David S. Ribner and Talli Y. Rosenbaum, I Am for My Beloved: A Guide to Enhanced Intimacy for Married Couples (Urim Publications, 2020), 151 pp.
Reviewed by Nechama Goldman Barash
During the COVID -19 pandemic, synagogues around the world have been closed, reopened and closed again for public safety, but there has been a concerted effort to ensure that the women’s mikve stay open. There is legitimate concern for mikve safety given the contagion of the virus. Some women have not been able to immerse for weeks, and in some cases months, for fear of contagion, leading to demands that rabbis find halakhic solutions. If mikves would become unsafe, what alternatives could be offered to the myriad couples who would be left in sexual limbo? How could we assist couples in need of mikva as part of their efforts to conceive, some of them desperate to become pregnant and unable to consider further delay? On the other end of the spectrum, the panic over enforced, ongoing abstinence has led to illegal, “pirate” mikves operating in some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods which allow women immerse, whether they are in protective quarantine or even actually diagnosed in violation of health regulations and imperiling the health and lives of others.
The pandemic has brought many underlying issues to the forefront, and the rise in sexual awareness on the part of women is no exception. It has led to diversity of voices demanding a reevaluation of traditional sources that speak about women’s bodies, nidda, sexuality, fertility, and more. The last few years have seen a steady rise in resources having to do with sexuality geared towards the Orthodox population.
This is a welcome change for a community that traditionally has instituted a wall of silence around the subject. Pre-marital abstinence together with the laws of Family Purity were typically presented as all that that was needed to ensure exciting, enduring marital intimacy. In addition, there has been reticence to admit to challenges inherent in creating a healthy, enjoyable sexual dynamic within marriage.
The cyclical structure of sanctioned and forbidden sexuality mandated by the laws of nidda is often presented as the Jewish secret to marital satisfaction: couples experience a renewal in desire thanks to the mandated period in which they are prohibited to touch. However, this approach does not account for the struggle many couples encounter in attempting to build an adequate sexual relationship in the face of a uniform legal structure not necessarily aligned with their individual sexual needs. The increase in the number of Orthodox sex therapists trained to work with rabbis and to advise couples, even in the most strictly Orthodox communities, attest to the often tardy acknowledgement that there is dysfunction and incompatibility.
Women are entitled to sexual relations (the mitzva of onah) as part of their marriage rights, but this does not automatically entitle them to pleasure. There are some wonderful sources from the early middle ages instructing men to talk lovingly to their wives, and to take time to invest in foreplay before carrying out actual relations, but we have no information about women’s actual experiences. In many rabbinic sources, wives are recruited as partners to help their husbands sanctify their physical desires (the yetzer) with less attention paid to how the woman experiences the sexual act. Women were often educated to accept their husband’s sexual overtures in order to bear children or protect them from wasting seed.
Halakhic literature describes the sexual act as bi’ah or bielah – two words that refer to the man penetrating the woman’s body as if that is the sum total of the experience. For religious couples, this can result in a very defined and limiting focus on a particular act that is not always specifically pleasurable for women. And yet, many couples are taught that this is all that they can do, with no options for broadening the scope of experience. After giving a talk to women from a modern religious community about halakhic sources that permit an array of sexual interactions leading to sexual pleasure, women lined up to quietly ask me if they could actually do more than engage in the missionary position in the dark as they had always been instructed. This puritanical approach has infiltrated religious attitudes towards sexuality, and is in conflict with the contemporary understanding of how sexual pleasure is experienced.
In the last 20 years, as women gain understanding of their bodies, their fertility, and their sexuality, they have begun to add their voices to the halakhic and religious conversation on these matters. Many are less willing to be passive in the bedroom. In a lecture given by veteran religious sex therapist Dr. David Ribner (co-author of the book under review), he mentioned that the Hasidic women he works with in his clinic are demanding pleasure “and the men are terrified.” This is changing the balance in the sexual dynamic between religious men and women and putting pressure on the system to acknowledge the stakes and respond.
The last decade has seen a welcome increase in resources available to the religious community on the broad topic of sexuality. In 2011, Ribner and Dr. Jennie Rosenfeld published The Newlywed’s Guide to Physical Intimacy (Gefen Publishing) that provided basic sexual information, along with black and white illustrations of female and male anatomy and sexual positions, to religious couples coming with little to no experience.
The next year, Dr. Yocheved Debow published Talking About Intimacy and Sexuality (OU Press). This was the first book to alert educators and parents to the urgent need for open communication and conversation with their young children from nursery school through grade school, puberty and adolescence, into adulthood on changing bodies, sexual development, feelings of attraction, sexual predators and the perils of the internet so that children could feel comfortable coming to responsible adults with their questions and experiences rather than fall prey to less scrupulous sources of information.
