Hollywood renews its assault on Orthodox women and Jewish sexuality

It’s time we recaptured the idea of the sacred feminine not as a woman of wifely duty and pious virtue but as a risk-taking adventuress whose being captures the infinite possibility of joyous sex.

A view of the iconic Hollywood sign (photo credit: KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/REUTERS)
A view of the iconic Hollywood sign
The new film Disobedience, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams, presents us with the over-roasted, yawn-inducing chestnut of the Orthodox Jewish woman as baby-making machine. Coerced into a life of being a fecund factory, devoid of passion or professional aspirations, condemned to a colorless existence dominated by patriarchy, the Orthodox Jewish woman yearns for a freedom that only Hollywood can provide, in films that assault Jewish tradition as moronic, macabre and medieval.
The twist in this particular film is that McAdams, who plays the rabbi’s wife Rebbetzin Esti, is a closet lesbian who had had an earlier affair with Weisz, a rabbi’s daughter gone secular, who returns to monotonous Golders Green, London, on the occasion of her father’s demise.
The film bored me to tears. It was slow as molasses and utterly predictable, with its depiction of monolithic religious robots going about their ancient existence, unaware that there’s an electrifying secular world out there which they’re missing.
I would have laughed out loud when Weisz asks Esti whether she still has to have sex every Friday night and Esti answers in the affirmative, although, she says, it’s not like she’s beaten to do so. My failure to laugh may have had something to do with the fact that by then, an hour into the film, I was already in a deep coma.
The truth, of course, is that Judaism is a sensual, erotic religion where sexual pleasure is celebrated and encouraged. Last week I launched my newest book, Lust for Love: Rekindling Passion and Intimacy in Your Relationship, co-authored with the actress Pamela Anderson.
The reader would be forgiven for assuming that in the book I, as the rabbi, am the traditionalist while Pamela represents the voice of liberal openness. In truth Pamela wowed me from the outset with her solid commitment to traditional values. She spoke constantly of the inspiration she received from two parents who love each other in a decades-long marriage. She told me of her deep desire to find fulfillment in a monogamous and committed relationship, while I was the one who wrote a book called Kosher Adultery, enjoining husbands and wives to have an affair with each other and spice up marriage with radical honesty and erotic fantasy.
Above all else, Pamela shared with me her constant efforts to raise two young men who cherish and respect women, while I have strived, as the father of six daughters, to raise women who love marriage but never lose their independence. The moral of the story is that we humans are complicated creatures and, contrary to Hollywood’s never-ending assault against Orthodox Judaism, what you see is not always what you get.
But then religion has been misunderstood as being hostile to sex from its inception. We’ve all heard the wives’ tales of priests warning boys that masturbation will lead to blindness, or that Catholicism insists that sex is only for having babies. Judaism is a spicy religion that orders a man to pleasure his wife sexually before he himself is pleasured. It is a religion that has long advocated that desire is more important than compatibility, that lust is greater than love, that carnal connection is the highest form of knowledge, and that sex is not for procreation but for conjoining husband and wife as bone of one bone and flesh of one flesh.
The holiest book of the Jewish biblical canon, says the Talmud, is Solomon’s erotic love poem, captured in Song of Solomon. Sex in Judaism is the very soul of marriage, and a termination of a couple’s sex life constitutes a functional termination of the marriage itself. The pragmatic nature of marriage today as an institution primarily promoting companionship and friendship rather than fostering and sustaining deep erotic longing is utterly foreign to the Jewish faith.
Many wonder, is there is some sort of magic glue that can keep a man and woman happily under the same roof for the duration of their lives? Or is marriage an ossified institution that has passed its shelf life?
I reject marriage as an institution and embrace it instead as an instrument of erotic expression. I reject monogamy as deadening and embrace it instead as the avenue by which to fully focus our sexual lust. And I reject commitment as something confining and embrace it instead as the fullest means by which we humans attach ourselves to our other half.
In our time, the deep yearning for sexual connection is being replaced with a shallow desire for sexual conquest. Building erotic yearning is being replaced with immediately satiating every sexual itch. And sexuality is overtaking sensuality. The two are not the same. Whereas the former is a strictly carnal experience of bodily friction, the latter is an electrifying elixir of psychological and spiritual indulgence leading to the orchestration of two halves as one whole.
Silly and tedious films like Disobedience enjoy maligning Judaism as a religion of sexual repression that sees intimacy as being solely for procreation. In truth the Hebrew language has no word for “sex” other than “yedia,” knowledge, a deep and passionate desire to know and experience another person in the most intimate way. It may seem odd that two bodies locked together in an erotic charge can provide for a far deeper understanding than a conversation or the exchange of ideas.
But then, knowing someone experientially is always superior to knowing them intellectually. The heart has always been superior to the mind. That Hollywood, with its insistence on sexual lasciviousness as opposed to erotic connection, is blind to this truth speaks volumes about the blissful ignorance of relationships and how much sex has been degraded by popular culture.
Contrary to Disobedience’s false depiction, Judaism rejects prudery in favor of erotic openness just as it rejects sexual license in favor of romantic focus. The false choice that has been visited upon us moderns between the extremes of a pragmatic and predictable partnership, on the one hand, and base pornography on the other is one that should be repudiated utterly.
It’s time we recaptured the ancient idea of the sacred feminine not as a woman of wifely duty and pious virtue but as a risk-taking adventuress whose very being captures the infinite possibility of joyous sex. Husbands must come to recognize that even the most devoted wife can never be fully possessed, a point made by the Nidda laws, according to which a wife is sexually unavailable to her husband for a few days every month.
If it’s true that our troubled world – filled with so much friction and strife – needs to “make love not war,” then it’s equally true that love cannot be made when we are constantly fighting an inner war. The battle for sexual focus – to be passionate and intimate about one person – is one we must finally engage in, freeing ourselves to experience the blessings of erotic liberation.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” has just published his newest book, Lust for Love: Rekindling Passion and Intimacy in Your Relationship, is co-authored with Pamela Anderson and published by Hachette.