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)

Ed. Note: We hope that you, like us, want TC Jewfolk to stick around for a very long time. So we’re asking for a few minutes of your time so we can learn more about you. Oh, and if warm fuzzies aren’t enough motivation, maybe this is: the awesome folks at Parasole Restaurants (think Chino Latino, Salut, Il Gato and Burger Jones to name a few) have generously donated a $50 gift card for us to give away to one lucky survey taker. Your chance to enter is at the end of the survey. Click here to take the survey.


About Amy Ariel

Growing up a Jewish kid on a horse farm west of Saint Louis, with a B.A. from Grinnell and work experience in outdoor, experiential education, Amy moved to Saint Paul in 1999. As a lawyer, youth worker, educator, author, and volunteer, she has been intensely involved in the Jewish community in the Twin Cities. Her middle-grade chapter book Friends Forever won the Gelett Burgess award for Religion in 2012. Amy lives in Saint Paul with her wife, Liddy Rich, and their dog.

Comments. Add Yours!


  1. I’m one of the lucky ones who got to hear Amy’s thoughts while she was reading it, and I too was surprised that they bothered to include Jewish text, and then didn’t bother to discuss it in any meaningful way.

    And let’s be honest — any book discussing Judaism and sex needs to include Dr. Ruth to have any real credibility.

    Thanks for soldiering through this one so the rest of us can look elsewhere 😉

  2. I’m glad Amy read this so we don’t have to!

  3. Love your writing style. Love that you talk that way as well. Love that you didn’t like that book. Hate that the book sucked. Love that Judaism encourages such discussions and am looking for you to write the book on Jewish values and sexuality. I think you should have to. By popular demand.


  4. There is so much that could be said about Judaism and sexuality, and much as I like Rabbi Dorff’s other work, I’m not inclined to add this book to my reading list based on this review. One of the most basic foundations of Judaism is self-discipline, and nowhere is self-discipline more obvious or necessary than in intimate relationship.

    Note that self-discipline is not the same as self-deprivation, nor does self-discipline imply anything “dirty” about sexuality. Anyone read Shir Hashirim lately? What if THAT was included in the Torah? (And who says, in a very real but less obvious way, that it’s not?)

    Much of what it means to seek, find, and maintain relationships comes down to boundaries and trust and our willingness to be vulnerable.

    It is too bad this book wasn’t more satisfying.

  5. This very articulate review suggests the book in question can be summed up as a text book rather than a “good” book. Who wants to feel like there will be discussion questions at the end? Like those terrible days in high school when literature was spoiled by the forced “lesson highlights,” it seems the writers took a rather contrived stance, like a committee wrote it, completely ignoring their intended audience. Too bad.

  6. If I wrote such a book, what topics do you (or anyone) think I should cover?

  7. Yea, I’m so used to hearing you talk about the great parts of sex and why it should be so special with the right person I can’t imagine myself in a situation needing to negotiate “kink.”

    I don’t know about “negotiation,” if you can negotiate being uncomfortable or wanting and not getting or not wanting and getting, I see Yes and No and Maybe Later and Okay I respect that. You know Amy, I think you ought to write a book, and I think I ought to help. At least, perhaps, I could illustrate, because I was taught well…

    I really like your suggested four sections, which is why I want that book to exist, whether you write it or not! Nice article.

  8. Sheyna,
    I have also enjoyed some of Rabbi Dorff’s other writing, and respect him as a scholar, which is one of the reasons I was surprised to be so disappointed by this book. Here is a specific example: One of the essay writers asserts that a star of david tattoo on the upper right thigh of a Jewish man he met in a bathroom is illustrative of the man’s commitment to having a sex-life informed by Jewish values. With no discussion about tattooing and Judaism, no discussion about whether before a partner encounters that star he or she should already know that he is Jewish (based on Jewish values), no discussion about why that man might feel the need to have such a tattoo or why he would hide it in a place only select people would see . . . there are many relevant questions none of which were addressed by the essay. However I personally feel about the tattoo (and honestly, I really don’t care all that much), it would take some convincing for me to concede the point that it is illustrative of a commitment to a sex-life informed by Jewish values. I might get there, but I need a reason beyond a magen david tattoo being on a Jewish man.

    I appreciate your comment. I do think a text book can also be a good book, and for me there isn’t anything that is inherently a turn-off (so to speak) about having text and essays and guided questions. In fact, many very popular self-help books are structured that way and both used and enjoyed by readers. I don’t read a lot of self-help books, but I do read a lot of sex-ed books and they similarly have scenarios and text and guided questions. I also think, however, that many high school text books are not well-written. History is a good example. An area of study driven by human stories, and yet so often written about and taught in such a way that students can come away without feeling remotely connected to the people who lived in the era about which they are learning.

