Bringing Eros to Orthodoxy

How do you connect to your sexual pleasure when you grow up in the most rigorously stringent part of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, where women are required to cover their bodies from collarbone to toes at all times, and dating is generally limited to a single meeting, sometimes two, with potential husbands? 

Bat Sheva Marcus isn’t your usual sex counselor. And she doesn’t have a sex counselor’s usual clientele. That’s because Marcus is a modern Orthodox Jew. And a significant portion of the women who come to her for help at the Medical Center for Female Sexuality, with pain during sex or lack of desire, is from the Satmar Hasidic community. 

“Their circumscribed upbringings, in sections of Brooklyn or in Monsey, N.Y., a hamlet north of New York City, have been utterly insular, their worlds devoid of secular books, let alone television and the Internet,” according to an article about Marcus in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine

“About sexuality, their minds have been kept free of information and infused with fear,” Marcus tells The Times. “ ‘They have zero — zero — connection to pleasure,’ Marcus said. “ ‘And there’s no vocabulary to start with them.’”

Marcus works with patients’ rabbis to try to obtain the religious leaders’ permission for them to use a vibrator with their husbands, or even to kiss with the lights on or read romance novels, so that the woman’s pleasure can become part of their sex life. Though that permission is sometimes denied, there are rabbis who appreciate her work. As one rabbi in the story added, “When it comes to how to help these young ladies, she’s like an Einstein in our days.”

“We have an intake form to fill out, and they get to ‘orgasm’ and go to the receptionist and ask, ‘What is this?’ ” When Marcus begins to explore whether they’ve ever been aroused, they have no understanding of the concept.’”

But Marcus keeps on working, hoping that she will one day be able to help her patients weave together a commitment to the strictest interpretations of Jewish observance and the idea that wives should be able to enjoy sexual satisfaction in their marriage bed. 

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a journalist in New York City, who writes often about the Jewish community for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, The Jewish Daily Forward and other publications, including The New York Times.  

Photo Credit: Diluvi, via Creative Commons

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