The doctor is in

Storied sexologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer tackles the subject of sex and the Jewish tradition at Beit Avi Chai.

An icon in spraypaint: Dr. Ruth holds up a photo of a storefront in Mahaneh Yehuda that has been decorated with her smiling face (one of the many done by Solomon Souza of influential/historical Jewish figures). (photo credit: ARIEL DOMINIQUE HENDELMAN)
An icon in spraypaint: Dr. Ruth holds up a photo of a storefront in Mahaneh Yehuda that has been decorated with her smiling face (one of the many done by Solomon Souza of influential/historical Jewish figures).
To say Dr. Ruth Westheimer enjoys her work as a sex therapist is like saying that a flower enjoys the sun; it is not simply an appreciated element, it is her raison d’etre.
Dr. Ruth, as she is commonly known, has built an astounding career spanning many years out of this passion for talking about sex. Now 89 years old, Westheimer has amassed a litany of titles: prolific author, charismatic media personality, former Hagana sniper in Israel’s War of Independence and of course, celebrated therapist.
After her parents were taken by the Nazis, the German- born Westheimer was sent to a Swiss orphanage as part of the Kindertransport. She eventually made her way to British Mandatory Palestine and then France, where she studied psychology at the University of Paris. She finally settled in the United States, where she still resides today. Westheimer received an MA in social work from the New School University in New York City.
It was shortly thereafter that her media career took off when she began hosting a radio show in 1980 called Sexually Speaking. It was then that Dr. Ruth became a household name. Westheimer went on to host a slew of television shows, including one on Israel’s Channel 2 in the early ’90s titled Min Tochnit (Kind of Program), but it was also a play on words, with min also meaning gender or sex.
Around this time, Westheimer published a unique book among her other offerings, called Heavenly Sex: Sexuality in the Jewish Tradition. The book was written in conjunction with Jewish Week editor Jonathan Mark. Westheimer believed that the Bible could be utilized as a sex manual of sorts. Heavenly Sex weaves together the threads of sexuality with those of the Jewish religion and culture, in part by examining biblical relationships through a sex therapist’s lens.
Westheimer gave a talk on August 27 about the themes addressed in Heavenly Sex at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai.
“For the last few years, we’ve been doing programs in English once a month or so and the market is definitely not saturated; there’s a lot to do,” David Rozenson, Beit Avi Chai CEO and executive director, says.
“I thought it would be amazing if Dr. Ruth could come and speak. She has written 39 books. We contacted her and even though she’s always very busy, she agreed. She is a living legend, who gives a lot of her time. She’s the famous Dr. Ruth, but she is also a fantastic person. Having her speak really added flavor to what we do here at Beit Avi Chai. She loves and supports Israel. Her talk sold out very quickly – not only because of the topic of intimacy, but because people want to see this personality who is still going strong. She has so much energy and passion. She lights up any room that she is in.”
Westheimer was introduced and interviewed by filmmaker Michael Greenspan, with whom she collaborated in the past on several projects. Westheimer spoke with ease, expertise and humor about sexuality in the Jewish tradition.
“I wanted to explain why somebody like me, being Jewish and coming from an Orthodox home, although not being Orthodox now, but why for me as a Jew it’s easier to talk about issues of sexuality than perhaps it would be in other traditions,” she stated.
“In the Jewish tradition, sex has never been a sin. It is of course to be engaged in by husband and wife, but it is to be celebrated.”
Westheimer cited certain examples and talked about how ingenious the sages of the Talmud were when it came to Jewish family life and marital sex.
She referenced Proverbs 31:29, where the husband tells his wife that although there are many women doing many wonderful things, she is the very best of them all. Westheimer pointed out that in her experience as a sex therapist, there is no better sentence in terms of sexual arousal than for a woman to hear that she is the very best.
Westheimer views the sages as having understood issues of sexuality in a deep way. They also said that a husband should speak to his wife softly, so that she will want to engage in sex.
“That is very interesting because we know that women take a longer time to become sexually aroused. The sages were brilliant in that respect. But it’s not sex alone, the relationship has to be a good one. For example, going to the mikve [ritual bath] for the Orthodox is a brilliant idea. If the relationship is good, that period of separation will bring about an increased desire for sex. If they hate each other, it won’t work anyway. But if the relationship is good, it will only make it better.”
Westheimer believes in the old adage that a lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained. Thus she punctuated her speaking with comedic stories and precise timing. She recounted how she never permitted her late husband (Fred Westheimer) to come to her talks or interviews because he would tell others not to listen to her and that it was all talk. On one occasion, many years ago, Diane Sawyer came to their apartment for an interview. Given Fred’s incredible admiration for Sawyer, he was permitted to remain at home. Sawyer asked him about his sex life and he answered with the classic case that the shoemaker’s children have no shoes.
Westheimer adamantly refuted this tongue-in-cheek assertion from her late husband.
She doesn’t believe that Jews feel too guilty or ashamed about sex. She pointed out that in the Jewish tradition, even after menopause, the husband is still obligated to provide sexual satisfaction to his wife. This indicates clearly that sex is viewed as being about more than just procreation.
“The issue of sexuality in the Jewish tradition has never been one of being dirty or something not to be talked about, as long as it’s in the proper framework,” Westheimer explained. “But I’m old-fashioned and a square. I talk specifically about orgasms and erections and I never talk to adults and children at the same time.”
When asked about the increased visibility of religious LGBT Jews in Israel and abroad, Westheimer responded with grace, saying that a man having sex with another man as he would with a woman is still a problem from the perspective of Halacha (Jewish law), but that any gay person, religious or not, deserves respect. Respect is not debatable in the eyes of the good doctor. When asked about the shidduch system, where Orthodox young people date for marriage through intermediaries, not so much as holding hands before the wedding, Westheimer again responded with tact and insight.
“I think it’s wonderful that in the Orthodox system people are trying to find their partner through shidduchim.
At least they are trying! It’s not true across the board. Hopefully it works. I would say, go out in a public place more than a couple of times, in order to know if the two of you really want to get engaged.
But in general, this idea that people are trying to help others find someone is very positive.”
According to Westheimer, the public discourse about sex in the Jewish tradition has certainly changed over the years, partly due to the Internet, but a lot of education is still needed. As with most things, we have come a lot way and there is yet further to go.
“This was the first time that I spoke at Beit Avi Chai and I am delighted,” Westheimer concludes. “I’m very impressed with their attitude of bringing culture to children and adults, and not only for the Orthodox.”