Howard Lovy recently interviewed Dr. Ruth to see how the 92-year-old therapist is doing and to talk about sex and Judaism.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer is one of only a few writers of any faith whose name universally evokes smiles. What may not be as well publicized is the sex therapist’s grounding in Judaism. In fact, with all her talk about sex, she says there is nothing in what she has written or said that contradicts the Bible. She presents her case in the new paperback edition of Heavenly Sex: Sexuality and the Jewish Tradition (NYU Press, Nov. 3, 2020), cowritten by Jonathan Mark, associate editor at the Jewish Week.
I recently interviewed Dr. Ruth to see how the 92-year-old therapist is doing and to talk about sex and Judaism.
You were a Holocaust orphan and were wounded when you were a sniper for the Israeli army. Do you think you, or your generation, which lived through so many horrible things early in life, made you appreciate life, and sex, a little more?
Definitely, in my case, the appreciation of life is no question. But I’ll tell you also, since I’m one of the few children that did survive — one-and-a-half million Jewish children were killed — I knew I had an obligation to make something out of my life. But I did not know that it would be talking about sex. That, I did not know.
Let’s talk about sex and the Bible. There’s a lot of it going on, and not all of it between husband and wife. Why do you think the Bible, which is supposed to contain many lessons for how to live our lives, is so filled with sexual elements?
Because sex is an important part. You and I would not be in this world without sex. However, you are absolutely right. For example, the Book of Ruth talks about how she kind of seduced Boaz. They are such interesting stories because what they wanted to make sure is that there are next generations.
On Friday night, the husband says “A Woman of Valor.” In that prayer, toward the end, is one sentence that I believe is the most sexually arousing in the world. The husband says to the wife, “There are many wonderful women out there who do wonderful things, but you are the very best.” And in my experience as a sex therapist, there is nothing better for a woman to hear than that. And really, that book is the best sex manual of all time.
But I want to tell you something with a hypothesis that I cannot prove. In the Jewish tradition, it says that if a husband brings his wife to sexual satisfaction before he ejaculates, she will bear a son. I would like to see a scientifically validated study. It could be that if there is more wetness in the vagina, maybe the male spermatozoa have an easier time to get to the ovum. I don’t have any proof of that, but we know that Jews wanted to have sons.
In other religions, sex is associated with guilt, but Judaism embraces it. Is it cultural? Genetic?
A very important point. Never, in the Jewish tradition, is there anything prohibiting sex in any position. They wanted people to have sex. Never is it associated with guilt. On the contrary, it is an obligation on a husband to satisfy his wife, which is fascinating if you look at other religions that have many more problems.
How intertwined are sex and spirituality? Should sex be a religious or spiritual experience?
I’m a sex therapist, and I’m saying sex should be sex. Period. If you want to make it spiritual, make it spiritual. If you want to just make it bodily, make it bodily. The important thing is to be sexually literate, to know when there is a problem to go for help and to make sure to keep sex alive even in older age. Now, I’m not saying that everybody can have a baby, like Sarah, at the age of 90. Not likely.
Who would you vote for as the sexiest man or woman in the Bible?
I don’t know. But if you ask me if there is a man who is not alive anymore, who I would have liked to have spent more time with when I was in Israel, it’s certainly [David] Ben-Gurion. I don’t want to say that I would have liked to sleep with him. It’s not appropriate. First of all, he was short; second, he had that wonderful smile when he looked at Golda Meir.
I had never met him, but in 1948, when Israel was declared a state, I was in Jerusalem, dancing the whole night. So, if you ask me anybody in history that I would have liked to know better, which is also interesting, the verb “to know” in Hebrew is “ladá’at” — “ladá’at” is “to know.” Interesting because that’s what I’m talking about from morning to night. It’s not just a sex act.
What is the most important message the Bible, or Judaism, teaches us about sex and relationships?
The most important sentence in there, in my opinion, is that God did not want man to be alone. Period. I think this is true even today, when so many people, young people and older people, have trouble committing to a relationship because they always think there’s something better out there. So, I think that is one lesson to be learned. The Bible, and certainly the Jewish tradition, wanted people to be in a relationship.