Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus is a feminist Orthodox Jewish sex therapist. She talks with host Lee Hale about the complicated aftermath of being taught God has strict rules for your sex life. Plus, the ‘Woodstock’ moment she sparked by carving out space for feminists of faith.
The Joy of Text, a podcast about the intersection of Judaism and sexuality co-hosted by Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus
The Orthodox Sex Guru, a New York Times’ piece about Marcus and her work.
Bat Sheva Marcus I think most people would think it's funny that it's way harder for me to talk about my upbringing and my faith than it is for me to talk about sex.
Lee Hale Is it?
Bat Sheva Marcus Much harder. But I'm happy to certainly try.
Lee Hale From KUER and PRX, this is Preach. I'm Lee Hale. And in this show we dive into the messiness of faith.
I'm a religion reporter who's worked myself into a bit of a faith crisis and now I interview people who've gone through something similar.
As a reporter covering the Mormon Church, my own church, I realized something a few years back. Sex therapists are really fun to talk to. They see people at their most vulnerable. It gives them insight into not just the hangs up people have with sex and intimacy, which there are plenty of, but often all of that is tangled up with how they view their faith in God too.
And sex therapists tend to be really blunt. Which I love. It's almost like if you can talk openly about sex you can be honest about anything.
So when I heard about Dr. Bat Sheva Marcus. I said yes. I want to talk to her. Bat Sheva is a feminist Orthodox Jewish sex therapist. Say that three times fast. She's based in New York City where she leads the Maze Women's Sexual Health Center.
And Bat Sheva is not shy when talking about sex, which we will do in this episode. That's your warning in case there are sensitive years around. I gotta say even I, listening back, was surprised at how much we talked about masturbation. I mean it connects to theology. I promise. But it's in there.
Also an apology to everyone's ears. I had a cold when we did this interview. So I sound a little bit funny.
OK. First things first. How does a woman who grew up in a strict Orthodox home end up working as a sex therapist?
Bat Sheva Marcus So I grew up in a Modern Orthodox family.
And my father wasn't working as a rabbi but he was a rabbi. He was a very difficult parent but very thoughtful about the way he talked about religion. And I think that had a huge impact on me. And my family did not talk about sex at all.
I was in fifth grade. So how old does that make me, like twelve? And our ... teacher, our Bible teacher was talking about somebody who had a baby. And she said 'and we all know how babies are created, right?' or something. And I said yes. You pray to God. That's how you have a baby. Because that's what I had been told.
And this 12 year old behind me starts giggling. It was so humiliating. And she was like 'Oh my God that's not how you have a baby!' And so then during recess she gave me information about intercourse and that was like the first I had heard about it.
So the funny thing about the story is that 30 years later I'm telling the story at the dinner table. And my daughter, who at the time was maybe 11 or 12 hears the story. And I said you know, I still remember the name that girl who told me. Her name was Myra Brodsky. And my daughter, she looks I me and she starts to laugh. She said 'I think I just Myra Brodsky-ed somebody else.
I really grew up with no information but was really curious.
My father was very ahead of his time in terms of teaching girls Talmud which nobody was doing at the time. They would separate out the boys at my school and they would learn Talmud and they'd take the girls and we would learn, I don't know what, folk dancing. I don't even know. But my father was adamant that we would learn. And so he would study with us.
And I think being able to feel comfortable with Jewish sources and being from a family that was curious kind of propelled me to look for answers about things that I didn't know. And I was really interested in sex. And so I just did a lot of research on my own. Both in books and in real life.
Lee Hale Yeah. It's so interesting when you're saying that I had the thought that like, you know, as a child sex is as mysterious as God. It's just one of those big unknowable things. And I remember specifically where I was when my brother told me what was going on.
Bat Sheva Marcus How old were you?
Lee Hale Definite elementary school age. But yeah, I remember we were next to the garage. And all I remember is he just said like 'you go in' and I was like I know what that means now. I think I get it.
Bat Sheva Marcus I feel like that analogy is not a bad analogy for life in general, right? Like, sex and God? Those are like huge things to be thinking about. From so many different directions, and how they affect us and how they affect our lives.
Lee Hale Right. One thing I get excited about is when people tell me about their first existential crisis. Were you the kind of child that would ask existential questions?
Bat Sheva Marcus My questions that were the most challenging I think probably had more to do with women's place in the Orthodox community, right? I was growing up, you know, in the 70s when feminism was kind of just on the rise.
And I was less struggling with like, is God good. And much more of like, what does God want from us to do and what's the meaning of these precepts that we are given to do.
