Dr. Ruth Westheimer, 92, is one of only a few writers of any faith whose name universally evokes both smiles and blushes at her graphic vocabulary delivered in her iconic German accent. But she contends that nothing she advises contradicts the Hebrew Bible. She presents her case in a new paperback edition of Heavenly Sex: Sexuality and the Jewish Tradition (NYU Press, Nov. 3), cowritten by Jonathan Mark, an associate editor at the Jewish Week. The book was originally published in 1995.
NYU Press senior editor Jennifer Hammer, says the publication is timed to the latest honor to be bestowed on Westheimer. "This fall, Dr. Ruth will receive an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University, and we wanted to celebrate by bringing her NYU Press title into paperback for the first time and making it available not only for fans of Dr. Ruth, but also for a new generation."
PW talked with Dr. Ruth about sex, guilt, and the Hebrew Bible.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length)
You were a Holocaust orphan. Do you think you and your generation, having survived so many horrors, appreciate life—and sex— a little more?
Definitely, in my case, the appreciation of life is no question. But I'll tell you also, since I'm one of the few children that did survive—one-and-a-half million Jewish children were killed—I knew I had an obligation to make something out of my life. But I did not know that it would be talking about sex. That, I did not know.
Why do you think the Bible is so filled with sex and sexuality and not all of it between husband and wife?
Because sex is an important part of life. You and I would not be in this world without sex. However, you are absolutely right. For example, the Book of Ruth talks about how she kind of seduced Boaz. On Friday night, the (Jewish) husband says a prayer, "A Woman of Valor." (Proverbs 31:10-31). Towards the end is one sentence that I believe is the most sexually arousing in the world. The husband says to the wife, "There are many wonderful women out there who do wonderful things, but you are the very best." And in my experience as a sex therapist, there is nothing better for a woman to hear than that. Really, that book is the best sex manual of all time.
In other religions, sex is associated with guilt. But doesn't Judaism embrace sex?
That's a very important point. Never, in the Jewish tradition, is there anything prohibiting sex in any position. They wanted people to have sex. They wanted people to be married. But never is sex associated with guilt. On the contrary, it is an obligation on a husband to satisfy his wife, which is fascinating if you look at other religions that have many more problems.
Should sex be a religious or spiritual experience?
I'm a sex therapist and I'm saying sex should be sex. Period. If you want to make it spiritual, make it spiritual. If you want to just make it bodily, make it bodily. The important thing is to be sexually literate, to know when there is a problem to go for help and to make sure to keep sex alive even in older age. Now, I'm not saying that everybody can have a baby, like Sarah, at the age of 90. Not likely. The Bible teaches us about relationships and about companionship.
What is the most-important message the Bible and Judaism teach us about sex and relationships?
The most important sentence in there, in my opinion, is that God did not want man to be alone. Period. I think this is true even today, when so many people, young people and older people, have trouble committing to a relationship because they always think there's something better out there. The Bible, and certainly the Jewish tradition, wanted people to be in a relationship.