Wednesday October 7, 2015
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Emily Amrousi

Be fruitful and have fun

There isn't a documentary filmmaker who wouldn't give his right eye to be there: A group of religious women gathered at a stunningly appointed mikveh (ritual bath) complex and speaking about sexuality. Women arrive, nibble refreshments, chat, and take their seats. The occasion is the launch of a new book, "Touching Distance," and the women are here to discuss intimacy, our bodies and other things we don't usually talk about.

To understand what's unusual about a book that addresses the distance between a man and woman, you have to meet its author, Naomi Wolfson. A psychotherapist and couples counselor who lives in the settlement of Psagot, she is a mother of eight who covers her hair with a scarf. She has co-authored (with her daughter!) a tasteful yet bold book about sexual intimacy and pleasure.

The sex act, from a Jewish point of view, Wolfson begins without blinking, is not intended merely to fulfill the commandment of "be fruitful and multiply." It is also supposed to give pleasure. The forbidden "niddah" days, when observant women separate from their husbands, serve to heighten the physical relationship.

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Any consensual act between a couple is halachically permissible, she boldly writes, and any act that boosts mutual desire and satisfaction is a blessing. "Distance leads to touching and longing leads to pleasure. Restrictions help you miss your partner and intensifies the passion," she says, and we all lower our eyes to the cookies.

The only person who seems unembarrassed is her daughter, Tzofia Shakury. "Throughout the generations mothers would teach their daughters about sexuality and family purity. It was natural. Now it's taboo. When my mother taught me about family purity all my girlfriends raised an eyebrow."

"We are all women, we all want love, we all menstruate, we all have sexuality," says Wolfson in a steady, experienced voice, encouraging us to look up again. "Judaism is responsive to women and gives us space so that on certain days of the month we don't need a filing cabinet of excuses like 'I have a headache,' and can just curl up under the covers or with a good book." We laugh. The ice is broken.

"Then comes passion and the desire to be together. Impurity is not dirtiness, but absence of life. The mikveh is the culmination of a woman's private, internal process. I immerse in primordial waters, feel renewed and then come to my partner full of vitality, energy and sexuality."

What was taking place in that room was not a reform but a revolution. Wolfson's readable book adheres closely to the sources and does not question Halachah. Perhaps that is why Naomi and Tzofia did not feel the need to ask a rabbi to authorize their work. One rabbi who saw the book was angry. "For someone to write so openly about passion and pleasure is unprecedented," he told Naomi.

"But the Kabbalah says the world was created for us to take pleasure in it," she responded.

"Okay," the rabbi said, mollified, "but you don't have to write a book about it."

"Whole tracts are published about [dietary laws surrounding] worms in rice, but not this?"

A friend of Naomi's, a secular psychologist who sat with us, said she had witnessed a lot of sexual boredom.

"You speak about distance versus touching, but there are places where there is no distance, just touching. Everything is accessible, here and now. There is no longing. Some couples come to my clinic after seeking out new experiences to break the sexual monotony. These adventures always hurt the relationship."

There was a sweet religious woman present who said the mikveh reminds her to love herself. "I prepare myself for immersion and stand opposite the large unforgiving mirror at the mikveh. There is nowhere to run. You have to face yourself. And then you make peace with your body. This is me, with all the marks that aging, births and nursing leave. This is my changing and disappointing body with its love handles, stretch marks and transformations. Then I go meet my husband with a greater sense of peace and love of my body."

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