Lee Hale I was told that I had to have like almost a spiritual confirmation of everything I was doing to ensure I knew why I was living that way. (Yes.)
The law of chastity, for instance, what we refer to as, you know, abstaining from sex and masturbation. I was supposed to do that but I should also look for a personal confirmation that God wanted me to do that, right? And that was important for almost everything that I did.
Bat Sheva Marcus This is going to sound so sound weird for me to say this but I don't feel like God was that present.
I remember once I was working somewhere and the administrative assistant was like trying to nail something to the wall and she said 'Please God don't let me hit my finger with the nail'. And I looked at her and I was like 'Oh, that's why we have wars. Because God is busy helping you with your finger and nail.'
And I was laughing at the time but I remember feeling a little bit jealous because that kind of personal relationship with God is not one that I was given or experienced. And I think it would have been very loving and very comforting had I had that.
Lee Hale Then where did God live?
Bat Sheva Marcus God was this sort of large ineffable being that set the world in motion and that wanted us to live a certain way. But you know, what we did was much more important than what we thought.
Faith either was a total given or it was just not that critical. But keeping the stringency of the laws and being thoughtful about how you were doing the specific laws (was important).
And then sometimes there were questions about like, well why was that set of laws given to us? Like, can we kind of figure out what positive movement in the world we're supposed to be creating because of this set of laws?
But I feel like that was pretty sophisticated thinking that most of my friends didn't have.
Lee Hale What did God want you to do? What was your understanding about that as a child. What did God want you specifically to do?
Bat Sheva Marcus Really however sort of pathetic it almost sounds God just wanted me to keep the laws. God wanted me not to eat things that were not kosher. God definitely didn't want anything be homosexual. That wasn't even talked about at all. God wanted me to dress modestly. God wanted me to talk modestly. There's a lot of emphasis on modesty as a girl.
In my house, I think there was also this God really wants you to learn the sources and be able to talk intelligently about the Bible and the Talmud. God wants you to live a certain life. There wasn't really a bigger emphasis on making the world a better place. It's a little sad as I'm actually expressing this to you.
Like, I feel like there didn't feel like there was a greater purpose other than somehow there was this unstated that if you really follow the laws the way God wants you to, then somehow redemption will be brought to the world.
Lee Hale It was kind of radical, like you said before, that you were encouraged to study this out as a woman growing up, right?
Bat Sheva Marcus Oh my God. It was so radical. Like in the fifth grade when they started teaching the boys Talmud and they weren't teaching the girls Talmud, my father started a class for the fathers of the boys to teach the same material. And I was in that class. (Wow.) Right.
So it really opened up a world to me. I mean it becomes a little bit of a Pandora's box because all of the power in Orthodox Judaism is held in the texts, right? Like when you can approach those texts and read them and understand them and know what they say, then you have the ability to sort of argue a point.
Like if somebody says to you X, and you can say well that's not what I learned. And that's not what the text says. As opposed to if those texts are behind this black box somewhere. And for years and years and years those primary texts were not open to girls at all. And when I was starting to learn there was probably a handful of women who at that point were learning Talmud.
It was mind boggling that my father was like saying I'll be damned if, like, my boys can articulate and are knowledgeable Jews and my daughter is not. Like, that is not going to happen. And so that is how he approached it both with me and my sister. And I think it just put us in a different place and different kind of mindset.
Lee Hale Bat Sheva explained that all these laws were passed down orally and then collected in what's called the Mishna: rules for marriage tithing repaying someone, all that stuff. And then there's the Talmud: 20 enormous volumes of rabbis writing through the generations interpreting and adding onto Jewish law.
And then there are countless additional volumes written as commentary on all of these books. Because as time went on many of these laws needed updates. But these interpretations often conflict with each other.
Bat Sheva Marcus For example, if somebody says, like, can I use artificial insemination, right? So clearly artificial insemination wasn't around the time the Bible. But then people were going to go back and look at the rabbinic text and say, well, what's the most similar thing to that that we can find? And what are the precedents that have been set?
And that is how Jewish law is then created. And what happens is that you come in with your own identity and you can approach it in very different ways. So when you're talking about sex, which is the one I tend to know about, you can say, well, I'm going to take these sources which are much more sort of fundamentalist. Or I could take these sources which are equally legitimate but much more progressive. And let's kind of figure out, like, what the right thing to do is. And two people or ten people can come to different conclusions, right?
And so Orthodox Jews are usually part of a community where they ascribe to one or maybe more than one of these perspectives.
Lee Hale Here's a dumb question.
Bat Sheva Marcus No, no dumb questions.
Lee Hale When did the text stop being written?
