This summer is 25 years since I first published “Kosher Sex” in Britain in 1998. The book, which in many ways changed my life, was written in response to two factors. First, my lifelong desire to turn my parents’ painful divorce into a blessing by giving married couples advice how to have passionate and exciting relationships. Marriage should never be a prison. And second, as an outcome of all the relationships advice that my students at Oxford University were seeking when I served them as rabbi between 1988 and 1999.
I never expected “Kosher Sex” to be a big deal or to sell. In fact, I only got it published by insisting it be included as part of a two part-deal with Duckworth Publishers – a prestigious but high-brow imprint – which had asked me to write a book called “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Judaism,” which was indeed published in
The first printing of “Kosher Sex” was tiny, about 5,000 copies. But lo and behold, from the moment it came out, it captured international headlines and had me invited to speak on the subject all over the world.
Part of it was controversy. Why was a rabbi writing a book about sex? Was it appropriate? Wasn’t it downright scandalous? Would I be stripped of my rabbinical title? Was my wife embarrassed?
My eight-year-old daughter, Mushki, came home from school crying that she had been bullied. “Your father wrote a naughty book,” the other children told her — which in Britain passes for criticism but here in America would be high praise!
But the other part of the book’s instant popularity was the sheer need for it. To use the British understatement and to sound profoundly American, most people’s sex lives suck. I don’t only mean married couples, who quickly fall into boring routine and prefer watching Netflix to lovemaking. I mean even singles, who have to contend with sex that is a performance for which you are rated and that lacks intimate connection.
This summer my wife and I visited Croatia for the first time. I was amazed when a nationally prominent journalist brought me my “Kosher Sex” book to sign at a speech I was giving in Zagreb. What? The book was translated into Croatian? I’ve had the same experience in places like Belgium, the Czech Republic, Spain, Holland, and many other countries, including translations that I’ve only seen in print, in Thai and Mandarin.
Regardless, the book established me as someone to whom couples turned to for advice. I could not keep up with the number of people who were getting in touch for marriage, sex, and relationships counseling. Till today I am stopped all over the world by people telling me, “I read your book.” I invariably say to them – especially if they’re religious, in order to tease them – “which one? I’ve authored dozens of books.” “You know,” they say, “the one, well, the one on.. er.. um.. intimacy.”
That answer always makes me happy.
“Kosher Sex “was never a book about sex. It was always a book about intimacy. We live lonely lives, especially in marriage. We don’t have partners who know our deepest selves. I’m not sure that even we know ourselves. But it was the argument in the book that carnal connection provided the most direct route to knowledge that really captured the public imagination. The Bible’s only words for sex is indeed “knowledge.”
Over the last few years my second eldest daughter, Chana, and I started an actual Kosher Sex company (see Kosher.Sex on the internet and @Kosher_Sex on Instagram) and that too become world-famous when Chana opened three Kosher Sex stores, first in Tel Aviv, then in New York, and the crowning achievement, Jerusalem, which caters to the most ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse clientele on sex probably anywhere in the world. If you’re in the holy city, make sure to check it out.
But I wish I could say that all this effort has rescued sex and rescued marriage. In fact, the opposite is true. Since “Kosher Sex” was first published, things have only gotten dramatically worse. Indeed, we accomplished what no generation before us has ever achieved. We largely killed off sex.
Our efforts to end its tortured existence began with the sexual revolution. Paradoxically, this period of sexual openness actually led to a massive decline in sex between married couples. The proliferation of pornography and the rebellion against the supposed rigidity of marriage mark this era as the beginning of intimacy’s end. Sex became something recreational, akin to riding a double-seated bike. You could hop on, hop off, with no strings attached.
Add to that the introduction of televisions, iPhones, iPads, and an infinite number of streaming services in almost all our nation’s bedrooms and you can see that marital sex is losing out to some pretty serious competition. Today, we’re left wondering what kind of sex could compete with Netflix’s “Bridgerton” for those who want romance, or Amazon Prime’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” for those who want something irritatingly and dysfunctionally Jewish.
And then, #MeToo put the final nail in the coffin of sex, as women began to justly rebel for being treated as all cover and no book. Whatever was left of sex became something ugly, and vulgar, and in the case of predators like Jeffrey Epstein, positively bestial.
Recent studies show that one-third of marriages are almost entirely platonic. As for the married couples who are still doing it, studies show that sex in marriage is, on average, once a week, for seven minutes at time, which includes the time he spends begging. Marriages today are as bereft of sex as the moon is bereft of cheese.
It’s a stunning accomplishment to kill off sex in just two generations. After all, the procreative instinct is the single most compelling impulse known to humankind. To wrestle with something that strong—let alone cut its heart out—is something we never thought possible.
