Kosher Sex is like getting a postcard from Boteach’s “golden middle.” You’re from there — or near there — and so’s everyone you know. Who hasn’t figured out that cheap sex is cheap, and that people couple up in lasting (or somewhat lasting) relationships for more than just a convenient get-down? In the end, the most radical thing about this book is its title. Actually, that’s the only thing about Kosher Sex worth getting upset over. Here, I’ll illustrate: I say “kosher.” Once again, you think deli and brisket and someone’s bubbe making chicken soup. But now you think sex too, don’t you? Kosher . . . sex. Deli . . . sex.


Bubbe . . . sex.

Dan Reines and Nerve.com