Book Review: An ethical look at sex and intimacy

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Some series become stale after a few volumes, with each new book parroting prior ones. Fortunately, that’s not true of the "Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices" series: The fourth work, "Sex and Intimacy" (Jewish Publication Society), now edited by Elliot N. Dorff and Danya Ruttenberg, is the best in the series. This is partly due to a change in format; case studies about sexual ethics are now directly followed by essays that focus more specifically on the questions raised. The collection also contains some of the most thought-provoking articles in the series.

The "Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices" series explores Jewish ethical responses to a variety of difficult and controversial topics. In the case of "Sex and Intimacy," the editors recognize that sexual mores have changed and that the strict answers of the past no longer work for a majority of Jews. They also note the wide range of Jewish opinions on the subject of sex. However, Jewish tradition can teach how to negotiate the problems and pleasures inherent in sexual activity by suggesting appropriate types of behaviors.

The case studies in "Sex and Intimacy" focus on four specific subjects:

Dating ethics, including one’s obligation to inform dates of other current or potential sexual partners.

Sexual consequences, including one’s responsibility to inform partners of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The ethics of sex work, for example, working in a strip club or appearing in a pornographic movie.

Sexual negotiation between partners and the rights of each when it comes to demanding sexual activities the other finds distasteful or offensive.

Following each case study are short selections of Jewish texts from biblical to contemporary times that offer different viewpoints on the topic. Also featured are three or four in-depth essays that not only discuss the specific case study, but feature additional thoughts on related subjects. To my surprise, the most fascinating section was the discussion of sex work, partly due to the opposing opinions presented. For example, "The Realities and Ethics of Sex Work: An Interview with Ron Jeremy" by editor Dorff, offers an eye-opening discussion with an actor who regularly appears in pornographic films. Jeremy’s positive thoughts on the topic are completely at odds with those espoused by Rachel Durchslag and Aimee Dinschel in "Deconstructing the Commercial Sex Trade Industries" and Martha Ackelberg’s "Sex Work: Whose Choice?" Those essays portray the trade as far less benign than Jeremy. Also of interest was "The Sex of Work, The Work of Sex" by Hanne Blank, which takes an unpleasant look at how a woman’s sexuality affects her career opportunities in all types of employment.

Even essays that cover familiar topics offer new insights. For example, Jeffrey Burack, a doctor who works with AIDS patients, seemed at first to offer no new material in "Protect and Respect." However, his discussions of the emotional implications of when a person reveals if he or she has an STD made me rethink different options, particularly in light of his revelation of how disclosing this information after a relationship has occurred can have unexpected results: "I know of both women and men who have been killed by long-term partners to whom they eventually revealed their HIV status." According to Burack, it is a moral imperative to make your status clear very early, even at the risk of rejection.

While all the essays are worth reading, those of special interest include "Making Meaning and Finding Morality in a Sexualized World" by Deborah M. Roffman, which does an excellent job explaining the cultural changes that have affected our views of sex since the 1960s; S. Bear Bermans’ "Sex, Truth, and Ethical Communication," which not only explores the importance of communication, but shows how movies distort our view of the way relationships really work; and "Seeing Each Other and Seeing Ourselves: Jewish Ethical Dating in the Modern Age" by Esther D. Kustanowitz, which discusses how the idea of b’tzelem Elohim (humans being created in the image of God) should affect our dating habits and behavior.

Once again, Jewish Publication Society is to be commended for publishing this series and for continuing to tweak it so that each book gains in interest. I’m looking forward to the two remaining works: "War and National Security" and "Social Justice."