By Nate Brown
Shmuley Boteach is a somewhat controversial figure and an increasingly visible talking head who has authored some 20 books. He’s also the host of TLC’s Shalom in the Home, and is a frequent guest on national television and radio programs. His newest title, The Kosher Sutra: Eight Sacred Secrets for Reigniting Desire and Restoring Passion for Life hit the shelves just in times for Valentine’s Day, and addresses something he’s identified as a central problem in western romantic relationships: the loss of desire, passion and eroticism. It should also be mentioned that he and his wife have 9 children, which may at least partially explain his interest in love and sex.
The L: You’ve written several books about love, relationships, masculinity and sexuality. In your most recent title, The Kosher Sutra, you identify and address something you see as a systemic problem in American culture: the loss of passion and eroticism, both within the context of marriage and in a broader way that applies to how we approach our jobs, friendships, familial and romantic relationships. In your estimation, what are some of the root causes of the deadened passion and lost eroticism that you describe in your book?
Shmuley Boteach: Loss of curiosity, immersion in a culture of instant gratification that abnegates mystery. Sex especially has had so much light cast on it there is nothing left to explore or to discover. There are areas of life that are meant to exist behind curtains and veils. But in this supremely visual and superficial age, nothing is left to linger in the shadows.
The L: Though you’re a rabbi and though the book is replete with references to religious texts and traditions, the practical advice you give seems applicable to a broad audience. I’m curious to know who you think can benefit from this book, and whether you think a secular couple would be able to get as much from reading it as, say, a religious Jewish couple. How about a couple of long-married Methodists?
SB: I think secular couples will benefit even more than religious couples insofar as secular society, with its emphasis on immediate sensual gratification, is what is most responsible for the deadening of our erotic passion. Religion introduces the idea of the forbidden and the taboo into the sexual, which is deeply erotic. And yes, even the Methodists will have great sex after reading The Kosher Sutra.
The L: As a married person, I find your call for a continued renewal of love and passion within a relationship appealing, but I also felt that the book used examples and made frequent reference to couples who had been together for decades. Do you think the relationship and romantic advice found in The Kosher Sutra is applicable to younger couples as well as those who’ve been together for 10, 25 or 45 years?
SB: Of course. Young people are extremely erotically challenged. Don’t believe me? Just look at how commitment-phobic they are, which can only result in not finding any member of the opposite sex to be very erotically compelling.
The L: The second section of your book is something of a manifesto entitled “Why We Need Eroticism Now.” The eroticism you describe in this chapter is not merely sexual, but something seemingly transcendent. Do you think your use and understanding of the word “erotic” differs greatly from a popular understanding of that language? And, if so, is that something you’d like to change?
SB: Yes on both counts. My usage is very different, and I would certainly like to see the word erotic no longer conjuring up an image of a woman clad in leather holding a whip but of a couple who are insatiably curious about each other and about life.
The L: You also write about horizontal versus vertical renewal. In the book, you define horizontal renewal as an attempt to bring excitement and verve back into your life through the acquisition of material goods; lusting after new flesh; or moving to a new city. The concept of vertical renewal, though, is something less tangible. You describe it as the abnegation of “boredom by finding the deeper layers of life, the secrets of existence. It’s where, little by little, you scrape away the outer layers of things, revealing their inner dimensions until you discover their essence.” To me, this seems somewhat ambiguous. Does vertical renewal have religious overtones? Is the concept dependent upon the adherence to a faith?
SB: Religious? Not at all. It’s a universal concept. Everything in life has both an outer and an inner dimension. The need for horizontal renewal results from the boredom of living life in the shallows. Vertical renewal is the ability to peer beneath the hood of each thing and discover its engine and what makes it tick.
The L: Chapter 8 of your book is called “The Fifth Secret: Opposites Attract” and in it, you contend that in western culture, the lessened social distance between the sexes, as well as changing sexual and cultural norms (like women wearing jeans, men and women being equally commitment-phobic, and equally vulgar in their language and dress) have contributed to the loss of passion and eroticism that you discuss in the book. If it’s true, as you write in this chapter, that “for eroticism to exist, the sexual polarity between masculine and feminine […] has to be established,” then I wonder what you make of same-sex couples. Perhaps oddly, it seems to me that much of the advice you give in the book could be as useful to same-sex couples as to heterosexual couples. Any thoughts?
SB: In most same-sex relationships there is still a masculine and feminine pole, usually one partner who is slightly more aggressive and another that is slightly more nurturing. Mind you, even in heterosexual couples we sometimes see the reversal of the male being more sensitive and nurturing and the woman being more dominant. The point is, in nearly all relationships there is a masculine and feminine pole and I absolutely believe that the book is helpful to same-sex couples as well.
The L: In the final chapters of your book, you discuss Tantra and Kabbalah, and you place a good deal of emphasis on moving away from what you identify as a western conception of sex (one that’s focused on achieving orgasm) to an eastern and Kabbalic emphasis on union. What might the world look like if more couples practiced the kind of sex you describe in the last four chapters of your book? Would the divorce rate go down?
SB: The world would be filled with people who are most satisfied in their relationships because they would feel more desirable in those relationships. The fact is that we all want to be wanted, we need to be needed, we desire to be desired. And since I believe that the primary cause of divorce is loss of desire, yes, I believe the divorce rate would absolutely go down.
The L: Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and I wonder if you view this holiday (as many do) as a commercial farce or as an opportunity for people to express their love and desire for their partner. Any advice for how a couple should spend this holiday together?
SB: Look, any opportunity we get to recommit to each other romantically should be welcomed and embraced. I just wish that every day were Valentine’s Day.
The L: Thanks very much for talking with us.
SB: Thank you as well and G-d bless you.