Sex shops, podcasts and intimacy counselling: Israel’s religious Jews embrace their sensuality

In a grungy part of Israel’s commercial capital, Tel Aviv, a small sign in a shop window promises customers “kosher sex” — as well as designer denim if they would prefer the latter’s name on their credit card statements.

It does not look like a typical sex shop, with a small range of products on display without packaging or any erotic pictures.

The owner is 28-year-old Chana Boteach, who used to sell her wares exclusively online.

“It started online and I just realised as a brick and mortar store, it could be reaching more people and be more of an intimate experience,” she said.

Ms Boteach is the daughter of a Sydney-born mother and the famous American rabbi, Schmuley Boteach.

His book Kosher Sex, from which Ms Boteach’s shop derives its name, is an international bestseller released 20 years ago.

Ms Boteach said her clients ranged in age and religious observance.

As well as products, Ms Boteach said she offered online courses and articles on sensuality, sexuality and relationships.

“Kosher sex is not just sex. It’s an experience,” she said.

For Ms Boteach, kosher sex means reclaiming it “as it’s supposed to be.”

“It makes it something that’s a holy, beautiful, intimate experience, rather than something animalistic, that’s just used for procreation and recreation.”

She said she has had a largely positive response — and some surprising customers.

But there has been criticism, too.

“People make fun of me a little bit, especially since I took the concept from my dad,” she said.

“They make comments like, ‘Is that what a nice Jewish girl should be doing? Opening a kosher sex shop? And I’m like, ‘this is fully in line with Judaism!'”

Rabbi and sex therapist open dialogue on intimacy

Ms Boteach is not the only religious Jew trying to spark a sexual revolution in Israel.

Rabbi Scott Kahn and sex therapist Talli Rosenbaum are gaining prominence for breaking a longstanding taboo within the orthodox Jewish community on discussing sexual issues.

Mr Kahn said he did not want to be known as “the sex rabbi”.

But as the co-host of the Intimate Judaism podcast, he is focused on starting conversations about sexuality within Jewish law.

“Jewish law says you’re not supposed to speak about these things in public,” Mr Kahn said.

“Sexuality is supposed to be a private conversation between a husband, wife and a therapist. Or a husband, wife and rabbi.”

More than 23,000 people are downloading episodes about what is permitted in marriage, raising sexually healthy children, and whether spouses have a religious obligation to have sex with their partners.

The series began when Mr Kahn invited Ms Rosenbaum onto an orthodox-focused podcast he hosted to discuss the religious and social issues around male masturbation.

“That was the most popular episode I ever did on that podcast, and it gave us the idea that we should turn this into a regular series,” he said.

Ms Rosenbaum describes herself as a sex therapist who happens to be religious.

In the podcast, she often provides a therapeutic or modern clinical counterpoint to the Jewish law outlined by Mr Kahn.

“I think after we did that episode together, we realised there was a lot more we could talk, and I also didn’t want to be known for just talking about male masturbation — that’s not what sexuality in Judaism is all about,” she said.

“I thought it would be really interesting if we could talk about intimacy and the meaning of sexuality in Judaism, which is a lot more than what you are and aren’t allowed to do.”

The role of Jewish law in sexuality

The episodes usually begin with a discussion of Jewish law or halakha, which is complex and often the subject of intense, internal debate.

Some halakhic concepts may seem anachronistic, or even offensive to modern sensibilities, such as a passage comparing what a man can do with his wife to the many ways he can cook and eat meat.

The hosts often debate the role of Jewish law and whether certain elements are conducive to healthy relationships.

They sometimes distinguish that a legal interpretation is not necessarily a guide to ethical behaviour.

“I’m coming in as a professional, I’m not coming in to discuss the merits of adhering to the law, but our whole show is committed to halakha,” Ms Rosenbaum said.

“When Talli and I disagree, that’s OK,” Mr Kahn said.

“I think [our different approaches] can work together but they certainly don’t always work together.”

Listener questions are now forming the basis for some new episodes, and the show has covered homosexuality, marital conflict and even the #MeToo movement.

Religious observance is important in Israel, where about 45 per cent of the Jewish population self-identifies as “secular”.

Many parts of Israel, including Tel Aviv, are considered gay friendly, although same-sex marriage is still illegal.

The rights of gay and transgender people are still restricted by law.

Large segments of the population identify as “orthodox” or “ultra-orthodox”, with some religious groups living in strict compliance with interpretations of Jewish law.

But the interest in the Intimate Judaism podcast suggests they are also seeking guidance on sexual matters that is in keeping with their faith.

As well as looking to improve their sex lives, Ms Rosenbaum said people were also experiencing problems and anxiety because they feared they were not complying with religious laws relating to sex.

“As a therapist, I have had so many women and couples in my office who have been hurt and even traumatised by misinformation about what you are and aren’t allowed to do — as well as what you must do,” she said.

Mr Kahn said few people consult their rabbi if they have questions about how Jewish law relates to their sex lives.

“Too often people assume that if you have to ask, the answer is no, when in reality… very often it’s much more open than people would know,” he said.

Read the full Article on ABC News here

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