A pre-Corona Time Capsule from Tel Aviv.
Once a week, on hot summer evenings in Tel Aviv, the Tel Aviv anglo community gets together for cocktails and lectures on the Mediterranean shore at the Esperanto bar. Esperanto has a gorgeous view of the beach and the talks are set at sunset, a prime time to feel the breeze as the temperature drops, and Tel Avivians venture into the night after spending all day in air-conditioned homes and offices. Tel Aviv International Salon invites ambassadors, writers, and artists. There I saw Yosef Ha Levi read from his book “Letters to a Palestinian Neighbor” and when I found out that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach would come and give a talk as well, I was intrigued.
Rabbi Boteach is a controversial figure with American Jews. He is not controversial because of his book “Kosher Sex” and “Kosher Lust”. Most American Jews have little interest in what a rabbi says about sex. Surprisingly his fans actually comprise mostly of Evangelical Christians who like to know what Old Testament says about sex. Boteach is controversial for his political opinions and for his endorsement of Donald Trump. So when I found out that he would be in Tel Aviv, I thought it might be interesting to hear his views in person. Listening and later talking to him left me angry, distraught, but in the end, encouraged.
I first ran across Rabbi Shumley Boetach’s videos on social media. I thought his ideas were interesting. They seemed to give a fresh orthodox perspective as he argues for passion in marriage and for a monogamous relationship from a half biological and half liturgical point of view. When I followed him on Social Media, I discovered that he was different from what he first appeared. Although he is purported to be a Talmudic Scholar on Sex, he publishes many opinions on politics in the US and Israel, with a conservative bend. His books and opinions to his surprise made him a small star in the evangelical movement, in part, because Rabbi Boteach’s consistent message on monogamy is that monogamy and abstaining from hookup culture is a way to respect to women. He argues that Kosher Sex as opposed to porn promotes respect for women. This is why I was surprised as it seems that Trump’s actions and acts, do not seem to have any effect on the rabbi. I saw this dichotomy in his views, and I wanted to see what he would say in Tel Aviv.
I arrived a little late with the rabbi already speaking. It did not take long for me to start to disagree with him. In fact, I was still waiting for my beer when he said “porn is the reason for the objectification of women.” “So there was no objectification of women before porn?” I said to a guy sitting to my left.
I went a little closer and sat between a woman and a man and continued to listen. The next thing that sparked my disagreement was when the rabbi said: “Do you think that sex is only for procreation? Evolutionary biologists think so.” I turned to my right: “I’m an evolutionary biologist, no we don’t.” Evolutionary and Behavioral biology has long ago shown that humans are just one of the animals who use sex for social purposes.
I could feel that the crowd was listening but apprehensively. As the rabbi went into talmudic reasoning for why a man should abstain from women, about hook up culture, about the evil of Tel Aviv men falling asleep on the beach, and other deviations from his norm, I could see he was becoming more and more desperate for crowd feedback. “Does size matter?” he asked and held the silence for a bit too long. “It’s not the size of the wand, it’s the way you wield it.” Stunned and confused silence was returned. “It does, humans have a disproportionate penis and evolutionary biologists don’t know why.” Wrong again, yes they do. It was becoming obvious that Rabbi Boteach was creating a speech without bothering to check the facts or research. This began to explain to me the love he receives from the Evangelical population, who also prefer the word of the Bible over any competing information.
I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to walk away. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. Tel-Aviv mayor Ron Huldai and his wife were also sitting off to the side and he also decided seemed to have had enough and left. I couldn’t listen, but also couldn’t stay away. I wandered back and forth into the conversation that the rabbi had in the Q&A.
One man asked what is better: best friend or lust. Rabbi’s answer was that we are too close to our wives, that we need to have mystery and thus we should never be naked in each other’s presence. Discounting the fact that many people can have both and if you want a strong marriage, perhaps you should seek both.
Someone then asked about the hookup culture, and the rabbi said that it is destroying sex, that people destroy their chances at love and marriage. His proof was that the average time for sex was 7 minutes average. Any undergraduate can explain the concept of average and median and that it doesn’t mean that all people have only 7 minutes of sex. But more importantly, contrary to his statement, studies show that people who wait longer, and experience love, actually have stronger and longer-lasting marriages.
His last few minutes were taken up with shock and surprise and dismay that he failed with his book in Israel while his daughter found success with her “Kosher Sex” Sex Shop and that she has sucked up all of his media. He said this while she sat at a table next to the stage. To finish, the rabbi said, “If you want to know the real secrets of sex, buy my book.” In spite of the enticing offer, the majority of the stacks of books that he brought with him had to be packed up when he left. Most of the people began to disperse while a few fans stuck around trying to talk to the rabbi.
I sipped my beer as I contemplated telling him or not to tell him about the surprising facts that evolutionary biologists know. I came up to the small line next to him. Rabbi Boteach was anxious and distracted, his eyes darted anxiously side to side from person to person. He was short and stocky. His wild beard covered the acne scars. He would ask people: “Tell me honestly, did you like the talk?” As if he knew he bombed and yearned for a kind word from a fan. The people he asked were those who chose to come up to him, and while they said they liked his talk, the tone of their voice seemed to betray their words. It seemed like they were trying to be nice to an insecure man. He ended every conversation with his email address and a request to send the rabbi an email. I wondered if this was a desire to genuinely connect, or to create an email list.
Surprisingly, for the man who claimed to create Kosher Sex to respect women, the women that came up to him to speak were ignored. As one girl tried to speak to him, the rabbi jumped into new conversations with random people passing by while she was mid-sentence.
Although it had been my turn to speak to the rabbi a long time ago, and I contemplated leaving many times, I saw that I would have to interrupt to get him to speak. I grabbed a chance and asked him about the evolutionary biology questions. We argued for a little back and forth, I could see that he didn’t want to give up his opinion. But when I brought up the examples of other animals that have sex face to face and my ex-professor’s research on the gorilla penis and sperm, he looked at me with a look of surprise and said: “Interesting, I didn’t know that. What’s your name? Send me an email with any material about this, I’d love to read it.”
Honestly, I was shocked. I thought I had a good notion of who this man was from the short interaction, and big surprise, I was wrong. He was wrong and I was wrong. We’re both humans, but we are also both brave enough to be vulnerable with one another and brave enough to admit that we are wrong. I felt sad about how I judged him. I felt embarrassed about my anger and contempt. I was still a little upset with the fact that he speaks of his opinions as fact, and that he defends Donald Trump while also promoting respect for women, but I was less critical. Because I saw that in spite of how I judged him, he did listen. I became hopeful that if I can have a dialogue with this man, I can have a dialogue with others. And if we can have dialogue, then change is possible.