Lee Hale So the Talmud was compiled in the fourth century. That was the Yerushalmi, the part of the Talmud that was written in Jerusalem and then the Babylonian Talmud was compiled around the year 500 although it continued to be edited.
So but then after that there have been generations and generations of rabbis -- until this point pretty much all male -- writing answers to newer questions based on the Talmud.
Lee Hale It's kind of exciting because it seems like modern interpretation matters. Is it in a way that God can speak through modern interpretation?
Bat Sheva Marcus Totally.
Lee Hale I mean Mormons would say modern revelation and we believe in that.
Bat Sheva Marcus Totally. So it is very exciting. The question then becomes, like, who has the power and the control in those situations, right? Like if it's all men you may come up with different response than if some women were writing.
Now the men may say that's absurd. That you're not going to come up with different responsa because this is the truth. Whatever that means. (Right) But, you know, it's gonna be very dependent on what your values are.
Lee Hale In a moment, Bat Sheva wrestles with a pain point for her in the community that she loves: the role of women.
Lee Hale So as Bat Sheva explained, Jewish texts are a collection of laws and interpretations of those laws. A lot of interpretation. Which means opportunity for people to disagree with each other.
Bat Sheva Marcus What became a sort of clear to me is how complicated these texts got because of the person who is writing the text. I became very very active in the Orthodox feminist community because I realized that so many of the things that I thought were wrong at the time, like women becoming rabbis, were really just social norm issues. And nobody could really make a coherent case to me as to why that would be wrong from a religious standpoint.
Lee Hale It's interesting how some people may even think that there is a feminist Orthodox Jewish community, right?
Bat Sheva Marcus Yes, there is a significant feminist Orthodox community and as you can imagine it certainly hasn't been popular over the years.
Twenty five years ago I started an organization with an amazing woman Blu Greenberg which was the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.
And you know I remember our first conference. When we first had plans to run this conference we thought maybe we'd get 300 people into a room. And then we had so many women coming. We were so oversubscribed. We were at a hotel. We were sitting on the floors. We were sitting on the windowsill. And I remember meeting up with friends in the hall and we were crying. It was a sense of like, we felt like it was like Woodstock. I don't know how else to explain it.
It just felt like the world was turning. Like all of a sudden you realize there were all these people who felt the same way you did.
There is now actually an Orthodox women's rabbinical school. As you can imagine it's like not accepted by a large swath,I would say 90 percent or 95 percent of the Orthodox community, but it's there. And you know that's how change happens in a lot of religious communities.
Lee Hale There comes a point where some feminists feel like it's just too flawed. Like the machine is too flawed to save. And they leave. And I feel like that must be tempting sometimes, right? When you are bumping up against things that just feel constrictive and painful. (Totally) But at the same time, it's who you are, right? Like you are born into this culture.
Bat Sheva Marcus You're 100 percent right. I think when we ran that first conference I remember the New York Times kind of saying like these women, these Jewish Orthodox women who are also feminists, they kind of make us think of Republican women who are pro-choice.
Because you think to yourself why are you staying in the Republican Party? You could just cross the street and join the Democratic Party and there being pro-choice makes sense. But these women are saying 'no, I want to stay in the Republican Party. But I do think that women have the right to choose'.
So that's, you know, that was the analogy that they gave at the time about like Jewish Orthodox feminists.
You feel like if you're part of this community and this life that you love that has really beautiful parts to it -- you know the Sabbath and the holidays and sort of the intrinsic value to life and the aim to try to make the world a better place, which is kind of how I see it -- then you don't want to give up the whole religious life because you feel like sociologically things have gotten kind of off track. And that maybe you just need to give it a nudge to get it back on track.
Lee Hale I'm straight but I empathize deeply with LGBTQ Mormons, like, for instance. It's just like you feel the pain of not fitting into this ideal. And the question is, like, what's going to be more painful? To have to choose one identity over the other seems cruel.
Bat Sheva Marcus Yeah, so I can only speak that in the Orthodox community in New York. There has recently become a fairly active religious LGBTQ community and it's sort of mind boggling and makes me so happy. Because there are young men and women who feel like 'my religion is really important to me, but I am gay and just because I'm gay doesn't mean I can't be an Orthodox Jew'. Now I know that they're probably segments, large swaths of the Orthodox community that would really laugh at that and say that's not possible. How is that humanly possible. But it makes me so happy to know that a niche is being created and that people feel like you can be in the Orthodox community even if you don't fit the mold with everything else. So I don't know if that's ever gonna happen in the Mormon community but it's happening now in the Orthodox community.
Lee Hale It's slow and painful, but it's happening.
