Thursday, July 05, 2012

A review of The Newlywed's Guide To Physical Intimacy, a sex manual for frum couples

"עת לאהוב The Newlywed's Guide To Physical Intimacy" ( Jerusalem 2011) by Jennie Rosenfeld, PhD and David S. Ribner, DSW, is a remarkable book ( link). The Hebrew title, a time for love, (from Ecc. 3:8), may well have been called עת לעשות. It is a book about sex for newly married Orthodox couples that is actually about sex, notwithstanding Steven Bayme's plaint that the book is flawed because it "ignore[s] the actual sexual behaviors of Modern Orthodox Jews" and instead takes a relatively traditional, by the book approach and does not deal with premarital fooling around or whatever (notwithstanding that it does do this, albeit in passing) (link).

I read it, and had my thoughts, but I also asked the authors some questions, and Dr. Rosenfeld was kind enough to reply. 

The book begins with an introduction explaining who the audience is - brides, grooms, chassan and kallah teachers, rabbis and "anyone in the Torah-observant community with questions about sexuality," but it is primarily for couples about to get married and for their first year (i.e., as newlyweds). It includes a pep talk about how special and pleasurable sex is, and some religious words about how it is a gift from God (not "G-d"), like other pleasures in life. It notes that is it not an exhaustive resource, and some things should be discussed with a doctor. Nor is it a halachic work, although it is designed with Torah-observant (it doesn't say Orthodox) people in mind. They believe they have accommodated a wide range of viewpoints, but if anyone has religious questions you should feel free to consult a rabbi who knows you, the couple, and is competent in this area of halacha (nice disclaimer!). Finally, they explain why they wrote the book. Both are Torah-observant Jews who are involved with the issue of sexuality in the Orthdox and Haredi communities. Dr. Ribner is a sex therapist who has seen hundreds of couples in more than 30 years, and Dr. Rosenfeld has worked on sex education for only a few years, but both have experience in the kind of questions and problems couples have and in many cases these could have been prevented with adequate information. They write that they have seen people who felt isolated for feeling things which are completely normal, people who suffered from lack of familiarity with their own sexuality, and had difficulty forging a deep sexual connection with their spouse. So they decided to write this book, to address these issues. I would add that without being a sex therapist, but just by having experience in Orthodox communities and reading many different kinds of personal accounts, viewpoints and questions in various online forums, the idea that Religious Jews "have been happily shagging for millennia [...] Jews never had the concept of "original sin." only tells part of the story to say the least.

The first thing which struck me is that the book lacks a rabbinic approbation, or any notice of any kind of rabbinic input, and that is unusual for a book intended for a religious audience. Assuming this was not an accident, I asked why they chose not to pursue, or use, a haskamah (rabbinic approbation). I wondered this because it occurred to me that a certain percentage of the intended audience might be reluctant to use it without one, and since they must have known that, I assumed they did a cost-benefit analysis and concluded that it was better to publish it without one. It did not occur to me that they could not obtain one, because I am sure they could have. Dr. Rosenfeld replied that they hoped that the book "would speak to the gamut of Orthodoxy (from the Haredi to Chassidish to Centrist to Modern to Left-wing, etc.), we didn't want the haskama to alienate any of the potential readers. Seeing a rabbi to the right or to the left of one could cause them to think that the book is only for that particular group. And the book is really designed to speak to everyone. Ideally, couples could take the book to their rabbi to get his advice, or receive the book from their chatan and kallah teacher, with the teacher's halakhic input. That was our thinking. In terms of whether we would have been able to get the haskamot had we decided we wanted them, I really don't know."

