Shmuley Boteach: Interview with the Rabbi

The kosher sutra.

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If Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is remembered for one thing, it will be Kosher Sex, a frank, unabashed discussion of sex and sexuality . When it was first published (1998 in Britain, 1999 in the U.S.) the idea of a Hasidic rabbi on Oprah was as foreign as the idea of a Hasidic reggae singer on Letterman.

Now, Boteach is a regular guest on Oprah's show. In addition, he hosts his own radio show as well as a reality TV show, Shalom in the Home. He's created a virtual media empire of his own mix of Jewish ethics and relationship counseling, covering every subject from family relationships to, well, sex.

Kosher Sex championed the idea that sex and Judaism--and sex and religion in general--are not mutually exclusive. In Kosher Sex, Boteach (that's "Rabbi Shmuley" to his fans) reminded us of the connection between Divine love and physical love. Ten years later, Boteach's latest book, The Kosher Sutra, is a follow-up of sorts, an eight-step program toward a better love life and a better relationship, with tips taken from the Torah, his counseling work, and common sense.

In December 2010, I spoke to Rabbi Shmuley about love, sex, the importance of lust in a marriage, and why he never talks about Hasidic Jews in his books.

The Kosher Sutra feels more like a direct sequel to Kosher Sex than your other books. Are you harvesting the seeds you planted there, or is it an issue you keep coming back to, or do people just like to talk about sex?

Yes and no. On one hand, it was the tenth anniversary of Kosher Sex. That book dealt with passion and intimacy; this new book deals with erotic contractions.

It's about rejuvenating a couple's sex life, love life, and intimate life--these are all components of the same thing. You know, I look at the subject holistically. Kosher Sex wasn't supposed to be everything that was said on the subject, and even Kosher Sutra wasn't. But I'm, you know, working toward it. I'm publishing books that deal with every aspect of the laws of passion, disintegration of relationships--I've written a lot of parenting books, so [Kosher Sutra is] more of an extension of my commitment to the family than an extension of Kosher Sex.

This is my twentieth book, thank God. Of those, I think three have dealt with sex. I wouldn't say I keep coming back to it; I'd say it's a very important subject. Judaism has so much to offer on the subject. And it's getting worse. CNN had a story that 50% of American women prefer to be without sex for two weeks than to be without the Internet. Passion and sex are dying off, which I trace back to the loss of desire.

When you wrote this book, who were you picturing reading it? What's your ideal audience?

Really, everyone! Married couples, singles, every--I guess, people 17 and over?

The book isn't just about sexuality. It's also about how to bring passion into every area of life. I define "eroticism" as "electrifying curiosity," and we need to address the bane of boredom--why it's disproportionately influencing our lives, and why we escape into Hollywood and fiction and the Internet.

I say 17 because that's when teenagers are really beginning to get involved sexually, and I really want them to have a holy perspective on it. I think Kosher Sutra really offers insights into what sexuality is really about, and how to ensure that sexual desire is never lost.

We just had a daughter, and it's been a really weird process looking at my writing and thinking, one day, she's going to read all these personal things about me....It must be immensely harder for you.

My oldest daughter is 19. For our kids, it's different, insofar as they're not exposed to sexuality in our culture. You know, they're raised as religious Jewish kids, so in school, they're in single-sex education--my daughter's at the women's college of Yeshiva University; my son is at their high school for boys; my other daughters are in Lubavitch seminaries for girls.

But certainly for my 19-year-old, she's beginning to date now--for marriage--so it's highly appropriate. But for my other daughters, and my son, it isn't. It's not like they're in schools where a lot of their friends are having sex already--they're not, thank God.

How is it for your daughter to start dating? I don't mean to pry too much, but are any of the guys she's dating, like, "Oh, your father's the Sex Rabbi…"

I've asked her that. She hasn't dated a lot--she's just getting started. She's said it's happened once or twice, but mostly, it's not coming up at all. I don't think it's that weird for her. You know, she's been around what I do for her whole life, so it's not like any great revelation to her.