I'm curious. I have a hunch that I could talk from a Mormon mindset and I think a lot of what I might ask would be similar to the Orthodox Jewish community. And where there's a disconnect we can point that out.
But mainly, the big principle is that God cares, right? God cares deeply about your sex life. And that how you live your sex life affects you spiritually. But I'm just curious. I think a lot about how sex was communicated to me in reference to God growing up really impacted the way I see sex today.
And so you as a therapist, are there pros and cons of mixing sexuality and your faith at such an early age?
Bat Sheva Marcus It's less about sex as an act itself and sort of more about what sex can do in the world, right? How it makes you feel about yourself. And how it makes you feel about your partner. And how it makes you feel about your family life.
So let me separate a few things. I know I'm having trouble here, it's because there's myself as a professional and there's myself as a, you know, religious Orthodox mother talking to her kids about sex.
And one of the things that I always tell parents and I feel very strongly about is that sex is not something you should relegate to the schools to talk about.
You need to communicate with your children because it's the only way for you to pass along your personal values, right? Your values may be very different than your neighbors, or somebody in the other town's values. And so you need to pass it along.
And so for sure, with my children I hope that whenever we talked about sex it was given in a context of mutual respect, understanding that there's two people involved in the equation.
Family is incredibly important. Loving your partner and being supportive and sustaining of your partner is incredibly important. And that those are major values. And sex is a part of that.
Lee Hale You know, without the cultural weight of having to answer this for any religious community I just am curious about what your instinct is. Is masturbation healthy?
Bat Sheva Marcus Yes. That is an easy one.
Lee Hale I say that because, like, I don't know it is for Orthodox Jews, but that was talked about as like...
Bat Sheva Marcus The Mortal Sin.
Lee Hale So sinful. So sinful.
Bat Sheva Marcus Yes, yes. The truth is, the irony a little bit is, that it's considered sinful in the Orthodox community but it's considered sinful for the boys. It's never even discussed for the girls.
Lee Hale Right. Well it doesn't exist for girls, right? That's like not even a concept.
Bat Sheva Marcus Exactly. So, that's a really complicated one. And one where I would argue that I'm hoping that over this generation I think things are changing and the Orthodox community will understand that maybe what they think of as the ban on masturbation is maybe the ban on over focusing on masturbation or over emphasizing masturbation.
But yes, I feel very strongly that masturbation is critically important for boys and for girls.
Lee Hale I feel like definitely the Mormon community, the leadership for instance, they don't want to give an inch. Like moderation is not a concept talked about.
Bat Sheva Marcus Why do you think that is?
Lee Hale I can tell you what it felt like as a kid to be taught this way. It felt like masturbating, and especially pornography, it fell like a stain. You were like becoming damaged goods. The attempt was to scare us like the attempt was that we hope you are so afraid.
Bat Sheva Marcus But the question is kind of why? Like was there ultimately a fear that if people were happy sexually by themselves they wouldn't get into a relationship?
Lee Hale I mean honestly the way it was taught to me was that this was Satan. Satan's tool against you. That he was going to give you false expectations. He was going to trap you in an addiction. That this was going to lead to an unhealthy marriage and an unhealthy relationship.
And it was really dark and really scary. And so the idea of like finding a healthy middle ground that included any masturbation or any pornography? Which is just the world we live in, right? Nobody is just perfectly pure like I was taught was a goal. It was so daunting. And I think everyone felt they were failing.
Bat Sheva Marcus The more fundamentalist Orthodox communities for sure I still have that. I think the modern Orthodox community has kind of tried very hard to at least not actively promote that as a concept. I think sometimes still those messages are still given all the time unintentionally.
But one of the things that you're talking about, and I see it all the time, is that what happens then is if you put up the standard that's not even doable. And then you have a kid who can't sustain that? Then they're wracked with guilt and or they just chuck the whole enterprise. (Yep)
Like, well I'm masturbating so therefore I may as well, you know, desecrate the Sabbath in 12 other ways because this is the biggie and I've done that already. So I feel like it's unhelpful.
Honestly, I'm always thinking about this because I feel like ,what is the freakin big deal about, like, what is it that scares people so much about masturbating? And I wonder if there's this fear that if you could masturbate then you're not going to be interested in outside relationships. And then the whole family structure will fall down. I can't really think of ... I'm very practical as you can tell. Like, what is it? Like what's the real fear under it?
Lee Hale When it comes practicality, for a long time I was in denial about what reality is. I was in denial about what a healthy life looked like sexually. And that's why I thought I was one of the bad ones, right? (Of course.) That I was like, I was doing it wrong.