I also noticed that while the book is surely modest by current secular norms, it is still quite frank - and it also includes a further reading list; more on that later. In addition, while clearly religious in orientation, it is almost entirely lacking in what they call "hashkafah," not to mention fluff. It is not coldly clinical at all, but there are no stories of rabbis, vertlach and facile analyses of the Mars/ Venus type, and where such generalizations do occur they clearly label them with terms like "may" or "tend to." There are no platitudes or quotations from various famous "Holy Letters." I assumed this resistance to turn the book into a piece of moralistic literature was not an accident either, and Rosenfeld confirmed that the lack of hashkafah comes from the same place as the lack of haskamah, on theone hand. On the other hand, she pointed out that such books already exist, but this one did not. I think it was a wise decision, because such books often feel preachy. Furthermore - more below - there is no laundry list of halachic or customary restrictions in this book, which are commonly disseminated by chassan and kallah teachers, and presumably  they are the cause of not a small amount of what they have to deal with in therapeutic situations (this is my inference). Consult your rabbi if you need to, is all they suggest.

The first chapter is called His Body/ Her Body and Arousal. Taking no chances and making sure that everything is completely clear to whomever reads it, it begins with noting that no two bodies are alike and each responds differently to different stimulation. It even goes through some basic descriptive info about what male and female bodies look like! - as well as to explain what erogenous zones are, and what are some of them. While these things may seem obvious, or at least something intelligent people will figure out themselves, they take no chances and do not want readers who need to begin at the beginning to be left behind. Finally, there is a detailed description of the female and male body and the physical act of sexual intercourse itself.

The second chapter is called Getting Sexual. It begins with guidelines, such as that sex should be a learning experience, enjoyable, people should expect it to be different from what one may have seen or heard, and that men and women tend to have different needs and respond in different ways. Finally, if things are just not working, one should not hesitate to seek professional help. It then discusses the importance of communication, clearly knowing and labeling body parts, as well as the terms relating to sexual activity and response. Their point is that couples who bashfully talk about that thing with the thing - or no talking at all - are not going to end up on the same page, except by luck or chance. In this chapter, as well as in the others, there are gray boxes labeled "We were wondering..." which represent commonly asked questions (and Rosenfeld confirmed that these truly are common). So in this chapter, for example, one is about talking about sex before marriage and another is about discomfort with being naked. Also discussed in this chapter is all aspects of sex, from physical and mental preparations, to foreplay to kissing. To inject a personal note, someone told me that men and women kiss on the mouth and he cited Rashi to Shir Hashirim 1:2 (which is the false meaning, according to you-know-what). The authors, as I indicated, do not bother with such things. Two pages of this thin book (about 100 pages) is devoted to the female orgasm, with a promise, later to be fulfilled, about treating this in detail later. This chapter's "We were wondering..." includes questions about smell, painful intercourse, and experimentation. 

The next chapter is called Alternate Intimacies. This leads me to the observation that the book seems to really try to push the envelope, but not be sexy itself. No one can accuse this instructional manual of being erotic! I am reasonably certain that mutual oral stimulation was never written about so pareve. But it is there. Two word summary of the chapter: oral, manual. 

The next chapter is about managing time, niddah, pregnancy, babies, etc.

Chapter Five, When Your Sex Life Isn't Working, raises issues from physical to mental barriers, as well as childhood sexual abuse, negative body image, homosexuality and pornography, which they say should not be automatically viewed as addictive.

The next three chapters are called She Asks. He Asks. and They Ask. All of these are very frank discussions of common concerns, going into much greater detail than the small "We were wondering" sections. These discuss much of what you think they will, including less obvious things like frustration with niddah. As Bayme wrote in his review, they don't dismiss it with platitudes about how special niddah is. Nor do they wink, wink. They take it seriously, dignifying the issue, and assume that the couple is committed to niddah observance, and offer suggestions for dealing with it.

The book ends by asking readers to engage them in a dialogue, and requests feedback, leaving an email address.

Afterwards, there is a section called Resources, which include books with titles like Guide to Getting it On. Which led me to wonder, what this book has that Guide to Getting it On, which they really recommend, doesn't? The answer to me was obvious. Many people will read The Newlywed's Guide to Physical Intimacy, but they will not read Guide to Getting it On. Or they would not read it until after reading a book like this, which recommends a book like that, in the following manner: "Though this book uses slang and "street language," no other book can compete with its comprehensiveness, and its wit sets a comfortable tone." Although this section includes a disclaimer that the resources may "have content that is not relevant or appropriate for you" my impression was that they hoped that readers would 'graduate' to such books and learn about that which they were unable or unwilling to write.

