March 18, 1999
When Diane Arieff turned in her cover story on the best-selling "Kosher Sex," I smiled with unquestioned approval. After all, opening doors and windows for Jews of all persuasions -- observant as well as secular -- seemed healthy and desirable. Especially for those who found it difficult to discuss or confront their own sexual preferences or inhibitions; or just plain curiosity.
Now suddenly we had an open and perhaps even daring rabbinic guide, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who was simply trying his best to help individuals and couples in need of spiritual and sexual counselling. What was wrong with that? Any help for those with sexual dilemmas should be encouraged. But as I perused his book, "Kosher Sex," doubts began to surface. Maybe it was just not right for me, I thought. Anyway, who was I to register a complaint?
This last question held more than a tinge of irony. In addition to being a journalist/writer, I had (for a 15-year period) maintained a clinical practice in Boston and had interned as a psychologist at several hospitals in that city. At one point, in one of the hospitals, a psychiatrist, who had observed some of my work, asked me if I wanted to work with her in a new program geared for couples with what was termed sexual dysfunction -- in shorthand, sex therapy.
A whole new world seemed to beckon. How could I say no.
The first couple we saw were in their mid-20s. The woman was Jewish, shy, embarrassed, but eager to find some help; her husband was very macho and in complete denial. The problem was that while their courtship had been passionate and sexually overflowing, he had become impotent within two months of the marriage. Twelve months had now gone by. If he continued to deny and avoid help, she was going to leave.
I won't bore (or titillate) you with the details. Suffice to say that at the end of six weeks, their sexual problem (but only the impotence, we explained carefully) had, for the time being, been resolved. When the couple, full of smiles, told us that they were "cured" and left the small office in which we met each week, my colleague and I jumped up and, without thinking, embraced. Our coming together like that was not sexual, but, oh, it was charged with excitement, spontaneity and wonder.
There was something exhilarating about that particular experience, for I was able to witness a change in behavior within a short space of time, and a change that clearly affected a couple's way of life. Of course, the husband was not made whole, nor the marriage. We knew that and told the couple so. We made clear that there were very real and very deep-seated issues in the husband's life that required attention, and urged him to enter therapy. Names of psychiatrists he might consider were suggested. But he believed his ordeal -- which had appeared out of nowhere -- had ended. If humility was needed, it was administered to the four of us four months later when the couple separated, and then divorced.
In the meantime, there were other couples, other remedies and other strategies. In one instance, we forbade a couple to engage in any sexual congress. Touching was all they were allowed. And we waited to see how long it would take before they challenged our authority and broke the rules. It took three weeks. In another, we sent a married couple back to the early days of courtship, had them start all over, and heard how they would steal out with pillows to their car parked in the driveway, and "make out" late at night.
The lesson I learned was that the path to sexual play and sexual pleasure could be different for each couple and that universal prescriptions were generally not very helpful, and not very true. I wish I could tell you that, at the very least, the insights opened all sorts of magical sexual doors for me, but that would be untrue, too.
Of course, Boteach does not hold himself out as a psychotherapist, or even as a sex therapist. Though he hedges a bit here. In "Kosher Sex," he wants to prescribe for all of us: how to find a soul mate; how to have both a spiritual and a lusty sex life with our married partner; and how somehow to make it all "kosher," by which he means, somehow to have it fall under the Jewish umbrella.
What could be wrong with that? Well, I think, as well-meant as Boteach is, everything. He is prescribing for everyone, and, therefore, for no single person or couple with very real life issues. He lists 23 questions and says if you answer 18 of them affirmatively, what are you waiting for -- there is your soul mate. But, to take him seriously, the 23 questions might not necessarily be germane for you or me; or just one of the no's will actually carry more weight than all 22 of the other answers combined.
To be sure, we are all alike in the broad-brush strokes we call our "humanity." But we are also all different and separate in the specifics of identity, personality and biography. In times of stress, some of us seek help in the universal, some in the particular, and some of us grab whatever is at hand.
The pull of desire is very strong for some people, and the need for sexual play, sexual freedom and sexual congress are freighted with both intensity and prohibition for many of us. Those of us who seek help, sometimes even just plain instruction, are often willing to suspend disbelief. We follow the arrow, the voice of authority, wherever it may lead -- to hushed whispers and fumbling under the covers of a blanket, to a parked car in our driveway late at night.
But before you buy the book, I would advise that you reach out to your partner, best friend and lover and, in the most vulnerable way you have at hand, make yourself heard. -- Gene Lichtenstein