And what you mentioned there is so pivotal because I think what happens when someone realizes 'Oh the world isn't quite the way we were told.' Right? People do masturbate. People do look at pornography. People have sex before marriage. That happens.
You have one of two things. One, you can think that, OK, I see things a little more nuanced and I'm going to try to figure out how to have a more practical approach to my faith. Or like you said, you just throw it all out. I know I see friends who because they're experimenting a little bit then they like completely throughout their whole spiritual relationship with God because they're walking on this new path.
And you as a therapist, the idea of completely making a huge dynamic lifestyle shift, and then experimenting without the structure you've had, like that to me seems like that could be pretty damaging.
Bat Sheva Marcus Yep it is. And it's sad. And then also you see people doing things that, like, 'I masturbated, so therefore I may as well just go hook up with every, you know, random stranger that I meet in the next month. And it just leads people to make really bad decisions because they can't think rationally about any of their behavior.
Lee Hale I love talking to sex therapists of all faiths because I feel like you don't want to be lied to, right? You don't want to have a perceived reality of what people are going through. You need to know exactly what they're going through. Or else you can't help them. Half truths don't do you no good, right? If you're trying to help someone in that world.
Bat Sheva Marcus Totally. And I hope that both me and the therapists that work in my place work very hard at making it clear that this is a completely judgment free zone.
It's very hard to be helpful if people aren't telling us the truth. I feel like it feels better to people to finally talk. If they really trust that you don't care. You have no investment in any religious aspect of this. Then I feel like it's almost like the light switch goes on. Like they're like 'Oh my God. So I can tell you these things and I'm not going to feel terrible about it. I can tell you about my crazy fantasies. I can tell you about the porn that I watched. And I, you know, I can tell you about the affairs that I've had. And you're gonna just be with me and listen. And then help me figure out what I want to do that works well with my life.
The truth is that that works on both ways though. That means that you know the people who get aggravated because I'm helping this lesbian figure out how to keep her life together with her husband? That's her choice.
You know, I'd be just as behind her if she decided to leave and create a new life. But in the end she has to choose what values are most important to her. And then I need to help her figure out how to make that happen.
Lee Hale You mentioned, I think you said that you don't believe that guilt and shame are all bad. That, you know, sometimes it's tempting to say that like you shouldn't feel any guilt or any shame when it comes to your sexuality. But you do believe they can play a role?
Bat Sheva Marcus I think a little bit of guilt and a little bit of shame is what makes us God's creatures. A little bit.
You know, if you're committed to a monogamous relationship and you want to stay in that relationship then the fact that you would feel terribly guilty having an affair may be a good thing.
Guilt is, I think, a monitor to let us know that maybe we should be looking and examining what we're doing and make a decision based on our thought process as opposed to just what we feel like doing at the moment.
But we shouldn't be wracked with guilt when we do normal human things.
Lee Hale I asked you originally about, you know, your view of what God expected of you when you were a child. I'm curious now, especially with this work that you do which your religion is very connected to, like what do you think God expects of you now?
Bat Sheva Marcus It's a hard question to talk about without crying.
I think God wants us to make the world a better place and that each of us have our own mission that we need to do, that we need to accomplish. I feel less constrained by communal values as I get older. I feel less constrained by rules and I feel like if I can leave the world better in a number of ways either through my amazing children or through the work that I do then I have done God's work.
And it's much less dependent on whether or not I'm keeping this restrictions of the Sabbath. Although I do try to do that as well. But I feel like that has kind of become less important to me than kind of the overall idea of leaving an imprint on the world that leaves the world in a slightly better place than when I started.
Lee Hale Thanks for listening to Preach.
If you're interested in learning more about the intersection of Judiasm and sexuality, Bat Sheva hosts a podcast all about it called The Joy of Text, so check it out.
This show is a production of KUER and PRX. We have a newsletter which you should read. Sign up at preachpod.org. And check us out on Facebook.
This show is produced by me Lee Hale along with Tim Slover.
Tricia Bobeda is our editor.
And this episode was mixed by Anya Grzesik.
Our digital producer is Chelsea Naughton.
And our executive producer is Joel Meyer.
Also, if you're loving the show please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Here's a review from Young Liver Lover. They said they're excited to see how this podcast grows and develops and they got a kick out of the interview with Rainn Wilson.
Thank you for doing that. It helps a lot.
Lee Hale (kicker) Feminist Orthodox Jewish sex therapist. Feminist Orthodox Jewish sex therapist. Feminist Orthodox Jewish sex therapist. She's based... (laughs)
Tricia Bobeda The words turn into gibberish but it's also really funny.
Lee Hale It is funny.