Finally - the envelope. Pasted inside the back cover is an envelope with the following note printed on a sticker sealing it shut:

While I am tempted to show one of these illustrations, of course I will not. Suffice it to say they are perfectly correct, adventurous (by conservative standards) and utterly unsexy. I guess I sort of knew the answer, but I asked Rosenfeld about it, and she replied: "That was definitely intentional-- we didn't want them to feel like pornography. Especially for the many frum men who have looked at pornography in their past, we didn't want the pictures to evoke discomfort/ memories of their past experience with pornography. The goal was to be educational, without being arousing/ erotic, and it seems we achieved that goal.."

My impressions. The book seemed to try to push the envelope, for a worthy cause, and in certain respects did that. I don't know if female masturbation is a third rail or not, but the book does not mince words and clearly considers it a normal, even necessary part of sexual discovery (I know!). Although I make this inference myself, I assume that the lack of the same for men is due both to the halachic issue as well as the reality that in practice this is most likely ignored at least some of the time by most men anyway. At the same time, the book does not strive to be fun or light. Practical might be the best word to describe it's tone. It is also encouraging, delivering the message that most likely the reader is normal whatever they are experiencing, that there is much they can do themselves, primarily through education, communication, and practice and, finally, there are people to turn to if things are not working out.

The only real criticism I have is that the book missed an opportunity to deal with a probable cause of much sexual dissatisfaction in some frum communities, namely uniformly stringent approaches taught as normative and obligatory law, and in some cases these restrictions have little relation to contemporary sexual needs which even sheltered people have. Vehamevin yavin. (Another cause, of course, is the negative messages about sex that many receive for nearly their entire life.) However, I suspect that there was little the authors could do about this. To counter, or at least offer an alternative to such approaches on a textual basis, would be to enter the lists as a halachic, or purportedly halachic work, and that could have caused the book to be eschewed or even denounced. One hopes that eventually someone will publish such a work, in English - even to include stringent alongside lenient views, if that is necessary to get people to be aware of the true range of rabbinic views on sex. Word is, someone is thinking of doing just that.


  1. Note: I didn't want to give the impression that Dr. Ribner was not "kind enough to reply." It just happens that it was Dr. Rosenfeld who answered my questions.

  2. "Word is, someone is thinking of doing just that."
    And who is that someone? Vehamevin yavin

    Gosh this post was a real departure from your usually random tidbits.

    May I ask what was the impetus for this post?

  3. It is a departure, but I have done occasional book reviews.

    and more to come.

  4. I understand that some people hold all forms of sex other than missionary style are forbidden. I've explicitly heard from more than one person that they were told this by their rabbis. I dont get that? Doesnt the Gemara say explicitly that your wife is like a fish, you can eat it boiled or you can eat it fried? (Meaning, you can do whatever you like.)

  5. And that's why this book needs to exist, as well as the next book. Of course attitudes are really important, and a book can't do all the work. But before this book it was the scenario you spelled out with the score of 1, versus the more realistic approach of this book, with a big fat 0.

  6. S:

    great review. (except for the "Vehamevin yavin" part.)

    "I wondered this because it occurred to me that a certain percentage of the intended audience might be reluctant to use it without one"

    seriously? i guess my world is not one in which people read or don't read books because of haskamos, but even in the other world, are haskamos really taken that seriously?

    "It did not occur to me that they could not obtain one, because I am sure they could have. "

    seriously? reread your own review!

  7. They are taken seriously not for the content, but for the assurance that a rabbi approved the book, something which makes religious literature that is not written by a reliable, trustworthy rav himself, able to be read. Precisely because it is religious; you have to make sure the hashkafos aren't messed up.

    She didn't say they couldn't have gotten one. She says they didn't try, so she doesn't know if they could have. I still think if they wanted one they could have gotten a respected rabbi, whatever that means, to give one. The point is that it's not so wild that no one would have approved. I assumed they deliberately didn't get or print one, and this was confirmed for me.

