New Podcast Series Discussing Sex from Orthodox Perspectives
An Orthodox rabbi and a sex therapist discuss sex – while this scenario is not common in the real world, a new podcast series discussing sexual matters for Orthodox Jews is focussed solely on that. The new podcast series, “The Joy of Text”, features Rabbi Dov Linzer, the Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School, and Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus, Clinical Director at The Medical Center for Female Sexuality, with Ramie Smith, a student at Yeshivat Maharat, moderating the featured speakers. Published by Jewish Public Media, “The Joy of Text” is also made in collaboration with the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.
The first podcast, which was published three weeks ago, has three segments: A discussion considering several questions relating to sexual fantasy, the second being a discussion with a guest, Michael Lesher, who, via phone, discussed sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, having published a book about it last year, and the third segment is a question and answer (Q & A) discussion. The second podcast, which was published just this week, is much shorter than the first one, which lasted 50 minutes, while the second one only lasts just under 15 minutes, as it only contains a Q & A.
The four questions presented in the Q & A segments along with the featured topic of sexual fantasies demonstrate first and foremost the importance of having a rabbi being in conversation with an expert in the field under discussion. In this case, the topic is sex, about which many (most?) rabbis are underinformed. A couple of times in the first podcast, Rabbi Linzer points out something he just learned from Dr. Marcus and pronounces the need for more rabbis to be in dialogue with sex experts. The dialogue that occurs shows itself to be an important one that is rare, yet necessary on matters of sex for Orthodox Jews. (Of course, non-Orthodox Jews as well as Gentiles may find the conversations to be of interest.)
Smith moderates quite ably, with an effervescent energy that balances the necessary respect for her two featured speakers alongside interjecting where needed. Rabbi Linzer brings his broad amount of halakhic knowledge as well as an incisive reading of the sources to the conversation, but what really stands out in his frank and open consideration of the matters at hand. Dr. Marcus, who was featured in an article about her in an issue of the New York Times Magazine last month, brings brings an ease and comfortability in discussing these matters. Tying these speakers together is an easily overlooked aspect of the series: it is noticeably crisply edited to remove filler speech, which provides an enjoyably smooth listening experience.
In dealing with sexual fantasy, Dr. Marcus makes the important contextualizing:
Fantasy is kind of an interesting topic, because I feel like it makes everybody nervous. When you start talking about fantasy and people start squinting at you. Fantasy is really the idea that you move into your head in any number of ways in order to express your sex life, or, at least, sexual fantasy, which is what we’re talking about. Fantasy, in general, you could be fantasizing about taking a boat ride, but the kind of fantasy we’re talking about tonight is sexual fantasy. All having a fantasy means is moving into your head and thinking about different aspects of sexuality. It makes people nervous because they don’t quite understand it, they don’t know how to do it, they think it might be wrong, they’ve heard all sorts of weird assumptions or halakhic positions on fantasies. And the truth is that fantasies are a critical part of someone’s sexual life.
Ultimately, both Dr. Marcus and Rabbi Linzer share important conclusions: “The most important thing for women is to discern what really turns them on, to plot their erotic map, and to live with that in their head and to realize that it has no relevance to what they want to have happen in reality,” said Dr. Marcus. “If women can do that – and men – I think that everybody can have a much healthier sex life.” “The statement in the Talmud from the man’s perspective: Anything a man wants to do with his wife, he can do, which really expresses enormous latitude, in terms of the sexual behavior between husband and wife,” said Rabbi Linzer. “The area that the Talmud really is concerned with is not the types of activities that are being done, but whether it’s about the couple, caring for one another, connecting with one another, as opposed to using one another.”
As to the four questions in the two Q & A sessions – are Kama Sutra cards permitted? if one is engaging in
pre-marital non-marital sex, can one use a condom? can one fulfill the mitzvah of onah through the use of a vibrator? should one discuss going to the mikvah with children? – Dr. Marcus and Rabbi Linzer have a fruitful volley of answering.
With Kama Sutra, Dr. Marcus noted, “In the broadest context, the Kama Sutra really is trying to talk about sex being spiritual in addition to being physical. And so, if we’re not worried that it came from another culture, the message is probably, actually, a message that jives quite well with the Jewish ethos of Godliness, spirituality, sex.”
During somewhat of a tangent in the condom conversation, an important comment Rabbi Linzer made in the non-marital sex conversation was
I think that there’s such an all-or-nothing that sometimes operates within the Orthodox community; somebody feels that, well, I’m anyways stepping out of halakhah, then there’s nothing else to worry about And I think that schools are afraid to do sex-ed because then it will come across as you’re opening the door or we’re condoning it, but if there was a larger conversation, in general, about sexual ethics and about values, then that could definitely a part of the conversation. It’s a line that has to be walked: how do you talk about without sending certain messages? But, it’s something that definitely needs to be addressed.
In regards to the vibrator question, Rabbi Linzer pointed out
What about, if the woman is sexually satisfied, but no intercourse took place, would that actually be the mitzvah of onah? It seems that the answer, from a technical standpoint, is “No”, because, in addition to the woman’s sexual satisfaction, there’s an aspect which is just the physical coming together of husband and wife. It doesn’t have to be vaginal sex, it could be anal sex, but that sense of actual, what the gemara calls קירוב בשר, their flesh coming together, being as one. So, it does seem that it is technically necessary, although, at some level, I would say “What difference does it make?” If the woman isn’t interested in actual intercourse and what she wants tonight is a vibrator, then we don’t have to worry about the mitzvah of onah. And certainly, to have intercourse when the woman doesn’t want intercourse, it would not only not be a fulfillment of onah, it would be a violation of halakhah.
In regards to the question about whether or not to tell children one is going to the mikvah, Dr. Marcus had strong opinions on the matter:
I feel very strongly about this question. I feel like the answer is “Yes”. I think that you don’t have to announce to your child when you’re going to the mikvah each time, but I think if your child sees you leaving to go to the mikvah and it comes up as a point of conversation, it is really destructive to try to hide it. I know this touches on issues of modesty…, but I think we have to address the issue of mikvah pretty much like the issue of shabbas and kosher, like we talk to our kids about those things and the issue of mikvah should not be a hidden secret.
Dr. Marcus further spoke about it by saying:
I feel like part of what’s happened is this idea that, when you come home from the mikvah and you have to have sex – which I think has its own major, major negative issues – has gotten us all entwined in this ridiculous idea that mikvah is connected to sex and, therefore, it has to be really hush-hush and you can’t tell somebody. And I think we’d all be better off if we just separated them a little bit: it has to do with a personal status issue and life changes a little bit before and after you go to the mikvah and I just feel we’d raise much more healthy children, children who knew we were going to the mikvah. …I tovel dishes and I tovel myself.
One further comment to highlight made by Rabbi Linzer about sex, in the context of the mikvah question related to the focus of couples on sexual intercourse to the exclusion of other sexual activity:
“I think that a big problem that we have, maybe in the larger culture, but certainly within Orthodoxy, is that we, somehow, have defined sex to be just about intercourse. Couples that follow halakhah and don’t have sex before they are married, they don’t have a history and experience of sexual activity that’s not about intercourse, they run right into intercourse and that really limits their palate and their repertoire, so I think it is a big problem for the hyperfocus on intercourse.”
I have found the series to be novel in the open discussion that Dr. Marcus and Rabbi Linzer bring in their deep and broad knowledge of the topics, albeit coming from different angles and how they bring these topics to be discussed in the public sphere, which is quite uncommon in the Orthodox community. I look forward to their future podcasts!