When a relationship book provokes outrage on blogs and social media, you know it has touched a nerve.
Lately my Facebook feed has been filled with snarky comments by women deriding Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s latest book, “Kosher Lust.” The gist seems to be “how dare a male ultra-Orthodox rabbi tell women what they want?”
But if ultra-Orthodox misogyny gets your goat, why not steam over haredi men in Beit Shemesh who attack “immodestly” dressed women? Boteach’s attempts to figure out “what women want” seem pretty tame by comparison.
When was the last time a book on love and relationships provoked responses like:
“Boteach…offers a spiced up version of his old shtick to a new generation of what he clearly views as desperate housewives.”
“He’s an ass.”
“It almost sounds like [he’s] endorsing rape culture.”
The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. In my analysis, Shmuley’s book is attracting hostile attention not because it diminishes women but because it challenges and unsettles them.
In the last three generations, women have come a long way. In the United States, women are the majority of the workforce and earn more university degrees than men. We’ve come so far that women’s roles on a show like “Mad Men,” seem totally foreign to us.
But at the same time, many women want something old-fashioned and retrograde. We want love and romance. We would like to find a soul mate. Many of us own dog-eared copies of “Jane Eyre” and “Pride and Prejudice” and in our idealistic youth nurse fantasies of finding such love for ourselves.
But then, as we reach adulthood, the fantasy crashes against the rocks of reality. Men who don’t try very hard. Men who never call back. Serial relationships that end in heartbreak. Inattentive husbands.
“What would you say about a man who keeps disappearing for weeks at a time and then reappears out of the blue?” my friend, a beautiful banker in her late 30’s, asks me with hopeful eyes.
“Why are men in their 30’s so afraid of commitment?” another laments. For every friend who is happily married, another is obsessed with the question of why love eludes her. These conversations would be tiresome if they weren’t so infused with pain.
“What happened to actively, and ardently, loving a woman?” journalist Rebecca Traister laments in a famous Salon interview about the lack of passion in men of her generation.
That’s why Shmuley Boteach’s “Kosher Lust” is so touching. What do women want? Boteach asks. They want to be chosen to the exclusion of others, he tells his mostly female readership, and to be desired madly and passionately, a la Romeo and Juliet or Catherine and Heathcliff. And not only is it totally natural for a woman to want this, he says, but she should accept nothing less. As a self-described man “in touch with his feminine side,” Boteach speaks out loud what so many women, worn down by low expectations, are loath to admit.
And we women are very good at eroding each other’s expectations. In fact, there is a cottage industry of sophisticated, liberated women writers (Lori Gottlieb, Kate Bolick, Sandra Tsing Loh) who tell other women (in the most feminist way possible) to give up their romantic fantasies and “settle.”
That’s what’s refreshing about “Kosher Lust.” The flip side of the imperative to settle is what Shmuley Boteach calls lust, “the constant, electrifying yearning to be one – to be made whole – by the object of your desire. It is not warm and cuddly, but rather “exciting, all-consuming and even overwhelming. It’s a magnetic pull, tapping into something so primal in our psyche that it cannot in any way be suppressed.”
In my experience, there are several schools of thought on this kind of passionate, romantic love. Some people believe it doesn’t exist, and is merely a social construct devised by Hollywood. Others acknowledge that the feeling exists, but deem it destructive, delusional or best outgrown and replaced by a calmer, more mature kind of love.
In other words, some people believe Romeo and Juliet could not exist in real life. Others believe the star-crossed lovers’ feelings were so over-the-top that the relationship was doomed from the start, and still others believe that had they not accidently committed double suicide, they could have settled down together in the suburbs and become affectionate old marrieds.
Shmuley is even more optimistic than that. Not only should Romeo and Juliet have gotten married, but, ideally, Romeo would still be wooing his sweetheart with love poetry 20 years later.
Boteach contrasts lust with “love,” a state of affectionate mutual caring.
“Love is a calm partnership. Two people can sit cozily, each reading a different book, and the companionable feeling is sweet but there’s not much interest in it.”
Lust, he says, makes us feel alive. It is the most powerful force in the world.
“Isn’t this the problem with modern life – its boredom and monotony? Nothing carries us away…Nothing makes us feel alive. Future possibility seldom beckons. Soon we’ve become old and lethargic and our lives have passed us by.”
Only a marriage infused with passion can save us from this fate. When we “settle,” either at the beginning of a relationship or well into a marriage, our lives can turn into a prison.
These are harsh words. And really, how many people can live up to this ideal? Perhaps a few lucky couples. But for others, life is about hard choices and compromise. And contrasting the reality of our lives to our deepest desires brings nothing but pain.
“Women around the world read your viral (not to be confused with vital) piece and exhaled a collective sigh of relief,” blogger Frimet Goldberg wrote snarkily in The Forward.
“They dropped their functional and domestic work, quit their jobs, stashed all the children into boxes labeled ‘functional’ and took off to tap into their lost sensuality. One woman even bothered to annotate your essay, Rabbi Botox, before she joined the others in marital fairyland.”
This passage smacks of cynicism. It’s as if the writer is complaining, “aren’t we women overburdened enough with full-time jobs and child care? Now some rabbi expects us, on top of everything else, to be Aphrodite in the bedroom?”
But if anything, Shmuley places the onus on men for fanning the flames of passion. When he says that women want to be desired, he is telling men to stop taking women for granted and start worshiping them as the goddesses that they are. In classic American can-do style, the book ends with an optimistic message than even lackluster marriages can be rekindled.
In a world where so many women have trouble finding their Romeos, this should be a welcome message. For some, it is. For others, Shmuley may have touched a raw nerve.