  8. S:

    i think the guide by r. elyashiv knohl also has a separately wrapped section with intimiate


    "I understand that some people hold . . ."

    check out the relevant chapter in shulchan arukh orach chayim.

  9. Fotheringay-Phipps2:22 PM, July 05, 2012

    While books like this have a purpose, it's not certain IMHO that they do more good than harm.

    Secular people have free access to all this knowledge and more, and they have an enormous amount of problems in this area.

    IMO much of the problems with sexual matters is that people have longings that can never be fulfilled, no matter what the system. The most important lesson in this regard is to have low expectations. It follows that asny approach which promises happiness and fulfilment undermines itself by pushing expectations higher.

    "Doesnt the Gemara say explicitly that your wife is like a fish, you can eat it boiled or you can eat it fried?"

    The Gemara says that in context of one specific issue. There is a more general statement in the Gemara as well, but it's not clear if the normative halacha is like that position (it appears from SA that it's not).

    1. Interesting perspective. Let's say it like this. You're an intelligent guy. At the risk of offending you, let's conjecture that you are bright enough to have figured out that doing it one way, and possibly not the best way, for the rest of your life is not what it's about. A lot of other people either take too long figuring it out, or end up on the therapist's couch or divorced or both. So for them, they get a book.

      There is no question that there is no panacea. But I think we both know that what is really taught is not nearly enough for nearly everyone and plays a role in problems people have.

    2. Well lookie what we have here. Fotheringay-Phipps wins the This Is Why We Need A Book Like This award! Shkoyach!

      Here is what I was taught, and others can say if this is what they were taught. Apart for niddah and veses, you can make love! Here is what you can do! You can have sex late at night. Me (the husband) can initiate it. She (the wife) can't, except with gestures or smiles. You can have sex under covers, me on top, in the dark (but indirect lighting outside the room is okay - WOW!). I must take care not to ejaculate outside her oso hamakom. I must not look at said oso hamakom, and it is an issur deoraysa of bal tishaktzu to "kiss" her there. I must wash negel vasser when I am done. Rinse, repeat, have a nice 50 years. Was I taught what to touch and why? Of course not. My wife may be expected to help, but she wasn't taught it either, or that she is permitted to figure it out.

      Ah, but there is also "problems" in the secular world. But the above is a recipe for a frustrated man, a woman who probably will never have an orgasm (your wife never told you she fakes it I bet, because you are not allowed to talk about it!), and "low expectations" fulfilled - your words. The best situation is if people who were taught like me learn to ignore it and think, and of course it must be both partners who learn to do this. This is why books like this have to exist, because of your attitude. "It's not certain that they do more good than harm."

  10. abba's rantings2:25 PM, July 05, 2012


    perhaps i'm stereotyping or misinformed, but i can't believe that such a work would get a haskamah (at least from a rav whose community needs haskamot in their books).

    forget about the pictures and frank discussion in such a public manner, what about the statement that porn isn't inherently adictive?

  11. abba's rantings2:42 PM, July 05, 2012


    "The most important lesson in this regard is to have low expectations."

    reasonable expectations, not low expectations.

    1. Another error, but nowhere near as exciting:
      "Practical might be the best word to describe it's tone. "

  12. "but it's not clear if the normative halacha is like that position."

    Which position exactly are you referring to?

    Couldnt resist that one. But seriously, I doubt there is such a thing as "halacha" in matters as intimate as intercourse. The word halacha means "something which the people do." In other words, it codifies standards of behaviours. Since most people dont go around discussing their sex life in public, no one has any idea what the correct standard is. Even the thereapists who wrote this book dont have any idea, because they are dealing with a limited sample of people, all of whom are experiencing enough issues to propel them to seek therapy.

