Sages and sex therapists - Dr. Ruth's "Heavenly Sex"
Last Thursday I went to see pioneering sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer talk about her book Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition at Temple Israel in Boston, a program by the New Center for Arts and Culture. This was my first time seeing the legendary Dr. Ruth in person, and as predicted, I was in awe of this teeny-tiny bubbe and her stylish glasses. I was excited to be there with my friends from the Jewish Women's Archive, community partner of the NCAC for this event.
I have always wanted to hear Dr. Ruth because of my own background as a sex educator and sex counselor in college. The reason I got involved with sex ed and counseling was that I have always felt very comfortable talking openly about sex. When it comes to talking openly about sex, however, there is no one more accomplished than Dr. Ruth, who began the program by asking the audience to say “orgasm” out loud. As someone well-versed in sex knowledge, what was exciting about this program for me was the opportunity to learn about Jewish sex, and Dr. Ruth did not disappoint.
Dr. Ruth began by telling a midrash about a rabbi performing a mitvah – having intercourse with his wife on Shabbat. He felt something was not right, and looked under the bed only to find his favorite yeshiva student. The student explained himself, saying “Rabbi, what you are doing is Torah, and I must learn Torah from you.” Overall, Judaism has a very positive approach to sex, and because it is considered a mitzvah and part of Torah, it is something meant to be practiced as well as studied. It seems I have Jewish tradition to thank for my scholarly interest in sex, as well as my ease in speaking about it.
Dr. Ruth went on to explain that in Jewish tradition, sex is a big part of finding “peace in the home,” something all couples must strive for. In order to create peace in the home, the Jewish man is obligated to sexually satisfy his wife even after menopause, which reveals that the importance of sex does not lie in pro-creation alone. It seems that Jewish tradition values the relationship between man and wife as much as it does the children it produces. The sages even encourage men to “speak softly” to their wives to get them "in the mood," and give the go-ahead for different sex positions (as long as it is okay with the woman) which is proof, Dr. Ruth assures us, that the sages were great sex therapists.
Dr. Ruth, like the sages, is big on defining boundaries about with whom you have sex, and under what circumstances. Adultery is out, of course. Even adulterous dreams and fantasies are not permitted. Also, you must be married, or at least in a serious, committed relationship. According to Dr. Ruth, “hooking up” (something my generation has gained a good deal of notoriety over) is a “catastrophe.”
This was the one restriction that I, as a member of the "hook up generation" had trouble with. Considering my interest in sex and sexuality, I have thought a great deal about hooking up and have yet to come to a conclusive opinion. "Hooking up" refers to casual sexual encounters between strangers or friends who are not romantically involved, though hook-ups sometimes lead to relationships. The arguments against hooking up come from a variety of sources, including the right-wing celibacy crowd as well as some progressive, sex-positve voices like Dr. Ruth. Some of these arguments are hyperbole (like saying that the only reason women would hook up is because she has low self-esteem, or that every hook-up will end in sexually transmitted disease) but some are more reasonable.
Dr. Ruth maintains that sex is most healthy and fulfilling when it involves love, an argument supported by Jewish law. Still, I can't shake my belief that it is possible for some (everyone is different) to have enjoyable, healthy sex outside of committed relationships. I also believe that if a woman chooses to be sexually active without commitment, she should not be condemned or stigmatized for that choice, when it has always been socially acceptable for men to engage in that behavior. (Just look at the terminology: "swingin' bachelor" vs. "slut" or "whore.") For those reasons, I did not feel comfortable with Dr. Ruth's outright condemnation of sex outside of relationships, but I will consider her arguments as I continue to think about this.
While Dr. Ruth does believe very strongly in the wisdom of the sages, there are some points on which she herself disagrees, particularly the biblical passage prohibiting homosexuality. She argues that the sages simply did not understand certain things, and that at the time, people were ignorant about hetero vs. homo sexuality. For this reason she believes gay couples should have equal rights and adamantly states that if a gay or lesbian couple comes to her for advice, she will treat them with the same respect as any hetero couple. The fact that Dr. Ruth is brave and free-thinking enough to question the aspects of Jewish law she disagrees with makes me feel better about questioning her, and reminds me that questioning is also a part of the Jewish tradition, allowing us to simultaneously respect and reinterpret the wisdom of our elders as it applies to modern life.
Overall, the evening was a wonderful experience and I was fortunate to learn more about Dr. Ruth's background during the war and how her hardships informed her future work. When asked about her childhood, she said, "Why was I saved? I have an obligation to do something - that's why I went into a helping profession. I didn't know I would be talking about sex!" Dr. Ruth is exactly as Francine Achbar, Executive Director of the New Center for Arts and Culture, introduced her: an innovator, pioneer, and positive life force.
Perhaps the funniest part of Dr. Ruth's talk was when she took a question about common misconceptions about sex. Dr. Ruth said that one major misconception was the idea that women want a man to last for hours: "No woman that I know of wants that - she has other things to do!" And she is right. At 81 years-old, Dr. Ruth is the author of 27 books, has hosted numerous TV and radio shows, and has given talks all over the world. If there was ever an argument for the impact one woman could make on the world, Dr. Ruth is it.