Talli Rosenbaum

Sex, Judaism and mindfulness

Relations can become a chore rather than a way to connect and experience pleasure together

You embark on a three-hour hike.

The tour guide says, “At the end of this hike, you will see the most beautiful view.”

You begin your trail thinking, “When will I get there?” and spend most of the three hours focused on what it is you will see when you arrive.

As you are about to reach your destination, a fellow hiker joins you. You ask him if he too, is looking forward to seeing the view at the end of the journey.

The fellow hiker turns to you with enthusiasm and says. “Sure, but did you see the amazing trees and blossoms we passed? Did you taste the figs on the fig tree, and see the gorgeous brooks and streams? Even if I didn’t make it to the end, I would be satisfied with all the beauty I experienced today.”

At that moment, you realize that you were so fixated on the reaching the goal that you completely missed out on enjoying the journey.

For many couples, sex is goal-oriented. At the very beginning, rather than focusing on pleasure and connection, young couples are encouraged to “succeed” at having sex.

Newly married Orthodox couples may struggle with the stark contrast between sexual abstinence and the anticipation and expectation that sexual intercourse occurs immediately after the wedding or shortly thereafter. The first “successful” act of intercourse, (which often occurs as process rather than as an isolated and defined event) marks a period of separation and the ‘fifty shades of grey’ area surrounding whether or not that was accomplished in one encounter may draw the couple into an anxious and exposing drama involving consultation with premarital instructors, rabbis and ritual examiners. For many young Orthodox couples who are used to being good at what they do, whether as youth group leaders, students or soldiers, feeling ’failure’ at what has become a mission to ‘accomplish’, is dissonant with their role identities and is accompanied with shame and frustration, emotions they may continue to experience throughout the marriage.

As couples move through the life cycle, goal orientation surrounding sex may focus on success as well: success in achieving climax, or a pregnancy, or a minimal weekly frequency. As sex becomes something to accomplish, rather than a place to connect and experience pleasure together, social or relationship pressure to engage in relations, different libidos or expectations regarding frequency, may contribute to the feeling of sex as a chore to check off the to-do list, and guilt by the partner who isn’t feeling ‘enough’ desire.

We experience sex in a multi-dimensional way. Thoughts about sex are influenced cognitively by our attitudes, values and messages with which we were raised. Our feelings and sensations around sex may be influenced by what is occurring in the relationship, including power struggles and the ways partners trigger one another. Of course, physical factors, such as hormones and exhaustion can play a role in how we experience pleasure.

Approaching sex with mindfulness is a concept, which enhances marital sex on all levels-physical, emotional, and cognitive. Mindful sex involves reducing thoughts, and in particular, judgments and expectations (“am I good enough, do I look OK, what if I or my partner doesn’t climax?”) Mindfulness encourages being in the moment and focusing on every aspect of the journey, rather than focusing on the end goal. To illustrate this concept, think about the simple activity of taking a shower. To some, it may be a basic activity undertaken for the purpose of daily hygiene. This activity can be done while thinking about the list of chores that need to be accomplished for that day. A mindful shower, however, can involve reveling in the sensational experience of being embraced by warm water while enjoying the sweet aroma of lavender.

Beginner’s mind is a mindfulness-based concept that encourages individuals to approach an experience as if for the very first time, without expectation that it will be ‘as good or better’ than the time before, but will be its own unique experience. This lowers expectations as well as disappointments such that cuddling, for example, can be experienced as a uniquely pleasurable and satisfying intimate activity even if it doesn’t ‘lead to sex’.

For the many Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews I see in my practice, approaching intimate relations with full presence and acceptance of thoughts, feelings and sensations, withholding judgment and valuing varied expressions of intimacy may seem challenging. After all, as in all things, we are a purposeful and goal-oriented people and our behavior is informed by a strong moral conscience that Freud referred to as the “superego”.   Some clients recoil at the idea of ‘wasting time’ luxuriating in the shower when we are conditioned that ‘the day is short, the work to be performed is much and the master is insistent (Avot, 2:15), In addition, the ritual purity laws that restrict any physical contact during the nidda period, and promote full sexual engagement after mikvah immersion may make sex feel like something that is either off or on, rather than ‘on a low flame.’ However, it helps to reframe our understanding of Jewish tradition in that it actually promotes mindfulness.

After all, do we not value the enhancement of ritual performance, such as the havdalah service, by deeply taking in the aroma of the spices and acknowledging the burning flame? Do we not choose the most flawless etrog that pleases the eye? We do all this to enhance the observance of the mitzvoth. We also attempt to pray with full intention, rather than let our minds drift off as we mutter the words. This too, is about being mindful.

Mindfulness practitioners promote setting aside one day a week which is screen–free, where all communication devices are turned off so that one may meditate, focus on their loved ones and spend time with their families. Sound familiar? That piece of information usually sells my clients on the value of mindfulness.

Mindful intimacy involves setting aside intentional, planned dates, communicating what you would like, finding our what your partner would like, and acknowledging and showing love and appreciation for one another, both outside the bedroom and in.

Sex is not something you have, but rather an expression of an intimate and erotic energy that a couple shares. It may be expressed in the bedroom, but does not begin there. It is present with the way the couple engages, and even looks at one another. According to the “good enough sex model” introduced by sex therapists Metz and McCarthy, sex can be valued for its many meanings. Sometimes it is a place of intimacy, bonding and being united, sometimes a quickie for relieving stress, sometimes it is experienced with playfulness and laughter, and sometimes with seriousness and even spirituality. It does not need to be the same each time or even the same for both partners.

Furthermore, ‘good enough sex’ doesn’t demand goals or expectations of erections, orgasms or intercourse, but rather appreciates the value of experiencing the journey of intimacy with minimal judgment and maximal presence of mind. And of course, love.

About the Author
Talli Yehuda Rosenbaum is an individual and couple therapist and is certified as a sex therapist by The American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) , as well as the Israeli Society for Sex Therapy (ISST). She is also an AASECT certified sex therapy supervisor. She cohosts the Intimate Judaism podcast and is co-author of the book “I am For My Beloved: A Guide to Enhanced Intimacy for Married Couples.” and co-edited the Springer textbook entitled “The Overactive Pelvic Floor.” She has authored over 40 journal articles and several book chapters on sexual pain disorders, sexual health, unconsummated marriage, and sexuality and Judaism and is an associate editor of the Sexual Medicine Reviews. Talli earned a Masters in Clinical Sociology and Counseling and a certificate in Mental Health Studies from the University of North Texas in Neve Yerushalayim. She holds a bachelors degree in Physical Therapy from Northwestern University and before training in psychotherapy, treated patients as a physical therapist for 25 years. In addition to maintaining an active private practice, Talli is the academic advisor for Yahel: The Center for Jewish Intimacy. Talli frequently lectures both in Israel and abroad, to lay as well as professional audiences.
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