Jewcy.com ran a review of your book that was critical, of course, but they also saluted you on several points. Why do you think messages like "communication is key" and that sex doesn't always need to have an orgasm at the end are viewed as so radical, and so celebrated by a group of people who are ostensibly having regular and constant sex?

Jewcy.com?

They're a kind of liberal, bloggy New Jewish website. The reviewer was Lux Alpatrum, who's one of the editors of FleshBot--she's very sex-positive…

Then I'm not surprised that they gave me a bad review.

No, that's the thing! It wasn't bad at all. She was very supportive of you saying the things that nobody else says; she thinks more people should be talking about these issues.

The point of the book is not to emphasize sex without orgasm. The point is to emphasize sex which is means-oriented, as opposed to goal-oriented. We have such a narrow definition of what sex is--sex is intercourse. That's not the way the Bible sees it.

Look at the Song of Songs. You have this couple who have this incredibly erotic relationship--and yet, it's never consummated. You can be in a relationship where you never touch each other, and it's still a sexual relationship. Plato argues that, when you have relationships that are consummated, you lose your desire. He took this to an extreme and argued for Platonic relationships. None of us want to be in those--it's a lifelong tease--but the idea of having erotic barriers, things that get in the way of your desire, that frustrate your desire, are very important.

Shmuley Boteach, the pimp daddy of Hasidic JudaismIf you go to a fast-food restaurant, and you buy a hamburger, they give it to you instantly. It's right there. (snaps) French fries? Right there. That's one of the reasons people hate fast food. No one goes to a fast-food restaurant and says, "This is great food." There's no anticipation.

But if you sit down at an expensive restaurant, even if you buy the special of the day--which is waiting right in the kitchen--they're not going to bring it immediately. They're going to make you wait. Anticipation leads to pleasure. You have to wait for it, savor it.

That's what Judaism understands. You want to have your wife. Twelve days of the month, she's unavailable to you. You hunger. During that time, she doesn't walk around the bedroom naked--you need to sneak peeks of her body. And she's yours. The whole problem with marriage is, it's so darn legal. It's available to us. So in Jewish law, the forbidden is mixed into the legal, and it makes for a much more erotic marriage.

Have you ever counseled couples within the Hasidic community?

I do, and there's a lot of problems. There aren't more problems than the secular world, but…well, the problems are different. There isn't a lot of sex before marriage in the frum world, and there's isn't as much sex outside of marriage--I'd like to believe--but their problems often pertain more to the marriage itself. Couples don't have anyone to go to speak to.

But that's not my principal community. I'm writing for a very general and broad audience.

You've developed quite a following in the Bible Belt. How do people in more conservative Christian areas deal with you talking about sex so openly and candidly?

I have a following, thank God, in a lot of circles. Most of the people who listen to me are not Christian--they may be Christian, but they're not evangelicals. And then I have a big following in the Christian evangelical community--but really, I've had that since Kosher Sex came out. I'd like to believe that my following is very disparate, and it's wide, because I'm addressing issues that people want addressed.

America is good at the macrocosmic things--representative democracy. Our economy. (It stinks now, but free-market capitalism in general.) It's the small things that we don't know how to do. We don't know how to stay married. We don't know how to fall in love. We don't know how to stay in love. We don't know how to raise good kids. We don't know how to talk to one another. And I'm addressing those questions.

And do you think the problems are the same in all of the disparate communities that listen to you?

Oh, of course! I mean, come on, we're all human. Take for example how monogamy gets boring after however many years. Is that only true of Jews? Gentiles? Sikhs? Muslims? It's true everywhere. And we need to make it passionate, which is why we all need to work on it. The things that I'm dealing with, they apply everywhere.

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Matthue Roth

Matthue Roth created Jewniverse. He also co-created G-dcast, the animated Torah film series. His most recent book is My First Kafka, a picture book for children. He's also the author of the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go and three novels. He lives in Brooklyn with his family, and he keeps a secret diary at www.matthue.com.