diaTribe: new JPS Jewish Sex and Intimacy book leaves readers unsatisfied

This is a guest post by Amy Gavel, Jewish Educator and coordinator of NOAZIM, Mount Zion Temple’s 20s/30s group.
I’d like to let you in on a secret: I am very comfortable talking openly and directly about sex and sexuality. I also love Judaism and grappling with Jewish text.
I am a Jewish educator, a sex educator, and a Jewish sex educator. I have fantasies sometimes about being the Dr. Ruth of our generation. I was therefore initially very excited to receive the book for my first TCJewfolk review Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Sex and Intimacy edited by rabbis Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg, published by the Jewish Publication Society, and available for purchase for $11.00 on Amazon.com.
Sex and intimacy in Judaism should be brimming with pleasure and meaning. Reading about sex and intimacy from Jewish perspectives should also be fun and offer applicable suggestions and guidance. In the end, while I can appreciate this book for what it tried to do, it misses the mark and manages to take an exciting and relevant topic and make it challenging for me – an avid reader – to finish reading the 143 pages.
The editors provide Jewish Gen-X and Gen-Yers with an array of responses to a four topics of sex and sexuality. Some of the response essays engage Jewish text and some are Jewish the way pepperoni pizza is Jewish if a group of Jews are sitting around and eating it at a pizza place on Yom Kippur afternoon. Written by historians (Hanne Blank), feminist scholars (Martha Ackelsberg), sex workers (#1 U.S. male star of adult cinema Ron Jeremy), clergy (Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff), and others the responses seem to be intended as commentary on how Judaism informs our sexual views and actions.
A new relationship, whether with a person or a book should keep us wanting to know more. After an introduction that gets us started claiming that Judaism is sex-positive while at the same time warning us about the problems of sex by saying, “for all the problems that sex entails, it also can be the source of physical and emotional fulfillment – indeed, the gift from God that Jewish tradition portrays it as being”, the editors divided the discussion into four areas that further imply that sex is inherently troublesome and dangerous. I already knew from the contents page where we were headed, and I wasn’t certain I wanted to go there.
You might be familiar with that feeling when someone is leaning in for a kiss, and you think, “wait, actually I am not interested in you, I am not remotely attracted to you, in fact, I really think I need to get going, and besides I just don’t think this is going to be fun . . .” and for a second you have time to call it off, to back away, and insist that there is just no good reason for what you know will be a bad kiss – but then you don’t because it’s just a kiss and the kiss happens and it’s. . . not good. Still, there is merit to giving someone a second chance, to going on a second date, sometimes chemistry can build . . . I kept reading.
The four topics the editors chose are: Dating Ethics (with a focus primarily on cheating), Sexual Consequences (missed/failed birth control and STD/STI testing), Sex Work and Pornography (just like it sounds), and Sexual Negotiation (the case study introduces some mild kink and the essays in large part address the meaning of consent and the risks of assuming consent). Each section opens with a case study, followed by a few pages of Jewish text from a variety of sources, and then the essay responses which sometimes touch on the initial case study and sometimes address to varying degrees the text, but mostly just give the authors opinion on the topic from his or her personal Jewish perspective. The format has potential.
Each case study could draw us in with a compelling story to which we can relate. Stories about dating and sex are interesting enough to fill many conversations over coffee and drinks, most of prime time television, and a significant number of movies. I shared two of the case studies with some of my college students and a few friends to get their reactions. “Boring.” “Irrelevant.” “What?” “Who is this written for?” Each of us has our own visceral reaction to what is attractive in other people, but the case studies seem to fairly consistently disappoint. With all of the potential case study material in Savage Love or on Dr. Ruth’s home page, I’m not sure why the editors chose to write their own.
Then there are the topics. If we are only going to get four topics, I would have preferred Dating Ethics, Sexual Negotiation (about how to actually have those conversations about if, when, and how to have sex in a dating relationship, what kind of birth control and barrier methods a couple could use, what feels good and what could feel even better), Intimacy (the relationship between physical intimacy and emotional and intellectual intimacy), and Long-term Relationships (long-distance relationships, what Judaism says about living together, about marriage, about choosing not to marry). In every one of those sections questions of Judaism and LGBTQ topics should be addressed alongside topics particular to male/female sexuality and again in several of them authors could grapple with issues of kink and BDSM if they wanted to.
Finally, if we are going to bother with having Jewish traditional and contemporary text, the essays should wrestle with the text and not only be an opportunity for a Jewish person to share his or her personal perspective which may or may not actually be informed by any Jewish values.
Even though I knew I just wasn’t that into this book, on behalf of all of you reading this review, I made it to the very end. The conclusion asserts, “it is incumbent upon us to sort through the many ways of approaching questions about sex and intimacy. . . . For this, too, is Torah.”
Remember that not-so-great kiss, and the almost painful second date, and the moment when you realize no matter how badly you want it to work it just isn’t clicking? That is pretty much how I felt reading this book. I really wanted it to work for me. I really wanted to want to tell all of my friends about the awesome book I discovered. I wanted it to be like reading Virgin: An Untouched History, by Hanne Blank; Heavenly Sex, by Dr. Ruth Westheimer; or Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach.
There isn’t a lot of reading material out there for adults who are shaping a Jewish sexual ethic. Because of that, I would recommend this book for those seeking some guidance and who are willing to wade through it and take from it what is personally helpful. The compilation of Jewish text on these topics is also useful.
However, Torah can be engaging, exciting, and sexy. For me, Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Sex and Intimacy was none of those things. Thankfully, just as there are more dates and relationships in my future, I know there will be more books as well. I’m already looking forward to the next one.
(Photo: Lin Pernille Photography)

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