    I personally am familiar with the Gemara in Nedarim where the statement about the fish comes from, as well as the siman in shulcah aruch (end of volume 2 of Mishna beruruah) discussing this. There are conflicting views in chazal, reflecting different personal viewpoints among the individuals that make up chazal. In other words, there's no such thing as a halacha in this sphere of life, and if there is, it is all but meaningless.

    1. ברכות ס"ב א' רב כהנא על גנא תותיה פורייה דרב שמעיה דשח ושחק ועשה צרכיו אמר ליה דמי פומיה דאבא כדלא שריף תבשילא א"ל כהנא הכא את פוק דלאו אורח ארעא אמר לו תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך

    2. Right. Comapre R. Kahana's approach with that of R Elazar, who performed his duties under duress, as though he were forced by a demon. Everyone has his own opinion.

    3. I don't think they necessarily argue. Rav Kahana could well have learned that duties should indeed be performed under duress. Granted, R. Elazar and Abba seems to disagree. Rav Kahana merely indicates that this is an area where not only halacha has a say (there is a proper way of behaving to be learnt) but also shimmush chachamim.

    4. You are referring to R Eliezer (not Elazar) who, according to some, held that it was prohibited to procreate in that time (she'at hasakanah) yet did it nevertheless not under duress but "as if forced" (kikfao shed).

  13. It may be meaningless to you, but not to people without your independent streak.

  14. abba's rantings3:15 PM, July 05, 2012


    "there's no such thing as a halacha in this sphere of life"

    i have always had a difficult time with that siman in the SA. clearly it isn't normative halacha (and i mean that in the conventional sense of the word, not your definition). so what does it mean when orthodox jews claim the SA (and Rama) is the fundamental basis of jewish life. of course there are halachos here and there where we don't follow SA/Rama, but here is an entire chapter that we might as well leave out when printing the work. (is there are other chapter, at least in orach chayim, that we completely ignore in like manner?)

  15. abba's rantings3:19 PM, July 05, 2012


    "It may be meaningless to you . . ."

    i don't think it is "meaningless" in the sense that DF painted it, but are there really choson/kallah teachers or rabbis/posekim who use that siman for practical halacha?

  16. Fotheringay-Phipps5:59 PM, July 05, 2012

    S: "There is no question that there is no panacea. But I think we both know that what is really taught is not nearly enough for nearly everyone and plays a role in problems people have."

    All I said was that "While books like this have a purpose, it's not certain IMHO that they do more good than harm." They add in some ways and detract in another. Hard to add it up, and it probably varies by person/situation.

    I think what is tought is not enough to avoid a whole lot of awkwardness at the outset. But that doesn't last. After that, what's needed is flexibility, mutual communication, and a desire to please the other spouse. Information is not a big factor, IMHO.

    [On a related note, Orchos Rabbeinu quotes the Steipler as disparaging parents who don't give their children any guidance in these areas. He said (paraphrasing from memory) "people talk about so much nonsense with their children and these important matters get no attention".]

    AR: "reasonable expectations, not low expectations"

    I disagree. Low expectations. Someone who expects nothing will generally be pretty satisfied (unless their partner is selfish/self-centered - but that's not related to lack of knowledge). The ones who have problems are the ones who expect something and are frustrated when it doesn't match up.

    That's why secular people are so troubled. They can do what they want, but they can never get the reality to match up to that awesome mind-blowing situation that they've been led to expect (or, more accurately, they can't get that situation to last).

    "i don't think it is "meaningless" in the sense that DF painted it, but are there really choson/kallah teachers or rabbis/posekim who use that siman for practical halacha?"

    Let me put it this way. If word got around in Charedi circles that some choson/kallah teacher was advocating ignoring that siman, there would be communication, havy on euphemisms and oblique references etc., warning people to avoid this person.

    If anything, the issue here is that people go a lot further than anything in that siman. Just the other day my wife told me about a girl who got married and whose husband wanted to shower together. She called up her old kallah teacher and was advised to refrain from this. (I didn't hear her rationale, if she had any - I imagine it was a general discomfort with the notion - it didn't sound frum - rather than anything tangible.)

