(Published in Times of Israel October 14, 2014)
Some say Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is sensationalist, exploiting the media to promote his personal fame. Others say he sincerely wishes to help couples and employs the values of traditional Judaism to promote healthy sexuality for married couples. I can’t speak to his intentions. I can only comment on the content. I am unaware of Rabbi Boteach’s credentials, if any, in the area of mental health in general, and in sexual health in particular. However, as a couples therapist and certified sex therapist, I am aware of how media and religious messages can affect how couples may relate to one another in the bedroom. Therefore, when Shmuley recently told NY Magazine that “a man has to ‘make’ his wife reach orgasm first,” it struck a chord, from both a religious perspective as well as a professional one. Boteach, author of Kosher Sex and Kosher Adultery, was apparently drawing this assertion from a Talmudic passage (Nidda 31a) which states that if a woman emits seed first (Hebrew: mazraat tchila), she will bear a male child. I don’t claim to be a scholar of the Talmud, but I did have the great merit and fortune to have been raised by one who — though recently passed from our lives — left a legacy of reasoning when it came to the Rabbinic mind. My father could elucidate the most complex Talmudic statements and when I would confront him with one, it usually had to do with sex. My father, of blessed memory, explained that the Talmudic statement “when women ‘give seed’ first, a male child is born” is not a religious legal (halachic) edict. Rather, it is part of the ‘Aggadata’, the sections of the Talmud that are homiletic, and non-legalistic. Halacha is rarely based on Aggadic Talmudic passages. Furthermore, the rabbis of the Talmud understood biology and physiology in accordance with the knowledge that was available to them, living in the fourth century. Finally, it is unclear that the Rabbis understood “lehazria” as referring to orgasm. Rather, they may have understood it as a process related to fertilization. One cannot then extrapolate that Judaism mandates men to “make their wives reach orgasm first.” In fact, while Judaism views “onah,” sexual time together with her husband, as a woman’s right and privilege, few laws actually dictate the details of sexual behavior between a man and his wife. Aside from the erroneous statement made by Boteach from the point of view of Talmudic discourse, I take issue with his statement as a sexual health professional, a role in which I am far more proficient. As a couples therapist who frequently deals with sexual issues in the religious community, I can attest that it is precisely these types of statements that discourage couples and contribute to their feelings that they are doing it all wrong. As it is, sex can be an enormous source of pressure for many couples. Couples are often worried whether they are doing it correctly, frequently enough, attempting the sufficient number of positions, or finding the various alphabetically named “spots.” Both men and women are vulnerable to simply feeling “not good enough.” Men may feel inadequate when their wives don’t reach orgasm, and women certainly feel that something is wrong with them when they have difficulty feeling sufficiently aroused. I frequently counsel couples who see sex as a goal-oriented activity that is defined by success when it “works”, or failure if it doesn’t reach the standards dictated, whether by religious instructors or the popular media. When there is a problem with sexual function, certainly it can and should be addressed and treated, but I often reframe sex as an experience of sharing, loving, feeling, and sensing, physically, emotionally and cognitively. It is about the journey, not the destination and as such, anxiety over “who gets there first” can be significantly relieved. Rather than add more requirements to the seemingly puzzling maze that young religious couples often navigate, we should empower couples by providing the appropriate information and education, and creating a comfortable language to discuss matters of intimacy. Sexuality should be framed not by whether a woman’s husband can “make “ her reach orgasm first, but in terms of appreciation for giving and receiving pleasure, knowledge of and comfort with one’s self and one another, the ability to communicate effectively with respect and affection, and to find meaning in the sexual connection. If Boteach is getting the word out to some clueless men, that satisfying your partner is an important component of lovemaking, then he deserves credit. But this time, his well-meaning advice places even more pressure on couples than they already have. I have met with couples in therapy where the male partner’s anxiety is expressed through his “demand” that his wife have an orgasm, and do so first, sometimes because he needs it in order to feel validated sexually, and sometimes because he believes that this is the reason they have only daughters. “My wife must climax before me, so that we may merit male offspring”, they say. Yes, teaching men to ensure their wives enjoy sex is great. However, when you make it about halacha, then the woman can become an object. If she does not perform, it is not about her dissatisfaction as much as it is about her being an obstacle to his proper fulfilment of the mitzvah. In a way, Shmuely Boteach is making my work just a little more difficult.