Jewish Ledger: Conversation with Rabbi Shmuely Boteach

“Love connotes a warm, cuddly, feel-good emotion, which is about partnership and friendship. That’s not enough to make a marriage successful.”

By Judie Jacobson

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach – or simply “Rabbi Shmuely,” as he is popularly known – has been called “the most famous rabbi in America” by the Washington Post and Newsweek magazine, and is listed as one of the fifty most influential Jews in the world by The Jerusalem Post. In 2008, Boteach placed ninth on Newsweek’s list of the most influential rabbis in America; in 2009 he placed seventh; and, in 2010, he made the list at number six.

The author of 29 books, Boteach is known widely for his views on love and sex, much of which he expresses in a series of best-selling “kosher” books –e.g., Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy, The Kosher Sutra, Kosher Adultery, Kosher Emotions, etc.

Boteach is also the founder of the Jewish Values Network, educating mainstream America in traditional Jewish ideals, as well as This World: The Values Network, an international organization dedicated to advancing universal Jewish values in the media and culture. This World regularly hosts world leaders and personalities debating and discussing today’s issues related to values.

In 2012, Boteach ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, with a campaign focused on traditional values. He supports gay marriage and recommended making family counseling tax deductible. He won the Republican primary for New Jersey’s 9th congressional district seat, but lost to Representative Bill Pascrell (whose old district was redistricted) in the November election.

Boteach and his wife, Debbie, have nine children and one grandchild.

Boteach will discuss the elements that make up a successful marriage in a lecture and discussion entitled “Kosher Marriage,” to be held at the Mandell Jewish Community Center on Wednesday evening, Oct. 22. The event is co-hosted by the JCC and Mikveh Bess Israel.

Recently, the Ledger spoke with Boteach about his latest book, Kosher Lust: Love is Not the Answer, and his views on relationships.

Q: So many of your books focus on the theme of relationships – specifically, love and sex from a Jewish point of view. How did you become interested in this topic?

A: I’ve never seen myself as a sex therapist or as a relationship guru. I see myself as a rabbi, and a rabbi gives counsel and advice on all matters. Judaism is a total approach to life; a holistic approach to life.

Lately I’ve also been very involved in Israel’s defense. My organization has taken out full-page ads in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and many other publications, defending Israel — and that’s also part of being a rabbi. There is no contradiction. I believe that the modern insistence that we all choose a specialty is okay – it’s often good to see a doctor who’s a specialist, for example — but I think rabbis have to be people who comment on every area.

Now, we have to address ourselves to the areas that are the most pressing and what is more pressing than the disintegration of the family; the high divorce rates? The fact is that so many problems in a marriage result from a bad sex life – loss of attraction, loss of erotic excitement. So I write books on this subject.

Q: What is the significance of the word “kosher” in the title of all your books on relationships?

A: I think “kosher” is one of the words that captures the fact that the advice comes from Jewish sources. It’s universally applicable. If I called it “Jewish Sex” etc. it would be just for Jews – but I intended it for everyone. Kosher is something that the world knows to be uniquely Jewish, but universal as well. Twenty percent of the American population looks for kosher symbols on food – it’s a symbol of quality – even though only about two percent of the American population is Jewish. So I think it captures nicely the universality of the series.

Q: Your latest book is entitled Kosher Lust, and the subtitle is “Love is not the answer.” Why is lust, not love, the answer?

A Well, the book says that both love and lust are the answer – but lust is more important. Lust is not the only answer and love is not the only answer. I’m not saying love is not an important part of the answer, but all this emphasis on love and romance misses the essential component, which is erotic desire. A man has to be drawn to his wife seriously and inexplicably, and a woman has to be drawn to her husband in the same fashion.