Not that it’s completely dead. It still exists, pulsing vibrantly, on the margins of society in porn sites, even if we should ask whether something that constitutes about 70 percent of internet traffic ought to be considered the margin.
But what if the ultimate purpose of sex is neither procreation nor recreation but intimacy?
The Bible expresses it beautifully: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and leave his mother, he shall cleave unto his wife. And they shall become one flesh” (2:24).
The purpose of sex is cleaving, intimacy. Sex is the sewing together of two halves as one whole. Sex is the orchestration of man and woman as bone of one bone and flesh of one flesh. Sex is the motion that brings forth emotions, so powerful and deep that it can render two separate entities into a single, unified, and indivisible whole. The real reason that an honorable man does not cheat on his wife or a wife on her husband is not that they may be caught but rather that they feel their spouse is always with them emotionally even if they are not present physically.
That’s why the Kabbalah says that husbands and wives are meant to make love face to face, their eyes open wide and lips locked in a kiss. The eyes are the window to the soul, and with our mouths we exchange life breaths. Sex, in which the bodies are intertwined, enables a three-pronged unity: one spirit, one soul, one flesh.
In the fusion of two souls together as one, sex is the ultimate end to loneliness, a plague that decimates our generation as people learn to communicate through glass screens, and husbands and wives allow their private lives to be overtaken by child-rearing, mortgages, and stultifying routine. Likewise, as the Bible says, sex is the highest form of knowledge, more profound even than verbal communication. When we speak, we choose our words, we filter our thoughts, and only small drips of our soul can be revealed, one syllable at a time. When we make love, however, we remove all inhibition and surrender to the automatic impulse of spirit. We release the animating life force from within. All of us is revealed at once.
We can see now what must be done to rescue sex, restore its sanctity, regain its passion, and reinstill its intimacy. It begins with respect for its exclusive nature.
Marriage demands not just faithfulness but a sense of awe and reverence for one’s spouse, even when not in his or her presence.
Two years ago, Pamela Anderson and I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal asking men to take the pledge: No more porn. It was followed up by a book we wrote titled “Lust for Love.” Both of these works were rooted deeply in Jewish values.
Porn objectifies women, making it harder for men to respect them. Porn also diminishes a husband’s attachment to his wife by giving him objective—not to mention fraudulent—images of female attractiveness by which to compare his wife, even if it happens subconsciously.
Porn, moreover, has desensitized us to eroticism. Ultimately, porn is a bore. It leads to overexposure, which in turn leads to contempt. Notice that when internet porn came on the scene, it basically killed off magazines like Playboy.
Porn then becomes like an entry drug—say, marijuana—whose “hit” quickly dissipates, requiring ever stronger hits. Hence, the quick graduation from so-called soft porn to hard-core pornography, if not to pornographic addiction, in which men are prepared to risk their careers, lives, and relationships in pursuit of a fraudulent fix that can never be fully satisfied.
Humans intrinsically strive to achieve an ever-elusive wholeness that can be achieved only through the spiritual union of marriage, which is why so many people who are not churchgoers still want a church wedding.
But there are many people who are married and still feel very lonely. The reason? People don’t want to be loved, but desired. Not appreciated but lusted after. Not taken care of, but chosen. Marriage today is based on the Christian concept of love rather than the Jewish concept of lust. The New Testament condemns lust: “For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:16).
St. Paul famously argued that “God is love” and that all marriages should be based on the comforts of compatibility, friendship, and shared experience.
But Judaism believes that marriage must be built on deep desire and covetousness, the lust marriage rather than merely the love marriage. The holiest book of the Bible, the Song of Solomon, is an erotic poem that describes the burning yearning between a man and a woman: “Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies” (4:5).
The Tenth Commandment is clear: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”—which means you should be coveting your own.
Lust is, quite simply, much stronger than love.
How do we recapture it? By focusing on the three rules of erotic lust. The first is frustrated desire, erotic obstacles. Lust is enhanced through an inability to attain the object of your longing, the failure to satiate human yearning.
The second law of lust is mystery. Lust is enhanced in darkness and shadow. Ironically, the more the body is covered, the more one lusts after it. The third law of erotic lust is sinfulness. The forbidden is erotic.
Unlike the “love marriage,” which is based on closeness and constant intimacy, the “lust marriage” is based on separation, renewal, and a measure of distance. Hence the centrality in Judaism of the laws of niddah and going to the mikveh.
All great advice from a religion that champions lust over love in marriage, and unholy sex from “Kosher Sex” in the rest of life.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach of Englewood is the author of “Judaism for Everyone” and “The Israel Warrior.” Follow him on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.