  17. S:

    "Uh, yeah?"

    really? you mean the parts about position, specific time of day (or rather night), how many times a week, etc.? and i don't remember if it's cited there as halacha, but the SA at the very least implies that it is preferable to uncover as little as possible (megaleh tefach i think). all this is considered halacha lemaase? i guess i'm more removed than i thought?

    1. Abba,

      Yes. From personal experience with experienced chosson teachers. (I had two, aren't I lucky?)

  18. Ok, just to clarify one point... It is clear that OC 240 is referring to midas chassidus. The Rama in Even HaEzer is clear that you may do what you like. Yes, "kissing" may be a problem as well as looking at "that place" as it was so delicately put (I am just following convention as it seems to be in these comments), I remember hearing about a teshuva that he means kissing but other things would be fine. Oh -- Ejaculating outside is also a problem, though the rama permits it if it is only on a rare occasion. Ummmm - Ok, so what with 240 and the gemorahs in niddah. Ok, so as the meiri puts it really the halacha is that all positions are muttar etc, however, these are levels of tzidkus (my word) that are available for a person should he want to at some point later in his life. However, part of the requirements of the kesuba is onah. The requirement of Onah is not fulfilled without foreplay and satisfying your wife (I believe that is from Rav Kanievsky -- the Steipler). Anyway, this is what I have gathered, from chosson classes and learning the sugyos. This is not meant to be relied on in terms of halacha, but at least it should be known that there is a wide range of things that are muttar etc. And much to look into in these subjects.

  19. I wonder if we are seeing another consequence of the popularization of the Mishnah Berurah. There seems to be two contradictory statements in the Shulchan Aruch about this -- the "prescriptive" on in Orach Chaim and more "permissive" one in Even HaEzer. However, due to the MB, everyone knows about he OC position but not everyone has read EH. More rupture and reconstruction here....

  20. Great work, Mississippi. I think, for your last point, that it would alienate a lot of people also, if they had a chapter entitled 'Why Your Chareidi Education Taught You Sex Is A Dirty Word". People can realize that on their own as they develop healthier sex lives through this or another way. I think they made a good decision for not making a cutthroat accusation for this type of project.

  21. so... what's this book say about homosexuality, then?

    1. From memory: It says that the book isn't really the place to address this, but they just want to note that it can be the cause of sexual incompatibility issues. It isn't automatically a cause to end the marriage. Finally, having homosexual thoughts or fantasies doesn't necessarily mean that one is homosexual.

  22. Looks like a good and necessary book, but good luck to the -in-the-frum-area stores trying to sell that, remembering some less ostentatiously offending titles and what some unstoppable lunatics did...

  23. Steven Bayme states that the books tone and candor as well as its roots in YU make it a Modern Orthodox work and on that basis proceeds to complain about the book not addressing the pre-marital fooling around that goes on in the MO community.
    You have taken the view that this book wants to insinuate itself into the ultra-orthodox community.

  24. I have. And one of the authors essentially confirmed it for me.

    1. I wasn't saying you're wrong.
      I was actually surprised at the way Steven Mayme carries on about how the book doesn't address the issues he thinks need to be addressed in the MO community all based on his assumption that the book is geared toward that community.

    2. I think he wasn't using his imagination. He was seeing two authors associated with Bar Ilan, YU and Pardes. A book co-authored by a man and a woman who are not even spouses. Clearly they are MO or close to it. But did he really think that a book which begins by explaining that men have hair on their bodies, even with such tells as using spellings like "chassan", that it's core audience is supposed to be MO? Apparently so.

  25. בית הבחירה למאירי מסכת נדה דף יז עמוד א

    אף על פי שאסור לאדם לשמש מטתו אלא בלילה כל שרואה עצמו מצד טבעו נאנס בשינה בלילה ואי אפשר לו לרצות או שהיא מצד טבעה נאנסת בשינה בלילה ואינה מתרצית מותר לו לשמש מטתו ביום בהצנע על הדרכים שהזכרנו כדי שיהו ביאותיו ברצוי ובחבה ולא דרך דריסה וטירוף



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