Love connotes a warm, cuddly, feel-good emotion, which is about partnership and friendship. That’s not enough to make a marriage successful – nowhere near enough. What is enough, or what is more important, is this electrifying magnetic desire to be with someone. Every woman wants that. That’s why the book has been received by women with so much verve and passion. I love the fact that the sexes are equal but different; I don’t think we should be negating differences. To many men eroticism is some silly porn site. But I think for women eroticism is some inexplicable, mysterious electric current that exists between a man and woman that makes you feel like you’re the one and the only.

Q: Do you think that Judaism views sex differently from other religions?

A: I do. In fact, out of the blue a long article came out about Kosher Lust just last night in the world’s most read English-language website, the Daily Mail online. I had no idea it was coming out; they did not interview me. And this non-Jewish publication made the point that Judaism seems to be unique in its healthy attitude towards sexuality. What other religion claims, as Judaism does under the chupah, that a husband has sexual obligations to his wife – acknowledging a woman’s sexual needs? Traditionally, that has been suppressed and denied – it was a man who had sexual needs and his wife was simply accommodating him. Do we understand how revolutionary it is that Judaism sees it as the opposite – that a man has a responsibility to pleasure his wife? That female orgasms are an essential part of a marriage?

This goes back thousands of years. It’s in the ketubah (the Jewish marriage contract). Under the chupah, the husband signs a contract which is read aloud, in which he undertakes three obligations to his wife: to provide her with food and clothing, and to fulfill her sexual needs.

Q: Your talk here is sponsored by Mikveh Bess Israel. Do you think that the laws of “taharat ha’mishpacha” (family purity) contribute to a strong marital relationship?

A: They are absolutely essential; and I believe that they should be practiced by Jew and non-Jew alike. I’m not saying that a non-Jew should go the mikveh or follow all the ritual observances; but the period of sexual separation after the menses and a few days after that creates a distance and the longing necessary for erotic lust. Plato said that you can’t lust after something you have. He took it to an extreme. A platonic marriage is one which you never consummate – you are always in a permanent state of lust. Now, let’s not be ridiculous. But the idea is that every month we create that lust by having an erotic obstacle. In my book I discuss at length the whole idea of the erotic obstacle.

Q: Who is your talk geared towards?

A: There is nothing I write that’s not universally applicable. It’s for singles, it’s for married people, it’s for Jews, it’s for non-Jews, it’s for men and women. The exception being young children – it’s not for them. But it is for teenagers – 16 and up. Teenagers are hearing all about sex and they’re hearing it from all the wrong sources. They’re learning about sex from people like Kim Kardashian. I’m not trying to sound arrogant, but I think I’m a better source than Kim Kardashian.

Q: Do you talk about sex only within the confines of marriage?

A: I’m fully aware of the age in which I live. I don’t live in an age in which a majority of people are going to wait for marriage to have sex. I live in an age when a majority are not. But while I believe that the best sex is sex within marriage, there are relationships that are going to be sexual; I hope that they will lead to marriage but to close off most of my audience and say, “Hey, I’m a religious guy and unless you do it my way I have nothing to say to you.” I’m not going to do that.

Q: On another topic: You recently took Dr. Oz to Israel. Do you think it’s important to bring non-Jews to experience Israel?

A: It’s vital. While I continue to write columns defending Israel and promoting Israel, the greatest argument for Israel is Israel itself. So, it is vital that we bring people there. Israel is an absolute miracle. It is an astounding, miraculous, incredible country. It’s amazing and anyone who goes there feels the same way. That’s why we take people there. When I take people to Israel I don’t sit there making the case for Israel. Dr. Oz is a smart guy and a good friend. I just took him and he formed his own conclusions, and he expressed those conclusions at several public forums in Israel where he praised the country and said it was utterly beyond his expectations.

“Kosher Marriage” with Rabbi Shmuely Boteach: Wednesday, Oct. 22, Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. Co-sponsored by Mikveh Bess Israel and the JCC. (860) 231-6316(860) 231-6316, tickets@mandelljcc.org. Tickets: $20

The above article originally appeared in the Connecticut Edition of the Jewish Ledger on October 15, 2014.

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