Well this New York Post story has been getting some attention in Jewish circles on the Internet recently.  Forward, Daily Mail, FrumWatch, Dus Iz Nies, Reddit, and others have picked up on the story.satmar-swingers

 

I found a lot of things interesting about it (yes, including her picture) and reading about this couple from a former baal teshuva’s perspective brought to mind several questions.

How does this happen in what are apparently such devout and pious Orthodox populations?

In my early return to observant Judaism, I had many good examples of how wholesome an Orthodox religious life can be.  I accepted them at face value and naively assumed it was the product of a religious lifestyle.  And of course, sexual relationships outside of marriage were a secular world issue.  It didn’t happen among religious people.  It was unheard of.  Much of my time with Chabad was spent in this deluded version of what the Chasidim were like, conveniently ignoring subtle signs that didn’t fit my view of the righteous people I wanted them to be.   I think that’s natural for new baalei teshuva who want to believe their direction and their teachers are correct and true.  Chabad did its part by remaining silent and avoiding information that could crash my false image of them.  In the many years my family was with Chabad we never heard the stories of masturbating shluchim, rabbis getting caught with prostitutes, chasidim visiting strip clubs, nor the many horrible cases of child sexual abuse found within the Chabad movement and greater Orthodox world (some uncomfortably close to home).

A significant part of what attracted my wife and myself to religious life was its apparent wholesomeness.  It was important for us to raise our future children with it and we felt religious life offered exactly that.  It wasn’t until many years later, as we started distancing ourselves from Chabad, that I discovered information on the Internet about haredi and hasidic culture that are closer to reality.  One site where I discovered a lot of that information was the blog FailedMessiah.  I followed the blog a little over a year and a half before it was closed down by an Orthodox Jewish censorship buyout ending its 12 year history.  There I saw stories posted about hasidim that I previously thought could only have happened in the lives of the secular world I left behind.  The FM archive held what I was oblivious to during my time with Chabad.  I discovered articles not merely confirming the fraud, alcoholism, people-using, and messianism I suspected within Chabad, but also many of malfeasance, deviance, and criminality of a sexual nature extending throughout the greater hasidic and Orthodox world as well.  And I came to the sobering realization that they are not immune to many of the problems secular culture faces.  The people I once admired as being ‘a cut above’ were in reality as flawed as everyone else.  They’re really not that different despite the religious facade.  Having read many stories of this nature, the shock value has worn down some. The answer to how situations like this Satmar couple’s happen in strict religious communities is that religion offers no guarantee to shield one from impulse, desire, and the problems that sometimes accompany them.  In some cases religion can make things worse.  Swingers and adulterers may be unheard of in ultra-Orthodox circles, but they do exist.

How common is this in the Orthodox Jewish religious world?

Who can say with any accuracy?  By it’s very nature it requires a kind of double-life secrecy.  I doubt there is any repentance this couple could make upon their discovery by religious leaders that would avert the destruction of their lives and family.  That is, unfortunately, how it works in many ultra-Orthodox circles.  For this couple it’s not just easier, but better for them (at least in the short term), and safer to live the lie of a double-life.

Stories on the web of hasidic men visiting dance clubs and strip clubs outnumber those of swinging ultra-Orthodox couples.

Some say this Williamsberg couple’s story was some kind of Purim practical joke since the story broke around that holiday.  I suspect it’s no joke, not the only case, and more common than many of us may think.  This link on Craigslist is often shared as a joke among those who get a laugh out of false religious piety:

https://newyork.craigslist.org/search/ppp?query=frum (note high percentage of male for male ads)

Why? (my kiruv salesman sold me on “different than the goyim”, ‘far superior, holy, marital relations’, and a better quality marriage through their prescription of ‘kosher’ sex.)  Is the strict religious prescription for sexual relations failing to provide these people with the emotional connections they need?

Well, if we take a closer look at that Craigslist link, some of the titles and ad texts paint a less amusing picture.  They appear to tell stories about how their religious lives are failing them physically and emotionally.

CLfrumAD1

CLfrumAD2

CLfrumAD3

CLfrumAD4

It appears that for some, the ultra-Orthodox prescription for marriage and intimacy, though Divine in theory, is a dismal failure in practice.  Some can’t adhere to the many strict rules that govern intimate relationships in ultra-Orthodox life, and among those who can are people who find them unfulfilling and unrewarding.  Among the complaints voiced by some hasidim (more often ex-hasidim) are that the culture fails to adequately teach and prepare those entering adulthood with age-appropriate sex education.  It is not unheard of for young couples to go to a brief sex/marriage education class preceding their wedding.  Filmmaker Malky Lipshitz describes one such class in this article by Shulem Deen.

