Dr. Ruth Westheimer still likes sex. But the 68-year-old celebrity sex therapist is tackling another subject that is vast in its potential for controversy: religion.
She combined the two for a recent talk in Dallas on "Sex in the Jewish Tradition," part of the Jewish Community Center's Jewish Book Fair. She plans to write a book about the same subject.
"Being Jewish and being steeped in the Jewish tradition is helping my sex therapy," she said. "In the Talmud, it says a lesson taught with humor is a lesson retained. And that's very important, especially talking about sex."
And the woman who's made her name discussing sexual passion -- how to stimulate it, how to keep it, how to re-ignite it -- has added another kind to her life: documentary filmmaking.
Not that she's giving up sex.
"I will still talk about sex morning, noon and night, in order to pay for the passion of doing documentaries," she says.
She's just produced a documentary about the transplanting of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1991. It will air on PBS; the date and time have not been announced. And she's got an idea for a second documentary: finding out who kept religion alive in Russia during its atheistic communist years. "My hypothesis is that it's the grandmothers -- the babushka," she says.
Though famous for her ebullience and humor in her television appearances and writings, she is serious on the subject of the Ethiopian documentary, "Surviving Salvation."
"I didn't just raise the money and go do it. I went two weeks to Israel to film and one week into Ethiopia, and
not only [the capital] Addis Ababa, but up into the north. . . . We have pictures that have never been shown before of where the Jews live."
The Ethiopian Jews' plight interested her "because I was a refugee," she says. "I left Nazi Germany at the age of 12. My parents did not make it; they were killed. And I decided it behooves me to help another group, because in those days, in '39, there was no Israel, so the Jews of Germany had no place to go."
At Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas, where the 4-foot-7 lecturer stood on three bar mitzvah boxes so she could be seen above the lectern, she told the crowd that the Jewish tradition shows that it's legitimate to look at sexual issues.
"Even in synagogues, it's absolutely imperative to talk about these issues -- but not without humor and good taste."
She illustrated her point with a story: A rabbi is performing the mitzvah, or commandment, of Friday night sexual intercourse with his wife, when he senses something is wrong. He stops and, in the moonlight, spots the student Moishe, his destined successor, under his bed. He asks the student if he thinks it's appropriate for him to be there.
The answer: "Rabbi, what you are doing is Torah, and Torah I must learn from you."
Dr. Ruth said, "That shows for us Jews that sex is never considered sinful. It's not only an obligation for having a child, but an obligation for sexual gratification."
She described the "Song of Songs" in the Old Testament, which reads like a love poem, as further evidence.
"The rabbis say it is an allegory of the love between Israel and God," she said. "I do not dispute the rabbis. I let them teach their way, I teach my way. Because the sages wanted to encourage the sex act on Friday night, they made beautiful, erotic literature, talking about a woman and her breasts in the moonlight. . . . Let me tell you, the sages did not think about Madonna."
She used other stories to support other convictions -- that abortion, for example, is permitted by the Jewish belief that the mother's life has priority over the baby's in a difficult pregnancy, and that abortion should remain legal.
Dr. Ruth said she is troubled by other Jewish traditions relating to sex. There are, she said, specific dictums about who can sleep with whom -- that, for instance, "if a man lies with another man as a woman . . . he should be killed."
"That gives me a lot of trouble," she said, saying that the sages didn't know things we still don't know now, such as the cause of homosexuality. "When a homosexual couple -- two men, two women -- walk into my office, I treat them with the same respect I treat a heterosexual couple."