    I think one of the key issues here is that kink, within a Jewish relationship at least, should probably not be the first experience that two people are negotiating. Especially not given the scenario – a married couple with two children. And, you crack me up, exactly what kind of illustrating were you taught? Or, should I ask the follow-up . . . interesting . . . what do you mean by that?

    Happy to help!

    Thanks everyone!

  9. Amen to every one of the comments already posted! You know you’ve got a committee of people to help you write and publicize this book you’re writing. We’re with you! If you’re going to use those four topics, does Sexual Negotiation come before Intimacy? If it does due to practical realities, I would hope that the opening paragraph would discuss why intimacy should come first.

  10. Stephanie,

    Great question! And yes, I think so. Why? Well, I find that in dating at 35 I am often asked to navigate a conversation about sex (which is different but related to negotiation) before I feel any sense of intimacy at all. Sometimes on the first date, nearly always by the third or fifth, it becomes necessary to negotiate something.

    Even if what is being negotiated is ‘not yet’ . . . I think one of the realities of dating is figuring out where getting to know each other physically fits with getting to know each other emotionally and intellectually. I think those boundaries get established (or don’t) before most people feel real intimacy. What Judaism has to say about that negotiation is also an interesting question.

    What do other people think?

  11. Not being Jewish some of the stuff mentioned in your critique was a bit outside my knowledge, but not so much to understand that this book isn’t up to snuff in your estimation. I was a bit thrown off in the first four paragraphs but got back on with the whole “this-book-is-a-bad-smooch” simile. You mention how long it is, 143 pages, which doesn’t seem like a lot. So you labored through a short book, which only doubles impression of how pointless the book is. I have to admit that I’m confused on what one of the sections was about. If I’m confused about what one was, there may be other readers who don’t know what the others are about, simply by lacking the knowledge. I’d like to know more about what each section actually gave you.
    So you say that one section is about Dating: focus on cheating, but what do they cover about dating and cheating in the context of sex and intimacy? Give me something specific, like an example of where something is lacking, so that I know you are right, rather than just taking on faith that you are. It doesn’t need to be an excerpt, but a one or two line precis followed by your commentary would help show the holes that are in this book.

  12. Joseph,
    All fair questions.

    Here is a summary of the case study in the first section on dating ethics:

    Alex, Jame, Pat and Sam are students at a university. Pat has been dating Sam for two months, Alex and Jamie have gone out five times in two weeks. None of them have had conversations establishing monogamous, exclusive relationships. One day, Pat and Alex meet, have chemistry, and go out.

    Then we get a bunch of questions about whether or not that is cheating, whether or not anyone has a responsibility to tell anyone else what’s going on.

    The questions are followed by a “what if” list. “What if” they had sex as a “one-night stand” that day they met? What if it was just a date, but they did not have sex? Etc.

    Then we get a new question, “Does any of this change if Alex and Pat’s original relationships were heterosexual and this new coupling was a same-sex relationships? What if Alex and Pat’s original relationships were same-sex and this new coupling is heterosexual.”

    This case study opens the book. It is the introductory topic of “sex and intimacy”.

    The traditional sources, the texts that are listed in the following few pages are mostly about sex outside of marriage and honesty in sexual relationships.

    The first article responding (the section is called “Responses”) to the case study and the texts doesn’t refer to or quote the case study and doesn’t grapple with the texts beyond using them to show that dating is different than it used to be and harder than it used to be (the author’s claim, not mine). She sums up at the end by offering, “by elevating the way we see each other while we’re seeing each other, we will more fully be able to see ourselves.” (15)

    To its credit, the second response does actually begin by addressing the fact pattern given in the hypothetical. However, that still means that the very first issue of dating being addressed is cheating – specifically sexual cheating.

    Then an article, by a rabbi, that opens with stating as fact that “dating” is anything from a long-term relationship to one-night stands – without any basis in text or even his own philosophy to prove or even defend that assertion.

    Time for Case 2.
    Rachel and Matt are in their early 20s and sexually involved. If Rachel suspected their birth control methods weren’t effective, should she take the “morning after pill?” Does she have an obligation to inform Matt?

    As for confusion about the sections – maybe this will help?

    Dating was about sex outside of marriage and cheating. Sexual Consequences was about STIs/Ds (Sexually Transmitted Infections/Diseases)and testing and unintended pregnancy, Sex Work and Pornography was about prostitution and people who choose to work in the porn industry – mostly, and Sexual Negotiation was about a woman who liked to be spanked and a man (her husband) who didn’t want to spank her (mild kink) and how they (parents of young children) should/could negotiate their sexual desires.

    Does that help?

  13. Amy,

    I really appreciate your review. I am currently reading “The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism” also edited by Danya Ruttenberg and am finding it woefully behind the times on most topics. Of course, over the past eight months, I have embarked upon a journey encouraging kink-positive living. Please consider checking out my blog: http://www.return2bondage.blogspot.com. I would love to hear your thoughts.