Sex and religion come together in new podcast

by Brian on July 7, 2019

in In the News,Reviews

A new English-language podcast that aims to demystify the racy yet often unspoken topic of “intimacy and healthy sexuality in the context of Jewish family life” – hosted by an Orthodox rabbi and a sex therapist no less – is attracting a growing number of listeners online.

Rabbi Scott Kahn and Talli Rosenbaum in the studio (courtesy)

Intimate Judaism” began as a one-off episode of Rabbi Scott Kahn’s “Orthodox Conundrum” podcast, which examines issues affecting the Orthodox world “without exaggeration, whitewashing or pretending they don’t exist.” Orthodox Conundrum is the flagship show on a network of podcasts run by Kahn called the Jewish Coffee House

Kahn had invited Beit Shemesh-based sex therapist Talli Rosenbaum to come on his show to discuss male masturbation. The idea was to talk about the subject from the perspective of both halacha (Jewish Law) and psychology.

“It was probably one of Scott’s most popular podcast episodes ever,” Rosenbaum tells The Jerusalem Post. 

It was so popular, in fact, that it spawned a 13-episode spin-off – Intimate Judaism – that has tackled such sensitive subjects as infidelity and monogamy, how to raise sexually healthy children and what does halacha really require on the wedding night?

Intimate Judaism’s most listened to episode, Rosenbaum says, was about “What you are and aren’t allowed to do in bed. It points to how desperate people are for information.”

Rosenbaum says that the podcast attracts “a demographic of people that respect and adhere to Jewish law but also want to experience optimum sexuality.” Listeners includes Modern Orthodox Jews (with which both Rosenbaum and Kahn identify) as well as “people to the right of Modern Orthodoxy and those who don’t identify as Orthodox at all.”

Rosenbaum admits “We’re not going to be able to please everyone. Some people will think we’re too modern. Others that we’re not liberal enough.”

It can be particularly challenging, Rosenbaum points out, when it comes to providing balanced advice for adolescents. “We want to raise our children to experience themselves as sexual human beings without guilt and shame, while at the same time taking into account Jewish values and self-regulation,” she says.

Another recurring topic is the conflict between obligation and personal agency. Many couples look at sex from a halachic headset “as something where they have no individual control,” Rosenbaum explains. “It’s very important that we bring a voice that says a Jewish marriage absolutely appreciates – and to some extent demands – that each partner have sexual autonomy.” 

The program is not afraid to wade into the touchiest of topics. One episode was titled “Jewish #MeToo: Does adherence to Jewish Law provide safety from sexual assault?” (The answer is no, the program’s hosts say. “Objectification and victimization exist across cultures, and Orthodox Judaism is no exception.”)

Each episode of Intimate Judaism opens with Kahn presenting the halachic framework and biblical and Talmudic texts underling the theme to be discussed. Rosenbaum then tries to probe “what might be going on here that’s deeper” than the law. The two hosts will sometimes disagree, but always respectively. 

Rosenbaum and Kahn both insist that the podcast “adheres to the cultural norms of modest speech.” That’s because, in addition to individual listeners, “we hope we can enable rabbis and other clergy to understand that there is more to intimacy than just what you are and aren’t allowed to do,” Rosenbaum says.

Have Rosenbaum and Kahn received flack or pushback from listeners? Rosenbaum says no, “but I’m a fairly public personality about these topics. I’ve written articles, I have a blog, so my family and friends are used to it. When the podcast first came out, maybe I got some looks and giggles at Kiddush in shul.”

Kahn tells The Jerusalem Post that “talking about sex and intimacy is part of the job” when he counsels young men on the laws of family purity before marriage. Kahn was the director of Yeshivat Yesodei HaTorah in Beit Shemesh for 11 years prior to starting his podcast network.

“I can only be effective if I’m frank and honest,” he stresses, although he doesn’t “necessarily anticipate evolving into a Dr. Ruth Westheimer. While I’m comfortable discussing these topics, I admit that it’s easier doing so in the comfort of a recording studio than in front of a visibly large audience.”

Kahn did check with his own rabbis before launching the podcast. “They were very supportive,” he says. “One wanted to make sure that my wife was on board. She was, in fact, particularly encouraging. She believes Intimate Judaism is providing an important service.”

Indeed, rather than hate mail, Kahn and Rosenbaum have received messages of appreciation from listeners “who have found the podcast to be a breath of fresh air,” Kahn says. “There is so much misinformation about sexuality resulting from both incorrect teaching and wrong assumptions by religious people who were never taught at all. I will admit, however, that I don’t share the podcast with my mother or mother-in-law.”

“These are not watercooler conversations,” Rosenbaum quips.

In episode 13, the final one of the first season, Rosenbaum and Kahn explore what happens when couples disagree over religious observance – for example, whether to refrain from sexual relations until the wife has immersed in a mikve (ritual bath). The discussion quickly expanded to encompass more than just sex.

“No couple sees eye-to-eye on every aspect of marriage,” Rosenbaum says. “That’s true whether it’s sex, religion, money, kids, education or in-laws. The idea is about being able to navigate power struggles and the dynamic between the couple. As a couple’s therapist, I’m very attuned to the idea of differentiation.”

The Intimate Judaism podcast has been downloaded over 20,000 times since it launched in July 2018, with most of those from North America and Israel. That’s not an insignificant audience, but it’s not generating revenue on its own just yet. 

That’s OK for Rosenbaum; making money on the podcast per se was never her goal. “I look at this as an area where I can contribute,” she explains. 

That fits with her other work: Rosenbaum is the co-author of the forthcoming book “Ani L’Dodi: I am for My Beloved – A Married Couple’s Guide to Enhanced Intimacy.” She is certified as a sex therapist by the American Association for Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists, as well as by the Israeli Society for Sex Therapy and spends most of her day with couples in her office. She is also the academic advisor to Yahel: The Center for Jewish Intimacy, which provides personal counseling to couples and courses for professionals. 

If there’s any financial silver lining from her podcast, it’s been an uptick in clients, Rosenbaum says.

For Kahn, Intimate Judaism is part of an overall increase in listenership for his Jewish Coffee House network, which has now been operating for two and a half years. 

“Almost every podcast on the network is more popular now that it was even six months ago,” Kahn says. The downside: the site is getting unwieldly, with “everything from baseball to a podcast geared toward Christians who support Israel.” Former MK Dov Lipman hosts “Knesset Corner” while Molly Livingstone jokes around in the “Jewish Coffee House Comedy Podcast.” 

Expect more spin-offs – in this case for some of the non-Judaism specific programs to shift to their own independent websites, Kahn says.

Intimate Judaism is on summer break but will be back in the fall with more provocative questions about sex, religion and relationships. You can catch up with past episodes at https://www.intimatejudaism.com/and https://jewishcoffeehouse.com/.

I first wrote about Intimate Judaism in The Jerusalem Post.

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