In the last five years, popular podcasts like Joy of Text with Dr. Batsheva Marcus and Rabbi Dov Linzer and Intimate Judaism with Talli Rosenbaum and Rabbi Scott Kahn, have paired rabbis and religious sex therapists in conversations about topics ranging from male and female masturbation, premarital sexual explorations, sexual pleasure, LGBTQ issues, and more. Both podcasts often invite professionals in the field to add greater nuance and additional insights to different topics.
These layered dialogues provide information and resources from studies and research on human sexuality, case studies from within the religious community, and varying related halakhic sources and approaches. Most importantly, they have broadened the topic well beyond the normal boundaries taught in the classroom, yeshiva, or pre-marital counseling classes, using language and references comfortable for the religious listener but, at the same time, not shying away from religiously complicated or sensitive topics and using clear and explicit language instead of euphemisms commonly used in traditional literature.
For all of the reasons stated above, I Am for My Beloved, co-authored by Ribner and Rosenbaum, is an important addition to the Jewish bookshelf. The authors have written a concise book, using straightforward language for the lay person, with clear directions and explanations, geared towards the religious couple. Because both authors are Orthodox, they understand the complicated relationship men and women have with their sexuality, the laws of nidda, the prohibitions around masturbation, pre-marital and extra-marital sex.
The book is deceptively simple. Each chapter is only 2-3 pages long but it gradually and comfortably guides the reader from values and attitudes towards sexuality, including the interrelatedness of emotional and physical intimacy, to some basic sexual anatomy, to a section on sexual enhancement, and one on sexuality throughout the life cycle. While similar information can be found all over the internet, many religious adults are wary about the explicit visuals and crude language, antithetical to the value the community places on modesty.
Chapter 15, for example, is about sexual accessories. Using two black and white illustrations, the authors give basic information about the use of sex aids for men and women in enhancing sexual pleasure. The language, as in the rest of the book, is straightforward without feeling obscene. The same technique is used in chapter 16, on the subject of sexual positions. The authors both normalize those couples who are satisfied with their status quo and those who are looking to diversify. They strongly reinforce the need for consent between both partners when something new is being considered.
Here, too, the book uses simple black and white drawings to illustrate different positions with precise explanations of how each works, the benefit it can give the man and the woman, and some variations to try. The text is explicit but not gratuitous. In chapters 17 and 18, on the topics of sexual fantasies and oral lovemaking, the authors normalize without judgement, providing guidelines and instructions for novice couples seeking to explore, clarifying as befits religious professionals in the field, that they are providing information but not halakhic guidelines.
Following this is a very helpful section on maintaining sexual intimacy throughout the life cycle. This is accompanied by brief but thorough information about marital relations during and after pregnancy and the effect it has on a woman’s body and sexuality. As well, there is an excellent section on menopause, a time in a woman’s life that is often ignored since the religious community is often hyper-focused on fertility and childbearing.
Towards the end, the authors bring some common sexual struggles along with illustrative vignettes based on case studies which are helpful in explaining some of the real-time issues that couples face which are often about other things going on in the relationship. Personalizing the stories allow readers to identify some of their own fears, anxieties and issues, providing insights into possible solutions or, encouraging them to seek professional help.
The authors also address monogamy and the impact it has on sexuality. This has been a huge topic in the world at large thanks to Esther Perel’s important book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (HarperCollins). Ribner and Rosenbaum take note of Perel’s approach and add their own insights about the benefits of monogamy on long-term sexuality and intimacy. They also address two taboo topics – use of pornography and infidelity – that might confront a religious couple over the years of marriage.
While they never undermine the legitimacy of halakhic sources or rabbinic authority, they make clear that most rabbis are neither marital therapists nor sex therapists, and advise that care must be taken when considering how to ask a halakhic question. Furthermore, they warn the couple that if something feels off in the dynamic with the rabbi they are consulting, “trust your instincts and find someone else.” Both of these caveats are obvious and yet need to be stated for the Orthodox community which often implicitly trusts rabbinic authorities to guide them.
To quote Dr. Stephen Snyder, a psychiatrist, renowned sex therapist, and Orthodox Jew: “These are astonishing times for sex… [People] are interested in relationships. They want to have great sex in a committed relationship. They want sex to be an instrument of sanctification and peace at the center of a loving partnership” (Love Worth Making, 3).
Snyder’s words should resonate with us all. It is why there has been so much energized discourse, in many directions and at all levels within Orthodoxy. Ribner and Rosenbaum’s book will provide normalization and guidance for those seeking to further enhance marital intimacy and bring greater pleasure into the sanctified space of their bedroom without compromising their commitment to Jewish tradition.
Rabbanit Nechama Goldman Barash is a yoetzet halakha, holds a master’s degree in Talmud from Bar Ilan University and graduated from Matan’s Hilkhata program. She teaches Talmud, contemporary halakha, and gender and religion at Pardes, Matan, and Torah V’Avodah.
[Published October 12, 2020]