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Mating in Captivity
By Esther Perel
There is much to recommend Esther Perel's first book on relationships, Mating in Captivity. There is, for instance, a trove of unconventional thinking and against-the-grain wisdom which is a welcome respite from the usual, predictable advice from the glut of relationship books that offer guidance that surely couples can discern on their own. After all, do we really need another book telling us that when passion dies in a marriage we ought to go to a romantic bed-and-breakfast for the weekend?
The gist of Perel's argument is that passion and intimacy are in conflict, which undermines marriage because both constitute the two principal ingredients we seek in a long-term relationship. Passion thrives on novelty and unpredictability, while intimacy thrives on routine and sense of union which derives from shared experience. The two cannot coexist, so what to do?
Well, try being more independent even within marriage. Do not look to your spouse to satisfy all your needs. It is not good for a woman to be so utterly reliant on her husband. He will begin to tire of her.
Likewise, always know that you cannot know your partner completely. Even after many years of marriage, he still remains mysterious. As Perel writes, "Modern relationships are cauldrons of contradictory longings: safety and excitement... the comfort of love and the heat of passion... Reconciling the domestic and the erotic is a delicate balancing act that we achieve intermittently at best. It requires knowing your partner while recognizing his persistent mystery; creating security while remaining open to the unknown; cultivating intimacy that respects privacy. Separateness and togetherness alternate, or proceed in counterpoint. Desire resists confinement, and commitment mustn't swallow freedom whole."
All well argued points, written with considerable eloquence, with which I wholeheartedly agree.
But as I read Perel's book, I was struck by the feeling that I had read all these ideas somewhere before. No, it was more than that. It was a feeling that I had actually written these ideas before. Yes, I had. And not just in one book, Kosher Sex, where I explored the germ of so many of these ideas in more condensed form, but in the follow-up book, Kosher Adultery, whose entire purpose is to explain how the principles of erotic attraction demand separateness and a feeling that your spouse can never be fully conquered or apprehended.
Now, I never thought, nor am I in any way suggesting, that Perel's book borrows from my own. On the contrary. I am convinced that she arrived at her ideas through the extensive experience of serious marital counseling over more than two decades.
But still, I found something troubling as I read on, being greeted by so many ideas that were so intimately familiar. And I guessed that my problem was this. Perel is a Jewish woman who proudly announces her Jewish identity in her book. But the ideas of which she writes, whose ultimate source is the profound and ancient Jewish understanding of marital passion, is never attributed. Now, this is either because she is ignorant of how the ideas she explicates predate her in ancient Jewish texts by many millennia, or because she sees no similarity between the two. Either way, it constitutes a monumental lost opportunity.
In my books, I took pride in attributing my ideas to the fertile ground of ancient Jewish wisdom. Most of what I wrote stemmed directly from the Bible and the Talmud. I merely updated these ideas in a manner suitable to a contemporary audience.
Take for example Perel's most important point of maintaining separateness even in marriage. The Bible mandates that a married couple separates sexually 12 days out of every month, so as to increase erotic passion and lust.
This period of separation, known as the Laws of Family Purity, has been practiced by religious Jews for 3,000 years and has inspired an untold number of writers of all persuasions as to the need for separateness and individuation to preserve erotic desire, even within the intimate confines of marriage.
Perel's point that husbands and wives must ultimately remain unknowable to each other, an idea that seems pretty radical given that you spend so many decades together, is captured millennia earlier in the Kabbala. When Ruth is treated with great kindness by Boaz, the noble Jewish landowner, even though she is a gentile woman, Ruth responds by saying, "Why have you gone out of your way to be so nice to me when I am an outsider?" But the Kabbala points out that the exact Hebrew translation is actually a rebuke. She is saying to Boaz, "How dare you think that you can know me, when I am unknowable?"
A woman, to parody Winston Churchill, is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. Likewise, Abraham tells Sarah, as they journey down to Egypt and after decades of marriage, "I now know that you are a beautiful woman." Even after being together for so many decades, her beauty was still unfolding with endless novelty.
Finally, Perel points out that eroticism requires what she calls "the third," an outside person to whom either spouse is always attracted. Indeed, the possibility of unfaithfulness is, contrary to public opinion, essential to a passionate marriage and is the subject I wrote of extensively in Kosher Adultery.
I based myself on the statement of Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud that a man "is obligated to be jealous of his wife," that is, one should never take the fidelity of one's spouse for granted. Doing so presupposes that our spouse is not desirable to members of the opposite sex, nor that he or she is desirous of members of the opposite sex. Both thoughts are destined to lead to monotony, seeing as they deny the attractiveness and passionate nature of the person to whom we're married.
Likewise, Maimonides points out that in the Hebrew language there is no separate and distinct word for "wife." The word is isha, which means woman. The lesson: Your wife never becomes your wife. Even after she marries you, her commitment is never assured. She always remains an available woman. So you, as the husband, better focus on satisfying her needs which is the only thing that will guarantee that she will remain your woman.
After 3,000 years, Judaism is getting the recognition it so richly deserves as possessing earth-shattering insights that enrich life and are applicable to a universal audience. What I lament therefore about this book is that its ideas seem highly unconventional, but in reality are predated by thousands of years of Jewish teaching.
Perel could easily have joined the ranks of top authors like Wendy Mogel who proudly celebrate the Jewish grounding of their teachings - and whose acknowledgment has brought them immense publicity and sales.
Moreover, since Perel's ideas are dismissed by other experts as shortsighted and possibly even harmful, she could have garnered far greater credibility had she linked her ideas to time-tested Jewish truths. Instead, Perel's ideas are offered outside the context of a uniquely Jewish vision of marriage.
Fair enough. But when I was in yeshiva, I was always taught the teaching from Ethics of Our Fathers, "Whoever identifies the source of their saying brings redemption to the world."
The writer, the host of TLC's hit series Shalom in the Home, is the author of many books on relationships. His new book is Shalom in the Home.