In the following essay, which has been excerpted and slightly rearranged for clarity’s sake, readers hear from the inimitable Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who once again, surprises and delights with her candor. This essay was originally printed in Reading Genesis: Beginnings, a collection of essays edited by Beth Kissileff, author of the novel Questioning Return and participant in a 2010 summer writing workshop at the Collegeville Institute.
There is a Bible in every hotel and motel in the country, and quite rightly—the Bible is the oldest but still the wisest guide to sex ever written. People pick up the Bible for many different reasons but rarely, if ever as a sex manual. That is their mistake.
Long before I became known as “Dr. Ruth” when I was still a good little girl named Karola Ruth Siegel growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, I wasn’t used to saying or hearing words such as penis, vagina, orgasm, or clitoris. If, through some fluke, I did hear such words, I’d find myself blushing.
Sometimes I still blush. We were European Jews, more European than Jewish, and thoroughly influenced by the prudish Victorian attitudes of that era—attitudes still influencing the way so many of us think, act, and talk about sex. Why, when talking about sex do I need to add that we were more European than Jewish? Simply because if our attitudes were more Jewish than European, we would have been more open and adventurous about sex than most people think possible, including many Jews who are unfamiliar with their own tradition [. . .] .
The Jewish writer Maurice Samuel jokes that “Jews are too busy having children to bother with sex,” but the tradition, in fact, encourages a husband and wife to have sex not just for procreation but for pleasure [. . .] .
But how does a couple, raised with the traditional values that promote sexual modesty, obtain the sexual confidence to try different sexual positions and express sexual needs? How do you teach young, modest men and women to take their clothes off and give and take pleasure, to touch and love in ways that are not “standard?” Maybe this is one of the reasons that tradition urges people at the flowering of their sexual energy and desire to spend less time on sublimation and more on the enjoyment of sex as a mitzvah—a Divine command.
One rebbetzin (as the wife of a rabbi is called), for instance, teaches a bridal class to women who are soon to be married. The rebbetzin advises the brides that “chicken soup all the time is not very interesting.” Nor is the same sexual diet. If this is not the sort of instruction we expect from the wife of a rabbi, the fault lies with us, for what the rebbetzin teaches is totally in keeping with this very sexy, very unpublicized tradition.
Judaism is intensely sexual. Ramban taught in his Igeret Hakodesh (literally The Holy Letter [. . .]): “When sexual intercourse is done for the sake of Heaven, there is nothing so holy and pure [. . .] God did not create anything that is ugly or shameful. If the sexual organs are said to be shameful, how can it be said that the Creator fashioned something blemished?” Adds the Zohar, the most important of Jewish mystical texts: “The Divine Presence rests on the marital bed [. . .] After the destruction of the Temple, the bedroom in each home was considered as an aspect of the once glorious and sanctified Holy of Holies” [. . .] .
These concepts allow us to teach men and women that peace in the home is inseparable from good sex. They empower unsatisfied partners by suggesting that, if a problem exists, they must take the responsibility to get aroused, and teach each other how they need to be satisfied, how to be touched, how much pressure, how much foreplay. A partner cannot guess these things, no matter how much he or she loves the spouse.
Good sex is inseparable from good communication, which is sensitive and kind communication. Today we teach women to be assertive. But if a woman says to her partner, “Either you get it up or I’m leaving,” he is not going to have any erection and she will be left as disappointed as Madame Potiphar [. . .] .
Sex, in and of itself, has never been a sin for Jews, or something not to discuss. Within Sinai’s covenantal boundaries, it is a mitzvah, a religious commandment. And what is a mitzvah except a blessing, or a guide on how our lives can be more heavenly? [. . .] the Jewish tradition states that we must understand the mysteries of sexuality to understand the beauty and mysteries of God’s law.
In the Jewish tradition, sex is very much in the mind of the beholder, in the mind where a healthy approach to sex made good sex possible for Jews in the most trying of circumstances and situations. As the Talmud teaches us in tractate Sanhedrin: if a man and a woman are truly lovers they can make their bed on the edge of a sword; if their love goes bad, the best bed in the world is not big enough.
We are not talking about a Bible that most people (who have not read it) associate with puritan chastity, but about the Jewish Bible, with its galaxies of commentaries in which sex is not only allowed but ordained. The Bible teaches that God created the world by separation—heaven from earth, light from dark, water from land, and mortality from immortality. The bridge between heaven and earth is sex, where the greatest pleasure known to humans is matched by the possibility of life being created from sexual union.
Part and parcel of the creation of sex is the creation of the concept of arousal—and make no mistake about it, say the sages, this was all designed by the Creator [. . .] .
Yes, in the beginning was the word, and the word was sex. From the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, God’s introduction to humanity, it is apparent that here is a theology spanning from the dawn of history that accounts for psychology, sexology, and human passion. The Bible, the story of how men and women first came to know God, and the Talmud the canonized commentary on the Bible, is also the story of how men and women came to know each other.
To God, the Holy Author of Genesis, where people went to bed was as important as where they went to pray.