Guilt and gefilte fish

Kosher Sex serves up a dose of old-fashioned values.

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Many of us know that the word "kosher" refers to dietary laws introduced in the Jewish Bible. However, today "kosher" refers to more than just food. The word has taken on rich colloquial meaning and we judge many things – social behavior, for instance – to be kosher or not kosher.

But sex?

While the phrase "kosher sex" initially conjures up all sorts of interesting images involving chopped liver, gefilte fish and chicken soup, rabbi and author Shmuley Boteach uses the term to mean something else: intimate, marital sex which "serves to elevate the human condition to a higher spiritual plane."

In his plainly named book, Kosher Sex, Boteach insists that sex is kosher, observing that while Christian theology traditionally involves guilt about sex, Judaism, in contrast, does not.

Boteach explores the role of sex in Jewish marriage, an institution which he feels is in crisis – a near epidemic, to go by his unscientific case studies. So he offers up to lonely, frustrated, married and unmarried Jews (and non-Jews) a how-to manual of sorts.

Boteach’s titillating title is clearly meant to be controversial. And, indeed, he has ruffled some yarmulkes in the Jewish community. After the book’s publication, he was asked to resign as rabbi of his London, England, synagogue.

But unfortunately, Boteach delivers nothing more than conventional pop psychology. Tellingly, the first authority he cites is John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Like Gray’s best-selling tome, Rabbi Boteach’s Sex depends upon the same tired gender stereotyping so common in mainstream popular media. It would sit well on a shelf next to that other nefarious book on relationships: The Rules.

Oy vey.

Unfortunately for the reader, Boteach’s book is not bold. It’s not even offensive. Well, at least not in the way that it intends to be. Instead, what unintentionally offends is the book’s unrelenting conservatism.

At the outset, Boteach explains that his writing is motivated by pain. A child of divorced parents, young Shmuley made a conscious decision not to perpetuate the suffering that he witnessed as a member of a broken family. He aims to heal by advocating marital intimacy through sex.

While there’s nothing objectionable about this message in itself, Boteach’s argument lacks grace, wit and accuracy.

Not only is Kosher Sex uninspiring, it is uninformed. OK, I didn’t exactly expect this book to be scholarly, but Boteach depends far too heavily upon undersupported assumptions and underexamined generalizations.

Perhaps the most egregious problem is that Boteach doesn’t seem to know that much about the history of sexuality. When he says, for instance, that "modern sex experts have only recently discovered the female sexual nature, and prior to the 17th century the female orgasm remained an undiscovered mystery," he simply gets it wrong. He hasn’t done the research.

Which is as follows: Medical writers of the Middle Ages believed that female orgasm was necessary for conception. At times, this belief was even used to prove that a rape hadn’t occurred. A woman claiming that she had become pregnant by rape could be challenged on the basis that her pleasure, her orgasm, was required in order for her to conceive. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that women’s orgasm was repudiated. And we, in our post-Victorian culture, have simply chosen to ignore the knowledge of sexuality possessed by our predecessors.

And while we’re on the subject: "Feminists," writes Boteach, "portray religion as encouraging women to subdue any trace of sexual longing." But our esteemed rabbi, ever content to simplify broad sociopolitical movements such as feminism, entirely neglects the substantial writing by contemporary Jewish feminists.

What’s even more surprising is that although Boteach refers occasionally to the Talmud or Midrash (Jewish commentary on the Torah), he provides only scant discussion of these texts, relying instead on an overwhelmingly secular approach to his discussion. Kosher Sex won’t satisfy those readers even slightly curious about the rabbinic traditions on the topic of sexuality.

Ultimately, Kosher Sex seems more invested in making a splash than in making a true contribution to our understanding about a culture’s double-edged attitude toward sexuality and intimacy.

According to an online article of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, Playboy magazine paid a large sum for a prepublication excerpt from Kosher Sex. Perplexing, because Boteach’s own theory of kosher sex makes pornography a definite "no-no." Yes, some might consider this to be repugnant hypocrisy. Yet Boteach conveniently excuses this contradiction by explaining that the Playboy move was his publisher’s and he had nothing to do with it.

Continuing in his promotional enterprise, Boteach recently appeared on the "Today Show." I expect he’ll soon appear on "Oprah" (if he hasn’t already), where he’ll be in good company spouting his bland, mass-marketed blandishments about "feelings" and "intimacy."

What a shame that Boteach didn’t heed the words of Rabbi Burton Visotsky, who humbly wrote in his 1996 study, The Genesis of Ethics, "I am concerned with moral development, but I must also know the limits of my competence." Acknowledges Visotsky, "It is wise for me to remember that I am a rabbi and not a therapist."

Amen.

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