Lipshitz, who was raised in Israel before her family moved to Brooklyn when she was a teenager, had been something of a rebel all along and had a secret boyfriend at 16. At 19, her parents insisted she marry a boy of their choosing in a traditional shidduch — the system of arranged marriages. Lipshitz was expected to take “bridal classes,” in which she would receive instruction on sex, procreation and the laws of family purity required by Orthodoxy. Lipshitz didn’t need sex instruction, but she went along with her parents’ wishes and turned it into a kind of project. “I took notes on everything, because it was all so comical and absurd.” She wrote detailed descriptions of each session — the clinical descriptions of the act, the euphemisms, the instructor’s awkward fumbling when a topic required a description a tad too explicit. Malky couldn’t help laughing as she read her notes later. “This,” she thought, “would make a terrific movie.”

But those are the frum from birth (FFB) crowd.  The more experienced and less insulated Jew is beyond that, right?  Not necessarily.  Kiruv rabbis, especially Chabad, will sell outreach targets on how wonderful all of the laws of sexual relations are and how they will enhance your relationship in ways that the ‘poor secular’ types can never appreciate.

Here is a typical Chabad sales pitch from their web site:

Enhancing Marriage
There is a very practical reason, as well, to keeping these rules: They keep things sparkling. After all, even swimming with tiger sharks can get pretty dull if it’s the daily fare. On the other hand, a plain stone, if it’s withheld for a while, becomes a coveted jewel. Modesty and the period of separation inject that flavor of the forbidden into a relationship.

Consistently, couples report their relationships rejuvenated when they start living by the rules of separation and mikveh. Perhaps that’s why mikveh parking lots have become so crowded in the past few decades as more and more young couples make it a part of their lives — some who have no other formal Jewish observance.

They may offer classes on the Jewish laws of family purity (Taharat Hamishpachah), selling them with some catchy name like “Spa for the Soul.” Claims that these laws and practices will elevate your marriages and intimacy to a level of holiness, or that women will become empowered by the laws of required separation are common.  This is a one-size fits all sales pitch designed for the consumption of outreach customers.  They don’t always share the more uncomfortable and unpleasant aspects of the laws of family purity.

See: I Had to Take My Dirty Panties to a Rabbi, and So Has Every Orthodox Jewish Woman

Some sects take the laws to extremes adding additional stringencies.  The Gur (or Ger) hasidic sect is possibly the most extreme in its restrictions placed on men and women socially as well as married couples privately.

religious restrictions on intimacy—including, for one subset of ultra-Orthodox called Ger Hasidic, a ban on kissing each other’s bodies or intercourse after midnight

Religious outreach professionals will also not reveal that some, even in the strictest hasidic sects, may not take the laws as seriously as they are taught, or that the restrictions may damage a marriage.

Gur is a large Hasidic sect, numbering tens of thousands of members. Most of them follow the “official line” they are taught in their schools and yeshivas. However, quite a considerable number observe the strictures only during the first years of their marriage, and thereafter see them as guidelines that can be relaxed in the privacy of their own homes.

R. and her girlfriends who were raised in hard-core Gur families – some of whom left Hasidism by the skin of their teeth – speak of the heavy psychological price paid by women living in a world where kedusha constitutes an ongoing, restrictive way of life, imposed with severe emotional coldness. They describe a society in which the men, who until their wedding night hardly ever have looked directly at a woman, keep their distance and alienate themselves from their wives as well.

One may be interested to find that despite all of the holiness and (spiritual) satisfaction the religious approach to sexuality promises; there is a growing industry (indicating a growing need) for sexual wellness products (sex toys) marketing to the ultra-Orthodox population.  This interesting quote I pulled from the same article gives a vivid description of the lack of sex education within ultra-Orthodox populations:

But gaining acceptance within the ultra-Orthodox community will be a challenge. From childhood, boys and girls are separated, and sex is a topic rarely addressed by parents or teachers. They spend their days studying Jewish texts, focusing little, if at all, on sexual intimacy. That leaves them uninformed in matters of sex into adulthood, and they resort to books or rabbis for advice. “You’re talking about people who not only have absolutely no personal experience with someone of the opposite sex, but no source of a precedent in their heads,” says David Ribner, a certified sex therapist, ordained rabbi, and co-author of The Newlywed Guide to Physical Intimacy. “They don’t read novels; they don’t go to the movies; they don’t listen to the radio; they don’t watch TV. So how are they supposed to know what to do when they get into bed? How do you know what parts go in where, what to do with your legs—not to mention their sexual organs?”

Naomi Marmon Grumet, founder of the Eden Center, a nonprofit organization in Jerusalem addressing Jewish women’s issues, says she’s encountered several cases in which an ultra-Orthodox couple sought fertility treatments after years of marriage. In those instances, gynecologists found that the women appeared to still be virgins. The couples were instructed by their rabbis to “sleep together,” without giving further details. “When you go to an extreme on modesty, and therefore you don’t talk about it, you send extremely unhealthy messages, which are repressive and cause shame and guilt,” says Grumet. “We don’t have to use euphemisms, and just as we talk about other things openly, we can address this in a way that is respectful to” Jewish law, she says. The growing ultra-Orthodox population indicates a technical ability to procreate, but enjoying it is another matter, Grumet says.

Where does one ‘draw the line’ when it comes to letting so-called religious authorities direct or dictate our sexual behavior?  To what degree are we willing to let the rabbis into our bedrooms?

In insular communities as described above, frum from birth Jews are mostly at the mercy of what their religious sect will offer or allow them regarding education on marriage, sex and relationships. On the other hand, baalei teshuva, returnees to religion, are often sold the religious sex program by outreach organizations.  Self-proclaimed authorities like Chabad’s Manis Friedman or local shluchim (Chabad missionaries), offer advice tailored for the outreach crowd, often omitting important information or providing misinformation.  They may be charismatic and good religion salesmen, but one is really taking a foolish risk in letting a kiruv/outreach specialist play the role of a non-credentialed counselor or therapist.  This is especially clear if we consider the frequent news stories about sexual deviance within Orthodox Jewish communities (including one recently of alleged sexual misconduct and criminality by Chabad rabbi Nisson Friedman, son of rabbi Manis Friedman).

The Daily Beast has an article entitled “The Torah Told Me to Have Sex This Way” featuring a review of “The Lost Key,” a movie production by rabbi Manis Friedman in which he explains to Jews how God wants them to have sex.

Audiences watching The Lost Key will not likely be surprised to see a bearded, traditional Orthodox rabbi telling them that missionary-style with a man on top, a woman on the bottom, in near total darkness within the confines of marriage, is the “right” way to have sex.

But they may be surprised when the rabbi claims that this position will lead to a heightened, perhaps even holy, intimacy and that this and other lessons from the Torah can “usher in a new era of sexual relations,” as the press release (PDF) for The Lost Key boasts.

The writer, Emily Shire, does a good job at deconstructing some of Friedman’s mystical claptrap

“The male’s sexual energy is in the genitals and the woman’s sexual energy is in the womb,” Friedman explains in The Lost Key. He describes the womb, specifically the uterus, as “an organ that is purely receptive.”

All of this was a bit confusing to me in the film, mainly because the uterus is part of female genitalia. Wouldn’t men and women have their sexual desires coming from the same source then?

I ask Friedman about this, and he is adamant that men and women have different types of sexual hunger.

“The uterus doesn’t want sex. It wants intimacy,” he tells me. That is why a woman’s “hunger is much deeper and truer.”

How does he define “deeper and truer” when it comes to intimacy?

“The uterus wants to receive someone, not some thing, which is the definition of intimacy. Just like the uterus is invisible, intimacy is invisible.”

It should be noted here that the uterus is not, in fact, invisible. One may or may not want to take sexual intimacy advice from a person who believes that it is.

Here, Shire addresses the most commonly promoted Orthodox-approved sexual position (missionary), and Friedman offers up some Torah-sounding shpiel about how parsha Breshit (the creation story) instructs us in which position to have sexual intercourse.

The Lost Key says quite explicitly that when it comes to doing the deed in a way that will achieve the highest level of intimacy, the man should be on top and the woman should be on the bottom.

The reason for this is “you draw strength from your source,” explains Friedman. “Where was the man created from? The earth. Where was woman created from? The man. The man faces his source, the earth, down, and the woman faces her source, the man.”

Friedman is surprised when I suggest it is condescending in 2015 to tell women that men are their “source” and should face them during sex.

“No, no, no,” he tells me. “He was a living being she came from. He came from dust,” he says in an effort to explain why it is the woman who is, in fact, in the role of superiority.

I press Friedman on the issue of intercourse position—because, apparently, I am a glutton for punishment.

He suggests I am focusing too much on the physical logistics. “It’s not top and bottom. That’s not the issue.”

Seconds later, he seems to contradict himself by stating the importance of the sexual positioning.

“The woman’s position is superior. She’s facing up. He’s facing down.”

If positioning doesn’t matter, like he just said, why the need to prove she’s “superior” at all?

This hasidic man seems to contradict Friedman regarding positions, but still includes restrictions like lying down, completely covered, and in complete darkness.

A Chabad rabbi once told me that men are not even allowed to look at “that part” of a woman (he couldn’t bring himself to use the word “genitalia”).  It sounded more like an immature expression of superstition, ignorance, and fear than one of modesty.  The man in the video above discusses one of his fears regarding sex.  Fear is a common theme found in the ultra-Orthodox view of sexuality.  Lack of knowledge and extreme religious restrictions appear to contribute greatly to that.

I wonder if some of the fears and problems ultra-Orthodox face regarding their human sexuality may be helped if these Jews were allowed to turn the lights on occasionally.

If we’re going to run to Torah parsha Breshit for instructions on sexual position restrictions, then we should at least get a little fun out of it too.  I would be remiss not to point out that HaShem said ‘let there be light’ before he said to ‘be fruitful.’  So it just makes good sense.  If God turned the lights on before we did it, perhaps that means we can turn the lights on too.

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